Sunday, June 05, 2005

Bollywood: what's changed?

Further to my Bunty aur Babli post:

As someone who’s stayed away from Hindi movies since around 1990-91 but has seen large chunks of some of the ‘big’ films of the last few years on TV (Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Na Ho, Koi Mil Gaya), I have an unusual vantage point for commenting on the major changes in mainstream Bollywood since the lowbrow 1980s. And honestly I’m saddened by some of what I’ve seen.

The disappointment is partly a result of all the hype about present-day Bollywood being so great compared to 15 or 20 years ago. Many of my friends, trying to encourage me to get back into the Hindi movie scene, have gone on about how classy the films have become, how the cinematography and editing has improved beyond imagining, about the “international” look and feel of the films. “There’s been a vast improvement in quality,” a friend said at a get-together a few months ago, “so stop being such a snob and get back to earth where the rest of us are.”

‘Vast improvement in quality’? I don’t agree with that, at least not based on what little I’ve seen recently (and while it is perhaps too little for a summary judgement, I’ve seen enough to make some specific points). For the record, of the movies I have seen I enjoyed Dil Chahta Hai enormously and thought Kal Ho Na Ho was nice and breezy in parts. But even in those films, especially the latter, there were a couple of things that gave the lie to this notion that Bollywood has somehow evolved in a major way in the last 15 years.

Enough rambling; the point is this:

Bollywood has changed drastically in some very superficial ways. Some of the best-received films today are a hotchpotch of visual gimmickry, flashy jump-cuts borrowed straight from MTV videos and OH SO MUCH posturing by the stars (they arrange themselves in a variety of poses, these guys and dolls, they look meanly into the camera and do cool-looking things with their hands, and it reminds me of Mad magazine’s spoof on the stock gestures made by boy-band members in music videos).

Watching one particularly garish, loud and pointless item number in Bunty aur Babli, I suddenly started thinking about Himmatwala. Mid 1980s. Jumping-Jack Jeetendra. Thunder-Thighs Sridevi. Lots of heavy breathing and dancing on giant tablas. Astonishingly poor music. (At one time in the 1980s it became common to fast-forward songs, they were so bad.)

Why was I thinking of all this while watching Rani and Abhishek shake their booty? Because to my mind Himmatwala was pretty much the nadir of one of the most mediocre phases in mainstream Hindi cinema. It represented all that was lowbrow about Hindi movies, all that had to be sneered at. I had an email conversation recently with a feature-writer friend who works on the films beat in Mumbai and who expressed disdain about those dark days. But now, watching Bunty aur Babli, I couldn’t for the life of me see exactly what has changed over the years. Well yes, the quality of cinematography is worlds away from what it was even 10 years ago…but given technical advances, wasn’t that to be expected? Meanwhile, the characters are still as two-dimensional as they ever were (even though the actors are probably better on the whole). On a few occasions here and there, when a talented director works with a solid script, the results can be brilliant. But mostly it’s just so much dross; the biggest difference it seems to me is that Bollywood has become pretentious about its place in the world. Fifteen years ago no one had any delusions about their standards; now they’re all falling over each other in an orgy of back-patting.

Now I’m not trying to pass blanket judgement on the elements that mainstream Bollywood fare has been built on; the lack of logic, the absence of “meaningful” films. Because the same arguments that have always applied still hold good today: these movies are made for the masses after all, it’s pure entertainment value, people need them to escape the humdrum of their daily lives etc, and watching them in our multiplexes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of a movie’s business comes from the backward regions. I have no problem with any of that. What I do have a problem with is all this chest-thumping about today’s Bollywood being superior to the one I have childhood memories of.

