Saturday, September 20, 2008

Starting out with ___? Newbie indoctrination philosophies.

The way it looks to some film fanatics of Indian cinema, the world only has two kinds of people; those who love Indian films, and those don't. The former type is more varied than the latter type believes - ranging from the Russian girl who grew up in USSR watching Raj Kapoor films to the NRI living in London whose mother is big on Dharmendra, from the Delhi housewife who catches most films on TV to the German university professor whose friend showed her a Shahrukh Khan film and who's been in love ever since. On the Bollywhat Forums people came up with the term NIF - Non-Indian Film (person), referring to a person who doesn't love Indian cinema and doesn't understand it. At the same time, there is a widespread belief that in every NIF there is a seedling, a potential to become a filmi fanatic as big as any.

It's probably a huge generalization to say that Indian people themselves rarely try to get non-Indians into their own country's films. Of course, there are undoubtedly exceptions to this rule, but in general the biggest fans of introducing the world of Hindi (and Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam) films to NIFs are former NIFs themselves - people who through some odd path in life stumbled upon Indian films and enjoyed them immensely. These fans are typically not Indian as most Indians, even NRIs, more or less already know Indian films (though I think it's fair to argue that a NIF could also be an Indian person who dislikes their own country's films and largely prefers foreign cinema).

Some people don't stress introducing Bollywood to strangers. They sit their friend down with one of their own favourite Hindi films and come what may, hope their friend likes it enough for another one (and another one, and another .. that's how an obsession starts, hai na?). Other fans worry about their friends' opinions so much they have a hard time choosing from their Bollywood library - a new film, an oldie, something glitzy and masala or something from the multiplex side of things? Hrithik or Shahrukh, Rani or Madhuri, Karan Johar or Ram Gopal Varma, historical or contemporary, annoyingly catchy Pritam soundtrack or classy A.R. Rahman? Even from a small DVD library one may find a confusing lot of choices. And the philosophies on what best suits a newbie, on exactly just what will make them go "ooh, I like this, I want to see more!", are many and varied. The following are just a few lines of thought I've seen people swear by in their Bollywood-pushing attempts.

1. Taking It Slow - The believers of this method want to soften the entry into the dramatically different cinematic world of Hindi films for their NIF friends. The idea is that instead of showing a three hour melodramatic masala feast, you break the viewer in with something a little closer to what they've seen before - something more in style with Hollywood or European cinemas. A film with a more serious topic, a songless film, or a film for the multiplexes (such as Dor for example) will show the NIF how Indian films aren't all that different but are a little different all the same, and if they like the film enough, it can be easy to show them more, something a little closer to the louder mainstream of Hindi films. Another example might be Rang De Basanti or Pyaar Ke Side Effects.

A show of variety right off the bat - Indian films can be anything from politically motivating to fantastically entertaining. A non-alienating film experience for your average NIF - they'll probably like the film and won't be judgmental Indian films anymore.

"Indian films are just like Hollywood films in a different language!" - or, not recognizing the uniqueness of this form of cinema. A non-encouraging watch - a NIF may possibly not be intrigued to see more, hearing that this was just one corner of the large field.

2. Throw Them to the Thick of It - The direct opposite of the former method. The idea is that a NIF is best caught off-guard; show them a three hour long film with all the whacky plot twists, melodrama, song-and-dance like you wouldn't believe. All the works, basically. This way they see Hindi films in all their glory, for better or worse - or as the believers in this method think, usually for the better. The idea generally isn't to make the NIF love everything about a film, but for some aspect or several of them to catch their interest. They like the dancing, or some actor, or some goofball aspect of the plot and want to see more. They're fish that caught the bait. Examples of this could be just about anything from Sholay to DDLJ, from Fanaa to Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Realistic view of what the indoctrinator usually loves about this cinema as they typically pick one of their favourite masala films. A lasting impression if nothing else!

Too much for some NIFs. May re-enforce stereotypes of Bollywood in the NIF's mind.

