Wallflower once more

Oscar season has come and gone, and Indian film came nowhere close to being honored with Rang de Basanti failing to even make the foreign films shortlist and Water getting passed over. Reacting to RDB’s poor showing in the BAFTAs (the British Oscars), actor Naseeruddin Shah had this to say:

“We just don’t make films of an international standard… I really don’t think we make films that can match those from other parts of the world. And I am not referring to Hollywood – we make copies of Hollywood,” [Link]

Criticisms of Bollywood’s lack of originality and quality are nothing new, but coming from Shah they carry more weight. When I make similar statements, my Bollydefending friends justly point out that as an ABD I just don’t get the genre-specific joys, but it’s harder to rebut somebody who has acted in both mainstream Bollywood film and alternative cinema in India, appearing in over 130 films with 3 Filmfare magazine awards to his name. Furthermore, his statements appear to be more than an indictment against Bollywood; as quoted they are a criticism of the entire Indian film industry.

This is not to hold Hollywood up as an exemplar of good taste and originality. M.Night won worst director at this year’s Razzies and this year’s Best Film, The Departed, is a less exciting copy of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs. [Granted it really won as a deferred reward for Scorcese, but still ...]

What makes Shah’s criticism interesting is that he’s not saying India should be like Hollywood, instead he’s comparing India to other third world countries, saying that they produce better movies:

“We can’t match the types of films made in Iran for example, Poland, Japan, Mexico or Brazil, Vietnam or Korea… These countries are producing the most incredible movies and we are still plodding on with our boy-meets-girl safe, old formula. That is the reason I think our films aren’t taken seriously”. [Link]

Others point not to quality but to the lack of an adequate marketing budget (thanks Anil). The producer of The Departed had this advice:

… the financers who fund Bollywood movies must spend double or triple of the production costs they are currently spending just in marketing efforts and use it to promote the beauty of Indian cinema to a mainstream audience. As far as ‘The Departed’ is concerned, the promotion budget exceeded the costs of the production of the movie [Link]

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p> And unnamed “Hollywood Executives” in the same article pointed to market structure as an additional problem:

According to Hollywood executives, another problem is that Indian filmmakers don’t distribute their movies in mainstream theatres in key US markets. Instead, these are distributed among independent theatres in South Asian areas.

‘Hollywood is a business. Once Hollywood understands the business and the huge fan base of the Indian film industry and how much money can be made, the Indian film industry will definitely be taken more seriously in Hollywood,’ said one studio executive. [Link]

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p>Lastly, as a counterpoint to this gnashing of teeth and rending of hair, Manish argues that this was no great loss for India:

The Oscars were a joke this year… Who in their right minds wants an Oscar when these are the films they anoint? It’s a race to the bland bottom… And Bolly denizens are sitting here crying into their chai when a Canadian flick loses the affirmative action Oscar. Bollyflicks are about as foreign to most of the world as the World Series are international. It would’ve tarnished their reputation to have won in a year that’s a monument to flavorless parochialism. [Link]

Maybe the problem isn’t India’s film industry, or meager production budgets, it’s the Oscars themselves. What do you think? Should India stop looking to the golden statue for validation and do its own thing? Or was this year’s loss another “learning experience” for Indian cinema.

141 thoughts on “Wallflower once more

  1. “Deep art can hardly come from a shallow milieu.”

    You are so correct (except about Karan Johar).

    To elaborate on your point, the most complex and diverse cultures have incubated the world’s greatest art. As an Irish friend of mine said once, “We are great poets and writers because the Irish know how to suffer.”

  2. What needs to change in the obsequisness towards English, a better understanding of their own identity, a resurgence in colloquial thinking and communication and a return to a tradition of taking risks.

    That’s the gist. It is for this reason, when the IWEs genuflect to English, they sound artificial and disconnected, and produce a distorted ethnography. Unless you are so detailed that the writing conjures up images of that time and place (Suitable Boy, God of Small things, STrange and Sublime Address) with ease. Btw, natives – Vikram Chandra has to add the word cult before authenticity. Now defend yourselves. Go figure. Well, if you are a purist, you will follow Ghatak, and make Titash Ekti Nadir Nam, where the characters speak in the language of their fishing village, with no subtitles :) The incommensurability is complete now. It is the time for World Bank honchos to come in their AC jeeps.

