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|Written by Emily Goodacre|
|Tuesday, 16 March 2010 00:00|
While living in South Asia, I passed many an evening at the theatre watching Hindi cinema, sans subtitles, with local friends whispering key plot points in my ears. My love of Bollywood has only grown since returning to Canada through (thankfully subtitled) cable movies, streaming internet, and the handful of DVDs I have managed to locate. Wonder why a white girl has such an interest in pop culture from half a world away? Read on if you'd like to evolve your own film choices by giving Bollywood a try.
There are two usual objections people have about Bollywood films: that they are too long or that the song-and-dance sequences are silly. True, the average run time of these films is around three hours, but, if you managed to make it through Avatar, you'll survive just fine. If the singing and dancing is a deal-breaker, however, then you are better off watching something else. The music is an integral part of these films, and to complain is akin to being upset that horror movies show so much violence: that's just the way it is. And, if you give them a chance, you may find that many of the songs are very catchy: film soundtracks tend to dominate the south-Asian pop charts.
A few warnings to the first-time viewer: acting in Bollywood does tend to be a bit more exaggerated than in Western films, and comedic tools last seen in an episode of The Monkees (such as showing a chaotic scene in double-time for comic effect) are still routine. Sex scenes and kissing on the lips are rare in movies, as public affection is still taboo in South Asian society. As well, after watching a few films, you might feel a sense of déjà vu, as some plots are taken nearly scene-for-scene from Hollywood movies. This can be fun, though: see how their versions of The Usual Suspects, Hitch, Juno, and She's the Man stack up. The plot of Hitch in particular made far more sense, in my opinion, in an Indian context.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
For a more western style: Kaminey features kissing, unwed pregnancy, casual drug use, and plenty of gun violence in its story of estranged twins caught up in the organized crime underworld of Mumbai. Another good choice is Luck by Chance which looks into the behind-the-scenes world of Bollywood filmmaking with several young stars sleeping together while polishing their squeaky-clean public images and repeatedly parroting "We're just good friends" to the press.
For cheesy romantic comedies: the bread-and-butter of Bollywood, there is no shortage of rom-coms for you to choose from. Twilight's human/supernatural love story has nothing on Paheli, based on a folk-tale of a spirit falling in love with a young bride and taking the form of her husband to carry on a years-long affair while the groom is away on business. Rab Ne Bana di Jodi tells the sweet story of a man who, in love with his indifferent new wife after an arranged marriage of necessity, takes on a suave alter-ego to seduce her.
For action: Don is a thriller surrounding the toughest member of the Malaysian mafia and features an awesome fist-fight-while-skydiving scene. Race has some incredible car chase scenes included in its tale of brothers double- and triple-crossing one another. Look also into nearly any of Akshay Kumar's filmography.
For subverting the genre: Anjaam starts out like most Bollywood romances -- a love-struck man follows the uninterested object of his affection around, singing songs of his devotion. But the twist is irresistible: upon finding out that she is already married, he goes psycho, murders her husband ,and frames her for the crime (this seems a likely outcome if some dude is following you around singing)! Om Shanti Om takes a tongue-in-cheek look at Bollywood superstardom, featuring an over-the-top musical sequence placing the star's remarkably well-oiled torso in increasingly unlikely locales, as he croons that his heart is filled with "the pain of disco." (At least I really hope that's meant to be ironic.)
Steer clear: of any movies made before the turn of the millennium or so, at least at first. It seems that production values have quintupled in the past 10 years, and movies made before this change tend to look like they were filmed with a camcorder dipped in Vaseline. They also often feature a trope that I cannot stand: when the characters realize their love for one another, they are instantly transported to the lush green hillsides of what I can only surmise is the imaginary land of their LOVE for a song.
These movies are a great way to get a little peek into a culture through its films, though it is not always realistic: the movies tend to gloss over India's continuing poverty issues, showing mainly educated urban young people, and a ridiculous number of mansions and sports cars. Arranged marriages are a frequent subject, allowing for one of my personal favourite plots: stranger spouses falling in love. Emigration, being a major issue for modern India, is also dealt with frequently. For example, a woman complains that after a few years in the West, Indians return home with "sensitive stomachs," unable to drink the water they grew up on, in What's Your Rashee. See also an American-born man visiting his ancestral city and unable to make sense of it in Delhi 6.
The good news is that discovering another culture's cinema opens a whole new world of celebrity worship! Meet a few of your new crushes, boys and girls:
Shahrukh Khan: Khan seems to star in about two thirds of all movies made in the past 15 years. Known as the "King of Bollywood," he is definitely the king of crying manly tears while whispering poetic declarations of love into the camera. The squee factor with his movies is off the charts, ladies. Check him out in: as I said, King Khan's in almost everything, but try Mohabbatein to see Khan pitted against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan and an outstanding example of the aforementioned manly tears.
Priyanka Chopra: A former Miss World and quite possibly the most beautiful woman nature has ever managed to create, Chopra has become massively successful in the past few years. Check her out in: What's your Rashee?, wherein she plays the roles of 12 different women, even trying to (unsuccessfully) play ugly for a couple of them.
Ranbir Kapoor: Kapoor's appeal skews a bit younger, cuter, and goofier than Khan's, but then again, you can't argue with that physique. An up-and-coming talent, he only has a few films under his belt, but expect much from him in the years to come. Check him out in: Kapoor nails the role of a rich-kid slacker forced to grow up and face reality in Wake Up Sid, a movie that looks at the changing face of Indian youth.
Konkona Sen Sharma: The thinking man's choice, Sharma gravitates to more serious and independent Hindi cinema and specializes in playing modern, strong Indian women. Check her out in: to see Sharma's funny side, try The President is Coming, where she plays a young author competing to shake President Bush's hand during his 2006 visit to India. Forced to learn Bush quotes, her face as she deadpans, "Singapore is the capital of Asia," is priceless.
Disclaimer: It is not my intention to be reductive, Orientalist, or 'fetishize of the other' with this article. I simply want to share my, admittedly limited, experience of something that I love. I enjoy these movies for the same reason I enjoy all movies: they are an escape from the everyday. Bollywood movies serve this purpose better than western fare: happy endings, epic romance, and outsized comedy are standard. There will always be a place for realism and thought-provoking art house films among my viewing choices. But for sheer joy, I recommend evolving beyond your usual movie-watching habits, and taking a cinematic journey east.
And finally, because I cannot resist, let's all fill our hearts with the pain of disco: