Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Bollywood Ghetto: Can the largest cinema industry ever make it to the Western downtown market?

By far the largest film production in the world, with technical know how, marketing capabilities and exposure to rival Hollywood, the Bollywood film industry seems ever poised to make that final leap of quality and become big time box office in the lucrative and prestigious film markets of North America and Western Europe. Yet, somehow, it never happens. There are probably many complex obstacles, in terms of business and economics, but those can certainly be overcome. The most intractable problem may be cultural.

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It is easy to lament that there is latent cultural prejudice concerning film from India, that people in Western countries are not ready to accept Bollywood as serious filmmaking. While this may be true to a certain extent, I believe that it is only a small part of the cultural problem. To counterbalance any prejudice is the long held fascination that the West has with Bollywood filmmaking. For many years, people have been intrigued by the occasional images that we get of the wildly elaborate musical production numbers, of the vibrant colors and the impeccably beautiful film stars. Certainly, this fascination could translate into market share, no matter how much initial reluctance may exist.

Another common belief is that Western audiences will never accept the singing and dancing and lavish set designs of Bollywood tradition. Indeed there are people who turn up their noses at the idea of serious actors suddenly jumping up and belting out delirious dance tunes as a tidal wave of dancers invade the scene on the run. It is a bit jarring, for sure, but it is part of the essential charm of Bollywood and it would be a terrible shame for filmmakers to put restraints on this simply to chase a particular demographic. There is a large enough share of Western audiences who love Broadway and West End type musicals who could easily buy into this type of film.

The problem, to me seems to be in the culture of the scripts. Certain script conventions are more or less acceptable to the present day Bollywood audience, but are a major turn-off for North American and Western European viewers. If Bollywood wants to truly break into this market, it will have to tailor its stories more closely to the expectations of Westerners. This could be done by creating two versions of films: those for the traditional Bollywood markets and new, streamlined and reconsidered versions for Western audiences. If done as a matter of course, it could work very effectively. And it may even help to improve the home audience versions.

Bollywood traffics in fantasy. Everything is exaggerated in the world of these films. Fortunately, Western audiences will have a high threshold for fantasy when viewing these films, as they understands that this is a fantasy world, and an exotic one that they view as outsiders. However, when the fantasy becomes totally unbelievable and ridiculous, it can overwhelm that threshold and ruin the Westerner’s enjoyment of the film. The most important thing that Bollywood filmmakers could do to make their films palatable to Western audiences is to edit out the most egregious affronts to common sense in the stories. As simple as that. The films are already overly long for Western theaters – no movie house wants to show films that are two and a half hours long to audiences that only half fill the hall. If studios could cut out an hour of the most off-putting silliness, they would often have a product that would be eminently presentable in the most demanding markets.

By silliness, I don’t mean all flights of fantasy – that, again, is the charm of Bollywood. I mean the attitudes that are anathema and the breakdowns in logic that are simply lazy scriptwriting. In the following films I can give a few examples of what I mean.

Dostana

Dostana (2008) Directed by Tarun Mansukhani. International title: Friendship.
With its flashy setting, incredibly good looking and talented stars this film has already enjoyed immense success in the Bollywood market. It would be potentially a big hit in Western markets, if it could work out some simple problems.

The story is a simple one: Sam (played by superstar Abhishek Bachchan) and Kunal (played by sex symbol John Abraham) manage to share an apartment with the beautiful Neha (Priyanka Chopra) by convincing her that they are gay. The attitude toward homosexuality of the characters is somewhat problematic. However, I don’t think that this will be a major obstacle. For Western audiences, the characters’ inherent fear of homosexuality can be unpleasant to the social conscience, but made acceptable by the actors who are so entertaining to watch. This is true about Abhishek Bachchan when he minces around playing up to clichés about gay men that are tired and passé. He does it with such infectious good humor that it works. Furthermore, his flirtation with homosexual feelings elsewhere in the script brings him the sympathy of the viewers and makes it palatable. Gay audiences will forgive him these excesses, considering the eye candy that he and John Abraham provide from beginning to end. Sam’s

Its all about the boys in Dostana

mother (Kiron Kher) is another example, and her homophobia becomes something to laugh about as she works it for all its worth. 142 minutes? Cut out the most egregious manipulations of Sam and Kunal as they try to sabotage Neha’s affair with Abhi (Bobby Deol), specifically, the scenes in which they cruelly mislead Abhi’s son to believe that he is about to be shipped off to boarding school. This type of mental abuse of a small child would be shocking to Western audiences far more than anything else in the film.

After the great success of this film, a sequel is being developed but has reportedly run into script delays. Let’s hope that producer Karan Johar has some storyline improvements in mind, as the film takes on ever more cultural significance. And since it is being set partly in London, the home of Sam’s mother, we can hope for more scenes with his mother.

Dulha Mil Gaya (2010) Directed by Mudassar Aziz. International title: I Found a Groom.

This film was the director’s debut and it suffered from all kinds of delays and took 3 years to complete. That type of thing doesn’t bode well, and in fact, the film has not been a bit success despite the inclusion of the top of the A-list actors, Shah Rukh Khan. It would need a lot of work to be successful outside of the traditional market. And those changes would help it do a lot better in the Bollywood market as well.
Besides the acting, which has come under some criticism, the script is full of Bollywood clichés and shopworn conventions. Bollywood audiences may be getting tired of these things, and Western audiences would simply not accept them.

