I recently debated the future of Bollywood among American desis with a couple of second genners who aren’t fans of the cinema. ‘Asoka’ thinks assimilation will make Bollywood irrelevant in the U.S. desi community, because the movies are poorly-written. I argue improvements in quality, distribution and filtering point to a bright future. The ever-reasoned ‘Birbal’ split the difference. Names have been changed to protect them from the Bollyfans who walk among us.
Bollywood will vanish among desi Americans
“I‘ll bet you $20 it doesn’t change. U.S. desis, especially the new generations, are more assimilated. They (and I’m one of them) will never be into Bollywood. I view Bollywood as an example of the excesses and frivolity of our culture and not something I am interested in preserving for myself or my offspring. I can count the number of friends I have that like Bollywood films on one finger (men and women)… even the girls I know don’t like Bollywood, and I have as many if not more female friends than male friends.
“The U.S. model will never mimic the UK model unless we start forming ethnic ghettos here. If that happens then I think you’ll be right. What it comes down to is that most Bollywood stories suck by western standards. Production value means nothing when the best Bollywood film would be a C-list Western film.
“The reason that smart Bollywood commentary is lacking is because there isn’t much coming out of Bollywood that can be considered smart… The last Hindi film I saw was Mr. and Mrs Iyer, which I thought was decent. The last Bollywood film I saw was in India and Toral from The Apprentice was in it. I’ve seen Devdas and KKKG and thought they were so bad I wanted to rip my eyeballs out. The only Bollywood film I actually liked was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and by American movie standards it was just okay… Yes, if you are [non-desi] it is exotic and quaint…
“I go to [Indian film festivals]… they have some great Hindi language film and Tamil language films. I both enjoy them and would take my kids to see them someday. They are not, however, Bollywood films, which in my view tend to advocate materialism and shallowness, bigotry against other races, and bigotry in their representation of 2nd gen Indians living abroad. For those reasons I would not expose my children to Bollywood films.
“I still think it’s about the ghettos. We will see in 10 years. I think if you [polled] under-26 Sepia Mutiny readers, they [would] overwhelmingly be non-Bollywood watchers.”
Bollywood will spread, but I’m not a fan
“I‘m not a fan of Bollywood at all. Even Lagaan, which was supposed to be a good film, wasn’t as good as most mediocre western movies I’ve seen, and I like movie musicals and emo…
“I watch movies with subtitles, but I’ve never seen a great Bollywood film. The best was – OK, entertaining, sort of like a mediocre big budget blockbuster in the US. At the best, we’re talking around Pirates of the Caribbean level…
“That said, I think [Asoka] is wrong at judging the audience… [The young] know much about Bollywood. I actually see this increasing, since the younger generation grew up with Zee TV on the satellite, while we did not.
“I went to see Lagaan with two American women, Bollywood is the new Chinese cinema for lots of hip urbanites. They see it as exotic and quaint, still it’s making inroads…”
Bollywood’s popularity among U.S. desis will increase. We know this empirically.
Part of why desi Americans don’t watch Bollywood is distribution and filtering. There isn’t any decent theater nearby, so you only get crappy, pirated videotapes. And you have no friends who watch, so you don’t know which one movie every few months is decent.
But the future points to more Bolly in the U.S. In the UK you have broad distribution of Hindi films at mainstream cineplexes, you don’t need to drive an hour. Same in some cities in Canada. Same will happen here, it’s inevitable. Birbal nails it, distribution is way up among younger desis with 4-8 desi satellite channels and movie downloads online. My youngest brother got into Bollywood via the Net and female friends who watch. Lots of desi college girls are very into Bollywood, with posters all over their walls.
It’s really, qualitatively different seeing an official print on a big screen vs. a 3rd-gen pirated copy at home — the colors, the sharpness, the sound. It’s 3x better an experience. A lot of the technical quality flaws are due to the medium in which you’re seeing it.
Yes, there are only a handful of smart, original movies, three to four a year. Going randomly without filtering (like I sometimes do ) is going to waste your time. Those three to four totally rock, though, and those who miss them are missing out in a big way, not just for the movies themselves but also for the cultural landmarks they become. It’s like missing Star Wars when it first came out, or Born on the Fourth of July, or Munich. Bonus: they invariably star attractive desis.
Also, this is a moving target. Someone who timed out on this three years ago would have dismissed the huge upshift in slickness that just happened (slick CGI and cut screens, better acting, adventurousness in screenplays, physically fit actors), just like if you dismissed India three years ago you would’ve missed all the Baristas, highways, ATMs and shopping malls.
Bollywood is the love that dare not speak its name. In the U.S. it’s largely a female phenomenon among second-genners, and the only guys who even realize it’s there are those who hang out with women and their female friends. People don’t talk a lot of Bollywood on SM in part because that’s what Sulekha and friends are for.
Yes, there’s a much higher percentage of poorly-written stories in cinema of a less developed country. You go through consumerism and cheese before you get to restraint and irony. But those 3-4 a year are neither C-list in the U.S. nor A-list. They’re something you can’t get in American cinema. At all. They’re like gelato in Italy or fireworks in London or deep dish pizza in Chicago, they’re in a league of their own. Western films are ridiculously unadventurous with emotion. They’re the Keanu Reeves of global cinema. And I don’t yet know whether Asoka is in the 95% who lack distribution and filtering, or the hardcore 5% who don’t like emo cinema.
Also, they’re all subtitled now, and it’s not a monolithic category any more. Instead of just romance and action, there’s now horror, sci-fi, artier flicks and so on. A new film out, Zinda, is a rip of an edgy Korean movie, Oldboy — instead of cloning big cheesy American flicks they’re fanning out to much more novel stories. This is all recent, last 3-5 years.
Lagaan looked slow and overhyped (I haven’t watched it yet, skimming it didn’t excite me). See Bombay, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Dil Se if you’re a romantic, Rang De Basanti, Yuva or Krantiveer for something more substantive, Raincoat for a character study.
It’s about subculture formation, not ghettos. SM is a primo, nÃºmero uno example of this subculture formation. There is a uniquely second-gen angle on Bollywood — snarky mockery of the bad ones (Turbanhead), smart analysis of the good ones. We need not just smarter movies but also smart, American-focused Bollywood commentary. Non-desi reviewers in the NYT, New Yorker and Village Voice miss too much cultural context. In mainstream Indian media, here’s the most thoughtful review of Rang De Basanti I saw, and I disagree with almost everything it says. It calls the nationalism subtle (by American standards it’s in-your-face), thinks the Punjabi is authentic (it’s totally fake, it’s 90% Hindi), and gives away the ending right up front.
Not only will Bollywood rise here, there will also be a Memoirs of a Geisha equivalent. Leaving aside that movie’s stereotyping, I’m talking about a movie with nearly all Indian actors, filmed in English and aimed at the mainstream U.S. market. And, of course, second-gen cinema can only improve.
Bollywood is changing because Indian society is changing. But if someone locks in ‘anti-Bollywood’ just like our parents locked in ‘anti-Western family culture’ 30 years ago, they risk becoming as anachronistic as the mad scientist in Back to the Future 3:
Doc: No wonder this circuit failed. It says “Made in Japan.”
Marty: What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.