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.