    The fact that I am writing in English is because I am trying to reach out to a community that has gathered here from many different places. That does not mean, riding on the circumstances that allow me this opportunity, I will forget the synonym for ‘regret’ in Bengali.

    Have some respect for sociology, and for history. Thumping the table serves no purpose. Recall who you jettisoned, who you embraced, who you speak to. Perhaps customers need to be entrepreneurs. Perhaps people need to seek each other out, the storyteller and the listener, squatting in an awkward pose in their native lands.

    Now back to the conversation:

    Power is inclusive.

    Kobayashi, while I agree that power is indeed an increasingly important issue to grapple with, I think the issue really is of tolerance, allowing people to be their own selves. No, not the negative liberty kind, (that’s the norm in this country), but a liberty that allows spontaneous expression.

    Errr….no mate, that straw man was shaped and stuffed and dressed by you in the first place, when you categorised Deepa Mehta as a satanic and crafty scheming ‘outsider’

    Mate, don’t get so agitated. Sometimes nouns are more powerful without the adjectives. Just outsider is enough.

    Your aesthetic sensibility being in accordance with the outrage of the RSS philistines and their hysterics about the virginal cultural rape of them by, ahem, Deepa Mehta, is all par for the course.

    I get a sense of where you want to drag me into. I don’t want to go there, mate. Here’s a smiley :)

    Moornam, you are right. The economy drives everything (well, almost). That’s my hope too. When the belly is full, and tenure/job guaranteed, success will follow.

    But it is also true that in India, when the belly was not full, they did not lose hope. For them, the journey was the destination. With the help of money, it is remarkably easy to pose as a poet amongst poetasters. But grit with aplomb – that inspires, probably lasts longer than the shelf life of a few upstarts.

    Now if I don’t get back to work, I might risk the possibility of an empty stomach (and that SUV). Great conversation.

  3. Moornam, you are right. The economy drives everything (well, almost). That’s my hope too. When the belly is full, and tenure/job guaranteed, success will follow.

    Wrong.

  4. Sometimes nouns are more powerful without the adjectives. Just outsider is enough.

    Naah dude, I was satirising the agitated histrionic nonsense of describing her as an ‘exotica peddler’ ‘outsider’ full of ‘cunningness’ in the first place.

    I get a sense of where you want to drag me into

    Nope, you’d already dragged yourself there in your first post on the subject. But I’m glad you unnderstood the inanity of it in retrospect, and you deserve a smiley for recognising that. I salute you for it sir.

  5. Kobayashi : >>Moornam, you are right wrong about The economy drives everything (well, almost). That’s my hope too. When the belly is full, and tenure/job guaranteed, success will follow.

    Ok – let me try again.

    Art is an end-product of the economy of a system – that is, it is how the system expresses itself.

    This has been true since the dawn of human civilisation. Before the French cavemen could draw their experiences in rural Gaul, they had to hunt, kill, store and eat. When their belly was full and there was a couple of days of fat accumalated in them, they could think of expressing themselves on the cave-walls.

    Satyajit Ray had to pawn his wife’s jewellery to make a portion of Panther Panchali. Now, picture a Ray who had enough money in Stocks, Bonds and Real Estate, and then hand him a camera. Would his product be better? Free from monetary worries, would he produce art that would not meet, but beat international standards? Unafraid of facing his wife’s glare, would he be free to think in ways that nobody would have thought of?

    M. Nam

  6. Also, I never said you hated India. I’m sure taking pictures of relatively mundane diasporic practices that we all have documented in our family albums and repackaging them and selling them to westerners as tokens of our “exotic” lifestyles has been very rewarding for you commercially. That hardly means that people like me should somehow consider you an authority on a culture that we grew up surrounded by and to which my exposure far outstrips your own.

    Erm, aside from how snarky and ignorant that is, I would suggest that there’s a vast difference between being steeped in a culture and having the awareness and ability to step back, reflect on it and comment about it (be it in pictures or words) in a way that it is either insightful or illuminating, without it all just descending into racist poop-flinging with people who have differing points-of-view. I see many people on Sepia Mutiny (both brown and white and whatever else) doing the former, while you seem to excel at the latter.

