Bollywood Ain't 'World Cinema'

"The song-and-dance format we were infamous for may now become our advantage . . . We don't have to change ourselves; the world will accept us as we are." -- Indian film critic Subhash Jha, of Lagaan's international success.

"I really think that you cannot design a crossover film . . .We cannot make movies by keeping an American or a European market in mind. Because then you will not be making a movie anymore. It will just be a package." -- Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowariker

At this year's Academy Awards, there was no Indian film among the wide array of contenders vying for the "Best Foreign Film" prize. Why? According to the Film Federation of India (FFI), the 16-member committee that screens movies to filter out those that will be entered into the running for international prizes, last year's crop of Indian flicks just didn't make the cut. More specifically, none of them was Indian enough. In explaining the board's decision, FFI Chairman Harmesh Malhotra conceded that films that pander to India's increasingly cosmopolitan popular audiences' identification with English and Western themes and aesthetics aren't appropriate candidates for the Academy Awards. Rather, Malhotra and the FFI believe that to garner acclaim in the West, Indian movies have to uphold some kind of traditional South Asian essence and meet some ill-defined standard of cultural "authenticity".

While Bollywood productions like Koi Mil Gaya (an endearing spinoff of E.T.) and Joggers' Park (half in English) fell short of meeting the FFI's criteria in 2003, then, 2001's Devdas didn't. The latter, a lavish and dazzlingly melodramatic cinematic extravaganza, recounts the tragic tale of a failed hero and his loves as related in Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's 1917 novel, Devdas -- a story that has been remade over and over again on the Indian silver screen. Steeped in Bengali tradition, littered with opulent lehengas (Indian women's costume) and mahals (palaces), and replete with dancing girls and religious festivals, the 2001 version was deemed sufficiently "Indian" to satisfy the FFI.

Perhaps because of its traditional storyline and epic scale, Devdas was selected to be screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2002, becoming one of the only popular Bollywood masala flicks to ever make it to this exclusive Euro-snooty art-house arena. At the same time, despite its Cannes appearance and its enormous commercial success on the subcontinent, the film was rejected by the 5,600 tastemakers who voted for the final five best foreign-language films for the 2002 Oscars. More notably, Devdas barely even made it to American theaters and met with rather lukewarm popular reception once it did. Perhaps the most expensive film ever to have been made in India was a bit too expensive and too representative of the undisputably "Indian" un-subtle tendencies of Bollywood for mainstream Western audiences -- its sheer excess and heavy-handedness, most likely, made US distributors reluctant to pick it up. Even after Eros brought it to American shores, Devdas hardly made it beyond die-hard NRI (Non-Resident Indian) audiences.

So what's the lesson of this true story? What does it take for an Indian film to become a successful "crossover"? On one hand we see critics rejecting Bollywood remakes of Hollywood classics or Indian filmmakers' efforts to produce works that reflect the liminal cultural reality of a post-colonial country in a globalized world. Indian films, this side goes, should be exotic and "authentic," not full of blue jeans and English and reminders of modernity. On the other hand we see distributors and audiences wary of movies that are too different and too foreign, so to speak. Song and dance and color and chaos are welcomed when presented as the patina of a frozen premodern culture, but when these same elements manifest themselves as the alien reality of an actual, living modernity, their otherness can be off-putting. There is a strangling binary at work here, an enormous cultural catch-22. What's a film to do when it's either too Western or too Indian for everybody's liking? Whom to please?

Lately, the buzzword among culture vultures and cinephiles has been that Bollywood is on its way to becoming the "next Hong Kong." In other words, Bollywood will be the next foreign filmic product in America to go from fringe phenomenon and cult treasure to mainstream super-success in suburbia's megaplexes. The record-breaking international reception of 2002's Lagaan largely propelled this prophecy which has yet, nonetheless, to be properly filled. For Lagaan seems to have been the only example of an Indian film that has managed to walk the tightrope between the two sets of expectations outlined above and make it to at least a semblance of commercial and critical success in the US fairly unscathed. How? Sure, the film featured excellent production, writing, and acting. But I'd venture to say that Lagaan owes a huge debt to the fact that, even while preserving the traditional song-and-dance format that is the hallmark of Bollywood, it brought an India to visual life that Americans apparently understand or want to see: 19th century villagers clad in the richly colorful ethnic Gujarati costumes twirling and whirling and proving their dauntless spirit in the midst of a romantic rural landscape of drought-stricken deserts.

