Debating India


Yaara Silly Silly

Santosh DESAI

Monday 7 June 2004, by DESAI *Santosh

When will Bollywood be accepted for being Bollywood abroad?

We already have. Crossed over, that is. I have been reminded of this, recently, twice in two very different parts of the world. First, there was this Balinese cab driver who sang for us what seemed like the Complete Works of Nadeem Shravan, and then there was this Nigerian student on a flight who was well-versed, shall we say, in Rani Mukherjee’s anatomy. And it’s part of a larger pattern of influence in the developing world, as evidenced by the ultimate endorsement-the denouncement of the corruptive power of Indian cinema by some Malaysian clerics.

So when we talk of crossovers, we’re very clearly asking when an Indian movie will take mainstream western audiences by storm. The good news is that Lagaan, Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham seem to have opened a door. Interest in Bollywood is at an all-time high, with Moulin Rouge et al doffing their hat Indiawards. Locally too, a new kind of energy is uncoiling itself after two decades of torpor. New themes, fresh faces, experimental storylines, the fragmenting of the mainstream monolith, all point to the beginning of something new.

So are we ready to cross over? Here it is important to separate interest in the Bollywood form of storytelling by filmmakers from an imminence of its acceptance by mainstream audiences. In fact, in some ways there is an inverse relationship between the two. Bollywood is a stylistic magnet precisely because it is so alien and self-contained. It is Bollywood’s integrity to itself, to its overripe, overstimulated, recklessly sensual narrative that makes it such a dazzling new form.

Bollywood’s influence is likely to grow, but because of the fundamental difference in its narrative style, this influence is unlikely to convert into a demand for viewership. Unlike Indo-Anglian literature, where we have successfully crossed over because the language provides a common starting point, when it comes to films, Bollywood speaks in a language quite alien to the West. The three-hour running times, the songs, the act-everything-at-least-twice school of performance and the broadness of the emotion depicted are all intrinsic parts of the Indian cinematic tradition.

True, the western appetite for new sources of sensory stimulation is growing. Be it in literature, food, music or cinema, there is an ever increasing search for unfamiliar rhythms, textures and tastes. Sushi, bhangra, extreme cuisine, Yoga, Japanese comic books and Bollywood are all part of this. However, in each of these cases, the demand has been driven by the West-an influence it finds interesting has been seized upon and often converted into something usable. Entry of new influences is made possible by creating some common point of reference, some sense of familiarity that allows one to open up gradually to the new.

No wonder the most successful Indian films in the West are made by Indians living abroad. Both Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham are western films about Indians. They allude to the Indian style of film-making, even salute it, but do not use it. They work because they speak to western sensibilities while being fresh; they are both exotic and familiar. It’s likely that the newest interpretation of Indian cinema will emerge from this liminal space between Indian and the West, by people at the margin who’re both bi-cultural and homeless. These are films about Indians, but not crossover films.

In that sense, the only film that comes anywhere close to a crossover is Lagaan. It is an epic tale told boldly, without any restraining inhibitions, and few allowances made for a western audience. If anything, it put its Bollywood-ness on exaggerated display, being full of songs, running for four hours and featuring an hour-long sequence of what must seem to the uninitiated as the world’s most pointless game, cricket. The key to its success lies in its integrity to itself, not to any targeted audience. This is true of most genuine crossover hits; the recent City of Gods from Brazil, which apparently made $100 million worldwide, came from nowhere and did little to try appeal to mainstream audiences.

The more we ask this crossover question, the more we look for formulae, for a magic nostrum that will crack open the dollar-heavy western market. Truth is, these questions are a trifle premature. Bollywood’s presence in western consciousness is growing-in some ways the ground for the future is being laid by Indian film-makers settled abroad, people like Shekhar Kapur, Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha, as well as by western directors influenced by Bollywood. These cultural mediators are helping broaden western sensibilities and deepen the appetite for Indian cinema. The real challenge for Indian films is to retain their essential character while exploring new vistas. Our biggest asset is the wanton silliness of our form; losing that will make us more acceptable but less desirable.

Above all, let us not forget that Bollywood is a key ingredient in realising India’s ambitions to be an economic superpower. Take away Hollywood, and the supremacy of American brands worldwide crumbles. Consumers across the globe covet brands like Marlboro, Levi’s & McDonald’s on the back of the cultural air cover provided by Hollywood. India is one of the very few countries in the world with its own cultural factory-in our desperate need to be admired by the West, it would be an utter shame if we were to efface the source of our own economic power. We will one day cross over to the West, but perhaps it is the Balinese cab driver singing Nadeem Shravan songs we should be more interested in.

See online : Outlook India


(The author is President, McCann Erickson)

in Outlook India, Monday, June 7, 2004.

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