  7. Pulling the race card is getting old. Preston made very valid comments and I agree with most of what he had to say. I didn’t find it offensive or racist at all. There are some Desi’s need to stop crying wolf (or racism in this case) every time a non-desi says something that they don’t agree with. That is what I find offensive. Just because someone isn’t brown doesn’t mean they can’t have an opinion when it comes to matters that are brown.

  8. “Satyajit Ray had to pawn his wife’s jewellery to make a portion of Panther Panchali. Now, picture a Ray who had enough money in Stocks, Bonds and Real Estate, and then hand him a camera. Would his product be better? Free from monetary worries, would he produce art that would not meet, but beat international standards? Unafraid of facing his wife’s glare, would he be free to think in ways that nobody would have thought of?”

    Moornam, I think Ray would have been even greater had he say the financial freedoms of a David Lean (Sam Spiegel even approached ray in the 60s but nothing came of it)… but rarely are those with the soul for art given large $$$. It’s a sad fact but Michael Bay is infinitely more bankable in Hollywood than Guillermo del Toro… :(

  9. Before the French cavemen could draw their experiences in rural Gaul, they had to hunt, kill, store and eat. When their belly was full and there was a couple of days of fat accumalated in them, they could think of expressing themselves on the cave-walls.

    An elementary error, Nam-Ji. The images drawn on the walls of the Chauvet caves are not about “self-expression,” which is in any case a modern concept. They are about enacting a presence, in this case, the presence of sacred energies within the animals depicted. The same is true of Lascaux. This is worth thinking about. There’s more to human life than full-bellies, or money. They knew that, our forebears. We’ve lost that.

    Indeed, the Chauvet painters might have been on the perpetual edge of hunger (as would be typical of hunter-gatherer societies). The keen spiritual insight in their paintings might be partly due to the heightened awareness that comes from limitations.

    As for whether the Apu Trilogy would have been better if Satyajit Ray had been a rich man, you know, I’m content to let the question hang in the air.

  10. As for whether the Apu Trilogy would have been better if Satyajit Ray had been a rich man, you know, I’m content to let the question hang in the air.

    :-)

    Adding on, and this applies primarily to the true geniuses of art (or science too for that matter), geniuses have the rare ability to make out of whatever they are dealt with. Thus the very things that would stifle someone else, it is used by these geniuses. So again, would Kafka or Van Gogh created what they did if they were perfectly sane people, would Cobain have written the songs he did if he had a normal childhood or would Ray have created the movies he did if he had not seen poverty. Well, all these people would have created something just as remarkable but just different. The vagaries of life surely would not have held them back one way or the other.

  11. Ardy, The issue isn’t about the Cobains, Rays, or Van Goghs of the world CREATING remarkable things…it’s about DISTRIBUTION AND MARKETING..that’s where $$$ comes in…. Ray struggled for financing on nearly every one of his films. MIDDLEMAN was supposed to be widely released in the US urban markets (60 screens) insead the release was bereft at 10.

    G. King is spot on…Until Indian producers spend 2-3X their budgets on marketing they will be unable to compete in the global marketplace and Oscar attention will elude them.

  12. Ennis, given that you wrote this post, I think it’s only fair that I address this to you.

    1. When did you start watching Hindi films?

    2. Did you only watch contemporary Hindi cinema, or did you watch films produced in an earlier era as well?

    3. Did you watch mainstream, non-mainstream and the so called middle-of-road cinema in Hindi equally?

    If it is possible, could you possible discuss a Hindi film that was highly recommended to you, and yet didn’t appeal to you. Could you discuss why it didn’t appeal to you?

    As for some of the other commenters, it is at moments such as these that I wish we could go back to the times in the 60s when India’s English speaking chattering classes wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Hindi film.

  13. So again, would Kafka or Van Gogh created what they did if they were perfectly sane people, would Cobain have written the songs he did if he had a normal childhood or would Ray have created the movies he did if he had not seen poverty.

    You really don’t know much about Ray now, do you :) ? Ray’s name is being invoked repeatedly in this discussion but I strongly suspect that most of these people have not seen a single Ray film besides Pather Panchali.

    And have fundamentally misunderstood Pather Panchali and what it conveys about a certain moment in Bengali life and history.

