Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 1

A while ago, Memsaab drew attention to the many parallels between opera and Bollywood in her posts Opera and Hindi Cinema and The Bartered Dulhania. Those parallels are especially striking in Baroque opera, and so I thought I would add some items to Memsaab's lists and amplify some others. Life intervened, but at long last I'm following up on that impulse. To start, there's the question of

Originality (or lack thereof)

In the Baroque era, musical originality was not the supreme value that it later became. Composers thought nothing of recycling librettos and storylines. The librettos of Pietro Metastasio, the greatest poet of opera seria, were set multiple times by every major composer of the era.

Composers not only re-used characters and stories, they also recycled their own and others' melodies. Partly this was because there wasn't really any such thing as a repertoire—an opera would be performed for a season, or perhaps two, and then usually never be performed again. Why not make use of music that would otherwise be forgotten?

Handel, for example, re-used much of the opera, oratorio, and cantata music he'd written in Italy when he composed his first opera for London, Rinaldo (1711). One of the most famous arias from Rinaldo, Almirena's "Lascia ch'io pianga" (Let me weep over my cruel fate) was taken virtually note-for-note from Pleasure's aria "Lascia la spina" (Leave the thorns, pluck the rose) from the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Dillusionment), which Handel wrote in Rome in 1707.

Handel wasn't above borrowing other composer's music, either, although he often altered and improved it. His early opera for Venice, Agrippina (1709), for example, includes material from operas by Handel's German colleagues Reinhard Keiser and Johannes Mattheson.

How else, one might ask, could Baroque composers maintain the incredible productivity that was demanded of them? Often they'd have only weeks to compose a four-hour-long opera which might involve 30 or 40 arias. Handel wrote more than 40 operas, plus oratorios, cantatas, motets, masses...that's a lot of tunes.

The productivity question arises with Indian movies as well. While I've heard various figures for the number of films Bollywood turns out in a year, it seems to be somewhere between 150 and 300. And that's just mainstream Hindi cinema; there are also films in Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu, among other languages. The Central Board of Film Certification reported in 2009 that there were over 1200 feature films produced in India. No wonder Indian filmmakers borrow plotlines and characters from wherever they can find them: myths, novels, and especially other movies.

I haven't tried to keep count, but I've noticed that a lot of the Bollywood films we've seen draw either indirect or direct inspiration from Hollywood movies. Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (Love Had To Happen, 1998) borrows from French Kiss (1995); Mohabbatein (Love Stories, 2000) from Dead Poets Society (1989); the first Munna Bhai movie, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (We're As Good As Anyone Else, 2002) from Analyze This (1999); Chori Chori (Secretly, 2003) from Housesitter (1992); Koi Mil Gaya (I Found Someone, 2003) from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Life In A... Metro (2007) from The Apartment (1960), and on and on.

The tracing of borrowings can also become quite involved. Sholay (Flames, 1975), for example, one of the most revered films in Bollywood history, takes its main plot from Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which itself borrowed from The Magnificent Seven (1960), which reimagines Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) as a Western. Heyy Babyy (2007) takes its premise from Three Men and a Baby (1987), which was itself a remake of the French film Trois hommes et un couffin (1985). Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (Silently, Secretly, 2001) borrows heavily from Pretty Woman (1990), which was a retelling of My Fair Lady (1964), which was a film version of the 1956 Lerner and Loewe Broadway show of the same title, which was a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1912).

I can't say that all of these borrowings, influences and inspirations bother me in the slightest, apart from the question of writers receiving proper credit. For me it's mainly a question of how effectively the borrowings are Bollywoodized. Some Bollywood films are disappointingly literal: Life in a...Metro just transplanted The Apartment wholesale from New York to Mumbai. Others, though, improve on the originals. I'd rather watch Kajol than Meg Ryan, or Rani Mukherjee than Goldie Hawn, any day.

More parallels to follow!


  1. Good article altho I must confess I like to watch Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn movies! I think Goldie Hawn is a natural actress but then I am a "desi" (ie an Indian) living overseas and having best of both worlds ie continuing to enjoy Indian movies as well as movies from other countries! Having said that, i do understand where u r coming from when u say u rather watch Kajol or Rani coz both these actresses are awesome!

  2. Filmbuff, I meant no disparagement of either Meg Ryan or Goldie Hawn. But for me both Kajol and Rani are warmer, more sympathetic and more compelling actresses.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi - I did not take it as a disparagement! I totally agree with u about K& R in ur response