The nature of Lagaan's supposedly revolutionary crossover success is in fact a quite interesting study. For while the film was a bona fide, home-grown popular success in India, it was a distinctly art-house winner among critics and aficionados of the vague but distinctively "high-culture" genre of "world cinema" in the States. Lagaan's fate was not to meet with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque high-grossing American commercial triumph, but just to become the first true-to-Bollywood Indian film to infiltrate the imagination of yuppie-type "world cinema"-philes of the West. Similarly, while Devdas showed up at high-class Cannes, it was noticeably absent from American multiplexes.

It's curious that past Indian successes in countries like the US have not reached the American mainstream and have also largely been those movies considered "art films" rather than properly popular cinema (i.e., Bollywood-type musicals) in the country of their origin. Satyajit Ray's gorgeously quiet and elliptical 1950's works immediately come to mind, followed by the 1970's "Hindi new wave" films of Shyam Benegal. More recently, Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth) and Mira Nair (of 1988's Salaam Bombay and 2002's Monsoon Wedding fame) have cut into the "world cinema" circuit with their Hindi projects. Though Mehta and Nair are interesting for their departures from "Indian" cinema into a clearly North-American artistic and thematic world (Nair's Mississippi Masala, for example), it is their India-produced and -themed efforts that have attracted the attention of artsy-fartsy Western film enthusiasts of "world cinema". The selectivity of the application of this label manifests itself in the Mehta and Nair cases, but so does the gap between the class structure of viewers of Indian films in the West and the East. While Nair's works are not necessarily accessible to or recognized by the Indian masses, they retain some sort of art-school credibility to leisure-class foreigners in their thoughtful treatments of gritty Bombay street life or glorifications of the exotic splendor of Hindu weddings. Thus, Nair has succeeded as a crossover.

This notion of cultural credibility is central to the rather weird concept of "world cinema" more broadly. At its core, very obviously, the label is defined in opposition to cinema that comes from Hollywood. In other words, there are, according to the Western mind that has imagined this term, two types of films: those that are American (or English language) and those that are of the rest of the globe. But while French and German flicks ostensibly fall into the "world cinema" category, they don't enter the matrix of American film culture with the same load of expectations of cultural authenticity that Indian movies do. Identifying the latter within another distinct category such as "Third World cinema" might be more accurate, and "Oriental cinema" is still better. What I'm alluding to, of course, is the way in which Westerners, now in the form of art-house filmgoers, expect the increasingly sophisticated and eminently modern filmmaking techniques and sensibilities (of Indians, Arabs, Africans, East Asians, etc) to ultimately convey subject matter that fulfills certain still-pervasive Orientalist fantasies of an imagined, exotic, and premodern Other.

Reality, though, as always, gets in the way. In the alternate universe of this "Oriental cinema", things get tricky when the incomparable Mumbai-based Bollywood industry enters the picture. If Americans watching Indian films expect to see some sensitive high-art treatment of poor or premodern natives, then what happens when they are confronted with the cultural pastiche and masala of those musical-style spectacles churned out by the decidedly non-high-culture film factory for the masses that is Bollywood? Tasteful Lagaan passed the crossover test, but what about the countless Kaantes (remake of Reservoir Dogs shot almost entirely in Los Angeles), Ye Dillagis (remake of Sabrina ), and Joshes (remake of West Side Story)? Or even a partly English-language flick like Joggers Park? Could such films ever be appreciated by Western audiences as more than merely derision-worthy imitations and poor, misguided victims of Hollywood's cultural imperialism?

Larger minds recognize that if it even exists, cultural imperialism, that catchphrase that has been so in vogue of late, is not just a unilateral phenomenon. On the contrary -- it's not just the West that's exporting film, music, products, and lifestyles to the Rest. Bollywood is an industry just like Hollywood, and it too exports its products. India, in fact, is the largest producer of films on the planet. Some 1,000 movies emerge from the subcontinent each year, and many of these make their way around the world to an enormous and enormously diffuse Indian diaspora in Fiji, Toronto, Dubai, and everywhere in between.

But NRIs alone don't comprise the global audience of Indian films -- Russians, Chinese, and Malaysians are just three of the many non-Indian populations that have enjoyed Bollywood imports in their home countries for decades. In fact, cultural purists in some of these Bollywood-buying countries even decry the excessive influence of these films on their own cultures. For example, Islamic clerics in Malaysia have publicly denounced Bollywood films for their corrupting influence on Muslim Malay youth, and called for a reduction of their broadcast on Malaysian television from once a day to once a week. Perceived cultural imperialism, this instance shows, can come from more than the direction of America.

