“You know, it doesn’t have subtitles…” The assistant manager looks concerned as he tears my ticket.
I smile at him and shake my head. “It’s okay—I don’t mind.” And really I don’t. A lack of subtitles is not going to stand between me and the opportunity to see SS Rajamouli’s Eega (2012), the story of a man who is killed but then is reincarnated as a fly and takes his revenge on the man who killed him) the way it was meant to be seen: on a giant screen with a massive soundsystem.
The young guy working the ticket counter gets it. With his patchy moustache and disdainful gaze, he’s the local Indian movie theater equivalent of the surly teens who work at cineplexes all across America. This week, just like he does every week, he sold me the ticket to the latest release with a nod of recognition and no questions beyond ‘cash or credit?’
The assistant manager smiles nervously as he hands me my ticket, nodding his head in the particular South Asian way that can mean anything and nothing. He doesn’t have to say it. I know what he’s thinking: “Okay, crazy white lady. If you want to pay for a movie in a language you don’t understand, that’s on you.”
Let me tell you a secret. We Americans may treasure our memories of American Exceptionalism, but Hollywood is not the dominant cultural force in the world. The approximately 1.2 billion people of India exist in a parallel pop culture universe known as Bollywood. Instead of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes staring vacantly from the cover of People, it’s movie star Shahrukh Khan and his very own Stepford Wife, Gauri, on the pages of People India. And who has time to follow the scripted Kardashian saga of designer dresses and babies and basketball games when the real life murder investigation of starlet Laila Khan gives us links to terrorism and corpses buried in the back yard with our family drama? (e.g., A real murder case that ‘s been breathlessly followed by the press. )
Bollywood is the nickname of the Hindi-language film industry, which is actually only one of the many film industries in India. Though Hindi is the “official” language of India, there are actually large swathes of the country where it’s not spoken at all. Regional film centers exist in cities like Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad to supply films made in the local languages.
And in many ways, Bollywood is just like these regional hubs, only on a larger scale. Bollywood films use many of the same filmmaking conventions of the regional industries and even some of the same directors, technicians, stars, and singers. But Bollywood stands apart from Sandalwood, Kollywood, and the others in one key way: pop culture.
Over the last 15 years or so, Bollywood has created a Western-style pop culture industry that exists alongside the more traditional Hindi language film industry. If Hollywood has it, so does Bollywood—from celebrity fashion blogs to starlets famous for being famous to gossipy chat shows where actors spill their private lives for publicity. The only real difference between Bravo’s Andy Cohen and Bollywood’s Karan Johar, besides the fact that Karan has to pretend he’s too happy living with his mother to ever consider getting married, is that Karan is Indian.
This world of Indian pop culture is a secret club for the global South Asian diaspora, a place they can enter into and feel at home, where brown skin isn’t exotic and nobody mistakes a Sikh in a turban for an Arab terrorist. Concerts by Bollywood artists are rarely advertised outside the South Asian community, and Bollywood film screenings aren’t listed with the multiplexes in the newspaper. British-Asian actor Armaan Kirmani put it like this when I interviewed him in 2011 (FilmiGirl.blog), “In India you take the film industry to be granted—it’s just part of society. Over here it’s more of an identity thing: this is my culture; this is the music; these are the songs; this is the poetry; these are our heroes.” The films themselves are almost beside the point.
In the West, because the cultural ties with Bollywood are more important than the artistic content, I’ll sometimes meet with confused responses from the second generation Indian-Americans I meet. “You actually like these movies?” They’ll ask, incredulously. “But you’re not Indian!” And I have to explain how I love the emotion and the dancing and, especially in older films, the tales of social justice. Filmmaker O.P. Ralhan (1925-1997) specialized in comedies that played on the progressive idea that a criminal does not become his crime - or her crime, as in 1977’s Pappi. Manoj Kumar (1937-) made dreamy, psychadelic films like Purab aur Pachhim (1967) that held up a mirror to the wealthy Indians fleeing to the West.
