Friday, October 10, 2014

What makes Indian cinema so easy to ignore?

For over a decade, or at least as long as I can remember, the Helsinki International Film Festival has had at least one Indian film in their programme, every single year. Last year, we were treated to four different films, ranging from the indie gem Monsoon Shootout to the big budget extravaganza of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. A few years back, we even got the megalomaniac Enthiran, sending every Tamizhan Finland-dweller to the theater to whistle at Rajnikanth's entrance. Overall, HIFF has consistently served up something delightful for us few Bollywood fans habiting this northern land, and a rare treat for those people who love the occasional Indian film, but don't necessarily seek them out all year round.

Then this year, nothing. Zilch. Kuch nahin.

When asked for a reason, HIFF responded on Facebook that another film festival would have a few Bollywood aces up their sleeve later in the spring. No offence to Season Film Festival, which I like but tend to miss due to it springing up (no pun intended) on me and my schedules every spring, but I found this response even more infuriating than not having a single Indian film on the schedule. So there's not enough room for two festivals to both have a few films from a country that produces hundreds of films every year?

Without getting deeper into the flawed booking models of domestic film festivals, I've always wondered why it is that Indian cinema is so universally easy to ignore, by film festivals and well-known international critics alike. The same people who appreciate varied genres, various types of films from all kinds of corners of the world, commercial, non-commercial, small budget, big budget, success or flop, all have no-India blinders on, apart from the occasional dip into the Irrfan Khan fare or a Satyajit Ray retrospective. In this post, I'm going to explore a few potential reasons and ways to argue against them, or think outside of them.

1. Indian cinema is seen as one genre. 

Not every Indian film is a romantic comedy musical with young people running through fields and dancing around ceaselessly, yet this is such a dominant stereotype that the whole concept of "different" cinema has become a weird cliché. The confusion arises from the two vastly different forms of genre distinction. In Hollywood, certain genres that we know now today as comedy, horror, romance, action etc, formed to serve a certain purpose. In commercial Indian cinema, a particular format of incorporating song sequences into narrative sequences without fully adopting the genre trappings of what Hollywood calls 'musicals' became largely the norm, influenced by not just foreign cinema, but local theater traditions as well. Slowly, the concept of masala, having varied proportions of different genres fluidly co-existing in one film, became the ideal in commercial cinema. Potboilers would entertain all kinds of audiences at once.

In modern Hindi cinema, and in other Indian film industries as well, the masala tends to be both a format and a genre. You can have masala format for a genre film - the song and dance sequences in a gangster film, the melodrama in a sports film - as well as have a full-on masala film, with a romantic track, a comedy track, and action, drama (to paraphrase the drunken paramour Veeru from Sholay, "emotion, drrrrrama, trrrragedy"), villains and mothers and heroines and songs, all thrown into the pot and stirred to perfection. There is a tendency to regard all of this as one and the same, even though they're two very different, and both valid, ways of making a movie work for the local audiences.

The logic of this dismissal works in two ways: one, lump different types of films with little in common to a "masala" genre that people outside India rarely understand to begin with, and then two, to highlight everything that isn't masala (either formatted as masala, or in the 'genre' of masala) as being different and alternative and completely out of the ordinary, even when 'out of the ordinary' in this case could easily be the vast majority of movies produced in India. Indian film fans find themselves recommending films by telling non-fans, "This is different," because the prejudice towards what is "the norm" in Indian cinema is so prevalent among international moviegoers. Indian films, for all their variety, are at best lumped into a fun colourful ball of frothy masala, and at worst regarded as a universally understood joke.

2. Indian cinema does a poor job marketing itself (and so does everybody else). 

The saddest thing about this "all the same" misconception is that at times Indian industry people perpetuate it themselves. If you take a drink every time an actor or a director promotes a movie by calling it different, you'll drink yourself to death before you finish a copy of Filmfare (I exaggerate but still). The failure to promote a different idea of Indian films doesn't stop there, though. In most countries of the world, Indian films are scarcely available, subtitled or dubbed to local languages, or even to a lingua franca, such as English. In the places where they are available, they're barely marketed to local audiences outside the Indian diaspora. When they are marketed, they are usually marketed as "different" (to what the stereotype of Bollywood films is), even though the local non-Indian audiences might have no clue whatsoever what the actual Indian films that fit the norm look like (and when they see such films, they may actually very much enjoy them).

I'm not pointing the finger at Bollywood or Tollywood or anybody else, because I'm as guilty of this as anybody else. When somebody asks me for recomendations, my mind jumps to the Band Baaja Baarats  and Amar Akbar Anthonys of the masala world, then back-pedals to something "different" from those, as if masala is a shameful thing, as opposed to a wonderful, unique, amazing form of making films. It's a hard cycle to get out of, so I've tried to take a step back and instead ask the person, what types of films they like. Indian films have all kinds. Take your pick.

But it is tragic, because there is so much cinema that even I, a voracious and mostly fearless explorer of Indian cinema, am missing out on, due to lack of availability or subtitles. Whether it's Malayalam films, or older Tamil films, it can be a struggle to find information, recommendations, subtitled DVDs, you name it, there's a lack of it. This is very unfortunate, and sadly there isn't really an easy fix for it.

3. Quantity doesn't signify quality.

The above is very much true, but I don't think quantity of films produced is the only reason why Indian films should demand more from film authorities and the world-wide film industry. It's like this: I'm not saying you have to like Indian films, or even respect Indian films, because I recognise there's tons of cinema out there I don't know about, understand or care for (with that said, I do keep an open mind). What I am saying is that there should be more recognition, in whatever form, of the true merits of Indian cinema. Looking aside the silly misconceptions, the big production numbers, the musical numbers, and the Thriller parodies, here is what Indian cinema really is:

It's an absolutely one-of-a-kind film country, with a distinctly unique history when it comes to genre and presentations of it, with multiple, interesting and thriving local, regional film industries (both commercial and more arthouse-minded) that serve important functions to local cultures and languages. For better and for worse, it's influenced Indian politics and society, and continues to do so today. It connects a huge diaspora back to their place of origin. It's at once localized and regional, and national, and international and global.

It's just too damn interesting to stay ignorant about, and too vast to dismiss entirely.


filmbuff said...

Great article - agree with all the points you have raised. It is very difficult to overcome prejudice when so many people are dismissive of Indian films. Only those who have an open mind are likely to be receptive to new ideas, films, etc. Hope the next festival in Finland has some interesting mix of Indian movies.

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