3. If You Like That, You'll Love This / Know Your Audience - These are technically the same method, though with some key differences. The first term is the correlation theory - the idea that if a NIF for example likes action films from Hollywood and Hong Kong, they might enjoy something like the Don remake in Bollywood. If they like romantic comedies, Jab We Met. Or something less specific, if your NIF is a fan of very visual cinema and historical storylines, anything from Jodha-Akbar to Asoka might be their thing. Strong heroines? Seeta aur Geeta. Cheese and eyecandy? Dhoom 2. Taste for the black-and-white? Shree 420 or some Guru Dutt classic.

KYA (pun unintended) or Know Your Audience method on the other hand also relates to knowing what your NIF expects or wants out of Indian films. Are they looking for laughs, a good cry or a thought-provoking story? Do they just want to get to know the music and dance styles in the films, or do they already have a star in mind they'd love to see in a film ("I like that guy who's in your laptop desktop pic!")? With this sort of knowledge you're guaranteeing they will enjoy the film, or at least heighten the chances of that happening.

A familiar but new experience for the NIF at the same time. A chance to show them a different way to make a film from a genre they thought they knew through and through. Generally better success rate.

Knowing your friend's movie taste may prove more difficult than you think. To say they like comedy, you may have to probe and think back to what styles of comedy they have enjoyed in the past. People's tastes can be illogical, too: in Hollywood somebody might dislike musicals but in Bollywood adore them.

4. Starting Modestly - This view was expressed by a friend last night, who told me I should not show one of my absolute favourites, the films I think of as nearly-perfect to a NIF. "Better start with something that's just okay, so they get the hang of it but don't think of every movie will be great," she said, adding, "Your taste is different from theirs, fundamentally, because you've seen more movies."

Come to think of it, a lot of people got into Bollywood through films that aren't all that. My first, K3G, is not among my favourites, though I have a certain fondness towards it. Not everybody's first film wow'ed them but they still liked it enough to continue watching. For example, Dil Chahta Hai I saw much later, and it's among my favourites. I was a newbie when watching it the first time, but had seen around 13 Bollywood films by this point. There's a huge difference in that first film and those first films that solidify (is that a word? it is now!) the love for this particular cinema.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - "It was okay, sure, but I don't want to see more.." so in other words, a completely non-thrilling film experience, leaving no desire to explore Hindi films further.

5. Running Commentary vs Whenever, Wherever - These opposing views relate to the actual situation where the NIF sits down to watch whichever film has been decided for them by the existing filmi buff. The former option is for them to watch it in the company of the more knowledged Bollywood fan, who may share trivia, answer questions, comment on the movie and offer explanation to the (possibly) confused NIF. The latter option is to borrow your DVD's to a NIF, perhaps even several one's, and allow them to check them out on their own in whatever circumstances they choose to. Running Commentary is preferred because for one, you can watch the film again, and see your NIF's reactions in actuality and also make some things clear for them so they get more insight into this sort of cinema. The former allows the NIF to decide for themselves how they want their first dose of Bollywood, which may lessen their worry of "will my Bolly-fan friend hate me if I don't like this movie?" and increase the likelihood of them enjoying the film.

Con's for Running Commentary - Not for everybody, as some people simply want to watch films alone for the first time, and find conversation during a film, no matter how sparse, very distracting.

Con's for Whenever, Wherever - The NIF may start watching a film too late in the evening and fall asleep not realizing the movie is longer than two hours, or they may watch it while doing something else and miss half of it. A NIF may misunderstand something thanks to faulty subtitling, not being accustomed to subtitling or something similar. All of these add up to a not-so-great film experience.

