Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bollywood, Slumdog & "the West".

I haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire because I intended to see it in theaters and the Finnish release date has been postponed time after time. Right now we're looking at a March release date, and I'm not sure if I can wait until then.

But even without seeing the film itself, it's impossible not to witness the impact its making in English-speaking countries, and other countries where English films typically reign supreme. I've had American friends tell me, "I just saw a Bollywood movie!" (which leads me to react, "Good for you! But technically Slumdog isn't Bollywood..."). There's quite a lot of buzz, and a lot of media coverage and even if Slumdog isn't technically Bollywood (if we define Bollywood as Hindi-language, Bombay-produced, mainstream films), it's certainly getting the genuine Bollywood some attention in the eyes of the so-called West.

Having spent nearly five years in the Bollywood fandom, there seems to be this constant question of when Bollywood will finally break out and become cool and popular among the Western mainstream, in the way that Chinese martial arts once did (leading Jet Li and Jackie Chan to become recognized household names), or in the way that Japanese films and comic books became when you began to find manga books and anime DVD's in nearly every store. People predicted it would happen with Lagaan and now with Slumdog, and rather than to ask, should it happen (in other words, does Hindi cinema need the approval of the Western mainstream somehow, why should it ever break out into the consciousness when just the NRI's and the few non-Indian fans seem to bring in quite a nice amount of abroad box office money?), I'd rather ask, will it ever?

I somehow doubt it.

I can't speak about the histories of Japanese popculture or Chinese/Hong Kong films with expertise, so I suppose it could be exaggeration to say they're somehow more open for the eyes of people outside those cultures, whereas Bollywood films can be such a different ballgame from European or Hollywood movies, and the culture they portray so alien to the Western viewer that they take a little while to become more accessible. When I saw my first Hindi film, Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, I loved it, don't get me wrong, but I didn't get it. I was confused by the less structured story-telling (it was not a 90-minute Hollywood script in three acts!) and couldn't read all the cultural customs and references that they loaded the screen with.

Of course, that's not to say I'm now fully versed in Indian culture and know everything and get everything; that just wouldn't be possible. But I've become more understanding of this form of cinema, its traditions, history, values, tropes and style. Getting into Indian films has in some ways become an exercise in open-mindedness; it's different from everything you're used to seeing, but now you accept that, and appreciate it on (what I hope are) its own terms.

This doesn't mean I love every film or don't find objectionable things in films or the industry itself. But along with my love for Bollywood, comes a definite attitude re-adjustment. Films are films. If you watch Hindi/Tamil/Telugu/whatever Indian language films and continue to carry the notion that films from the US/France or wherever in the so-called "West" are somehow magically superior, you might as well stop watching.

But if only it were that simple that all films are created equal and a bad film's bad, although in different ways, despite the country or culture it comes from. But the ideas of Western film-making's superiority is sadly prevalent even in the minds of some Indians themselves. But I suppose that's a different issue altogether.

The point I'm trying to come to is that I'm not sure the audiences at large in the "West" would be so accepting of the Indian manner of making films and telling stories. Some people occasionally might get into, thanks to an Indian friend, a visit to the country itself or pushing efforts by us non-Indian filmi fans, and that's wonderful, but for it to become something more popular in the mainstream, for people to know stars beyond the few who've been in the limelight outside India, I just don't see it happening.

And to risk sounding elitist, I don't mind it.


Kallista85 said...

The ironic thing is that I started to see A LOT of indian movies (after seeing Lagaan years ago and a couple of -average- movies that oddly were on tv last summer) only after I saw Slumdog Millionaire. And not because I thought it was a Bollywood movie, but because one of the only part I really enjoyed were the credits (with the infamous Bollywood-style-dancing) at the end of the movie!

I don't really know if Bollywood can spread in western countries. I mean, the things you said are true: the very first Bollywood movie you see it's hardly "understandable". But, IMHO, it's still very fascinating because of it. Maybe it's because I'm used to see foreign asian movies and dramas, but I found their way to make cinema very refreshing and addicting. Above all, one of the thing I like the most is the two or three partition of the movies, generally parted by the "intermission".

Anita said...

I totally agree with this. I feel like post-Slumdog there will just be an increase in people who have an interest in BW and actively search it out. Maybe that number will double or something, but that doesn't mean it will be mainstream in the least. Soon enough the next big thing will come along and Indian cinema will lose its novelty.

I don't really see Indian films becoming like Chinese films here in the West. Action is very much universal, but breaking out into song for a dream sequence? Not quite as universal. Even in musicals made by Hollywood, they take place in a natural and realistic setting, not up on some mountain in Switzerland! And don't get me started on item numbers. ;)

Lol, all I'm saying is that there has been a DEFINITE increase is recognition of BW in the West these past five years (I've been very attentive of every bit of media attention we get, lol) but I don't think there will be that sudden burst into the mainstream, at least, not anytime soon. And really, there's nothing wrong with that. :)

memsaab said...

When I watch a "Hollywood" film nowadays, I realize that western filmmakers are just as guilty of "bad" habits as Indian ones---that is to say, Indiana Jones requires the same suspension of disbelief and willingness to overlook plot holes as a Bollywood masala film. I don't know where this attitude of western superiority comes from, but I don't buy it.

That said, Indian films have a definite sensibility of their own, and I don't think they will ever appeal to a large audience here. They appeal on a very emotional level, and if you aren't sucked in right at the onset you probably never will be. That's been my experience in trying to introduce Hindi films to my friends and family, anyway.

Great post, Sanni :)

Beth said...

Here's another part of the question, one that I haven't heard anyone talk about (and I have largely turned off paying attention to what people are saying about Slumdog now, so I'm not trying to say I'm the only person who's thought about this): not only is there no particular reason why Hindi films should want to gain popularity in "the west," there's no particular reason why "the west" should try to embrace them - any more than, say, India should want to embrace American popular cinema. We don't all have to love (or even vaguely understand) each other's pop culture. We have to recognize that it's out there and that it's meaningful to some people, but it's perfectly okay to prefer the stuff that is created by the culture from which you come. Respect and flexibility towards, yes; embrace, not necessarily.

To me, what's far more important is that we - all of "we," everyone on the globe - realize that different cultures have different values and modes of expression and that they're all equally valid and all equally capable of producing art and thought and beauty and all that. It's also extremely important that we all be open to trying to experience things that fall under "other" or "foreign" or "not what I'm used to." Nobody's culture is superior, and trying to learn about other cultures is a surefire way to understand that, I think.

So if Slumdog - or anything else - inspires people not in India to try out an Indian film, or films set in India, then great!

ajnabi said...

Really, when you think about it, Jet Li and Jackie Chan are recognizable in the States but are second- or third-tier famous. However, they get the respect that comes with knowing they're huge stars elsewhere. If all this hoopla ends up doing the same for my fave B'wood stars, I'll settle for that. ;-)

veracious said...

Kallista, yes, I think some people are more open to media from other cultures and countries. While others rather stick to what they know. Hence why I don't think Bollywood will ever break out in the great Western mainstream.

Anita - New fans are always welcome, of course. I'd rather they discover it through Slumdog, as I think that film is probably better than Bride & Prejudice or these other "sort of" Bollywoodish movies. Agree with you on the emotional appeal.

Beth - Good point. You can't force anybody to like something, but respect and a bit of open-mindedness; like, let's see what these things have to offer. They might not become favourites but recognition that they must be doing something right should be enough.

ajnabi - Word. Ash keeps doing Hollywood movies and they're all crap, pretty much. :D

Desires said...

I have seen movie.I liked it,