The Malay muftis aren't alone in arguing against the cultural ramifications of the spread of Mumbai's films. While traditionalists resisting Bollywood abroad take issue with increasingly daring sexual intonations and portraits of commercially-minded vulgarity, others within South Asia itself reject Bollywood films for their north Indian Hindi language-centricity. Last year, for example, the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA) instituted a ban on the screening of Bollywood flicks in northeastern Indian states like Assam to "protect" local culture from the onslaught of Hindi-belt hegemony. The vibrant Telugu and Tamil cinemas of the South and the Urdu-medium products of Pakistan's Lahore-based "Lollywood" are prolific and interesting film industries, but all suffer limited reknown because they live in the shadow of towering Bollywood.

Okay. So Bollywood is apparently trapped in some sort of purgatory of global cultural expectations; at any given time, it's too "Indian" to be accessible to Western audiences, too north Indian-centric for the rest of South Asia, too imitative of Hollywood to be appreciated as authentic Indian cinema among North Americans seeking something exotic, too potent of an imposition of an Indian version of modernity on other traditional societies, or too low-culture to qualify as real art for snobs of all national origins. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other "too's" floating around in the world, the most bewildering example of which I stumbled across in an article by an American in the online version of Time magazine last year: Bollywood as too "feminine" a genre!

And yet when North Americans speak of a coming "Bollywood invasion", they usually do so with a primarily unidimensional understanding of the Mumbai-based film industry. For the language of "world cinema" is highly reductive, often compressing all artistic decisions made in a film from another country into irreversible inferred statements about the singular essence of that entire country or culture itself. And in the closed semiotic system of this filmic language, unfortunately, there is generally only room for one set of interpretations. Over here in the US that set of interpretations tends to either reinforce tropes of classic Orientalism, freeze modern Indian masala culture into a kitschy spectacle (as in the opening sequence of the indie classic Ghost World), or take the high-handed road of rejecting cultural hybridization as an unacceptable example of the McDonaldization of art. So Moulin Rouge can borrow Bollywood music and sensibilities with aplomb and not be considered any less American, but Indian movies have got to fulfill some major cultural expectations.

Too bad. While I enjoy hearing of the crossover success of Lagaan or Monsoon Wedding, I cringe when I realize that many of my non-Indian fellow Americans watch these films as block representations of the incredible diversity that is India. It may be wishful thinking to expect other than for foreign films to be seen as Foreign before they are seen as Film, but does the idea of Foreign have to be so limited?

There are several factors contributing to this essentializing tendency of North American consumption of "world cinema", and it's true that among these features most prominently the matter of distribution -- the economics of international film. After all, the geographic spread and commercial success of international art forms such as film don't occur merely through a sort of organic diffusion that is naturally determined by what a monolithic American or Western audience "demands". In order to be consumed, movies must first be packaged and marketed. And in this international movie-industry packaging and advertising process, some massive reductions and stereotyping goes on -- witness the example of the "Hong Kong effect" referred to above. As popular entertainment is economically globalized, Indian films often continue to be represented in ways that reinforce the appeal of "world cinema" to most Americans as just a vehicle for getting a glimpse of life in an exotic land, for being presented with a visual slice of a foreign culture.

How much more meaningful would such crossover films be, however, if they were marketed and consumed in a way that complicated people's understandings of India and the world rather than solidified them? South Asia is very obviously so much more than Bollywood, but even just the latter represents a rich multitude of alternative ways of imagining our planet. In Bollywood, I see a phenomenon that destroys binarized center-periphery theories (after all, wasn't Amitabh Bachchan voted the movie star of the millennium in a BBC global poll a few years ago?) I see cultural fluidity and tradition, history and modernity, technology and humanity in Bollywood. I see accessible, crowd-pleasing entertainment that is rich with meaning and jouissance. Most of all, I see many Indias, not a single India.

Devdas is gaudy and mind-bogglingly overstated and drives me insane. Lagaan is charming, but its self-consciously feel-good schtick sometimes gets on my nerves. Koi Mil Gaya is a blatant rip-off of E.T. and I can't get enough of it. But regardless of what I think of these three movies individually, I know that they all deserve a chance at evaluation by, while maybe not a single set of universal artistic standards, at least a decentered global outlook and a flexible interpretation of culture. India is an idea, not an essence. Hong Kong is bigger than Jackie Chan. The Orient does not exist, and the West was invented. It's time for the world to be defined as more than just the opposite of Hollywood, and time for the lines between the high-art connotations of "cinema" and the low-art connotations of "movies" to be destroyed. In short: It's time to move beyond "world cinema".

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