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FEATURE ARTICLES

May 1, 2012

The Realism and Escapism of Bollywood

Bollywood-article-pic

Thrilling, mysterious, entertaining, annoying, bewildering and at times inexplicable, Bollywood is inconsistent as a curry in an Indian restaurant. Universally loved, but varied in taste and approach.

Indian filmmakers generally tend to follow a similar recipe- find a somewhat appealing script, novel, or play, localize the characters, add a dash of culture, infuse some emotions and the omnipresent love story, sauté it with an array of delectable and sumptuous actors, sprinkle humor for zest, and top of it off with copious amounts of music and dancing.

Still, there are plenty filmmakers who reject the prevailing norms, who boldly venture into new territory, and who without hesitation reintroduce the forgotten. From epics that have crossed the zenith of cinematic experience, to movies that want to make you pull out your own hair, or if the opportunity ever presents itself, the hair of the director, Bollywood really has it all.

For convenience sake, I generally classify Bollywood movies into two broad categories – the good and the rubbish. The good leaves you mesmerized, in awe and yearning for more, while the rubbish is, well, just plain rubbish.

I do have to admit I quite enjoy the music and dancing (secretly of course), the predictable scripts, the cheesy dialogues and the bad acting. And why not, after all Bollywood is an outlet to escape your own realities. The colors, music and dancing makes you take a step back from the cruel hardships of life, and, to forget for a few rare moments the obstacles you will face tomorrow. It allows you to live, albeit briefly, a life that is not yours, a life that you aspire for, a life where everything falls into place and a life where you can desire anything and can have it.

Not to diminish the significance of Bollywood, like any other cinema, it is a commentary of who we are, who we were and where we have come from. It represents the self-awareness of a nation and its people; it represents a desire to constantly improve, to succeed, and to seek positive changes. It is a reflection of the social fabric of a country and its culture. It articulates the political and social structures in a society and raises issues that impact us. You may not be able to fight the broken system, the corrupted ideology or the tainted mindset, but you can through cinema humanize the issues, villanize them, eventually defeat and conquer them, and perhaps along the way extract a few laughs.

The cultural and social impact of Bollywood and its contribution to Indian cinema in cannot be denied; its history long and great.

In the early 20th century, Bombay (now Mumbai) became a major film production center and adopted the name Bollywood as a reference to the Hindi-language cinema. In India, apart from Hindi, movies are produced in Bengali, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil and numerous other regional languages, collectively referred to as the Indian cinema.

Although, at first, Indian movies were silent, with the advent of talkies, music and dancing soon became a staple, in particular, in Bollywood. Meanwhile, Bengali cinema, another prominent film industry in India, chose the opposite direction. Legends Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen distanced themselves from the mainstream, focused on social causes, went on to produce realist masterpieces ( Ray’s Pather Panchal [1955} is considered to be one of the finest examples of Indian cinema) and eventually established the Parallel Movement.

However, Bollywood, which was more of an escapist movement, too started to dabble with social themes. These themes resonated well with the audience. Mother India (1957) is an example of a masterpiece that brilliantly captures the struggles of a family and a nation entangled in the cycle of poverty and their search for rasion d’etre.

The musicals and the usual commercial genres (action, romance, and thrillers) continued to be immensely popular within Bollywood; however, realist themes soon gained prominence. The Parallel Movement that had started with Bengali cinema created a space for itself within mainstream Bollywood, where realism merged with the musicals.

Writer/director Hrishikesh Mukherjee (incidentally a Bengali) churned out brilliant pieces that dealt with urban crises, middle class ethos, nuclear families, the clash of traditional values with modernity, and the trials and tribulations of the common man in an urban space. Anand (1971), Guddi (1971), Chupke Chupke (1975), and Golmal (1979) are examples of some of his work.

Although, the Parallel Movement’s pendulum of success swayed quite a bit, by 1980s the attained new heights. Emerging and established filmmakers experimented with enthusiasm, wooed audiences, and won critical acclaim.

Kundan Shah’s cult hit Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) produced on a tiny budget is probably one the funniest movie ever made in India. Director Sai Parānjpye’s Chashme Buddor (1981) captures the spirit of the youth and seamlessly blended romance, comedy and realism, while Mira Nair won numerous awards for Salaam Bombay (1988), a movie on children living on the streets of Mumbai. On a side note, Pushpaka Vimana (1987), a must watch, has no dialogues and relies on body language, signs and background music to carry the plot forward.

However, the early 1990s were a bit confusing for Bollywood. The Parallel Movement lost steam and a new genre of slapstick comedy took over. Never the less, filmmakers continued to experiment and a new controversial realism emerged – Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994) and Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995).

But film industry was in a transition phase. With economic growth and advances in technology, production budgets soared and multi-million dollar projects became commonplace. With the release of the Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994), the middle class was booted out, and the affluent patriarch took over. Titles of movies became longer and abbreviations popular; Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) or DDLJ perhaps is the most well known. The single screen theatres were replaced by multiplexes, and filmmakers increasingly flocked to exotic locations overseas to shoot the music videos.

On the contrary, around the same time, a new form of independent cinema emerged that targeted the urban audience, and established an entirely new set of filmmaking standards. The English language, regional dialects, profanity and urban and local slang made its way into scripts and dialogues and openly brought up previously taboo subjects like homosexuality and promiscuity into the mainstream. Deve Benegal’s English August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) and Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys (1998) broke barriers and introduced a traditional audience to a hidden urban realism.

With filmmakers looking for new social and political issues in a now economically powerful India, director Ram Gopal Verma, who had earlier introduced the audience to student politics in Shiva (1990) further diminished the line between musicals and realism with Satya (1998), a unapologetic, unabashed and terse look into the Mumbai underworld.

The new century brought yet again another shift in Bollywood. The audience started to dictate the film market, and subjects/topics that appealed to a larger audience started to emerge. Independent movies were widely watched and musicals became popular overseas. But perhaps the most significant change in Bollywood is that it no longer has to abide by a recipe. It can experiment, reach out, and add new flavors. It can do away with the staple ingredients, or choose to substitute them. In short, Bollywood has perfected its curry and it’s universally loved.

by Suhail Khan






 
 
 

 
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