by Gina Sestak
Have you ever found yourself so obsessed by something that it began to take over your life? As regular readers may suspect, I've been having that experience with Bollywood films. For well over a year now, I've been watching, studying, talking about, writing about, teaching about, and otherwise going out of my way to share this obsession with anyone polite enough to listen.
So today, gentle readers, I've decided to explain a little about why I find these films so addictive. First, a definition: The word Bollywood was formed by combining the words "Bombay" and "Hollywood." Although "Bollywood" is sometimes loosely applied to any contemporary Indian film, it is generally limited to those made in the Hindi language by filmmakers based in Mumbai (the city formerly known as Bombay). There are also several other film-making centers in India.
Some people consider the term Bollywood pejorative. It sounds too derivative, they reason, making it seem as if the Indian film industry is nothing more than a South Asian imitation of the California-based original.
In fact, India has been making movies for more than a hundred years. Films were shown in Bombay as early as 1896 and Indian-made shorts were being produced by 1898. The first Indian-made feature-length film premiered in 1913. Modern Indian popular movies are an amalgam of this history and global influences, a vibrant contemporary industry. India releases more films every year than any other country, including the U.S.
Mention Indian or Bollywood film to most Americans, however, and you are likely to get a blank stare or hear, "Oh, yeah. I saw that movie, Slumdog Millionaire."
There is some question whether Slumdog Millionaire can even be considered a Bollywood movie, since it was made by a British film company and provoked controversy in India over its depiction of that country.
Non-Indian Americans tend to shy away from viewing Bollywood films, largely due to common misconceptions:
· Foreign films are boring. These words are usually spoken by people who have been dragged to European films by family or friends, or forced to sit through them in high school and/or college. They remember slow, incomprehensible plots and actors who stare morosely at the audience while white-on-white subtitles occupy the bottom of the screen. In contrast, Bollywood films have strong plots, enlivened by action, drama and emotion. You never have to sit in the dark, wondering what the *!& this film is about. The actors make that clear. And, because India is a multi-lingual country, most films are crafted to be comprehensible even if you are not conversant with Hindi. There are subtitles, but you can follow the action without them.
· Musicals aren't realistic, people don't sing and dance like that in real life. Who says movies are supposed to be realistic? No movies are realistic, they are works of art. Besides, people who disparage musical films are usually the folks who have seen only American musical films, which are almost always based upon musical theater. There are fundamental differences between stage and screen, and a play written to be performed in a confined space before a live audience often translates poorly to film. Bollywood movies are written as musicals. The song and dance sequences make full use of cinema's ability to change location and costume. These musical sequences are colorful and beautiful, but they also tend to be integral to the plot, betraying the below-the-surface emotions of the characters and introduce elements of the plot, frequently foreshadowing events to come. Best of all, they are a lot of fun to watch.
· Films with romantic themes are just fluff. Romance figures in many Bollywood films, but generally as part of a more complicated plot. Even when romance is the primary focus, this does not necessarily imply that the film is light-weight or frivolous. Even in modern times, many Indian marriages are arranged by the couple's parents. Seen against that backdrop, the opportunity to fall in love and choose one's own mate has profound personal liberty implications.
· Bollywood films don't know what they want to be; they mix up different genres. While it is true that action, comedy, drama, romance, and melodrama often mingle in Bollywood films, this is not due to the filmmakers' indecisiveness. Bollywood films aim to blend these disparate elements into a pleasing whole, a "masala." "Masala" is a cooking term that refers to a perfect mix of spices. So, too, a good Bollywood film combines multiple genres into a perfect screen experience.
· Bollywood movies are too long. Bollywood films are typically longer than most American films, ranging from two-and-a-half to four hours in length. Our experience of time, however, is a relative thing. Five minutes spent doing something excruciatingly boring may seem like eternity, while a week's fun-filled vacation flashes by in no time. Because Bollywood films are not boring and are engaging to watch, time passes quickly. They don't seem unreasonably long. Further, the length allows for the development of complex plots and sub-plots. Unlike American films, which typically pit good guys against bad guys in a simplistic conflict, Bollywood films often pit good guys against good guys - characters who are trying to do the right thing but differ on just what that right thing is. Thus in the 1995 classic Dilwale Dulhenia La Jayenge, Raj loves Simran and wants to marry her, but Raj has made a bad impression on Simran's father, Baldev. Baldev has promised Simran to his friend's son. Raj and Baldev each believes that he is in the right; the film revolves around the resolution of this conflict. As a sub-plot, Simran's mother, an obedient wife who has always deferred to male authority figures, initially persuades Simran to agree to the arranged marriage; she later comes to realize that Raj would be a better match for her daughter and urges the young couple to elope, in defiance of her husband's wishes. An over-arching theme explores the immigrant experience as Baldev's rose-colored memories of India clash with contemporary reality when he returns home with his London-raised daughters. The characters grow and develop as they work through these conflicts and reach a satisfying resolution.· Bollywood films are silly. Yes and no. While it is true that, to truly enjoy some Bollywood movies, you need a high tolerance for silliness, many of these films have serious themes. The silliness is often just zany humor that provides comic relief. For example, in Main Hoon Na the protagonist Major Ram is on a serious mission. Terrorists have killed his father and are trying to derail a peace initiative with Pakistan. Major Ram goes undercover as a college student to protect an Indian army general's daughter, while simultaneously attempting to unite his own splintered family. When he falls for his chemistry professor, however, he reverts to every Bollywood romantic stereotype, breaking into song every time he sees her despite his best efforts to the control himself. These scenes are hilarious, but they in no way detract from more serious aspects of the film.
· Bollywood films are too emotional. One noticeable difference between Bollywood and Hollywood films is the extent of emotion expressed. Characters in American films tend to shy away from strong emotions other than anger and keep their feelings under wraps. Bollywood actors milk emotion to the nth degree. It's refreshing to see people actually showing feelings on screen.
· Bollywood films are odd, strange, and alien. This is often true, but that can be a good thing. Some aspects of Bollywood film seem unusual to Americans. Young people greet elders by bending to touch their feet. Multi-armed idols and elephants appear; apparently rational adults suddenly begin throwing colorful powders on one another. However, because these are Indian films made primarily for an Indian audience, they give insight into another culture. The characters come across as real complex human beings, not exotic stereotypes as they might in an American film.
Still not convinced? What more can I do than let these wonderful films speak for themselves? In this clip from Dilwale Dulhenia La Jayenge, Raj (in white) and Simran (in green) allow their feelings for one another to show, although the occasion is a celebration of Simran's engagement to the guy in black with the silver vest. Simran's parents enter the dance near the end. BTW, if you think Simran's voice sounds strange, it's because the song is actually being sung by a woman in her 60s. Bollywood actors rarely do their own singing; professionals known as playback singers do the vocals and are credited. This is not a Milli Vanilli situation - there is no deception involved; everybody knows that the actors are lip-syching.