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The Certain and Uncertain Tendencies in Today’s Bollywood Cinema

November 10, 2012 | By

What Bollywood also seriously needs today is to cultivate a new tendency of revisionism. We need films today that question the uneasy status quo, confronting us on a day to day basis. We need films that examine our emerging nationalistic visions or debate the different consumerism ethics assaulting the young.

All of India (and the rest of the world) is excited about India making rapid strides to embrace first worlDUM or worldOM (depending upon the prevalent Vedic mentality).  While this is a commendable enterprise, what saddens me is the ancillary that goes with it:  India wants to become  a first world country primarily on its deliberately adopted American intrinsicness.  Since it couldn’t succeed in the past decade with its brown Englishness, it is determined to eclipse this colonized effort with newly brown ‘technoforged’ amreekeenness.  And one of the most flamboyant institutions that displays this endeavour in all its multifaceted mediaforms is current Bollywood cinema.  And since this is a cinema that is avidly followed and emulated by all the classes and all the religions and all the genders, both at the margins and at the center, of postmodern India, some very problematic tendencies arise that need to be urgently addressed and discussed because of their certain and uncertain natures.

Rang de Basanti

Rang de Basanti is a good example of what I am arguing. Here, the aesthetics of violence is proposed as the only way of cleaning out the corrupt sphere of contemporary politics prevalent in India.


After living in America for over thirty-six years, I am now getting ready to move back to Bombay where, in spite of the Yankeemumbainess of its stars, saffron and stripes, I can still find and play with surprising Indian tentacles either tucked away in an ancient Irani café in Dhobi-Talo or the way they are released in a certain gesture  so spontaneously evoked by an old Goan waiter that I am reminded, once again, of all those wonderful hours passed in the dining-car of the Deccan Queen train when it cut through the Bombay-Poona landscape all painted a swaraj white.  What I wish to reiterate is the strange repetition of one curious incident that I always encounter every year when I come back to India to enjoy my annual winter holidays.  I will be talking to someone and soon as that person I am introduced to is told that I am residing in America, the Indian presence with which he or she was confronting me is instantaneously dropped and a  strange figured American dummy is immediately installed in its place.  Suddenly I find myself forced to listen to a stream of all those horrible fast-food Yankee syllables I take great pains, as a teacher to highlight boldly in my struggling American students’ essays that are miles away from simple expressive conventional English.  I am now addressed ad nauseam as “dude.”  I am asked how I am “chilling out” in Mumbai, and have the “chicks” really changed and finally when the farewell arrives to “have a nice day.”

This same tendency to mimic the American MTV world of idiotic superficiality runs rampant, especially amongst the young Bombay Bollywood based DJs and VeeJays whose body language, mode of address, dress-codes, and incessant rhetorical verbalisms, both dialogues and monologues, all affect that silly incessant patter of crass, cheap five-cent phrases gleamed from their airheaded lip-glossed American counterparts.  And when  this ritual is compounded by the Bollywood stars (who they are interviewing), affecting the same lingo, one wonders how long is it going to be before the language of Hindi itself, shuddh and tapori, will soon become extinct and what will be the mumbojumbo herapheri that will take its place is anyone’s guess.

Why can’t we achieve first-world status on our own Indian intrinsicness instead of constantly “borrowing” and what is worse “stealing” from America.  Plagiarism has reached an all time high in Bollywood; it has assumed steadily an everest of shameless himalayan proportions and this is a diseased tendency that has to be consistently exposed and uprooted.  What can we do to cut off this medusa’s countless heads—especially as they reappear again and again in popular Bollywood films and music.  Much as I am against any forms of censorship, let me offer one worthy axiom that the members of the Indian film censor boards can perform.  If a single example of plagiarism is discovered in a Bollywood film, then all the members should unanimously insist that:
a) that particular plagiarized scene, moment, piece of dialogue, or song should be completely removed in order to deliberately hurt the totality of the film.  If there are too many plagiarized erections, the film should be banned outright.  Following in this vein, let me also suggest that multiplexes should be encouraged to get a DVD copy of the original Hollywood or European film on which this desi copy is based and it should be shown to the audience in a double-bill, where, for example, they first see the original feature like Otto Preminger’s Laura and then, after the interval, see the Bhatt Brothers’ ripoff Rog.

If such ventures are possible, then maybe a remote tendency like “originality” will once again blossom in Bollywood, and the repeated failures of films stolen from other sources will enable the really talented and gifted people from entering the industry and making significant contributions to Bollywood’s current palki of humbugs who steal left, right and center, because the current Bollywood mythology allows these tinsel gods the growth of such shameless clandestine limbs.  And these are the very people who sanctimoniously attack the piracy of their shoddy efforts.  In fact the pirates are doing a worthy job reducing these dishonest versions and having them shown literally for, what (de)merits them the best, a song!

