Submitted by by Mark Leeper, originally written for the MT VOID
A reader wrote to me about my review of Devdas, a Hindi film. In the resulting discussion I talked a little about Hindi films in general. It occurred to me that I haven't said much about the rising popularity of so-called Bollywood films. These days fairly frequently you can see a Hindi film playing at some local theater. I am told that Hindi films are even bigger in Britain than in the United States, and that they are starting to make inroads with a non-Indian audience even here. I am a non-Indian and they are making inroads with me. Some Bollywood filmmakers are now even making films with an international audience in mind. I am not talking about art filmmakers like the late Satyajit Ray. His films were always made for international release. But the neighborhood films, which can be a lot of fun, are now also frequently made for international audiences and some get released over here. This article will probably seem naïve to Indians, but it is an American perspective on Bollywood films.
First of all what am I talking about? Does India even have a film industry? You bet they do. For those who are unaware it is the biggest film industry in the world. They output about 800 feature films a year, two films for every film released by Hollywood. And these are longer films. Most are in the 160-minute range. The center of the Hindi film industry is Bombay or “Mumbai” as insiders call it. Bombay is their equivalent to Hollywood and the “Bombay Hollywood” is called “Bollywood.” They sell tickets to 14 million movie patrons in an average day. That is considerably more people than live in Pennsylvania. That is just the Hindi film industry. There are lower-profile film industries making films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, and Bengali. But the Hindi films have the widest audience within India and so the filmmakers can afford to mount opulent productions to recover costs.
For many Indians, films are the only forms of entertainment. Movie theaters range in quality from little neighborhood ramshackle affairs to some pretty impressive movie palaces. The most fabulous movie palace I have ever seen is the exquisite Raj Mandhir in Jaipur. In my India trip log, I say “The Raj Mandir is an impressive building, with mirrored interiors, pink decor, and rounded rampways to higher floors. It might even rival Radio City Music Hall. It's a combination of art deco and Hindu statues (well, mandir does mean temple), with lots of pink glass thrown in. With a capacity of about 1300 people, and a screen about twenty-five feet high and fifty feet wide, this is the big screen experience, this is not your local movie theater the size of your living room.”
Are the Hindi movies any good? That is a very interesting question. Certainly some are. The vast majority are made purely for entertainment. They are a way for Indians to shed their troubles and have a good time. Indians love musical production numbers and just about every film regardless of subject matter will have at least three production numbers and most will have as many as six or seven. The plot stops cold and instead they have a knock-your-socks-off dance number. And these are rarely just two people standing still and singing. There will be extravagant costumes and maybe several dancers.
Nearly every film will have comic elements, though a few filmmakers will try to keep those to a minimum. The music and the comedy are elements that Indians look for and expect. Bombay is a serious film about the Bombay riots. There are some fairly harrowing violent scenes toward the end of the film. Yet it starts out as a comedy and a musical with a Hindu boy dressing up as a girl to woo a Muslim girl. The musical comedy is part of the artistic form of the Bombay film. You might as well write a four-line limerick as make a Bombay film without songs and jokes.
Another factor is differences in taste between Indians and non-Indians. What is good for an Indian audience is not necessarily what plays well with an American audience. While some Hindi films may look like they are aimed at children, Indian audiences will just eat them up. There are just differences in predisposition. On the other hand, when I saw Asoka at a film festival, I was much impressed with the expensive look of the picture and the historical adventure. Asoka was an Indian conqueror who did much to spread the faith of Buddhism in India. This was sort of a melodrama based on history. Some of the dance numbers seem a little modern for the period, but the film is glossy and a lot of fun. The film did not play nearly as well with Indian audiences, most of whom knew the history and knew this wasn't it. Incidentally, the film starred Shahrukh Khan who seems to be very popular at the moment. I suppose he looks something like Tony Curtis did in his youth. His acting is on par with Curtis but his looks do sell tickets. Khan is currently in something like five new films a year. If you go to Indian video stores it is hard to avoid his face on boxes and posters. Khan is also the star of Devdas as well has having an important role in Hey Ram.
Bollywood filmmakers tend to shun science-fiction and horror for melodramas. While Indians love science-fiction, they have to import most of the science-fiction films they get. In large part this is because Indian filmmakers cannot really match Western counterparts for providing special effects. Occasionally an enterprising filmmaker will go into those fields, but not a lot do. I have on tape The Jungle, a 1952 Hindi science fiction film that required little in the way of effects. The idea is that animal disturbances are being caused by something strange in the Indian jungle. In the final reel we discover that it is prehistoric mammoths living deep in the Indian jungle. More recently I am told that there is an Indian film patterned on The Matrix. While horror has been rare in India, an article I have just read indicates that it is in vogue right now and many Hindi supernatural horror films are being made.
That brings us to one of the negative aspects of Bollywood films. Several borrow rather shamelessly from already-popular Western films. Khal-Naaikaa, the film we saw at the Raj Mandhir is almost a scene-for-scene remake of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (with music and comedy added). As I understand it, there was no permission given to reuse the story. Other films certainly show a strong influence of Western plots. China Gate has a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven. Several other films are also strongly influenced by Westerns. Another negative aspect, by the way, is that India's organized crime syndicates do a great deal of the funding of some Hindi films.
Budgets in India are much smaller than those in the United States, but a little money goes a very long way in that country. Devdas cost about $15 million. But that makes it the most expensive Bollywood film of all time. And you see that money on the screen. Lavish does not begin to cover the sets. Much of the film takes place in extravagant mansions that are virtual palaces and more than look it. Budget money goes a very long way in India. The story, on the other hand, may be a little melodramatic for newcomers to the genre. The title character returns to India from a decade of studying in Britain. He falls in love with his neighbor, a childhood sweetheart but a woman of lesser caste played by Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World. Of course there are pressures on the couple not to be together and this leads to problems and eventually to tragedy.
Another thing about Bollywood films is their wholesomeness. Indian censors are extremely strict. Nudity is non-existent and even kissing is rare for fear of the censors’ ire. Lovers rarely get beyond the handholding stage on-screen. On the other hand, water scenes are quite popular. The female lead will remain fully clothed, but with her clothing all wet a certain amount of human anatomy is discernable.
At the moment there is a large market for Bollywood films outside of India, particularly in places like Britain. Curiously it was cricket that brought India and Britain together in 2002. They faced off in an important tournament. It happened there was a Bollywood film at the same time, Lagaan, on the subject of British facing Indians in a cricket match. Between the cricket match and the film, many Britons became interested in Indian culture and especially the strange films the Indians make. And wherever there are non-resident Indians there will be a market for films from home. Whether this current international interest is part of a longer trend or just a bubble that will soon burst nobody knows. But Bollywood films are a good deal of fun and well worth a film buff's attention.