Thursday, May 20, 2010

Filmi Girl's Guide for Lazy American Journalists: Kites

So, your boss has assigned you to watch this crazy new Indian movie called
Kites but you have no knowledge of Indian films outside of Slumdog Millionaire and that one Wes Anderson film set in India. What is a lazy journalist to do? The answer seems to be draw on stereotypes and preconceptions of Bollywood based on The Love Guru, Apu from The Simpsons, and Peter Seller's blackface routine in The Party. Sure, it's easy to do this but it also results in lazy and uniformed reviews that do neither the film nor yourselves any favors. I understand that you guys don't have time to do in-depth research before watching Kites - reading Dr. Rachel Dwyer, watching DDLJ - but if you can spare 5 minutes, allow me to give you the quick and dirty guide to Kites! It will make you seem smart and help you meet your word counts and deadlines.


Hrithik Roshan (Actor, playing J) - Hrithik is a well-respected four-time Filmfare Award winner (the Bollywood equivalent of the Oscars) known for his intense and dedicated performances. Much like George Clooney and Matt Damon, Hrithik is the kind of actor who is willing to disguise his matinee idol good looks for a role should it be required. He has played roles ranging from a mentally disabled man to the historic King Akbar and is not afraid to go fat or ugly or dark. Hrithik is also Bollywood's best dancer.

Barbara Mori (Actress, playing Linda) - Barbara was brought into
Kites because the producer wanted somebody who could play the role of the Mexican Linda 'naturally.' Usually bringing in a foreign actress is a sign of stunt-casting (like Denise Ridhardson in Kambakkht Ishq) because they are willing to show more skin than Bollywood actresses but having a foreign actress as the leading lady is very unusual in culturally insular India.

Rakesh Roshan (Producer) - As you can tell from the last names, Rakesh is Hrithik's father. He was a very successful actor in the 1970s and 1980s before embarking on a directing career. He has made some of the biggest blockbusters of the past 10 years, all of them starring his son Hrithik. Rakesh is very pragmatic in catering to what his audience's wants - like an Indian Steven Spielberg - and his films usually deliver what is called
paisa vasool (meaning your money's worth).

Anurag Basu (Director) - An outsider in Bollywood,
Kites is Anurag's first big budget film. He is known for his emotionally rich and somewhat gritty films like the award-winning Gangster: A Love Story, which featured his lucky charm Kangana Ranaut (who also makes an appearance in Kites). He thinks outside the box and is known for his modern take on traditional Bollywood storytelling techniques, like his use of unlipsynced songs.


Songs - The music and movie industries are very intertwined in India and every new film is also the equivalent of a new album release from a major label artist. Before you Hollywood types start mocking, bear in mind that a successful soundtrack can rescue the budget of a flop film. While there is a tradition of what is called an 'item number' (usually set in the film as a performance in a club or a dance contest and used to showcase a pretty dancer - Kylie did one of these for
Blue ), most songs are not superfllous to the narrative and have very specific functions. Bollywood films are not musicals the way we know them here, they are films that use songs as part of the narrative.

Romance - Unlike here in America where romance is something only gay guys do, men in Bollywood are encouraged to show their romantic sides. Romance is taken seriously as part of the wide palate of human emotion and is not considered emasculating. Indeed, actors are often praised for romance-heavy performances, unlike the here in America, where they are mocked for the same. Imagine if Leonardo Di Caprio had been nominated for an Oscar for
Titanic or Joseph Fiennes for Shakespeare in Love and you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about.

Masala - You may know the term from cooking.
Masala-style film making takes its name from the mixture of spices and a good narrative will try to balance the emotional tone so that each flavor of emotion is perfectly contrasted against the next. This means films are not usually bound by a single 'genre' like Hollywood does. Instead, a film aims to mix comedy, romance, action, family values, sex, and violence into one perfect package. Think of the genre-spanning Pineapple Express, which teetered on the border of masala as an example.

Un-Realism - This one is tricky for Americans to grasp but it is important to bear in mind that Bollywood does not trade in realism. Genre fans are likely to find the heightened reality of Bollywood easier to understand - but think of a Bollywood film like
True Blood or Harry Potter. While we know intellectually that magic and vampires aren't real, it is possible to suspend our disbelief to embrace cosmic coincidences, epic romance, and life-or-death good-or-evil situations. Just because you don't see vampires, doesn't mean that Bollywood is at all attempting to mimic real life. It's not - and Bollywood fans understand that.

Un-Irony - Bollywood does not do irony. Period. Pretend you are watching a Bette Davis movie from the 1930s.


The 130 minute runtime is a little on the short side for Bollywood but not unheard of. Except for director Ashutosh Gowarikar, who regularly turns in 4 hour monster epics, Bollywood films tend to run around 2 and a half hours or so.

Bollywood loves numerology and
Kites starts with a 'K' because 'K' is the Roshan's lucky letter.

There are two versions of
Kites that are going to be released - a Hindi version and an 'international' version remixed by Brett Ratner. Brett Ratner took the 'remixed' Jackie Chan movies imported to the US in the 1990s as his inspiration. (And on a personal note, when I mentioned the 'remix' version to a friend of mine, the disgust in his voice as he spoke about those Jackie Chan movies was both palpable and hilarious).


Bollywood bombshell Mallika Sherawat is starring in Jennifer Lynch's
Hissss, which is debuting at Cannes.

