Monday, June 28, 2004

Bollywood Critics

What I had wanted to capture in this Blog was the joy and wonder I experienced as I watched and learned about Indian films.

I do not hold Western films as the gold standard of filmmaking, so I get irritated when comparisons are made between "American" films and Indian films.

I also wonder at some of those who criticize Indian films, especially SRK's films.

When I was young, I used to avoid criticizing others, I thought there was a better way, but in my late 30s and 40s, I felt I was living in a sea of critical people, so I felt I had to be critical in order to survive. That's not how I want to live. SRK inspired me to avoid criticizing others, so I will try not to be critical.

A common criticism of SRK is that he has a limited range of emotional expressions. SRK admits this himself. SRK says he is an entertainer. While I can see what the critics say, I can also see how he tries to give each character their own personality. What more can you ask? No person is the same as another, no actor is the same as another. What comes across in SRK's movies is his energy and his joy of life. You feel you are seeing the real person.

One of the reasons I enjoy Indian films is that they are different from American films. I especially love the song and dance routines. For example, I love the songs, dances, and music from "Main Hoon Na." Farah Khan's choreography is pure joy. I love the ending especially; I am usually jumping right along with them.

While I am definitely a SRK fan, SRK's movies introduced me to many other fine actors and actresses and one in particular, Anil Kapoor is drop dead gorgeous. I am now collecting his movies. So, when people want to compare actors, I realize I like them for their differences. Take dancing for example, I would characterize SRK's dancing as athletic, Anil's as classical, and Hrithik's as balletic, but I love all the dancing in the Indian movies.

Also, the more I watch, I pick up on underlying jokes. I'd be hard pressed to pick a moment to illustrate, but one comes to mind. In "Calcutta Mail," when Rani's character, Bulbul, convinces Anil's character, Avinash, to go with her to a bridge to meet a fictitious lover, they travel by bus and during the ride Bulbul dreams of love with Avinash but another woman walks off the bus with him in the start of the song and dance routine. I think the woman is Anil's real wife. If you watch enough movies you can see little bits from other movies, or little jokes.

Many western movies offered lately have been about violence, sex, or silly, raunchy humor. While often the movie's dialogue is crisp and literate, it does not sound like everyday language. While the cinematography may be good, often I can't relate to the story because the characters are so young, or rich, or violent.

In Indian movies, while I am at a disadvantage since I only have the captions to go by for the dialogue, the body language is universal. The stories are multi-layered with many subplots, which I find interesting. Indian movies usually feature a wide variety of ages and lifestyles; I can always find someone to relate to. Plus, the women look real, not the skinny, perennial 20-somethings in Western films.

I don't go to many western movies. When I went with a friend to see "Monsters Ball," after 15 minutes, I went and sat in the lobby, I couldn't take the mindless violence. But, when "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" came out, I saw it four times. It was hopeful. t was fun. It was joyful. It was also an independent film.

That is not to say that Indian movies don't have violence, in fact, violence figures in most of the films I have seen so far. For example, in Karan Arjun, the bad guys were so bad I couldn't sit still, I could hardly bear it. But, I stuck it out because I felt that the purpose of the violence in these characters was meant to illustrate that they were really cruel people, without a doubt. Plus, at the end, I practically shot Amrish Puri's character myself, that's how evil his character was.

But, what Indian films say with this violence is that the Indian populace lives daily with acts of violence and corruption, which I find sad. It seems that the whole world is descending into violence and corruption including the US.

Whereas in western films, I get the sense that the violence is shown to titillate the audience, to inspire a kind of pleasure in the violence. This is not unheard of and people can be desensitized to violence.

If we stay with the SRK theme, his movie, "Baazigar" had a very bloody climax. I marvel at how the heroes are portrayed in Indian films, the heroes seem to be able to take blow after blow, bullets, knife thrusts, and much body throwing. I have gotten used to these scenes because I keep in mind it is staged and I still don't feel the violence is there for pure entertainment; it seems a measure of the hero's resolve and endurance.

Until recently, you could expect certain standards in Indian films. For one, there were no explicit sex scenes. Female stars did not kiss or disrobe.