6. Watch What You Want - Occasionally it might not be possible to lend a film to a NIF or watch it with them, thanks to distance or other circumstances. Some people also want to throw the ball in the NIF's court. The method is simple: the NIF browses some Bollywood films, perhaps based on the Bollywood-pusher's recommendations, and picks whatever really catches their eye (buys it or rents it from Netflix or downloads it from the internet or similar). This way it's not up to us, the existing fans, to fret whether they will end up liking it or not. It's also a question of motivation: they might not be so motivated to watch a film that a friend just dumps on their lap, but a film that they themselves picked, they will be more interested in watching.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - The NIF's pick may go terribly, terribly wrong. They may end up watching one of those mind-numbingly bad films because "the girl on the cover was pretty" or "the plot sounded interesting". Even recommendations may go wrong; they might see a friend mention a film in a positive manner and assume this film is great and worth seeing. For example, I loved Ek Duuje Ke Liye recently but it's not the film I would sit all of my NIF friends down to watch.

7. Snack-sized Viewing - Bollywood fans should be known for picking a film apart. You know what I mean. The music was good, but the dancing wasn't, the male lead did a great job but the villain was lacking, first half okay, second half spectacular etc. The films are jam-packed and usually in that package, there is content of largely varying quality. This method requires putting together a visual mixtape of Bollywood's best bits - songs, scenes, music videos, comedy scenes. Youtube is a great tool if you don't have the technology to rip scenes from DVD's and burn them onto a new DVD. Of course one way is also just to watch songs from one film, some scenes from another film, going picking and mixing like this. Song DVD's can also be utilized in this.

Seeing songs off one film may increase interest in watching that film whole. Seeing an actor/actress in one of the clips may pique a NIF's interest. Also the opportunity to show variety; a song from the 50's, one from the 60's, some contemporary ones and an action scene from the 70's to spice up the mix may give a NIF an amazing view into the vastness of Hindi cinema, better than any one movie.

Overload of visuals and variety may not appeal to a viewer not from the MTV generation - they might prefer a whole film, and to see the whole story. Another problem may be that the NIF starts to see Indian cinema as just a selection of funny Youtube clips - "I can watch the songs and laugh but a whole movie? No way!".

7. Aware and Prepared - The simple view that in the end, it doesn't matter whether you pick masala or artsy, mainstream or multiplex, modern or oldie, what really matters is how you prep your NIF. Explanation of the film's genre, plot, stars, music before watching helps guide the NIF's own experience of the film - when they know what to expect, they won't be left disappointed.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - Too much information may kill a film. Often Bollywood films take a turn to something completely different half-way through the film, and a simple description may make the NIF expect something that they only get in some scenes in the film. Masala is both a blessing and a curse at times.

Who says Bollywood fans are shallow? As far as the philosophies of newbie introduction films, our views are complex and more in-depth than those of any regular Hollywood film viewer's. This is just the thoughts I've come across with and discussed with people. Feel free to add to the list, or perhaps argue why you prefer Running Commentary or Snack-sized Viewing above anything else.


memsaab said...

Great post; one of the things I find it hardest to explain to NIFs is that all "Bollywood" films are not created equal.

And one of my favorite things about Hindi films is that very same thing. I never ever get bored! I can't say that I've been (or even really tried to be) successful at converting NIFs. I can't be bothered, I guess, unless someone specifically asks me to show them a B'wood film.

My sister is an addict now too, but I think she would have been had she stumbled upon them on her own anyway.

ajnabi said...

Awesome post! I love the way you've categorized the differnt intro philosphies. Mine tends to be "show them Jab We Met and work our way through Jhoom Barabar Jhoom then K3G." It's worked pretty well, I have to confess.

Smitha said...

It's probably a huge generalization to say that Indian people themselves rarely try to get non-Indians into their own country's films.

True! Me and my sister are the exception to the rule... Indian people who are massive Bollywood pushers. Of course, it's only non-Indian people we push BW onto; we assume that an Indian person who's not into BW knows what he/she is doing. ;)

Filmi said...

We must be psychically connected! I just posted my films for beginners!

I like your run-down, I usually try the KYA method - there are so many stripes of Indian films that it can overwhelming for the non-initiated...

Nicki said...

Great guide.

I usually do number 2. If you like this, you'll like that. I've had lots of success this way.

Now just remembering when some Hmong guys telling me they dislike Bollywood because of the song/dance and romantic movies. I gave them Karam, 1971, Corporate, etc. They told me they look at Indian films in a different light now, lol.