Another reason as to why we have such poor standards in current Bollywood is the complete lack of a sound and effective critical tradition.  We do not have culturally or aesthetically responsible film critics who have either the acquired erudition or the willing conscience to challenge artists to come up with the best from within themselves.  The “hacks” (what else can one call them) who pass as film critics in our newspapers, journals, magazines, and on TV and radio, really have no interest in reviewing or critiquing films, Bollywood, Hollywood, or otherwise.  They are more into using Bollywood to create their own media personality that can then command some kind of loyalty at least on the cocktail circuit.  If a film-critic of this kind is told by someone at a party that he or she seems to lack a sense of humor in his reviews, then the dye is hopelessly cast.  This person will go all out and try to be funny in every review he or she writes, using the Bollywood film as a convenient target.  One sees this tendency again and again.  The film per se is hardly addressed.

Many times, I suspect, these “hacks” do not really know the complicated vocabulary of film-making itself or the genres in which the film is supposed to be taking place or the inherent “suggested” layers of meaning.  How many times have you read these stock phrases:  “the editing should have been tighter” or “the photography was awesome.”  Do these false arbitrators of taste and excellence really know anything about the various editing methods involved, or that there is a significant difference between a tracking shot and what it is expected to achieve from a panning shot or what the careful execution of mise-en-scene involves, etc.?

While we are on the subject of plagiarism, why is it that we don’t have anyone in Bollywood today who wants to perpetuate and resurrect the traditions of some of our own great Hindi film-makers of the past?  Why don’t we have anyone trying to embrace, let us say, the same high cinematic standards achieved by a Guru Dutt, especially in his compelling melodramas, both thematically as well as structurally?  Why can’t contemporary comedies be made along the complex lines laid out by a Hrishikesh Mukherjee?  Why can’t the many devotional moments in today’s films have the same musical and aesthetic purity as found in the Prabhat Studio films like Fathelal’s and Damle’s Saint Tukaram?  Do we have to borrow and steal always from the West, and then pretend to cover it up by Indianizing it like having a rustic Indian cobradance done by a dancer in suede jacket and blue jeans or ushering in the colors of Holi in the midst of  a Manhattan snowstorm?

Globalization has also created another problematic tendency.  Popular Bollywood actor Amir Khan made a huge display in India of not accepting any awards given by (dubious) Indian agencies, either to him or his films.  One applauded his courage.  Finally, here was an Indian performer following Krisna’s advice to Arjuna from the Gita:  the fruit was in the work, and not in golden and silver statuettes.  And then came the Oscars that showed Mr. Khan’s secretive global intentions.  Look at all the effort and all the fuss and all the money this man spent in wanting to be the first Indian to walk up that Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s podium to accept a gleaming Oscar bhai who did not in any context resemble the local Munna bhai!  But why do we bother to have an Indian film nominated in Hollywood year after year and for what?  The standards that govern current Hollywood films for Oscar consideration are so puerile and so pathetic.  And the films that get nominated and win Oscars don’t come anywhere close to any kind of excellence. And yet how reverently and how sycophantically does Bollywood pursue its dream of being accepted and awarded in Hollywood?  It is the secretive dream of every Bollywood participant to make that cross over into Hollywood—even if it be a two-minute sighting in a cast of thousands.  Even great actors like Naseruddin Shah fall for this kind of tripe.  One suspects the dollar incentive, but if a struggling Bollywoodian does it for the money, one can make a credible case, but not for the established stars who are already making millions, not only in Bollywood India, but also amongst the non-resident Indians before whom they are willing to strut their western attired and affected personas.

What has always intrigued me about Bollywood films is the role played by the Bollywood film director.  He (and now some Shes) seem to come from some very  dubious origins thereby carrying a lot of mediocre tendencies that are so clearly discernable when their films finally hit the big screens.  Most of the current batch of Bollywood’s technicians, cinematographers, editors, sound recordists, those in charge of costumes and props seem to come from professional film schools.  One clearly sees some kind of professional excellence in their work.  But the Bollywood director under whom they function, often shows himself or herself to be someone who many times doesn’t know his craft at all.  He or she is either a second generation son or daughter taking over the reigns of the studio once the patriarch or matriarch has died or retired; or he is an old faithful who is rewarded one day by suddenly being given the reins of a director.  Or some advertising peddler of goods trying to sell visions; the list is endless….  And when you hear these specimens at any interview, you wonder why they become directors in the first place or why they insist on even making films when they really know nothing about them.  Is direction per se, an important or popular specialization in many of our film schools and institutes anymore?  And if it is, what exposure to film as art or entertainment are these neophytes given?  As an aside, I see the same conscious lack in our current music composers and singers as well as in our so-called choreographers who seem miles away from sangeet and naach in their silly itemized versions of them.