  14. Before the French cavemen could draw their experiences in rural Gaul, they had to hunt, kill, store and eat. When their belly was full and there was a couple of days of fat accumalated in them, they could think of expressing themselves on the cave-walls.
    An elementary error, Nam-Ji. The images drawn on the walls of the Chauvet caves are not about “self-expression,” which is in any case a modern concept. They are about enacting a presence, in this case, the presence of sacred energies within the animals depicted. The same is true of Lascaux. This is worth thinking about. There’s more to human life than full-bellies, or money. They knew that, our forebears. We’ve lost that. Indeed, the Chauvet painters might have been on the perpetual edge of hunger (as would be typical of hunter-gatherer societies). The keen spiritual insight in their paintings might be partly due to the heightened awareness that comes from limitations.

    Mr Kobayashi, You just saved me 20 minutes: I was already mentally composing a similar, albeit less articulate response until I scrolled down and caught your own “presence enactment”. Though we will never know exactly why they risked death by traveling deep underground and what they were trying to convey, I would surmise that these paleolithic people were acutely aware that they were never far from the precipice of death and traveled deep into forbidding earthen wombs to honor and “repopulate” the animals they relied on to survive and honor the skilled hunters among them who had ensured the tribe’s survival. I wouldn’t characterize their actions as motivated by boredom and “a couple of days of fat accumalated in them,” but rather out of hunger, desperation and an understanding of the thin line between living and dying.

    I’m certainly no expert, so feel free to come to your own conclusions. I do, however, think I know what this particular cave-artist was trying tell us. And it’s pretty compelling.

    Interesting how a discussion about validating Indian cinema in the West somehow morphs into conjecture about the motivations of stone-age cave-painters. Perhaps “art critic” is the world’s second oldest profession?

  15. Apologies for too many examples from Ray, but in his Agantuk, Utpal Dutt mentions that he became an wanderlust because he never could understand the caveman’s spirit behind this magnificent depiction of the bison at Altamira. He left home to search for that unknown in tribal communities.

    After a visit, Picasso famously exclaimed “after Altamira, all is decadence”. [link] :)

    Well, I can sense some impatience at the high art, but let me tell you that it is all in the mind. Some people follow art for vanity, some do it as a way of life. i have seen people happily dancing to Mozart’s tunes on the streets of Europe, whereas in another context it might be a statement of sorts.

    in that spirit, there’s much joy in enjoying a Govinda and Chunky Pande movie with masala chai and samosas? (Floridian # 101)

  16. a Ray who had enough money in Stocks, Bonds and Real Estate I sure am glad his father did not spend too much time worrying about money. As it is, he died young — too young — just before the cure for Kalazar was discovered. Lila Majumdar, his cousin and another great writer, just completed 100 years last week. Ah, the possibilities!

    Where are the young risk takers, making movies on maxed out credit cards.. (6000$)

    Crazy and creative of all sorts are alive and well in India, struggling but dreaming. I grew up on ‘exotica peddled’ by small-town film clubs (maffoshwoler cine club) projecting Bunuel, Bergman and Tarkovsky on the uneven walls of 150 year old school and college buildings perpetually on the verge of collapsing. How dadas managed to regularly get those prints is still a mystery. One of the guys I grew up with has been working with Shyam Benegal as a cameraman. Another has been shooting shorts for a while — features take a lot of money and contacts — and yes,like everyone else, he does have the most wonderful script just waiting to be filmed.

    His last short — A man of shadows which I had the privilege of watching with him last December when I was in India — is about Daju who ran away from his home in coastal Orissa when he was a teenager and since then, has travelled all over India. After teaching himself handshadowgraphy, Daju now goes to schools in remote villages and with his amazing shows, teaches and entertains kids. He can not read, but has insatiable curiosity and incredible energy. In one particularly interesting section of the film, my friend shot Daju narrating a creation myth — emergence of different animals in this world in a specific order starting from a priomordial soup. Obviously the act of handshadowgraphy shot by a camera playing its own tricks with shadow and light is supposed to make you think about the medium of film itself.

    Back to my crazy friend and risks. It is not just about budgets even though a maxed out credit card and 6000$ are nothing to sneeze at in Indian context. My friend has neither. It is also about career options and opportunity cost. He was smart enough to clear the crazy entrances and pursue a career in science, medicine or engineering, but went for a Phd. in Bangla instead because that is what he loves the most. He has resigned from a daytime lecturer position and does an evening teaching gig so that he can shoot during the day. Even then, it is a scheduling nightmare. And if he gets fired from this job, then what? Taking chances sounds great on paper, but what if most people do not care much for your shit and there is no way for you to reach those who do? And if you figure this out after you are 30, which new career in India will welcome you with open arms?

