An economist waxes poetic about Bollywood

Economist Tyler Cowen goes Bollycrazy on a visit to Delhi:

If you don’t already know Indian movies you should… Don’t think that Lagaan (or Satyajit Ray, for that matter) is the real thing, or that Blockbuster will do you any good. Cut to the songs. The use of color, cinematography, and orchestration of scenes will blow your mind. Allow yourself to be mesmerized. Compare them to your dreams at night, not to other movies you know, and pretend it is the only air-conditioned place in town.

I would go much, much further. There are only a couple of quality Bollywood films out every year, you’ll kiss a lot of frogs along the way. But the good ones handle emotion in a way far superior to that of the best of American cinema. Hollywood movies are rife with scenes which ought to be laden with emotion, but the filmmakers invariably affect a detached tone. And it’s not purposely understated, stoic or ironic detachment; it’s incompetent writing, it’s wooden and absurd.

You’ll often see a mother sending her son off to war or certain death with a stiff ‘you must go now,’ cut, end of scene. There’s a fine line between avoiding schmaltz and copping out on emotion altogether. Mainstream American films often feel hollow, $100M in effects with atrocious writing, the blowdried-fake-tan-colored-contacts version of worship in the darkened temple of cinema. And so even fairly cerebral films with any emotional content at all (Sideways, Eternal Sunshine) seem like blazing, Oscar-worthy paragons of passion.

Is this just cultural? Probably, for the films explicitly pitched as Oscar bait; it reflects a culture with lower emotionality than desi culture. With mainstream films, in contrast, a major part of the problem is market consolidation. When you’re chasing high revenues, you inject high investment; when you’ve committed a lot of money, you target the broadest market; for the largest market, you talk only to the reptilian sub-brain with boobs and bombs. Finely-modulated emotions are too risky an investment.

Sorry, guys. I’ve already seen Bollywood.

Previous posts on Cowen’s India trip: 1, 2

5 thoughts on “An economist waxes poetic about Bollywood

  1. Iam not sure if I understood this blog post well Manish, I hope what Iam writing makes sense. I think there are good and bad in both bollywood and hollywood movies There are some good hollywood movies too which moved me to tears in terms of emotional impact like “philadelphia,saving private ryan,schindlers list,deadpoets society etc.,” And there are some good bollywood movies which touched my heart like salaam bombay, lagaan,mother india etc., And vast majority of bollywood movies are lot of song, dance, a bad villain and a physically strong morally right hero and a pretty herione dancing around trees and a lot of emotional tear jerking scenes. And most of them are not realistic and often dreamy but majority of poor and middle class india go to movies as a form of entertainment to be in the dream world for sometime and forget their problems for a while atleast those three hours they sit in the movie theatre. Our servant maid used to say that she hated movies where she could not cry and which did not have lot of dream songs. Lot of indians like emotional tear jerking dialogues and dream songs and so the movie makers keep spinning more of them. And most of these mass masala indian movies are still a lil bit realistic in terms of portraying indian family values,culture, costumes etc., And likewise there are a lot of hollywood movies which are all superpowerful heros, guns and fights, voilence,crude language and romance..And half of them are not realistic too..But people here in US love action, big fight scenes, super powerful supermans. People go for movies here also for entertainment to see such kind of movies and so hollywood movie makers make more of those movies catering to the needs of their people.. Real india is somewhere inbetween movies like lagaan, salaam bombay and all those masala indian movies And likewise real america is somewhere inbetween movies like philadelphia and those superman movies.. and coming to writing scripts for movies.. I feel there are some excellent creative scripts/screenplays like good will hunting, dead poets society,back to the future etc., in the west and likewise there are some excellent creative scripts/screenplays in both hindi and regional films in india too..

  2. When I walk out of a movie theater, the test is, did I feel anything? And with Hollywood flicks, the answer is usually ‘no.’ They had two hours of my undivided attention, and they blew it.

    Don’t get me wrong– Bollywood is weak on plot subtlety, romantic sophistication and special effects. But at the most basic level, I always walk out of a Bollywood movie having felt something powerful.

  3. u are right manish,when it comes to sci fi or special effects bollywood fails bec. of lack of technology and wild imagination too probably.Risk taking/trying new themes is not something indians try often, they stick to the same routine of hero dominated romantic movies.. thats why u dont see any science fi or special effect films made in india..koyi mil gaya was a cheap imitation of ET I think…

    romantic sophistication and plot subtlety are relative..for indian themes and indian tastes, song and dance in a movie is a must, so u cannot see romantic sophistication or plot subtlety when u have to have a song/dance jump in suddenly amidst scenes. And in some movies I agree with u, plot subtlety is not there at all and such movies fail badly in bollywood too where u can guess the end and its the same story/scenes all over again. But again plots are written just for indian audience in india I guess..

    Even I feel the same way when I see any bollywood film powerful or happy or content whatever is the word, because we are indians and we can relate to a lot of lil.lil moments in the film so we feel something..

    I cried watching a few hollywood films too..philadelphia was one of them..casteway was another of them ( both are tomhanks movies)..there are more too which made me feel something.But u are right not all hollywood films make u feel something.

    since I came to US, I can watch any indian movie and feel good , its as if it helps us feel at home or feel less homesick after watching an indian film.. dil ki baat hi..and we are all indians at heart loving the color, costumes,music , dance,and to me even listening to the language hindi or telugu makes me feel good.

  4. I should add that I don’t consider “simple emotion” to be, in anyway, simplistic or an insult.

    In fact, I think it’s almost a sort of Hollywood snobbery that prevents them from unleashing their full creative juices at exploring such EveryMan topics like the Joy a family feels on the eve of a wedding. For too many Hollywood movies, the focus is the fly in the ointment rather than the Joy. There are just way too many cynics who rule the roost there.

    Don’t get me wrong – there are a few Hollywood flicks that go here, but they’re the exception, not the rule. And I think Hollywood still occasionally does a decent job with more complex emotional material like Dead Poet’s Society or Saving Private Ryan. But while a sizeable chunk of Private Ryan’s budget & Skillz were spent on the D-Day sequence, in Bollywood, it’s the Sangeet

    For much of the world, however, they’d rather see the cinematography, editing, color, costumes, etc. spent that way rather than on Utah Beach….