After watching over thirty films with themes about orphans and illegitimate births, corruption, love triangles, revenge, feuding families and power struggles, separated lovers, political intrigue and unrest, faith, lost love, and criminals, plus some of India’s classic films such as Mother India, Barsaat, Bobby, Laagan, Monsoon Wedding, and the 1955 Devdas, I follow the careers of Anil Kapoor, Aamir Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Jackie Shroff, Juhi Chawla, Rani Mukherji, Chandrachur Singh, Salman Khan, Kajol, Manisha Koirala, Johnny Lever, Sunjay Dutt, Ajay Devgan, Madhuri Dixit, Dilip Kamar, Rishi Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Karisma Kapoor, Kareen Kapoor, Mr. B., and others, plus directors, producers, choreographers, lyric and music writers, playback singers, and the business of filmmaking.

What I like about many Indian films is that they are created for the whole family and going to the movies for Indians is a family event.

Music is a big part of Indian films. Many of SRK's films have been popular partially for the music, such as Kuch Kuch Hota Ha. Indian stars lipsing playback singer's recorded lyrics.

One of the interesting aspects of many of the song and dance routines in Indian movies is that they revolve around a man and woman falling love. The dance is meant to represent the stages of love. Most of the dances are fantasies in the minds of the man and woman. I like a balance. While I like realism, I don't need every aspect of the sex act portrayed, it is much more enjoyable to let the viewer's imaginaton make up their own version of the story.

I found an excellent comeback for Bollywood critics at titled “World Cinema" and Bollywood by Priya Lal. She said what I have wanted to say but she said it much better.

I know that SRK has responded in interviews to the question of why he has not done a Hollywood picture. Hollywood hasn't asked him and he will not go begging. He should be proud of his career. Hollywood is not led by the brightest minds. It's their loss. What Bollywood filmmakers should remember is that they reach a much larger audience than Hollywood. There are a billion Indians compared to about 200 million Americans (which includes immigrants). So, India should not bow to Hollywood for anything.

As for the notion that Bollywood copies Hollywood. Hollywood copies everybody. For example, “West Side Story” was based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet." There is little that is original in the world of storytelling. Every generation builds upon the stories of past generations. It is hoped that the best ideas will be carried forward. Bollywood has a tradition of fine filmmaking.

Another thing, Indian movies should be Indian. While modernization is inevitable, that should not translate to a capitulation to Western methods of filmmaking or the expression of Western culture.

It would be tragic if Indian films lost their cultural identity.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Any topic can lead to universals

It's not hard to see a leap in subject matter when you go from Indian films to the Iraq war because India's history is littered with conflict between Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups.

I wanted to keep this Blog in the realm of personal perspectives, yet also factual and balanced but it's hard because I have strong feelings about war. The real reasons for this war are lost in a fog of propaganda from all sides. Every day innocent people are dying.

The United States had no business attacking Iraq.

I had hoped as a people we had grown beyond using violence as a means to get what we wanted.

When I watch Indian films, the recent (1948) Indian war of independence from Britain is reflected in the subtext or is even the topic of many films.

For the U.S. we seem to forget that when we came here as colonists we were welcomed by the native population. What did they get in return? We took their land; we killed them or transported them to uninhabitable lands. We took away their language and their culture. It seems that every country has a history of genocide of a targeted population; even India has a poor history with many native tribes.

But this behavior wasn't new, Europe had been exterminating or relocating various ethnic or religious groups for centuries. What the Germans did to Gypsies, the "imperfect", and the Jewish population was not new.

While I respect Muslims for wanting to keep their culture from being westernized, I deplore the violent means by which they attempt to achieve it. Yet, from their perspective, they are defending themselves from violence. Just as the Irish have tried to expel the British, the Palestinians-- the Israelis.

Even in recent US history, "American" militiaman, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a government building, killing hundreds as an act of revolution against the U.S. government. Why didn't the government gather up all the young white Caucasian males as terrorists?

I seek a logical application of justice but often it is just an illusion.

I get the impression that if males were left to their own devices we would all live in fear of violent gangs who thrive on disruption of civil life. You see it in Russia, South America, Central America, Mexico. We saw it in Bosnia and Slovenia, and even in the United States. We are becoming a world of thugs rather than a world of statesmen and stateswomen.

Will the next generation be able to bring us out of the "Dark Ages?"