Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is Beyond Bollywood?

The Glasgow Film Festival, which runs through the end of February, is showcasing some films from India under the title Beyond Bollywood.

The explanation of the selections goes like this:

India is experiencing an amazing blossoming of independent filmmaking. Beyond all the celebrated traditions of Bollywood, there is a whole generation determined to reflect all the different aspects of Indian life in their stories and films.

I don’t mean to pick on the Glasgow Film Festival specifically - I lived in Glasgow and have fond memories of it - and I don’t want to discourage people from attending the films (which are perfectly good films) but I do want to take issue with the casual way the term “Bollywood” is thrown around by the Western cultural establishment and the GFF happened to provide the perfect opportunity.

Let’s look at what is actually being said here. These films have been purposely selected to represent something that is not “Bollywood.” Why? Because according to the GFF, ‘celebrated’ as Bollywood might be, it’s not ‘independent’ nor does it ‘reflect all the different aspects of Indian life.’ And, sure, no one cinema can reflect all the different aspects of life. But what are these ‘independent’ and 'different' aspects of Indian life that the GFF wants to show?

* A handful of middle class films in Hindi either starring Bollywood stars, produced by the Bollywood industry, or funded by Hollywood:
Little Zizou, Udaan, Road, Movie

* Two films set in the entertainment industry itself:
Harishchandrachi Factory (Marathi) and Autograph (Bengali)

* Some older parallel cinema films:
Khandar (Hindi, 1984), A River Called Titash (Bengali, 1973)

* And a British documentary (
Pink Saris)

So, exactly what part of the young generation rising up and making films outside of Bollywood does this represent? (And I’m sure Shabana and Naseer would be so thrilled that their 1984 film is now part of a new generation rising up and making independent cinema.)

I don't want to get too deep into how Bollywood films are financed but the idea of the "independent" film doesn't really mean anything in Mumbai, where so many films are independently financed. Mainstream, big budget films can be independently financed. The biggest hit of 2010 (Dabangg, funded by producer Arbaaz Khan) was an "independent" film, if you want to look at it like that. I suspect, however, that in this instance "independent" is shorthand for "non-mainstream."

I’m not saying the GFF can’t screen whatever Indian (and British) films it wants to but they need to be careful with their rhetoric. Bollywood is a huge film industry and while the films usually include singing and dancing, that doesn’t mean that they are not supposed to be taken seriously or are somehow representing some outside view forced upon Indian audiences. Does the fact that mass Indian audiences go to Bollywood films somehow invalidate them for a Western audience? Make them inauthentic? Aren't they MORE authentic because so many people like them? Isn't something like the big Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots (a film I disliked, by the way, so I'm not playing favorites) reflecting Indian life more than a British documentary like Pink Saris?

A more accurate name for this GFF collection would be something like “A Collection of Mostly Hindi Language Semi-Mainstream Films with No Songs.” And there is nothing wrong with that - really - that’s just how the art house community likes its world cinema but I think its disingenuous to position these films in opposition to Bollywood. Udaan (another film I really disliked, so I’m really not just playing favorites) was partially funded by Bollywood heavyweight Ronnie Screwvala and has been much lauded by all the Bollywood awards shows. Is it really “beyond” or does it just not fit the stereotyped idea of what the GFF thinks a Bollywood film is?

Now, if I was curating something for a film festival and I wanted to showcase some Indian cinema with the idea that it would smash Bollywood stereotypes, I would call it
“Hidden in Plain Sight: Reasons to Visit Your Local South Asian Cinema (Even if You Are Not South Asian)” and it would look something like this:

* Some recent and completely fun films that were popular in India like
Munnabhai MBBS and the new Hera Pheri

* Some recent smart multiplex films like
Rocket Singh and 99

* Some more niche South Indian films like
Pithamagan (Tamil) and Manasaare (Kannada)

* Some recent South Indian films that were popular like
Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana

People in the West are curious about Indian film - especially Bollywood. And I think there is an appetite for mainstream Indian cinema in places where it traditionally hasn't gone. While Bollywood is busy removing songs from films like Kites and My Name Is Khan, I've had American world cinema viewers comment to me after seeing the films that they were disappointed that there were no songs and dances in them!

In short, I guess I just don't understand the need to make a fuss over "Beyond" Bollywood, when Western audiences have never had their stereotyped visions of Bollywood challenged and don't know enough about Bollywood or Indian cinema in general to move beyond it.

(I have to add that when I was talking to a friend about this - her first comment on hearing Beyond Bollywood was, “Oh, like South Indian films?” I love my friend.)


invisibelle said...

I'm sure this is partially because I'm ridiculously pedantic by nature, but I couldn't agree more about the term Bollywood being thrown around too liberally.

Last week I chided one of the BoingBoing writers for headlining a recent post something like "Bollywood meets Acid House" because the music was actually ragas and (even though, don't get me wrong! I love Bollywood and Rahman is my favorite musician in the entire world) I think it's a little denigrating to call classical music "Bollywood."

Danny Bowes said...

Your friend beat me to it, the first wiseass remark that popped into my head was "Beyond Bollywood? You mean Endhiran?"

batulm said...

Well said, Filmi Girl. There is a whole study to be done on what really constitutes independent films in India. The so-called 'Beyond Bollywood' films also have a formula of their own, sadly. And what's wrong with Bollywood anyway. I agree with you, why is our industry trying anyway to cater to an imaginary Western audience, instead of doing what they do, better.

maxqnz said...

OK, so here's another view

(1)"Beyond Bollywood" does not in any way suggest to me the idea of being "in opposition to Bollywood" as you phrased it.

(2) It has to be pithy, as a headline, and alliteration works as mnemonic and an attention-catcher.

(3) The purpose of the festival (a diluted version of which is coming to NZ, but not within 400 kms of me, sadly) is to showcase films that do not match PRE-EXISTING stereotypes of "Bollywood". It is to take the audeince "beyond" what they already think Bollywood is. It is precisely BECAUSE they've "never had their stereotyped visons of Bollywood challenged" that the phrase is so apt. The fact that some of the films are not far out of mainstream reflects how narrow the definition of Bollywood is in the minds od the festival's target audience. There's nothing wrong in wording things to appela to your audience, especially if it does show them that Indian cinema is much more than they had thought.

(4) At least 4 of the films you mention would definitely NOT be considered Bollywood by virtue of not being Hindi, or even Indian-origin.

In short, having read the promotional material for the festival's Australasian leg, I see no evidence of the condescension you seem to detect, just a genuine desire to take Western audiences "beyond" what their perception of 'Bollywood is.

Filmi Girl said...

@maxqnz I totally understand where you're coming from but I still think they could have put all the same points across better without using the word "Bollywood."

Why not "Visions of India" or something and then emphasize the long history of parallel cinema? That seems more apt, especially considering the Naseer-Shabana film being screened.

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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