A Bollywood Fable!
Bollywood actually is a great leveler. Everyone and anyone in India can unite over Bollywood in its many forms. The films, the actors, the directors, the sleaze and the gossip. As a nation, we are most unforgiving of our film industry, which, as of now, is the biggest in the world. Churning out more films per year than Hollywood. Just like the world has suddenly discovered Indian art and artists and is shelling out millions for their works, Bollywood too had the same Rip Van Winklesque reaction from the world. Today, it’s a global rage. Everyone knows that Bollywood has arrived.
Yet, most educated Indians are so unforgiving, biased and scathing in their reactions. Why is it okay to fawn and swoon over the fact that the Delhi Metro is an exact prototype of the Australian Metro? People look at it and are filled with awe. But why do they get so vitriolic when Bollywood looks towards Hollywood for technical inspiration (NOT creative, which I agree, is wrong!) and the way the corporate culture works? Our communication services, our banks, our FMCG companies, our space programs, our largely capitalistic economy are all based on the western module. Do we complain? Do we say horrible, mean things about them? No we don’t. Largely for two reasons.
1. We are not equipped to talk about these things. Like Parkinson’s Bike Shed Law.
And Bollywood is a part of it too. But still, we keep dissing it.
“Why do we have all that song and dance still?”
“Hollywood superheroes are so much better than Krrish!”
“Why do we make films for the NRI audiences?”
“What sort of reality is being portrayed in modern films?”
It goes on and on…ad nauseum.
Why? Is it because we all think we are highly knowledgeable when it comes to film technology? Or just because it’s easier to bitch about it? It’s easier to sit in our living rooms watching a film and criticizing the sets, the action and the dialogues in any which way we want. If not that, we will comment on how fat the actors are, how bad their clothes are, the sets are lousy… Does anyone even know what it really takes to make a film and to present it to a billion plus strongly opinionated people in our own country? Not to mention worldwide audiences?
How many people are familiar with the history of the Indian film industry? Just like knowledge of our national history is important when we discuss our economic and technological progress. Why do we ignore the fact that the Indian film industry too has come a long way? And it has not been easy. It has a history. And a rather rich one at that. Let me quickly educate you as I hold a masters’ degree in the subject!
Did you know that India was one of the very first countries to swing into film-making, and has seen global collaborations and won global laurels very early on? The Lumiere Brothers came to Bombay in July 1896 within 7 months of their opening show in Paris. Even before 1913, when Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra, there were several one- and two- reelers made and exhibited. Bombay and Calcutta were beehives of film activity with people such as Hiralal Sen and Save Dada producing and exhibiting films. Films were being made in American cities, but California and especially Hollywood became a center only in 1909 when Col. William Selig went from Chicago to the Pacific Coast in search of perpetual sunshine, something that was in ample supply in Bombay and Calcutta.
The world in those days was more cosmopolitan. Indian pioneers like Himanshu Rai, who made the classic Light Of Asia with Emelka Company of Munich in 1925 had no problem with German collaboration. Franz Osten worked with Rai as a director and had a German cinematographer. In the 1950s another German cinematographer filmed Anand Math and films like The River by Jean Renoir, based on Rummer Godden’s novel, and Bhowani Junction based on a John Masters novel, were made. Indian films went abroad and won prizes in international film festivals. Sant Tukaram won an award at the Venice Film Festival as early as 1937.
After independence, the flow back and forth from India to the West continued, but politics began to change the film industry’s stance. Satyajit Ray learned from Jean Renoir filming in India and went on to regain India’s international position in the world by winning awards year after year. Right after independence.
Independent India was obsessed with making its own hardware and for the first 40 years, a lot of resources were wasted on making machines rather than buying them. Only after 1991 we realized that India is better at software than hardware. Yet, the film industry was there as a shining example of an industry which worked with imported cameras and sound recording equipment and raw stock and yet created the world’s largest motion picture industry.
From the 1960s on, India was also cut off from exchanges with Hollywood as the mutual Indo-American paranoia took hold after Lyndon Johnson’s clash with Indira Gandhi. Collaboration with Hollywood, or indeed any western film-maker, stopped, and foreign producers found shooting in India difficult.
Indian policy makers treated cinema like dirt and something so frivolous, that they refused to give it industry status. Thus driving it into the clutches of black money, underworld, and extortionist financiers. Films were (mostly) financed by the underworld or diamond merchants charging exorbitant rates of interest - 30 per cent and more. The dons dictated the stars, interfered with the storyline, and sometime asked "special friends" to be cast alongside the hero, virtually guaranteeing that the film would bomb. Only after 1991 did sense prevail and by the turn of the century, industry status was accorded to cinema. Bollywood was corporatized in the year 2000. Which meant that filmmakers could now legitimately borrow money from banks and hopefully float equity.
It is now very clear that the world likes Indian cinema or Bollywood as it is and not just in art films. There is a diaspora out there as well as a new fan club growing around the world for Indian cinema. It’s no longer just the NRIs. It’s a global audience. And if it were not so, we would not be holding grand premieres in cities like Paris where even English is not the main language. Parisians going crazy over SRK and the recently concluded Bollywood Week is something to be proud of. We have loads of opinions on Veer-Zaara. Yet the French loved it. After very positive reactions from the German media at the 55th Berlinale Film Festival last year Veer-Zaara was released to the German public in the German language to unprecedented response. The music and the DVDs of Veer-Zaara are the highest selling titles in Germany for a foreign film.