  17. I’m glad Water did not get any nod not because I cherish the Oscars (I could not care less) but because Water was trite, art-house clap-trap. Between Monsoon Wedding and Water, I’m not sure which movie made me puke more – the one that transplanted lazy cultural-studies inspired identity-politics to a rich Delhi family (that deserves provincializing as a rich North-Indian Punjabi family so the rest of us Indians don’t have to become native-informants and validators to effusive gringos who loved the movie) or the one that had idiot zoolander narcissist macho-male model John Abraham strutting about in a dhoti trying to look Gandhian. And the casting was either deliberately racist – one doleful, light-skinned, long-haired, blue-eyed widow in a house full of dark-skinned, foul-mouthed ones? – or just incompetent, or just staying true to Bollywood’s own penchant for surrounding the heroine with a gaggle of intentionally nondescript friends. The music was full of European art-cinema cliches as was the cinematography. I’ll stop this tirade here because I could go on.

    As a film studies ABD who feels the pressure to engage with Bollywood for fear of losing out on the fucking job market, let me add that Water is a prime example of what happens when two worlds, two sets of petrified conventions meet on the site of diasporic (non-)creativity – that of the European art cinema (now dead except for endless awful French recyclings of Isabelle Huppert & Co. in psycho-sexual situations), and that of Bollywood (by which I mean very specifically the conjunction of industry, economics, financing, marketing and export typified by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and its successors).

  18. As a film studies ABD who feels the pressure to engage with Bollywood for fear of losing out on the fucking job market, let me add that Water is a prime example of what happens when two worlds, two sets of petrified conventions meet on the site of diasporic (non-)creativity – that of the European art cinema (now dead except for endless awful French recyclings of Isabelle Huppert & Co. in psycho-sexual situations), and that of Bollywood (by which I mean very specifically the conjunction of industry, economics, financing, marketing and export typified by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and its successors).

    Curmudgeon, this is excellent. “Two sets of petrified conventions meet on the site of diasporic (non-)creativity” — top shelf analysis, even though not having seen the movie I have no idea if I agree. But it sounds right on target.

  19. Speeking of movies – the movie “Eklavya” got released on a Friday, and someone rang the doorbell on Sunday offering the bootlegged DVD/VCD. Ditto for “Guru”. And they wonder why budgets are limited for hindoooo moooovies!!! har har har.

    Desis would sell their soul for a dime with a hole.

    but it’s good to whinge – crib about corruption when the rot is within not without, as is their assumption.

    har har har.

  20. Dipanjan, thank you so much for your comment. The possibilities indeed – but we still have Abol Tabol to be enchanted with, and that is marvellous, no? Why didn’t Ray ever think of bringing any of his father’s stories like Dashu or Lakshmaner Shaktishel to celluloid?

  21. dipanjan, read this piece on Lila Majumdar by Chandril in last Sunday’s Anandabazar. I always liked the lyrics of chandrabindoo, and Chandril is getting better with words and expressions. I sat alone for a while, doing nothing.

    Moornam, you are right. The economy drives everything (well, almost). That’s my hope too. When the belly is full, and tenure/job guaranteed, success will follow. Wrong.

    Right. :)

    Now Kobayashi, after reading Dipanjan’s post what do you have to say? There is really no easy answer. It depends on the source of inspiration. But there is a need for institutions. Safety nets for trapeze artists.

  22. I wonder if the problem is that the market for specifically Indian film in the US does not really incentivize good film? At least not yet.