However, in general, I have never gone wrong with showing anyone Dil Chanta Hai

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I'm definitely one of those who frets so much. The sad fact is you pretty much only get one chance. These methods wouldn't exist if you could just try again when it doesn't work the first time. The most frustrating thing about NIFs is their view of "bollywood" as a genre. I guess showing bits and pieces of different films would counter that but even then I find it very hard to get that through people's heads. At least in America, where it's not that common to watch foreign films with any sort of regularity.

veracious said...

memsaab - Yeah, the more I got into Hindi films, the better I understood that there's actually so much variety out there, even in the "masala genre".

I have friends who occasionally like watching one of my Indian films for "something a little different" and one of them has asked to see Rang De Basanti again but they never went pagal for BW or anything. Currently I have NIFs who are very interested and curious, which adds pressure in its own way!

ajnabi - Your JWM-JBJ method sounds like a cool one. I think JBJ is just nuts (in a good way) but then again, this sort of nuttiness could very well appeal to Western viewers. Plus the fact both have kissing breaks that "they never kiss!" stereotype right off the bat!

Smitha - That's great, though! I'm very glad there are exceptions. :)

filmi - I saw, good list you had there. :D

The problem with KYA is exactly just the K part - I find it REALLY difficult to know what kind of films ppl would enjoy best. I've known some of my friends for aeons and still am not sure if they'd like a movie or not..

Nicki - Glad to hear it's worked! And yeah, serious movies are great to show to skeptics. DCH is a fun movie, no wonder you've had success with it.

Smurphmurph - Over here we've had subtitles on foreign movies always but of course, to get Bollywood films, the Finn has to know English to get the subs. Another annoying, perhaps related to what you said, thing is when NIFs think they KNOW Bollywood because they've seen some clips or watched 10 mins of a movie off cable once.

Cindy said...

I have to admit that I used to think I knew all about Bollywood because I had seen Bride and Prejudice. (So not only did I think Bollywood was a homogenous genre, but I also didn't realize that Bride and Prejudice wasn't actually a Bollywood film.) I hadn't really liked Bride and Prejudice, so I had no interest in watching any Bollywood films.

Then my parents got into Bollywood, and my dad basically forced the whole family to watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when we were together last Christmas Eve. And I've been a fan ever since.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Truly brilliant post Veracious. I really enjoyed your in-depth, correct and yet light-hearted analysis of "indoctrination."

I have had some sucess in teaching my best friend and my sister Hindi by watching Bolly movies. For my friend, it has meant another thing he and I can share, and for my sister it has been a way to connect with her heritage.

veracious said...

Cindy - That's very interesting because I know fans who got into BW through Bride and Prejudice. I guess it works both ways!

Shweta - Thanks! These movies definitely work as a great Hindi teaching aid. Subhaash!

Christiane said...

Great post! I usually do number 1. Some of my favourites for starters would be Rang de Basanti, My Brother Nikhil or Cheeni Kum.
Number 2 was used on me (by Indians by the way) without much success. I had an awful start hating Sholay, DDLJ and Anand and I guess, my Indian friends thought that I was really weird. However, about 100 BW-movies later I re-watched these three movies and while I still don´t like Anand, Sholay has become one of my all-time favourites and I can totally appreciate the impact of DDLJ. I guess, some movies just aren´t made for starters.

prahajess said...

Love it! I'm cracking up. And, sadly, I think I have frantically tried possibly four of your methods, desperately attempting anything that might make my non-stop Bolly-talk more interesting to my NIFs..... love it!

theBollywoodFan said...

I must confess to being very close to a NRI NIF prior to Lagaan. 'Very close' because I'd see about, oh, one, maybe two Hindi films a year on average. Really. I think it had more to do with watching the songs (on TV, no YouTube back in the day) and not wanting to see the films they were in.

I'll return to learn something else the second time I read this. Like a good movie, a good post does that, and this is excellent!