Saturday, November 28, 2009

Response to a Newsweek Article

Once again, I find myself stepping up to defend Bollywood from the stereotypes thrown around by the Western media.

This time, the culprit is Newsweek magazine with this article called "Bollywood Gets Real" by Jason Overdorf.

The crux of his argument is that Bollywood is ditching the candy-floss mass entertainers for grittier fare and he uses the success of Kaminey and Dev.D to back up his argument. The article is illustrated with a picture of the (white) Kalki Koechlin dolled up as the prostitute Chandra in Dev.D.

First of all, let me list out the highest grossing Bollywood films of 2009 so far and their genres for you, just to give a sense of perspective.

1. Love Aaj Kal - modern romance
2. Wanted - Southie masala remake
3. Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani - straight up Bollywood romance
4. New York - middlebrow thriller
5. Kambakkht Ishq - raunchy masala comedy
6. All the Best - clean masala comedy
7. Blue - action


Not too much indie here.

I'll go through the article but before I do, my interpretation of the Newsweek piece is that Mr. Overdorf feels like finally Bollywood is putting out movies that he understands. And then Mr. Overdorf confuses "accessible to Western audiences" with "good."

Here is Mr. Overdorf on Kaminey:

But for aficionados of the Hindi-language genre, Kaminey is a revolutionary manifesto. It takes classic Bollywood tropes—estranged brothers, a case of mistaken identity, high drama approaching slapstick comedy—and presents them with Hollywood-style realism instead of Bollywood's wink-nudge mix of melodrama and posturing. At the same time, Bhardwaj makes clear that he sees Kaminey as a counterpoint to the terrible films Bollywood has churned out over the past two decades.

And it's clear that he is referring to "aficionados" who have never seen, for example, the excellent Parinda - which did much of the same thing... back in 1989. Or even Johnny Gaddar in 2007.

So, I'm just going to assume that by "aficionado" he means "watched some Benny Lava videos and youtube."

And I would like to know how many of these so-called "terrible" films Mr. Overdorf has actually seen. What are the cultural politics at play when an American writer can dismiss two decades of Bollywood cinema as "terrible" without presenting his credentials to make that call? Has Mr. Overdorf suffered through Hum Aapke Hain... Kaun! I doubt it. What about Aishwarya Rai's remake of Umrao Jaan? Probably not.

Then again, I doubt Mr. Overdorf has seen the good films - Rangeela, which also plays with the conventions of Bollywood narrative, or even something like Main Hoon Na.

And does the industry that churned out not one but TWO Transformers movies plus a movie based on the comic strip "Garfield" really have all that much clout in calling every single Bollywood film from the last twenty years "terrible"?

For years, as competition from satellite television and Hollywood has hardened audiences to the old formulas, Bollywood producers and directors have been striving to create a new idiom that retains the charm of the genre's classics but is fresh enough to pack theaters. With a few exceptions, they've failed.

Okay, no.

And what data is he even using to justify this statement. So, every film from the last twenty years has flopped? I'm assuming Mr. Overdorf didn't attend any of the packed screenings of Om Shanti Om at his local Indian movie theatre. And talking about revitalizing old formulas, what do you call the Saif Ali Khan genre? Hum Tum, Love Aaj Kal, etc. etc. have basically changed how romantic comedy is done. There could have been no Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (#3 this year) without Hum Tum.

But now a new crop of young directors, led by Bhardwaj, is reinventing the Bollywood film. Their movies still have songs, but the characters no longer lip-sync, and the dance sequences have a natural, unchoreographed feel. They've scrapped the cheesy multicolored costumes and are more likely to set their films on gritty streets than in glamorous mansions.

Right. I don't even know where to start with this. First of all, there have ALWAYS been movies like this in Bollywood. This isn't some new trend. Kora Kagaz didn't just miraculously time travel back to the 1970s after some Hollywood-inspired savior created it this year.

With the exception of New York, which is a unusual film, the rest of the top films of 2009 feature lip synced songs, garish costumes, and plenty of rich people who live in mansions. And, you know what, people still liked them. While not every film on there is my cup of tea - *cough* Blue - I laughed my head off at Kambakkht Ishq, which utilized tons of things on Mr. Overdorf's "no-no" list and I wasn't the only one.