How did this happen? Well, post 2000, the film industry grew up, the corporate world spotted an opportunity, and the rules of the game changed irreversibly. Stars began to report on locations in time not because some bhai was arm-twisting them, but because it was written into their contracts. Films went on to the floor on schedule and were wrapped up on time because the contracts had completion bonds written into them, and because such things as bound scripts had become mandatory to the process. And the phrase "bombed at the Box Office" became redundant because, whether they ran or not, chances are that everything from 36 China Town to the ill-fated Tom, Dick and Harry made at least enough money to tide them over. In a matter of only a few years, filmmaking in India has changed rapidly, crossing over (a favorite Bollywood phrase) to the Hollywood mould.
Why this is important to mention is because now the producers and filmmakers have that security for their investments. If they ensure that minimum returns are guaranteed, they can freely experiment with new techniques, stories and scripts without giving in to the industry stereotypes. Pre-corporatization, films like Black, Lagaan and Rang De Basanti wouldn’t have been possible. Now, arguments like, a film with a blind heroine and no hero, or, a period film on cricket with no action, or a multi-starrer where not only does everyone die the climax doesn’t belong to the hero…are passé.
Just six years, and the results are in front of all of us. Change doesn’t happen overnight and all at once. We’ve successfully covered the first tentative steps. We’ve got the techno-wizardry down pat. In fact, so well that Hollywood has begun outsourcing visual and special effects to Bollywood technicians. Case in point: Lord Of The Rings – Return of the King. How many Bollywood bashers know that the visual effects for this epic film with its mammoth scale of production were done by an Indian company called Applause Entertainment? The same production house that also made the successful film Black last year. No matter what we say about Krrish and his songs and dances, the fact remains that it was a bonafide Bollywood film which did indeed wipe out Superman Returns all over the world. American critics in publications like Newsweek applauded the brilliant $20 million Krrish as they panned the $200 million Superman Returns.
Isn’t this an indication of how talented we are and how technically advanced as well? Our first superhero film does not have any computer generated stunts. Yet, we find it hard to digest the fact that we have indeed made a film that is challenging a Hollywood biggie. Which has broken film records all over South India as well, which is the toughest territory for a Hindi film. Not just that, Krrish is now a case study for our IIM’s and even Harvard Business School and various other top B-schools in Europe as well. And then again, Hollywood is looking Eastwards without any prejudice to remake our films. Soon, Munnabhai MBBS will have a Hollywood counterpart in Gangster MD. Are we proud yet?
Rang De Basanti and Krrish are the harbingers of a new era in Bollywood which began in 2006. No two films will have the same theme. We will have an action-adventure film, romantic comedies, a family drama, a film on extra-marital relationships and infidelity, an Indian version of Lolita, an Indian adaptation of Othello, a fast-paced thriller and more. All the major Hollywood studios have landed here and started production. Right from Twentieth Century Fox to Walt Disney Pictures to Sony Pictures and Columbia Tristar. They’re all here and they’ve brought in their business acumen and distribution networks to make Bollywood bigger and better and totally global.
But the point remains that the “multiplex audiences” have become highly insulated. They are so stricken with Hollywood that they fail to ever appreciate and understand the essential characteristics of Indian cinema. Look at the films that came out last year. Films like Bunty Aur Babli, Parineeta, Dus, Black, Sarkar, Salaam Namaste, Bluffmaster… All of them different, all of them highly enjoyable if one watches them without any bias. Salaam Namaste was actually the first mainstream film showing a live-in relationship as a perfectly normal way of life. Look at our television, which has been completely taken over by the saas-bahu sagas. People like us don’t relate to it. Most of our television viewing is the American soaps and sitcoms. We crib about how televison is so retro. But when our films reflect the changing society and bring to fore issues that we actually deal with everyday, we crib about that too. Completely forgetting the parameters that filmmakers have to adhere to while telling a story.
And of course, no one knows how to criticize in the real sense of the term. Forgetting the one basic law of critical appreciation. That you criticize a work of art for what it is. Not for what its not. If Shakespeare had meant Hamlet to be a tragedy, one can’t say, “Oh but it should have been a little lighter! It was too depressing. There was no humor…” Well, there wasn’t supposed to be humor. Similarly, if a film is about emotions and relationships, it would be downright dumb to expect it to be a thriller. And where songs and dances are concerned, don’t they form a very important part of our festivals and celebrations? Don’t we have songs and dances for our weddings, for different festivals, and each state has its own folk music tradition.
How many of watch films in the old, standalone theaters like Paras and Savitri in Delhi? How many of us have watched films in small towns and villages? It’s an experience to sit in an old movie hall, watching the film begin and watching the audience whistling and clapping the minute the hero enters. They applaud every cool dialogue, their appreciation for the songs and dances is expressed through loud wolf whistles and if they leave the theaters chatting animatedly about the film or singing songs or repeating dialogues, you know its paisa vasool entertainment for them. And they are the majority of people responsible for the success of a film. The multiplex audiences smirk and guffaw when they hear things like how a film has to work for the people of UP and Punjab. But then, those are audiences too. And much larger in number than the multiplex crowds who know exactly what they’re paying their hard earned money for. And they don’t watch Hollywood films. They’ve not seen Lord Of The Rings. But by 2008, when Ramayana will be on the big screen with the same scale of production and visual effects as LOTR, they will be awestruck and bring their entire families for repeat shows while multiplex people will still be nitpicking. Why, I’ve even met people who have their smart alecky comments about a film like Rang De Basanti as well. There are people who think they have such brilliant logic when they critique that film, and they wonder why it worked.
The world has enough troubles to keep us sad and cynical all the time as it is. Let’s not carry it over to films, which is after all a world of make believe and fantasy. And really not to be taken all that seriosuly or literally.