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Bollywood’s hegemony


Sixty years after Independence, the reach of popular Hindi cinema has left regional films and talented directors out in the cold.

The curator of Asian cinema in Rome was so moved by the low-key lyrical humanism of Kasaravalli that he programmed a retrospective of this equally low-profile but gifted filmmaker

Photos: The HIndu Photo Library

Artistic merit and box-office success: The gap widens to a chasm because of the absence of an alternative distribution system.

Does popular culture not only define but also disseminate the zeitgeist of a nation? Not just within the geographic boundaries of the nation state but also to the cultural conglomerates of the Indian diaspora scattered across the world in this global ised age? The spread and reach of Bollywood provoke these disquieting, connected questions to the dismay of the discerning film lover who is acutely aware of the richness of our other cinemas and its neglected auteurs left out in the cold.

The hegemony of popular Hindi cinema existed even before the rather derogatory term Bollywood gained currency — it is part of the Oxford dictionary now. Not all the protestations — from Amitabh Bachchan’s resigned reproach to sycophantic, even triumphalist defenders of both its glories and inanities — can now cleanse the word of its implied disdain.

Arrogant assumptions

But trust Bollywood moguls to turn the undertone of disdain into a badge of honour proudly worn. The industry as a whole seems content to bask in the glory of implied comparisons: it sees itself as the Asian counterpart of Hollywood, an aggressive purveyor of Indian soft power to match its new economic clout. Such arrogant assumption of its own superiority and confidence in its persuasive power — witness the media circus surrounding the annual IIFA awards, showcased in various cities of the world with such self-congratulatory braggadocio while the bemused denizens of the host city look on in bewilderment — is woefully blind to Bollywood’s real standing in world cinema.

After “Lagaan’s” heartbreakingly tantalising high noon at the Oscars, the quest for the true crossover film has been Bollywood’s holy grail. Bollywood’s sultans of conformist entertainment have been wilfully blind to the remarkable resurgence of cinema in unlikely places like Korea and Romania (witness their success at Cannes this year), and the reinvented resilience of thriving film industries of Hong Kong and Taiwan that unfailingly produce a John Woo, Ang Lee and Wong Karwai, all international cult names with both critical and commercial success to their credit. This cinema has insidiously breached Western resistance that had hitherto dismissed it as chop-socky stuff. Self-styled dream merchants of Hindi cinema live in blissful oblivion or ostrich-like self-delusion: they chase the elusive crossover audience, waiting to be wooed by lilting song and seductive dance, and won over by heart-warming, if clichéd, homilies on family values propagated by our “glorious tradition”.

So unswerving has been the faith in this formula, at home and abroad, that there is no market room for hesitant departures and head on subversion from within the Hindi film fraternity. The mood is celebration of the familiar and denial of space to practitioners of not just what used to be called parallel cinema but even minor variations of the formula. A Munnabhai is a once-in-a-decade marvel, a cause for real celebration. But “Omkara”, a wonderfully creative adaptation of Shakespeare, did not get the recognition it deserved. All over the world, the gap between true artistic merit and box-office success exists but the gap widens to a chasm here because of the absence of an alternate distribution system.

If this is the fate of Hindi films that have stars and use music and dance in the narrative, the plight of regional filmmakers with original themes and personal modes of narrative needs no elaboration. Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and Jahnu Barua have all made films in Bengali, Hindi and English but they are more talked about on the festival circuit than seen by a wider audience. National awards redress the injustice to an extent but ultimately, a film has to be seen by the audience — even if it’s a small, niche one.

Bollywood has a stranglehold on film bodies that select entries for Oscars — alas, the most visible sign of international success, because both our mainstream media (print and electronic) as well as the general public is unaware and disinterested in the minor triumphs of our other cinema on the international film festival circuit. Except, of course, Cannes. Even here, it is the hyped presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan (miniscule, measured by the amount of international coverage) that gets written about by celebrity-driven journalism and avidly lapped up by dumbed-down consumers.

No coverage

Hardly anyone knows that Nandita Das won the Best Actress prize for her lead role in Chitra Palekar’s Marathi film “Maati Mai” at San Sebastian. Or that the Lincoln Centre in New York has had retrospectives of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli a few years ago; that the curator of Asian cinema in Rome was so moved by the low-key lyrical humanism of Kasaravalli that he programmed a retrospective of this equally low-profile but gifted filmmaker.

Sadly, the Smithsonian in Washington had a season of Shyam Benegal films some years ago and all that the desi community, so prominent around the cosmopolitan greater DC area, did was to talk about the lavish costumes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vulgarly over-the-top “Devdas”. To think that one of Benegal’s best and most self-reflexive films was a subversive take on the Devdas syndrome in “Suraj Ka Satwa Ghoda”.

Though it is tempting to blame Bollywood power brokers for swamping all our other cinemas left to struggle valiantly on the sidelines, there are other factors that facilitate the phenomenal success of Bollywood’s meretricious mediocrity.

