Friday, July 27, 2007

Why I love Bollywood

I'm a Bollywood-loving white guy. I want to make it clear that I'm not some hipster whose ironic or camp "appreciation" is really a form of mockery--I truly enjoy Bollywood movies, and what's more I find myself unexpectedly moved by them.

The enjoyment part shouldn't be hard for me to explain: Bollywood movies are full of song and dance and spectacle, sweeping emotions and sweeping music, timeless dilemmas of love versus duty that aren't always resolved in the way that a Western viewer might expect. (That's the lovely Rekha from Umrao Jaan (1981) in the photo.)

Another thing that makes Bollywood so delightful is its recombination of influences. In a single film--heck, a single dance number--elements from Hollywood musicals, kathak dance, MTV, and the Ramayana may be mixed together with joyful heedlessness. The latest buzzword is "mash-ups"; Bollywood has been doing them for decades. Bollywood soundtracks were "world music" before the term was invented, drawing sounds and rhythms from Indian classical and folk music, flamenco, disco, African and Caribbean music, surf guitar, and European classical music. Salman Rushdie wrote that his work "celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs." It's a perfect description of Bollywood.

So there's little mystery about why I find Bollywood movies so pleasurable. What's harder to come to terms with is why I find key scenes in certain films so emotionally affecting. This is a commercial cinema whose manipulative effects are highly calculated, as the analytical part of my brain is all too aware. And yet, when I watch my favorite films for the tenth time I can still find a lump forming in my throat. It's forced me to confront the fact that underneath my sophisticated, cynical exterior lies (as Captain Renault from Casablanca would say) a rank sentimentalist.

My analytical brain gets overwhelmed, I think, partly because of Bollywood's unabashed emotionalism. Hunky Bollywood leading men and gorgeous leading women are unashamed to weep copiously at key plot moments, and their visible distress can set me off too. Also, certain Bollywood actors have a powerful appeal that makes their filmic dilemmas that much more intense for affected viewers like me. But maybe it's better not to question too deeply, and just accept that many Bollywood films can, against my better judgment, reduce me to an emotional wreck. And in fact if I'm truthful with myself that's a key reason I return to them again and again.

I have to confess, though, that one thing that gives Bollywood films such power for me is the aesthetic strangeness of the music and words. If the equivalent lyrics were sung in English to standard pop instrumentation, I'd probably find it all a bit much. Of course I realize that saying I enjoy the "aesthetic strangeness" of another culture's cinema puts me in the middle of a political minefield. But I'm not so much talking about the picturesque appeal of the exotic (although I do think saris are just about the most attractive garments ever created). Rather, it's a certain distance enforced by lack of both familiarity with the language and lived experience with the cultural references. I feel something similar (though to a lesser degree) when I listen to Italian opera, or watch French films. It's like the old Gene Kelly line from An American In Paris: "Back home everyone said that I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French." Well, lines like "When you're close this world is naught / Destroyed in your love, a triumph sought" ("Mere Hath Mein" from Fanaa (2005)) sound better in Urdu.

Look for more film reviews and recommendations to be posted here soon.


  1. having grown up in Delhi -- a city only a step behind Bombay (oops Mumbai!) in its craze for Indian cinema I went through all the "normal" phases -- from being forced to watch realllly old hindi movies to renouncing bollywood all together to again being drawn to it thanks to KJ and the likes. And after spending an year in the US bollywood is what I come home to every night!! It is a dream world and still (sort of irrationally) in touch with reality, the people, the drama that is Hindustan!!!!(Oh well I even share my name with the first daughter of the bolly family!!). So yes it is I guess a little hard for me to understand the appeal for a non-desi!!!!!

  2. Karishma, I can't say that it's nostalgia for the motherland that draws me to Bollywood (somehow Mullywood doesn't have the same ring...). But I do find Bollywood irresistible, in part because music so heightens (and deepens) emotion. So I connect on that level, even though I'm sure I miss many cultural and historical references.

    I'm also in thrall to particular actors: primarily Shahrukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt and Anupam Kher among the men, and Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Rani Mukherjee, Aishwarya Rai, and Preity Zinta among the women. These actors possess true screen charisma--it's a pleasure to see them in almost any context.

  3. Haha! I guess I m still not at that level when I can accept commercial actors (though I was in love with Shahrukh more than decade ago when I was like 10 :P and no waitamin I actually still like Sridevi) ..the actors I absolutely adore are Vinay pathak and Pankaj Kapoor. And I have been trying n trying n trying to get my french labmate hooked on bolly music but boy is he hard to please!!!! I have given up! But atleast have proof positive that he is the weirdo and the music is not bad :P

  4. Karishma, one thing that many Western listeners (including me at first) have a hard time with in Bollywood soundtracks is the high pitch of the women's singing voices. One I started watching dance clips from the films, though, I really came to appreciate singers like Alka Yagnik, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Now I love Bollywood soundtrack music. You might try giving your labmate a DVD of Bollywood dance numbers. If that doesn't hook him, then he is a hopeless case.