I’m never quite sure if they believe me or if I’m dismissed as yet another white girl trying to make herself exotic by borrowing from another culture (see the hilarious—if painful—“I want to live like Hindi People” from the British comedy show Goodness Gracious Me for an example of the type) but it’s true.
And I understand their confusion. Judging by the way Bollywood is represented in American media, you would have to be an idiot to like it for the artistic content. There are the patronizing song-and-dance numbers like “A Thousand and One Nights” from the television show Smash, which combined vaguely Bollywood-style choreography with imagery and lyrics taken from Aladdin - that classic of orientalism unrelated to anything remotely Indian. And then there are the video clips taken out of context and mocked on shows like E!’s The Soup. The most infamous is probably a clip titled “Benny Lava”, in which the lyrics to a song are subtitled homophonically into nonsense. The fact that “Benny Lava” himself is actually named Prabhu Deva and is one of India’s most talented dancers, choreographers, and actors is lost in the non-translation.
The misreading of Bollywood by the West is rooted in one fundamental misunderstanding: Indian movies are not meant to be watched like one watches Hollywood movies. Bollywood audiences aren’t stupid; we know it’s not real. Much like audiences watching theater, the Bollywood audience expects to suspend a certain level of disbelief, happily accepting a couple singing a love duet in Switzerland much as the audience at a production of Equus accepts that there are horses on stage.
Indian film conventions evolved parallel to Hollywood and are a melting pot of Indian theater traditions; Muslim songs sung by characters modeled after Hindu gods acting out a Parsi plot. Even today the underpinnings of Bollywood screenplays are far closer to Shakespeare than Aaron Sorkin. And, much like a Shakespeare play, the ideal film will combine melodrama, comedy, romance, music, and philosophy in a blend known to aficionados as masala, after the delicious blend of spices used in Indian cooking.
Hollywood is constantly looking for market growth, and as DVD and theater ticket sales stagnate, the last few years have seen major American film studios have finally making a concerted effort to gain admission into this secret club. But as of yet, they can’t even find the entrance—even Slumdog Millionare flopped in Hindi. The story of brothers separated, of a crooked system, of the brutal realities of life in Mumbai was nothing new to Indian audiences.
It had been done before – and with more authenticity in classics like Parinda (1989) and Deewaar (1975). Even A.R. Rahman’s score that so entranced American audiences was considered a second rate effort. Starring a British actor Indian audiences hadn’t heard of (Dev Patel) and released in a year when the highest grossing Bollywood film spoke to the dreams and insecurities of the growing middle class (3 Idiots, 2009), Danny Boyle’s slum-bound Indian fantasy tale had no place in India.
And Bollywood audiences continue to remain uninterested in the tights-wearing superheroes and expensive special effects that have taken over American movie theaters. Dabangg (2010), made with a budget the smallest fraction of Tom Cruise’s signing fee and with its biggest special effect being Salman Khan himself, was the highest grossing Bollywood film of 2010.
Hollywood’s top grossing film of 2010, the $200 million dollar Toy Story 3, barely made a dent in the Indian market. Though Hrithik Roshan had a minor hit with superhero film Krrish in 2006, the genre remains unpopular. And mega-star Shahrukh Khan’s superhero film Ra.One (2011) earned such a massive audience backlash, that the threatened sequel has become something of a joke.
I remember going to see Dabangg, a perfectly blended masala film, in the theater a couple of Diwalis ago. The lights dimmed and the audience cheered as Khan strutted into frame to the tune of his own theme music. He beat up some bad guys, danced to a song about how awesome he was, acted the dutiful son to his mother, and made the heroine fall in love with him. The audience cheered even more; Salman had united us in appreciation of his bad-assery.
And as I sat down to watch Eega – even knowing I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the dialogue penned by Crazy Mohan – I shared the crowd’s growing anticipation. We were about to leave the mundane details of our lives behind and enter a world where love transports you to exotic locations, where a righteous heart lets a man defeat 50 goondas without breaking a sweat, and where the real bad guys – drug kingpins, crony capitalists, slum lords, corrupt politicians, entitled rich men – get the punishment they deserve.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More