Another duel language film will be released this year - Mani Ratnam's
Raavan was shot in Tamil and Hindi and that team is also at Cannes.

Disney is trying their hand at a South Indian film.
Slumdog Millionaire is not a Bollywood film.

So, please - if you must be lazy, be lazy and correct instead of lazy and dismissive of something you don't understand.


Rum said...

Filmi Girl this is an excellent and should be given out as a pamphlet to all lazy ass journalists that have been slagging off Bollywood and Kites!

In your inimitable way, those crappy pompous journos have got served again Filmi Girl style!

pardesigirls said...

That was really helpful. I knew all of that, but it's an Idiot's Guide to Kites. I like it very much. Definitely passing it on!

The Slumdog thing gives me conniptions-- not so much the movie or even people thinking it's a Bollywood movie, but knowing what to say to them when you say something about Bollywood and they say, "So you must love Slumdog!"
On the one hand, the movie annoys me. On the other, SRK, may he live forever, introduced it at the Golden Globes. But SRK knows (and Anil Kapoor knows) he (or Amitabh) would never have anyone taken out and beaten up for being too good at his TV show, and an American audience doesn't know that...

I just try to appreciate that the person asking if I like Slumdog is somewhat paying attention to cinema related to Indian cinema, however ignorant and misinformed they may be about India. They've seen Anil Kapoor now! It's a jumping-off point, so instead of sarcasm, I try to start with a "Well, that's not really Bollywood, but Anil Kapoor does have a pretty great mustache, right?"

I know you were sarcastically addressing this post to pathetic journalists who really should know better, but it got me thinking. So, thanks for that!

Christine Menefee said...

Oh, well done Filmi Girl! Wah wah wah! Ditto to commenters. May you all live forever.

kats said...

Are we sure Bollywood doesn't do irony? There is a lot of stuff that strikes me as being somehow both ironic and not at all ironic at the same time, at least in old masala films, and those movies that pay tribute to old masala films (ie Bluffmaster, Main Hoon Na). Or maybe that's just my wonky interpretation.

Tady Rox! said...

Perfectly said!!!

Filmi Girl said...

@rum Hee!! I feel like I should do a series of these for every time Indian film cracks the Western consciousness... :D

@Pardesigirls The Slumdog thing gives me conniptions-- not so much the movie or even people thinking it's a Bollywood movie, but knowing what to say to them when you say something about Bollywood and they say, "So you must love Slumdog!"

Yeah, usually I just nod politely and say something along the lines of, "Yes, I saw that film - Anil Kapoor is one of my favorite actors." ;P Most people just don't know enough to distinguish between Indian art house, Bollywood, and what Slumdog is - a Western art house film set in India.

@Christine Thank you, kindly!

@Kats Well... I agree with you to an extent but Bollywood just doesn't do irony the way Western audiences expect it. To understand Bollywood irony, you have to understand Bollywood. Main Hoon Na played up the melodramatic conventions but also took them seriously, which is why it worked. Bluffmaster both spoofed the ultra-cool AND expected to be seen as ultra-cool (something I found completely off-putting, BTW).

Something like Johny Gaddar is closer to what an American audience would understand as ironic but there are very, very few films like that made.

This would be a good topic for a post, actually!

@Tady Thanks, chica!

honeycombveils said...

Beautifully written!

Your point about the romance aspect in BW is so spot on, the Hollywood machine doesn't allow it because it might interfere with the "tough image". When was the last time we saw Brad Pitt weep? One of my favorite things about the romantic male leads is that, in stark contrast to the Hollywood machismo image, they're not afraid to cry, and not just a tiny sparkle in the corner of the eye, I mean streaming tears and red eyes.. I love that so much!
I come from a very macho/tough culture where a man would rather be maimed than caught openly crying, so the Bollywood heroes were forever endeared to me in that aspect.

Anaamikaa said...

Please give this presumptous, racist MORON a piece of your mind? Please, please do!!

Christine Menefee said...

Anamika - I saw your comment and obliged with this comment:

I haven't seen either version of Kites yet so I can't comment on that, but I always enjoy reading well written criticism; howls of indignation from a fellow Bollywood fan led me to yours and while it's well enough written in its way, I can see where she's coming from in calling you racist.

The nerve your review is touching in some people (including me) is this: your blithly expressed presumption that there is just one standard of film criticism for all cultures, and yours is it.

I see that at least one reader has gone to the trouble of responding generously to your request for information about Bollywood but until you're willing to see outside your own cultural box (and why should you bother, really - this is the mind-limiting conundrum of all children of privilege) then you won't really learn anything.

Still, I can offer a couple more sources for you, hoping that your desire to expand your horizons is sincere.

FIrst, for a reviewer of Bollywood movies who understands both Indian and Western critical tropes, look up Anupama Chopra. She is widely published in major US as well as Indian media and has written some good books including at least one critical study for the British Film Institute. You'll understand her very well and though I haven't read her review of Kites yet, I suspect she pans it too, though probably in a way that shows a better understanding of what Bollywood films are about.

Second, check out some of the intelligent, highly literate bloggers who appreciate Bollywood and blog from that point of view -- and lookee here, this one has already anticipated critics such as you with a "Guide for Lazy American Journalists" centering on - guess what - Kites (the original version)! :

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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