The first is so obvious that it needs no reiteration. So, to restate briefly: however alien and exotic a country’s popular cinema, the international arbiters of taste recognise and validate its unique selling proposition in proportion to the said country’s economic stakes in the global market place. In the days of the Cold War and our pre-eminent place in the non-aligned movement, it was only natural that Raj Kapoor’s facile socialistic agenda and optimistic propaganda made him our cultural ambassador to the erstwhile USSR and parts of Eastern Europe. Otherwise, Hindi cinema’s traditional overseas backyard was the Arab world and East Africa.

Now, Bollywood has made more than tentative inroads into the land of the free and home of the brave. And of Hollywood. Earlier, Hindi cinema’s western audience was a reminder of the Raj. The audience remained 95 per cent South-Asian even though Gurinder Chaddha emerged from the ranks of British television to make the first mainstream hit that vaulted over the ethnic divide. “Bend it Like Beckham” still remains a landmark of Asian-English cinema, replicating its success across the Atlantic.

Siren’s song

But even a savvy, intelligent filmmaker like Chaddha succumbed to the lures of Bollywood and made an indigestible mess of Jane Austen wit and witless song and dance in “Bride and Prejudice”. The film suffered because the director couldn’t make up her mind whether to celebrate or spoof a typical Bollywood extravaganza.

Mira Nair was cleverer and had the pulse on her American audience. “Monsoon Wedding’s” affectionate send up of the big fat Indian wedding drew more cosmopolitan, non-Indian viewers than “Lagaan”, which was released at the same time. “The Namesake” now repeats the success, and is shown on trans-Atlantic flights. Though how many non-Indians got the point of the newly weds miming a Bollywood number on the official wedding night — an awkwardly self-indulgent salute to the song and dance routine — is a moot point.

The point is that a minority of western audience catches on, after a nudge perhaps, but that it does is a tribute to the trickle down effect that Bollywood had had on the western sensibility. Bollywood truly sings a siren’s song that infiltrates alien sensibilities.

Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge” is an oft-touted example of Bollywood’s narcotising influence. And now that Shakira’s swivelling hips don’t lie about the seductive appeal of pelvic thrusts Indian style, the argument is closed as far as the MTV generation is concerned. The circle is now complete — our 1990s cinema had capitulated to MTV and updated its item numbers to compete with videos streaming down from satellite TV. It is a truly global market when all that an American critic and long time watcher of Hindi movies sees fit to comment on “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehana” are the two set piece dance numbers and not Karan Johar’s self-advertised boldness in tackling extra-marital love!

Young, second generation Indian Americans tell me that Bollywood hits are played in mainstream clubs and classes that tutor athletic Caucasian bodies to the subtleties of the thrusting jhatka and seductions of the bhangra shoulder swivel have sprung up across Washington and New York. We knew of Bollywood dance classes in London, as a way to lose weight and make lissom moves.

The process begins in infancy itself. My three-year old grandson sings a mangled version of Bole Choodiyan as he prances around happily in a suburban Washington home. And we have to tell my daughter’s Pakistani friend, an info rmed Bollywood watcher, to see the acutely disturbing Pakistani film “Khamosh Pani”!

Bollywood fare, so readily available in Indian grocery stores all across the U.S., keeps homesickness at bay while watering NRI cultural roots. Bollywood chases their diasporic dollars as avidly as the resurgent Indian rupee.

The presence of successful Indians, as professionals, academics, entrepreneurs and now as highly valued IT whizkids, in the U.S. has undoubtedly given a boost to Bollywood’s high visibility. A Pittsburgh resident told me in envious tones that cable TV at the hotel she had stayed in Minneapolis had 10 Hindi films on demand! An au pair from Peru helping an Indian family with small kids knows of Amitabh Bachchan and can hum a few catchy songs.

Academic side

This anecdotal, street-level evidence of Bollywood’s ever-widening circle of popularity has its more respectable academic counterpart. Serious studies from the groves of western academe all focus on various aspects of Bollywood. All popular culture has roots in a people’s collective life, shared experience and subterranean mythic resonances. But what happens in the process, unwittingly perhaps, is to elevate mediocre films above their inherent merit. If the same critical effort was spent on the study of our more deserving auteurs of the other cinema, one would have no complaint.

The publishing industry is a slave to popularity, of what sells in the market place. Where academics have led, serious film journals have followed. In the summer of 2002, Film Comment, a serious magazine published by the Lincoln Cen ter for the arts, brought out a section devoted to Bollywood and I was commissioned to explain how to read a Hindi film. It is flattering no doubt also saddening because so much of Indian reality observed by artists of greater sensitivity and integrity is left, unsung and under-exposed.

What Satyajit Ray said all those years ago is relevant in the days of “Dhoom’s” pyrotechnical display: “The present blind worship of technique emphasises the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors.

For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment.”

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