Shah Rukh Khan

Breakdown in logic: There are numerous occasions where the improbable becomes insulting to the common sense of the viewer. The way Donsai marries Samarpreet in a matter of a couple of days, and later the way that she simply lands on top of Shimmer’s limousine. The most ridiculous turn of events has got to be when Shimmer’s key chain charm flies overboard from the cruise ship. Shah Rukh Khan jumps overboard and retrieves it effortlessly from the ocean. Besides being physically impossible it is so improbable that he could find a tiny trinket in the Atlantic Ocean that it is laughable and brings the viewer completely out of the fantasy. It is also totally unnecessary. Some intelligent editing could rid the film of this scene and the few minor repercussions it causes later in the film.
Problematic attitudes: The main characters Donsai (Fardeen Khan) and Shimmer (Shishmita Sen) are a problem. Their wastefulness is difficult to take. In fact, all of the extravagant affluence would be considered in extreme bad taste by Westerners and people everywhere with a social conscience. It would be impossible to eradicate this from the story. Therefore, there should be extreme caution to make sure that the characters are sympathetic in other ways to neutralize the effects of this on the viewer. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. The snobbishness of the Shimmer is unpleasant and works against her acceptance by Western audiences. Her attitude toward Samarpreet (played by Ishita Sharma) on the airplane would not be considered acceptable. This scene would have to be rewritten in a way which makes her less insulting to the modest girl. In fact, she should be less offensive to everyone. It seems that her favorite response to anyone she even mildly disagrees with is, “Shut up!” Donsai is also monumentally insensitive at times, and repellent in his immoral exploitation of the simple country girl. He does develop in the story but not nearly enough to make him acceptable. The effect of his development would be enhanced by some judicious editing. Besides that, some of the lavish party scenes and conspicuous consumption of all the characters should be snipped and tucked. Moreover, the clichéd gay character, as well as the scorn and disrespect that he receives from all around him, is truly offensive. Cut the film from 152 minutes down to 120, please! But even after all that, it would probably not be enough. This type of film might just as well remain in the ghetto where it has potential for the most modest success.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). Directed by Aditya Chopra.

An excellent showcase performance by Bollywood’s greatest star, Shah Rukh Khan, for which he won the Apsara Best Actor Award (a Bollywood oscar). He plays Surinder, a Chaplinesque character by day who works at a call center, and Saturday Night Fever clown by night who woos his own wife in disguise. The chemistry between Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma, who plays his wife, Taani, as well as the fine interaction of Surinder and his best friend, Bobby (Vinay Pathak) are special indeed. It is a fine script, as it presents an artless man who wants desperately to express himself to his wife, and in so doing, unwittingly sets a trap for them both. To be sure, the script is ridiculous in parts, but that is a Bollywood conceit that is a given. The story does have some worthy dialog about love and some interesting touches. There is a leitmotif about God and religion that is refreshingly different. God is mentioned often, as the force behind love, but this is a God tailored to human needs, not the other way around. The main characters Surinder and Taani have a nicely pan-religious devotion, and during the course of the film are seen praying in Sikh and Hindu temples, a mosque, a Christian church and a Shinto shrine – that’s quite an achievement in itself. For me, the problem seems mostly about length. 168 minutes! Almost three hours long! Please, cut out the motorcycle chase scenes in which Surinder’s wife Taani takes her revenge on a rival. This petty meanness is completely out of character for Taani and it does nothing to lead the story forward. Regretfully, it would not be enough, so maybe the Sumo wrestling scene should go, too. SRK’s performance foreshadows his tour de force  as a Forrest Gump type character in Karan Johar’s 2010 big film,  My Name is Khan.

These films can be seen at Cinema Brady on Boulevard de Strasbourg in Paris duing the Bollywood summer festival. To learn about the ten Bollywood films which will be shown repeatedly until September 14th, as part of Brady’s “Eté Bollywood,” look at Brady’s website, or the related website, Fantastikindia.

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July 26, 2010 - Posted by | cinema | , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. Hi, Dominic. I wanted to give here my two cents but I think you said it all. But I can’t resist to point that it is not uncommon now to find more and more characters with indian backgrounds on tv shows, even cartoons (Apu is not alone anymore)! My personal favorites are Baljeet (in Phineas and Ferb) and Rajeesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory (you may forgive my puerile vision of the entertainement industry now).

    Comment by Paul Maršić | July 27, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes, you’re right. I think the time is right for Bollywood to make a bigger effort for a Western audience.

      Comment by dominicambrose | July 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. http://www.buzzle.com/articles/the-twelve-most-useful-second-languages-for-english-speakers.html

    Good luck with this one, sir. I’ll make sure my children have Mandarin lessons, and you can make sure your children have French lessons. By the time they’re grown, let’s see who has the more essential language skills.

    Comment by B. | August 13, 2010 | Reply

  3. hi..i am in sarajevo right now looking for any gay club or bar.. and i ran into your article about the subject… it was written 3 years ago… any news if things have changed so far? am leaving on sunday… regards… adriano

    Comment by adriano | October 15, 2010 | Reply

  4. Hi again, Dominic. It’s my pleasure to announce that your guest post about Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varón” is on the top ten of visitor preferences here at sipmacrants! Hope to hear any news from you!

    Comment by jokerizedpaul | October 23, 2010 | Reply


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