    I know that my older relatives, my Indian-born cousins, my white friends who think they’re oh-so-multicultural, and most of the other consumers of “Indian film” I know don’t really give two shits about artistic Indian film. They want Bollywood. They want the songs, the predictable plots, the happy endings, the broadly drawn stereotypes. Especially for the older Indians I know, Bollywood IS “real” Indian film (but I’ll admit my sample is skewed towards bourgeois Gujaratis, very few of whom would have enjoyed “artfilms” in India anyway). The films shown on Zee and the other satellite networks are not particularly artistic, although old Bollywood movies are at least more interesting than the current Shahrukh Khan pablum. The films released to South Asian theatres are straight-up Bollywood too. So if you’re an Indian film producer or distributor, what would make you WANT to identify or develop India’s version of Guillermo del Toro or Park Chan-wook? You know what sells: big budget nationalist musical romantic comedy in the diaspora, and maybe some poverty porn for the white audiences. Why take a risk on anything else?

    dipanjan points out that good, creative, innovative film is being made in India. I don’t doubt it! There are so many incredible stories to tell, and such a huge creative tradition that I would be shocked if there weren’t some people still making great independent film. But how are the kinds of Western networks that ultimately feed into the Oscars going to see that?

    So maybe this gets back to the “marketing dollars” issue, but I think it complicates it as well. It seems to me that the problem is NOT inadequate Indian film marketing, it’s marketing for the wrong Indian films.

  23. Why didn’t Ray ever think of bringing any of his father’s stories like Dashu or Lakshmaner Shaktishel to celluloid

    Probably because of format more than anything else. Difficult to make a full-length feature out of Sukumar Ray’s stories. There is of course the documentary which has a few scenes from Lakkhoner Shaktishel. And regarding the epics, in general, he was more interested in the dramatic potential of Mahabharata than Ramayana. His long-standing dream of making a film out of the dice-game episode is well-documented.

  24. dipanjan And regarding the epics, in general, he [Ray] was more interested in the dramatic potential of Mahabharata than Ramayana. His long-standing dream of making a film out of the dice-game episode is well-documented.

    Unfortunately Ray was all his life torn between his more recent aseptic, joyless, colourless, and sterile Brahmo pseudo-tradition and the grander, vastly richer Indic aesthetic tradition. He did redeem himself with Gupi Gyne… and Hirak Raajer.. but these too had touches of the colonial inspired thinking. In between he made that lovely 35 minute documentary on Bala Saraswati; and ultimately redeemed himself with Agantuk where like the protagonist, Ray himself returned to the original folk traditions of Bengal.

  25. Curmudgeon, you are so right. I practically squirmed when I learned that Lisa Ray was being cast for the role in Water, it was a total Aishwarya Rai sort of casting choice and she didn’t fit the part one bit. Funny thing is, as you and Neal both point out, Bollywood is what even arty firangs want from Indian cinema these days. I’ve tried to get so many friends to watch the more political films with me but they all want kitsch and dancing and singing because “isn’t that what Indian cinema is best at?” Cultural Consumption as Confirmation of Comfortable Stereotypes 101. Aaaarrrrrrrgh.

  26. Funny thing is, as you and Neal both point out, Bollywood is what even arty firangs want from Indian cinema these days. I’ve tried to get so many friends to watch the more political films with me but they all want kitsch and dancing and singing because “isn’t that what Indian cinema is best at?” Cultural Consumption as Confirmation of Comfortable Stereotypes 101. Aaaarrrrrrrgh.

    No but, SP, there are a lot of people who just enjoy them because they fill a gap that Hollywood has all but ignored for years now: the musical. Plus, for a story I did a few months back, people told me they loved the more heightened emotion in mainstream Hindi movies, and others went on to add that the lack of overt, explicit sex onscreen was another plus.

  27. you know, I’m glad to find some agreement on my assessment of Water as just a bad film, as cliched art-cinema filmmaking (in addition to being orientalist, but that’s an academic historiographical argument that I hold to more intuitively than feel competent to spell out at this point). And Monsoon Wedding comes very close to SP’s “Cultural Consumption as Confirmation of Comfortable Stereotypes”, which is part of my intense dislike for that film.

    But I don’t think the issue is of making a choice between political filmmaking versus Bollywood.

    I don’t really have a problem with bollywood- i grew up on equal measures of manmohan desai and benegal/nihalani (not to omit Ray and Ghatak), albeit that was a time before Bombay’s film industry and India’s media industries had changed enough to produce the phenomenon we refer to today as Bollywood (Bollywood and Hindi cinema ought not to be conflated, and at least a few really astute scholars of Hindi film have pointed this out; and I agree – although it is true that the word itself has been around for a long time).