  5. Actually I have been trying to find a hindi movie with decent subtitles that I can give to him to watch (he lost a bet). But he is the "Woody Allen is the greatest director ever" type so I really can't think what movie I can dare to to make him watch!!! Any advice????

  6. Karishma, if he likes Woody Allen movies I'd recommend Kal Ho Naa Ho. It's a valentine to New York--but unlike Woody Allen's New York, in KHNH the city is seen in its multiethnic glory.

    KHNH is (mostly) a comedy, it features three highly appealing Bollywood actors in Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan, and it's got good musical numbers (you can remind him that Woody Allen himself has directed a musical set in New York). It shouldn't be too much of a stretch for him.

  7. Dear rank sentimentalist,

    I LOVED that post, along with many little other things in your very user-friendly blog, thanx. I had tried myself to write the same sort of appreciation but I have to say that THIS "why I love Bollywood" made me smile blissfully all evening!
    I'll be back!

  8. Yves, many thanks for your kind words. I worked up the courage to actually start writing about my Bollywood (and other) obsessions because of the excellent blogs of Beth, Filmiholic, and Miss Bolly--I recommend them highly.

  9. Well said, indeed! I, too, embrace them mostly because I am a rank sentimentalist. It's a little harder for me to explain why I love Hindi movies but hate Steven Spielberg movies. The blatant manipulation annoys me there, but not in Bollywood. Think it has something to do with cynicism....but still I'm not sure.

    :-) Cheers!

  10. MemsaabStory, you point up a contradiction that I had suppressed until now. I, too, dislike Spielberg movies intensely, precisely for their sentimentality. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed Koi...Mil Gaya, which is a Bollywood mash-up of Close Encounters and E.T.

    Like you, I'm unsure of why I'm willing to be manipulated by Bollywood, but it's a mystery that I'm going to continue to explore--most enjoyably.

  11. Until about 6 months ago I myself had never seen a Bollywood film. Then I happened to see Kal Ho Naa Ho and that was it for me!! No turning back after I saw Shahrukh Khan for the first time. He's got charisma so far beyond anything any Western actor or performaner can even dream of. I've now seen 49 of his films (most of which I bought) and I find it almost impossible to even watch Hollywood or Western movies anymore....they all seem so dull in comparison!
    You mention the high pitched women playback singers they use and that is one of the things that bugs me..especially that one old lady they used over and over and over and over to sing the female leads songs in so many of SRK's films....not only does she have a thin high voice but she clearly sounds OLD and yet this voice is matched with 20 year old women which is jarring. Also the violence can be a bit much. But I love the songs and dances and of course SRK.

  12. Joyce, Kal Ho Naa Ho was our Bollywood "conversion experience" as well, and it's become my usual recommendation to people for their first Bollywood movie. And it had the same effect on us: we had to see everything that SRK had ever appeared in (but we've only seen something like 35 of his movies--your total of 49 is impressive!).

    When I first heard Bollywood soundtrack music, I was also bothered by the high pitch of the women's voices, but no more. Now three of my favorite soundtracks are Mughal-e-Azam (1960, featuring a young Lata Mangeshkar), Umrao Jaan (1980, featuring her sister Asha Bhosle), and Veer-Zaara (2004, featuring Lata again). I think Lata is the singer you're referring to (she sings for many Yash Chopra films), but until I learned that she was in her 70s I hadn't noticed any incongruity between her voice and the youthful actresses it seemed to be emerging from. While with time her voice has lost some of its freshness, I think it is still very beautiful and expressive.

  13. Everyone that knows me, knows I love Bollywood. Shah Rukh won my heart over when he 'sang' Chaiya Chaiya in Dil Se. His warmth, love, intelligence talent warmed my heart when Hollywood started drowning in predictability for me.
    I don't really care about Hithrik's dance moves or his abs. Akshay is gorgeous but NOBODY has what Shah Rukh has. His sense of humour...I can just watch him on YouTube and crack up. He's my happy obsession. I own all but four of his movies which are the last four difficult to find. I can watch his movies over & over again and still feel wonderful. I wish to God I could just have a coffee with him at Starbucks! He doesn't even really kiss the girl and he shows more intimacy & passion in his moves and glances than any other human I know personally. I'll always be loyal to Shah Rukh!;-)

  14. omg- the times of india guy read this post and translated "hipster" to "hippie".
    amazing :)

  15. Toni, a very belated reply to your comment: I, too, think that Bollywood movies are sexier precisely because they're less explicit. It's amazing how intense smoldering glances, nuzzling, and suggestion can be. The number "Main Yahaan Hoon" in Veer-Zaara is a prime example.

    Shweta, you're right--he read "hipster" to mean "hippie" and "camp" to mean "gay." I'm not sure whether to laugh or be appalled...

  16. I totally agree! I love Bollywood for the reasons you stated-because it's so sweet and emotional! Except for the extremely poetic songs which I can barely understand despite knowing Hindi :) But those are awesome still.