Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Audiences, film publics, and ticket-buyers

Who decides the audience for a film? The director, producer, scriptwriter, or the cast? They all have a vested interest in the success of the film but who decides the audience the film speaks to?

Will it be a love story for the young, for the old? Will it be a comedy, slapstick or subtle? A mystery or misunderstanding to be solved? Will it be historical or fantasy?

The reason for my questions is another attempt to address Bollywood film critics and western movie makers.

In western films, usually it is a single homogeneous audience that is targeted like young males, or lovers and couples, or children. Only a few films are considered family-movies where both adults and children alike can enjoy a movie together. Not so, with many Bollywood films. Often a Bollywood film will have two or three stories running simultaneously and often the various stories feature children, youth, and adults, so that the film appeals to old and young, and male and female.

My reason for pointing this out is that I find few western films that consider audiences other than young males. Yet, Bollywood critics seek to homogenize their films into a concentrated form that also will appeal to primarily young males. How can Bollywood critics complain about low ticket sales if they don't make movies for a variety of audiences?

Who buys film tickets? I have no demographic information at the moment, but if Shah Rukh Khan is considered one of the most highly appreciated stars in Bollywood, it is because many of his admirers are women. They are buying a lot of film tickets.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Comments on Subhash K. Jhan's "No Holds Barred - Back Biting in Bollywood" Glamsham.com 2 2005

Jhan's opening line, "You can't bitch a classic out," hit the right note in regards to Bollywood critics reactions to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Black."

Here in the USA, I caught "Black" at a local theater soon after it was released and then followed the movie reviews. I was surprised by the diverse reactions.

At first, many critics classified the movie as beautiful but too "sophisticated" for a general audience. In my own review, I had noted that while "Black" is a beautifully-crafted film because it lacked the usual Bollywood film elements such as multi-subthemes with the substantial presence of secondary characters, the mix of humor and drama, and the song-and-dance routines it would find a limited audience. But, I also noted that Bollywood is big enough for many top films. They don't have to be the same. Without fresh views, new techniques and new actri Bollywood's future growth could be impacted negatively.

Then, reviews quickly began to focus on poor economc returns at the box-office using this criteria to label the film a failure. Next, came Bhansali's supporters and detractors and what I noted about the detractors was many had a vested interest in the failure of the film. They wanted to promote their film or their favorite director in an attempt to capture some of the media attention "BLACK" was getting.

I am limited in my experience with Bollywood films. I began watching Bollywood films in 2002 focusing mainly on SRK and Anil Kapoor films. While I have attempted to review some classics like "Mother India," I have a ways to go before I can compare current films with the long history of Bollywood filmmaking. But, I can recognize that Mr. Bhansali has created a unique movie.

I have seen comments that Bollywood is not producing as many films as in the past. I have read that year to year Bollywood film revenues have flutuated sometimes to a point of concern for the future of Bollywood filmmaking.

I see that Ash Rai and SRK continue to gather International attention in various magazines like Time and National Geographic and that each is involved in entertainment vehicles that have the potential to reach global audiences.

At the same time, I see new talent like Farah Khan (director -- Main Hoon Na) creating new and vital film projects.

Bollywood has many great opportunities in its future and one is that it can be a film industry that makes a variety of diverse and well-crafted projects that appeal to various audiences.

So, I say to those who find fault with Mr. Bhansali's "Black" because it is not-indian enough, or it is not "realistic", or for whatever reason, remember there's always room for other views and talents.

Maybe Bollywood could expand it's definitions of its film genres rather than always saying a film is a drama, a comedy, a thriller, horror, suspense. Why not, say something like -- for Black -- non-musical drama, for Veer-Zaara -- a poignant love story with musical background, what I am trying to say is create new categories to create new loyal audiences who may want to see an action film with blood and gore -- or a love story with upbeat songs-and-dances-- for example.

You can make the argument that many Bollywood films are remakes of other films but that is not true. For example, SRK's "Josh" is said to be a remake of "West Side Story,"which was considered a remake of "Romeo and Juliet." While there are some similar elements, the story also has overriding sub-themes that West-Side Story did not have. Chandrachur Singh's character was not part of a gang, he was educated as a chef, and tried to run his own sweet shop. You don't find this sub-theme as well-developed in West Side Story. There may be illusions to Tony's future career in WSS but it is not played out. Also, it is Max who "kills" the brother of Chandrachur Singh's character not Chandrah Singh's character who kills and Max's trial becomes a mystery to solve.

It has been said there are no new stories to tell but when Bollywood makes a movie you may find similiaries to other stories but that is because these stories are universal and can be found in almost any culture's stories. I often think it is a kind of jealousy that leads people to accuse others of copying a story. I feel that Bollywood is struggling to establish standards of quality for its stories in order to elevate them to "classic" status.

One film, Virasat, is a classic to my mind. It captures the eternal struggle between parent and child, between one loyalty and another and the cost of making a choice. Another movie comes to mind as a classic, Dil Se, a story of a nation torn apart by civil war, strife, and corruption played out by two people affected quite differently by their country's history.

Mr. Bhansali's critics need to gain control of their feelings and take that energy and keep Bollywood film industry healthy by making a diverse selection of films.

Western films have become anemic because there is so little diversity. In the USA, film devotees crave fresh input from directors, scriptwriters, and actors but because the film industry has a stranglehold on the production and dissemination of films there is a dearth of good films.