In an ideal Indian film school, for the first two years, all film students, should be given, at least in the first half of the day when their minds are fresh, a rigorous exposure on a firm critical level to courses on basic Freud, basic Marx, basic Abhinavagupta, basic western classical music and the Indian classical natyashastra performative tradition, along with other important areas singled out from various popular western and Indian genres.  They should be exposed to infrastructured courses in psychology, sociology, politics, Indian and western aesthetics.  Then, in the second half of the day, they should be shown in a chronological and systematic way all the best films created by the relevant cinematic  masters from Asia, America, Europe, and other countries , and have them discussed in a detailed analytical way applying different critical approaches and forcing them to realize and acknowledge the epiphanies arrived at.  It is only in their third year, should they be taught the complicated vocabulary of the different cinematic crafts, and learn to handle the mechanizations in a professional sense that constitute film-making.  It is from an education center like this one, that a new breed of exciting film-makers and intelligent film-critics can emerge.

What Bollywood also seriously needs today is to cultivate a new tendency of revisionism.  We need films today that question the uneasy status quo, confronting us on a day to day basis.  We need films that examine our emerging nationalistic visions or debate the different consumerism ethics assaulting the young.  When revisionism does appear, it is couched, unfortunately in such simplistic or absurdist veins, that finally is accepted merely as entertainment and dismissed since it is, after all, “only a movie.”  Rang de Basanti is a good example of what I am arguing.  Here, the aesthetics of violence is proposed as the only way of cleaning out the corrupt sphere of contemporary politics prevalent in India.

But can such a ridiculously contrived revolutionary solution that the film offers be realistically imagined or even emulated?  Can a group of dumb Indian youth, playful and silly to begin with, and supported on a day to day basis by their elders hard work and struggles while they idle away their time orchestrating silly pranks on college campuses, suddenly become patriots and martyrs, killing a corrupt minister as he jogs on an Indian street and a greedy father in a tragic-filled embrace, and taking over a major radio station before they are killed en-mass by the powers of the central government?  The stupidity of such a struggle, and the false sanctimoniousness of showing shots of young students defiantly telling the camera at the end that they will continue the struggle of these martyrs is really laughable because the youth of India today are the most selfish, self-seeking, self-absorbed of all individuals.  Their political consciousness only arises when you literally snatch some important possession of theirs on which their daily image (rather than their livelihood) depends upon.  They have no national concerns as this film is projecting.  Their freedom ends when their neighbour’s flat’s main door begins.  What India is this film-maker talking about?

Let’s turn to the recently released Lage Raho Munna Bhai, which is making waves.  It is a film that will delight Ashis Nandy and his fellow Gandhians, but the Gandhian fantasy figure in the film  is created out of a Frank Capra archetype and not the real Mahatma one, and this reduces the film to a desi Capracorn or Caprabutta.  The one scene that probably elicits applause all over India is the one where the old pensioner, in a Gandhian ahimsa moment, starts becoming “nanga” by handing over to the corrupt bureaucratic official all his possessions:  wallet, shirt, pants, underwear, baniaan, and manages to humiliate the stunned official into finally handing him his pension before all the other harassed petitioners who, on cue, break out in a Jana Gana Mana applause.

The problem with this scene is that you too feel like joining in the applause when it is actually happening on the screen, like several others that the film-maker has used borrowing most of his inspiration from various Capra’s films that abound in these kind of  scenes.  But once you leave the theatre and retrospect critically on that scene, you know for a fact that it would never work in today’s India where Gandhiji  is just a remote statute in the park or a badly printed photo often without a caption in a standard history textbook.  His methods won’t  work because it is Machiavelli who rules modern India, not Gandhi?  Try emulating this film’s pensioner’s Gandhian stunt and before you can take out even the fountain-pen from your cheap shirt’s pocket, you will be hauled away by two beefy security men, and before you can say, “He Ram,” you  will be speeding to the nearest police station behind a barbed wired black van.  And there will be no journalists outside with TV cameras or a crowd of your basti brethren to sing you to the prison cell.

Lage Raho Munnabhai

The first Munna Bhai film was more authentic because even when it did have many Capra moments, the Foucauldian thesis of how it is left to an underworld Don to teach the “power” besotted Dean of the Medical College and hospital his long forgotten  Hippocratic duties towards his sick patients and frightened students was humourously maintained and sociologically and comically conveyed to the powerless Indian audience who recognized and acknowledged it.  Had the new film shown Munna Bhai failing repeatedly in spite of applying Gandhisms, then it could have offered various arguments about irrelevant and relevant tendencies in a country so desperate and posed to become American [not Indian] first world, that if a poll was taken amongst its youngsters today,  Shahrukh Khan, and Sachin Tendulkar would easily outscore one poor Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  Even a Rahul Gandhi would get more recognition than that strange old man that only grandfather insists behaved better than Rambo against his enemies.  And all that he was armed with was a stick!!  Must have been a strange “dude” after all!

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Darius Cooper is a Professor of Humanities and Critical thinking in the English Department at the San Diego Mesa College. He has published widely on cinema, poetry and stories in India and abroad including two books on Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt.
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