In Defence Of Bollywood

By Karmanye Thadani:

In a conversation I was having with a friend hailing from Varanasi and currently living in Delhi for work, this friend of mine whose fluency in English by his own admission isn’t all that great, asked me why my Facebook statuses are full of references to Bollywood movies I watch, in the theatres or on DVD, but are seldom about Hollywood movies. This friend of mine went on to reiterate the oft-repeated, stereotypical assertion about Bollywood movies not being up to the mark and how someone passionate about real cinema must go for more and more Hollywood movies.

I recall having had a similar debate with another friend of mine, who is my college-mate, and he is very fluent in English, but not one with a very elitist mindset and he does enjoy watching Bollywood movies as well. However, he categorized most Bollywood movies to be a sham and had then asked me to see Mickey Rourke in action in the movie The Immortals which was yet to release then. The debate was a long one and one that got me thinking.

I have travelled overseas to about a score of countries for competitions, conferences, short courses and even for leisure trips with family and/or friends, and I have friends of different ethnicities and nationalities, and though I do have ‘white’ friends from developed countries, all of whom are very nice people, I don’t have any obsession with befriending only that variety among foreigners like many other Indians do, but that’s besides the point. I have read infinitely more books in English than Hindi, the only Indian language that I have a command over, and I may say at the risk of sounding generous to myself, I have a fairly good command over it. So, I am a global denizen and interestingly, even on political questions like Kashmir or the Sino-Indian border dispute, I am quite dispassionate in my analysis and don’t blow the jingoistic Indian nationalist trumpet.

Then, why is it that I don’t share this so widely prevalent disdain for Bollywood? The answer is simple — while I have enjoyed many Hollywood movies (though not greatly appreciated all the ones I have seen, Brave being the last one currently), Gladiator and Blood Diamond being among my favourites, I have indeed seen too many Bollywood movies ranging from being fairly decent to good, from being intellectually stimulating to downright entertaining, for me to write off this film industry that for me, defines my nation in many ways, and which I identify with passionately, without caring about celebrity gossip.

Often, we, the defenders of Bollywood, cite only a few classic Bollywood movies to showcase that the industry isn’t all that bad. We are often very apologist in our defence of Bollywood. And that is where we tend to lose our ground. Consider this — have Lagaan, Swades, Taare Zameen Par or Rang de Basanti been the only good Bollywood movies our generation has seen? While these might be the best, who can forget comedies like Hera Pheri or Bheja Fry or the two Munnabhai movies (the second one brilliantly conveyed in a very simple and lucid fashion Gandhiji’s concept of satyagraha), which I’m sure many of us would rank above Hollywood comedies like Beerfest or even Starsky and Hutch? Other decent comedies would include the likes of Hey, Baby, and among the more slapstick ones, Dhamaal and in spite of whatever media critics may say, Mr. White Mr. Black, Bhaagam Bhaag, Mere Baap Pehle Aap and Tum Kab Jaoge Atithi. I would also say that two of the Nagesh Kukunoor movies, Iqbal and Dor, were nothing short of masterpieces and are very inspiring. Besides, there have been not a handful but quite a few offbeat movies, some of which raise very significant social issues if not universal human problems, like Lamhaa and Tahaan on the Kashmir issue, Red Alert on Naxalism, Udaan on how a child breaks free from the shackles imposed by a dictatorial, non-compassionate stepfather, Life in A Metro on extra-marital affairs, Allah ke Bande on juvenile delinquency, A Wednesday and Aamir on terrorism, Peepli Live on farmers’ suicides and My Brother Nikhil on the discrimination faced by HIV+ people, besides slightly more dramatized yet overall fairly decent counterparts like Gali Gali Chor Hai on corruption, or others like Shor in the City, Halla Bol or Mumbai Meri Jaan.

Madhur Bhandarkar’s movies like Fashion and Jail are quite insightful as well as entertaining. Shyam Benegal’s movie Welcome to Sajjanpur raised the daring issue of eunuchs’ rights and another fairly recent film of his, Well Done, Abba was also a socially relevant one and nicely made. Even mainstream films like Chak de India, New York, Black and White, The Road to Sangam and My Name is Khan have been brilliant at conveying social messages. Historical films like The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose — The Forgotten Hero and Khelein Ham Jee Jaan Se were also quite well made, and I would certainly enjoy any of these more than The Immortals, which looks like a sort of failed imitation of 300 or Troy. Farhan Akhtar’s movies like Rock On, Karthik Calling Karthik and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara constitute a different genre altogether.

Among the Bollywood movies I have recently seen, Kahaani was amazing, as most people who have seen it would testify, and I quite liked Agneepath too, besides Jannat-2 and most recently, Ferrari ki Sawari, which was a very sweet movie. Not every Hollywood movie is a classic, and it’s unfair to expect that from Bollywood or any film industry for that matter. Children’s movies like Koi Mil Gaya, Jajantaram Mamantaram, Bhootnath and Zokkomon have also been quite nice. 16th December was a great action thriller, just like Dus was, while Bhul Bhulaia had awesome suspense. War movies like Border and Lakshya were beautiful.

Bollywood movies no longer necessarily have a strong romantic angle with the hero and heroine dancing around the trees. One didn’t get that impression even in a seriously romantic movie like Kal Ho Na Ho, Dil Chahta Hai, Main Hoon Na or Jaane Tu ya Jaane Na, nor did one see that in a movie like Salaam Namaste, Dhoom, Bluffmaster or Dil to Bachcha Hai Jee, leave alone movies like Iqbal, which didn’t have any romantic angle. Movies like Delhi Belly and Pyar ka Panchnama narrate to our generation our own stories.

The harsh critics of Bollywood make anachronistic statements relevant to the condition of the industry in the 1990s, which was undoubtedly overall a decade of decadence, and none of the movies I have cited are from that decade (but I’ve deliberately not mentioned many great movies from decades prior to that). However, the industry has come out of that phase and we ought to give credit where it is due instead of either hypocritically acting Westernized by enjoying Bollywood movies but exhibiting a disdainful attitude towards them (this hypocrisy may be subconscious in many) or adopting a posture of burying one’s head in the sand.

These critics have found a new way to bash Bollywood by pointing to movies like Dabang and Bodyguard being blockbusters, and of course, much of the credit for this goes to the farmers, labourers and rickshaw-pullers who enjoy watching such movies after putting in a day of hard labour and these people even toss coins in their low budget theatres when a song like Munni Badnam Hui is being featured, but that’s only a small part of this huge film industry. Of course, Bollywood, like any other industry in a capitalist setup, is primarily motivated by profits and producers are tapping a certain market to that end. But you just can’t judge an entire film industry, among the largest in the world, only by looking at a few trends.

Another oft-cited critique of Bollywood is its lifting off scripts from Hollywood movies. The charge is a fair one, particularly if you see the Hollywood movie Hitch and the Bollywood movie Partner, for example. But again, this trend is exaggerated and is fading away. And looking at this issue of ‘idea theft’ in a broader light, if we have done so in the sphere of cinema, Western scientists and corporate agencies have done so in the sphere of traditional knowledge, with their patent offices allowing patents on neem, haldi, methi and basmati!

Hopefully, I have given the critics of Bollywood much to ponder over and make them realize that this film industry of their country, films produced by which are quite popular in many parts of the world, ranging from South-East Asia to the rest of South Asia to northern Africa to East Europe, even among people who are not ethnically Indian, is not something they need to be so ashamed of or look down upon. Equally, this piece will, I hope, give some valid points to articulate to vociferous defenders of this industry like me.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:

The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’.[/box]

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