India's willingness to tackle topics of social importance is also an important factor in its films. Addressing the emigration of so many Indians to other countries, social ills like poverty, spousal abuse, orphans, ignorance and corrruption represent bravery to me. Western movies haven't offerred these themes in most of its movies.At times they offer pure patriotic propaganda which is not the same. India's films can be said to push patriotism, too, but it is often laced with realistic representations of their own failings.

One classic in Western films, "Casablanca," is about refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the occupation of France. Movies with social and poltiical themes can succeed but Western filmmakers don't want to reach an intelligent audience--they offer only thrills, action, blood-gore, horror, and sex. There are exceptions but these movies like "Frequency" don't make the academy awards.

Movie goers are looking for alternatives to Western movies because of it's lack of diversity. Many look to the Sundance Festival of independent filmmaking for movies of quality.

Western movies only target the 20-something audience particularly males. If Bollywood is successful, ask yourself why. Is it because half or even more of its audience are women? Does Bollywood want to make only movies that are "realistic" like blood and glore, horror, and sex films to please the male component of its audience and ignore half of its audience.

I will tell you that Bollywood makes movies that provide both audiences with a slice of what they seek -- love story, comedy, drama, and action (blood and gore). I think SRK's movies: Bazzaigar and Karen Arjun are two examples. Both have several bloody fight scenes, both have mysteries to solve, both have love stories, whereas Bazzaigar has some comedic moments, I don't recall many in Karan Arjun. But the point is that a mixed audience could view these movies with enjoyment.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Black is Blue, Brown, and Light


Producer: Applause Entertainment
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Rani Mukherje

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali offers this film as a tribute to Helen Keller. It is a remake of the Helen Keller story.

I am a filmgoer not a critic. So, I don't always use the proper terms for the technical aspects of filmmaking when I describe how I experience a film.

Sometimes I think film critics forget not all filmgoers are as aware of all the technical aspects of filmmaking as critics. Like a wine connoisseur who has more taste buds than the average person and can taste subtleties missed by others, a film critic focuses on details in the structure, characterizations, plot, dialogue, camera work, direction, musical score, lyrics, choreography, and more to a finer degree than an average filmgoer.

As a filmgoer, I am more forgiving of a plot that may take a bit of imagination to piece together as a whole, or characterizations that may be bolstered by affection for the actri, or dialogue that may be mentally revised to suit the scene.

If you are familiar with the Helen Keller story, the director sticks close to the story including the famous dining room scene and water scene. Because in this story, Michelle, the blind and deaf girl, has a male teacher, the director, while staying with the original story, must take a slightly different slant when he tells how Michelle and her teacher grew over the years to reflect the successes and missed opportunities that Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, experienced.

The cinematography in "Black" is a large part of the film. Most scenes are beautifully cast in a variety of shades of blue and brown with light streaming in or illuminating parts of the scenes. The use of color and light recalled the film "Barsaat" by Raj Kapoor with his dramatic use of black and white shading.

Rani Mukherje has become a surprisingly good actress. I first saw her in "Hey Ram" and her character, while played well, did not stand out. Then she seemed to burst on the scene as a screen model, glamorous and pretty. Now, she is everywhere. I saw a bit of her talent range in "Calcutta Mail." She is expressive, funny, and a good dancer. She is a quick study and improvises on the spot. Playing Michelle in "Black" appeared to be a challenging role for Rani. Rani does not have a stoic face, so she seemed quite expressive at times when I expected a more solemn countenance. But, Rani developed her own style to express the hesitating walk and perplexed expression of a blind and deaf person.

The young girl, Ayesha Kapoor, who played Michelle as a child, did an excellent job. She is a natural actress. She seemed to flow in the role and move through the scenes flawlessly. How did a young child learn to mimic the face of a blind person? She is most convincing.

I had only seen Amitabh Bachchan in recent films like Mohabbatein, KKKG, Veer-Zaara, and Baghban. I had no way to judge his performance in “Black” against his earlier work. But, his energetic and sympathic portrayal of Michelle's teacher, Mr. Sahai, took my breath away as he took on the challenge of teaching Michelle and devoted his life to her intellectual growth.

One thing I like about Bollywood films is they are not afraid to illustrate the varied history of India, openly or subtly, in their stories. In this story, Michelle comes from an Anglo-Indian family. With no reference to the past, you instinctively know that the alliance stemmed from the history of British colonization.

At times, I found the opulence of the settings oppressive. What is the purpose of opulence if not to impress?

I missed several aspects in this film that I find in many Bollywood films. There were no song and dance routines. There were no substantial secondary characters or multiple themes. In my mind, these missing aspects limit “Black” to a highly-perceptive adult audience. Also, except for a western-style wedding, there were no rituals in any scenes. I had become used to seeing various temple and worship rituals in Bollywood films, so their absence was noticeable.

But, in a healthy film industry like Bollywood, it is nice to be able to view the vision of different directors, and the talent of many fine actri and filmmakers. Bollywood films don't have to all be the same. “Black” is a stunningly visual film, and a finely crafted and portrayed story.

One memorable line came when the college trustee says to Michelle's teacher, "Science does not believe in miracles."

My only objection was -- when are movie theaters going to change their menus? Popcorn, candy, soda, and nachos and cheese are fattening and poor nutritional food choices. I suggest that movie theaters reexamine their snack selections. Movie theaters are behind the times. Restaurants and fast-food venues have revised their menus to include vegetarian choices, fruit and fruit juices, vegetable snacks, decaffeinated beverages, and more. Why not movie theaters?

p.s. if you are paying attention to this blog, you may note that this is my first review of a non-SRK film.