It's like Mr. Overdorf can't understand that people LIKE lip-synced songs, garish costumes, and elaborate mansions. Who cares if it's "realistic" or not?

The new wave of competent, realistic, story-driven films is already beginning to overshadow the big-budget projects at the box office. This year both Anurag Kashyap's Dev.D and Kaminey outperformed Chandni Chowk to China. In 2008, little, innovative flicks like the terror-plot drama A Wednesday and Rock On!, the story of a Mumbai rock band reuniting for one last gig, earned better returns than more conventional Bollywood fare like the superhero action flick Drona.

Okay, here he is playing with the facts. Both Chandni Chowk to China AND Drona were sold as Hollywood-like. I remember this distinctly. You can't now go and call them conventional, because they weren't. Wanted is a conventional masala film - Drona was not. Drona was hyped as being just like a Hollywood film - check out this promo piece for an example - NOT as a conventional film. And CC2C was said to "bridge the gap" between Holly and Bollywood. Again, NOT conventional. In fact, one of the many complaints against CC2C was that the songs were shortened. SHORTENED.

Everyone is trying to lay claim to the new Bollywood, whether through feebly acted, poorly written films like A. R. Murugadoss's Ghajini or savvy hits like Kaminey. But the challenges remain great. "The headwind we got on Kaminey was incredible," says Screwvala. "It took everything we had to keep it going and market it and get it out there." It's the kind of triumphant ending that makes you want to break into song.


DON'T MESS WITH GHAJINI!!!! Somebody is just looking for a smackdown - Ghajini, the BIGGEST GROSSING BOLLYWOOD FILM of ALL TIME is not good enough for Mr. Overdorf. No. Possibly because it features lip-sync songs.

So, in Mr. Overdorf's world - Ghajini, the biggest grossing Bollywood film of all time, is a joke. And Kaminey, which did very well with the critics and but wasn't really embraced by the Indian public, is the new face of Bollywood.

This just speaks to the disdain that Western cultural critics, like Mr. Overdorf, have towards things that are popular in other countries. Just because Mr. Overdorf doesn't understand the appeal of lip-synced songs and melodramatic acting, they must be worthless. Because Chandni Chowk to China and Drona flopped, they must be "conventional" films.

Mr. Overdorf, I would like to see the research you did for this piece but it looks to me like you didn't do any at all.


bollywooddeewana said...

Great Post this is a classic case of Ethnocentricism, i agree with you 100% but i also feel Mr Overdorf might be echoing some of the things i hear some Indians say about bollywood being too formulaic or getting a bit boring now, as well as constant comparisons to hollywood which i believe should never be done. Hindi cinema should never be compared to Hollywood,they have their own different styles.

And i'll repeat this quote i found over at Doc Bollywood

"Bollywood is like the magic eye puzzle either you just get it or you don't"

Clearly Mr Overdorf clearly doesn't get it, so he should Shut UP and Bounce off

Another thing i would like bollywood to do is please stop copying or remaking hollywood movies like Step Mom, i'm sure there are lots of talented script writers in India please lets use their story or even watch the news to get inspiration for movies

Filmi Girl said...

Agreed on all points.

It's so frustrating to hear this "almost on par with Hollywood" nonsense because Bollywood really is a different type of filmmaking. It's not better or worse - just different.

When you try to compare apples and oranges like this - especially using the shoddy fact changing that Jason Overdorf uses - you just end up looking like a fool.

I'm just waiting for the day somebody contacts me about this so I can give all sorts of angry quotes...

*crosses fingers*

TadyLovesDaniel said...

YES!!! I completely agree with you, who does this fool aka Mr. Overdorf, think he is... Aarg!! I just know what to say...u've pretty much summed up everything that's wrong with his article...his obvious lack of hindi cinema knowledge is just so obvious, Just because he finally 'gets' hindi films like Kaminey and Dev. D, it does not give him the right to make ridiculous claims like Karan Johar as "the poster boy of everything wrong with Bollywood." He is my very reason for loving Hindi Cinema, In my opinion he is one of the best director/producer in the industry. Thank you FilmiGirl for setting this guy straight, i'm curious to know if you left him a message on his page. If not I would reaaly recommend u send him this post, this should set him straight.

Damilola Adejonwo said...