    I really enjoy the whole daylight noir (or mumbai noir) crop of films – Sehar, ab tak chappan, company, satya, etc. i loved sudhir mishra’ hazaaron khwahishen aisi, liked Omkara, all of which I think is very much part of the bollywood zeitgeist, and none of those films would have been possible till the 1980′s or even when Mani Ratnam was just starting to make his mark. I dont have much patience for song and dance sequences anymore in most films but that’s because I think Ive just outgrown them; we’ll chalk it to changing taste rather than a preference for the realist mode. I don’t begrudge anyone that pleasure and I agree with filmiholic that India’s cinemas routinely offer an experience one used to find only in Hollywood musicals- hence their growing popularity with non-Indian audiences.

    Perhaps as a somewhat tangential aside, if we think of Nair and Mehta as diasporic filmmakers, I think it is interesting for instance to compare their cinema with its North American origins and “mentalities” with what has come out of the U.K – the Hanif Khureishi written stuff – My beautiful Laundrette, London kills me, Sammy and Rosie get Laid, My son the fanatic… I mean, you watch My Beautiful Laundrette, and you feel like going back to read Raymond Williams. I am very fond of the sort of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ style- kitchen sink realism combined with the fractious class-wars of Thatcherite england with an astute sense of race to boot, that one finds in Laundrette or Sammy and Rosie. There’s a very complex analysis of the South Asian experience there that I find admirable – Saeed Jaffrey’s line to Roshan Seth, “But I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani” is brilliant! And the brightest sparks of this kind of multi-faceted view of the South Asian experience are – still – visible in Bend it like Beckham or Bhaji (even when the focus has ostensibly shifted from class to gender in those films). Anyway, enough silly idle speculation. back to the thesis.

  28. i *loved* sudhir mishra’ hazaaron khwahishen aisi

    amazing movie (you can listen to swanand kirkire’s bavra mann here: Bavra Mann 3)

    I dont have *much* patience for song and dance sequences anymore in most films but that’s because I think Ive just outgrown them

    The old is still gold.

  29. I suppose one shouldn’t be snotty about what people enjoy watching, so yes, fine, if my firang friends only want to watch extended shaadi video sort of movies that’s fine. Actually I quite enjoyed Monsoon Wedding myself, perhaps because it seemed like something of an in-joke, the Panju stereotypes were familiar and funny. It’s hard to resist the urge to be pedagogical when introducing friends to Hindi cinema, I find, perhaps because the pure masala entertainment films are best enjoyed when you’re among family and friends who recognise those films for the mindless entertaining jokes they are, and take comfort in the familiarity of it all, whereas with non-desis you need to explain a lot and end up making contorted arguments about why such-and-such is done, when hell, you really don’t want to think about why such and such is done.

    Speaking of Hazaron Khwahishen, does anyone actually know people who were lefty activists in the 70s as depicted in that film? My parents were much too goody-goody to have been part of that crowd but I was pretty struck (as were some of my friends) at the extremely liberal social and sexual norms depicted. Not that people weren’t sneaking around having sex, which of course they were, but the way the parents (particularly the family of the main female character) don’t blink an eye when she comes home with a male friend after having stayed out all night.

  30. curmudgeon, theses are overrated. Please, more blog-ranting!

    I co-organized a film festival in college a few years ago for our South Asian Students Association. Documentaries attracted 5-10 people at most. This was especially embarrassing in the case of Rakesh Sharma’s “Final Solution,” for which the director came and presented to an audience of 7 in a space which could hold a few hundred…

    Feature films like Salaam Bombay and Kannathil Muthamittal brought in maybe 25-30 people. But when it came to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, we packed the largest space available in college with about 300 people. While it was certainly fun, it was overall just really pathetic and depressing.

    A small triumph came, however, at the end of the year, when we invited Biju Mathew to our end-of-year banquet. He gave his makki-di-roti & sarson-da-saag speech, presenting cultural appropriation in an explicit form: the same people who denigrate New York immigrant cabbies as dirty, smelly, wall-pee-ers are the same ones who line up outside an oft driver-frequented dhaba on Lexington Avenue because they’d read a review of the place in the New York Times. The Times article specifically mentioned those two dishes, and sure enough they were the first two to be completely depleted, leaving the dhaba’s regular customers in a lurch.

    He gave this talk on literally devouring certain aspects of a culture while rejecting/ostracizing other aspects (like its people) while a hall full of mainly white college students scarfed down their Desi dinner.

    It was beautiful.