I so agree! I love masala films so much more and it is rude to say that Bollywood should have more dark films. To be honest, many dark films dont do so well. Dev D wasn't a big success like a masala movie, Wanted. Kaminey (nice movie) wasn't as a big success as Love Aaj Kal. Bollywood is fine as it is and if they dont like it, they cant do nothing. Most masses love to connect with commercial films much more and they need to be given the genres they like. Bollywood can do dark films, but masala films is what should be done more.

veracious said...

First off, I'm all for presenting Western audiences to the so forgotten, so under-represented variety of Bollywood; from Kaminey to Wanted, from fluff to rough, from fantastic to the realistic. In fact I've been thinking about recommending Kaminey to some NIFs who I think might like that sort of fare but not the masala films of BW or the romantic films etc. So in that respect, I like this article.

However I agree with you completely that these sorts of generalizations are unbelievably stupid. The discovery that there's variety in Hindi cinema is hardly surprising to most people who know a thing or two about it. To say there's a more fractured audience, people who'd rather watch Welcome to Sajjanpur or Rang De Basanti over Namastey London or Fanaa, that's fair enough. But to say, this is the future, this is what's most popular, and yes, again mixing "good cinema" with "Hollywoodian cinema" and Western appeal is a classic, silly mistake to make.

It sounds a lot like saying "finally those silly Indian movies are becoming as good as our cinema is!" which just makes me want to go, "FU, journalist!" and go to his house and beat him with my copy of Shree 420.

Filmi Girl said...

@TadyLovesDaniel I haven't but maybe I will - he's just too wrong!

@Damilola I totally agree - there is room for both dark films that appeal to a small amount of people and popular masala films. :)

@Veracious Yeah - on the one hand, if he had a written an article about Bollywood films aren't always what you expect - using "Kaminey" and "Dev.D" as examples, then I would have been thrilled but that stupid smug tone insinuating that all Bollywood movies are stupid and worthless really pisses me off.

And why did he feel the need to include CC2C and Drona in there, since clearly he hadn't seen enough Bollywood to know that neither of them are typical Bollywood films....?

I will join you outside his house with my copy of Sholay... :)

Bruce Sterling said...

Yeah, you tell 'em, Filmi.

aham said...

woah, filmi girl on fire and how. 2 things, one me being an Indian and a fan of bollywood(Indian cinema in general) couldnt have written such a befitting rebuke on a ridiculous article written by a clueless american(i guess he is). and 2nd, yes you are right, without the masala and melodrama Bollywood be like any other film industry, what makes us unique is masala(filmwise or otherwise,ironically thats why the Europeans came to India in the first place, for our spices :P), so if you rob bollywood of the song/dance routine and all the masala elements, we wouldnt have any non-indian fans like urself, who loved Bollywod for what it is, whoever wrote that article will realise that someday(hopefully).

Filmi Girl said...

@Bruce Um... thanks? :D

@aham Hee! Yes, I get a little worked up about Bolly-hate sometimes. It just makes me mad that Western cultural critics don't understand that there is a big difference between "good" and "what I'm used to."

rossywar said...

I really hate it when I hear "we need to be more like Hollywood" - in what way? Hollywood already exists - those who want to watch Hollywood films have ample opportunities. The reason Hollywood films only take <10% of the market in India is because people don't want them. They want their own cinema!!

I love indie Indian movies as much as I love masala movies. I liked Om Shanti Om and Kaminey, Omkara and Hera Pheri!

Ness said...

*round of applause* AWESOME post.

I have tried to explain to my friends who love to dis Bollywood and mock my love for Hindi films that you can't compare Hollywood and Bollywood - they are completely seperate industries with audiences who want different things and have different priorities. The misconception that "all the films are the same" is so common among the people I know and it is so annoying! I WILL BE MAKING THEM READ THIS!

bollywoodfoodclub said...

Right on GURL! Tell that know nothing cultural pirate what's up! He indeed has missed the mark, and thus the fun of the industry in its entirety. His loss that he couldn't enjoy Kaminey AND Ghajini, accepting them for what they both are. I declare the Newsweek author a fraud, trying to make his point by slating the truth and revealing to anyone who enjoys the Indian Film Industry as a whole that he may not have the breadth of knowledge to make such arrogant allegations. Finally,perhaps he likes Kaminey so much because he is one himself. ;)

All the best!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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