  31. Excellent comment, Vivek!! Beautiful picture indeed!

    (As for the organizing frustrations, I totally hear you. I’ve been there, done that. What can you expect from SASA kids and the average white gazer?)

  32. Based on your account, Vivek, it’s quite obvious what needs to happen: socially conscious movies need to be entertaining as well if they wish to draw a crowd. Bland arty films are NOT going to draw a mass audience.

  33. You keep talking about makki-di-roti & sarson-da-saag and I’m gonna riot. You’re making me hungry damnit, and it’s just breakfast time! Don’t bring those dishes up around a Punjabi unless you’re planning to share!

  34. Arjun,

    While it’s really tempting to take on the phrase “bland arty film,” I know more or less what you mean, so fine.

    I don’t think either Salaam Bombay or Kannathil Muthamittal fits into the “bland arty” genre, unless by “bland arty” you mean “isn’t at least 3 hrs. long with heavy doses of patriarchy, patriotism, pretension, lotsa skin, or Shah Rukh Khan’s eyebrows furrowing over the course of the film in a valiant but desperate attempt to unite and become one.”

    In my experience, Indian film to the average American consumer is an escape into an ideal world of fun-filled adventures rolling down snow-capped mountains while wearing bright colors. Interrupt this daydream with one sliver of social commentary and half the appeal immediately disappears.

  35. 1.our film industry, especially Bollywood is ruled by stars and star-son pairs – rarely do independent filmmakers or talented artists without star-influential backup make it big

    1. raw talent takes a loooooong time to get recognized – the best example being Vishal Bharadwaj – even at the time of Maachis, he was a proven wonder as a composer, but Bollywood being Bollywood, did NOT encourage this genuine talent (another example, see how the prodigiously talented Kamal Hassan was unceremoniously kicked out)- and hence VB did not have any takers – had he been less talented, he would have been grabbed by every other filmmaker in Bollywood! but VB has proven his mettle, in spite of that, thanks largely to his undeniable talent!

    2. several offbeat filmmakers like Sudhir Mishra, Madhur Bhandarkar etc never get the spotlight (as much as the glorified Johars, Chopras get) at all – in this context, our media has a large share of the blame

    3. our media is not good cinema savvy – either our journalists resort to blind sycophancy (just see the way Raja Sen of rediff.com, so obnoxiously hypes Bachchan every other time he gets an oppurtunity), or they take it so personally (example Khaled Mohammad, who writes good things about stars whom he ‘likes’!) – there is no objecitivity and constructive critical evaluation of movies

    4. very few film personalities have a stage/theatre background – contrastingly, several people from stage/theatre background in the US and UK make it big onscreen too – once again this is happening because of the big stars not letting such talent a chance – for example, Manoj Bajpai is zillion times more talented than Abhishek Bachchan, but Bajpai does not have someone like Amitabh to back him! Abhishek has acted in more than a dozen movies and is still ‘maturing’! same is the case with Irfan Khan, Atul Kulkarni and several others

    4.most often than not, Indian cinema is grossly mistaken to be BOLLYWOOD ALONE, which refers to the Hindi film industry! that is entirely incorrect – there has got to be ways in which movies from all parts of India are shown ,first to our own people so that we become aware of our own movies!!

    5.many of our enthusiastic filmmakers (like Ram Gopal Verma) with some good ideas, start off well, but at some point of time, perhaps, in their desire to excel, overlook the fundamental prerequisites for creative cinema – going back to the workshop and doing some groundwork/homework – which is where they fail – they hardly rethink their priorities

    6.the scripts in our movies are rarely planned well and sketched out well – unlike in other industries, where often there is serious cross-consultations with other colleagues at least for constructively evaluating the scripts

    7.last but not the least, the entire film fraternity in India have failed to understand that the Indian middleclass is gaining increasing exposure to world cinema thanks to the internet mainly and the world is getting smaller and smaller – this percentage of people is definitely higher than how it was 20 years ago – as an audience, we are all receptive to creative filmmaking, but not dumb movies, in the name of doing something creative/different- this is something our filmmakers just dont take into account at all- true that we do have an audience in rural areas who never get to watch international cinema and therefore cannot match, contrast and judge – but that is no excuse to make dumb movies, but we still make them

    A combination of all these factors make up the present state of Indian cinema!