Because in essence, things haven’t changed that much at all. I could give plenty of examples but here’s just one. Apparently one of the great developments in recent Hindi films is that characters have finally started lip-locking onscreen; even simulated sex is depicted. Forward-looking critics tell us this is such a welcome change from the bad old days when the camera would cut to a bush shaking or flowers nodding against each other. “People do kiss and have sex in real life,” they say sagely, “so it was high time Bollywood overcame its coyness about these things.” All very well Timothies, but how do you reconcile this obsession with “realism” with the fact that an intense lip-to-lip kissing scene is still followed immediately by the two lovers swaying their hips and dancing around trees accompanied by a dozen extras? Real people? Come on, this is still Bollywood! So for heaven’s sake stop being so condescending about those rustling bushes and bird-and-bee shots!

P.S. A couple of months ago
Thalassa Mikra had some very similar things to say in a nostalgia post; she wrote:

“During the 1980s Bollywood was at its kitschy best and we embraced it wholeheartedly…the films didn't make for profound cinema, and the songs may not have any hipster appeal, but there was an honesty to them that I admire even now. Current Bollywood is over-stylized, painfully trendy, borrowing camera styles from MTV, populated with actors and actresses who cannot speak Hindi to save their lives.”

Read the full thing


  1. I fully agree with you that bollywood does not have it going for the movie buff. The last bollywood movie I enjoyed was dil chahta hai and since then even the movies that have had good reviews jarred on my senses. They are not a patch on the old Hrishikesh Mukherjee/Basu Bhattachatya etc. movies. Suddenly the vast and vibrant Indian Middle class has vanished.

    When I watched Almodovar's Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, i noticed how well, garishness and farce has been woven into good movie making, I wondered why bollywood cannot keep its idiocyncrasies and still enthrall the audience with meaning and magic. More sorrowful is the fact that India has a huge storehouse and source of good screenplays. Just read any Vaikom Bashir (to name just one) story and you have a wonderful script there...

  2. If I had written the above article, I would have had a disclaimer that would have claimed something like 'the observations made in this article exclude the movies that have been made by RGV's factory in recent years.'

    Mate, I reckon you chose the wrong movie for your second innings. Perhaps you should've spent your hard-earned on a screening of 'D'. Most of your observations may be true. But the quantity of quality movies has gone up a bit.

  3. Rupak: fair enough. There's an unwritten disclaimer running through my post, conceding that my viewing of Hindi films has been very limited in the past few years. And friends tell me that many of the movies I haven't seen are much better rounded works.
    About RGV, I'll say this: the only film of his I've seen is Company and I thought it was very good - tightly scripted, generally well performed etc. But just a tad overrated in a couple of departments: one, Ajay Devgan's performance, which got hosannas for being so underplayed when it was largely non-acting, aided by strategic 'shadowed' cinematography. Two, the fact that at least three key scenes were lifted directly from foreign films.
    (Incidentally, I saw bits of Kaun, a largely-dismissed RGV film on cable and thought it was much better than the critical reception suggested. He's got this knack for minimalism and tautness that I find very interesting.)

  4. Kaun, a minimalist film? The elaborate camera work, artificial settings, garish lighting, contrived plot and characters of the film are diametrically opposite of what the rigorous aesthetic of Minimalism demands.

    I wonder what will you think of RGV after you come across the real minimalist works of Ozu, Bresson and their likes.

  5. The article you just wrote is almost an exact copy of what I wrote last year when all the trade mags in India started talking about the NEW movement in Bollywood that's gonna take the world by storm. Except I named mine, "Monkey Piss in a Chardonnay Bottle".
    Bleh. Ozu ain't got jacks*t against Kurosawa.
    But I've seen Ozu's style (although not directly influenced by him) in some bollywood flicks. The really quiet bollywood flicks with some minimal background score and where the voices of the characters barely goes beyond a whisper. Really melodramatic bland stuff I must say.
    I didn't like RGV's in house stuff after company it wasn't any better.
    I've heard D is all about the gory action and not about the plot.
    Yeah parts of company are straight out of Goodfellas but it was a good direction for Indian cinema nonetheless.
    I blame it all on the institutionalized system of filmmaking in Bombay and the closed system of networking and the casting couch.

  6. Anangbhai: I don't know whether to call it boorish, neanderthal philistinism or just plain, old-fashioned, smart-assy innocent ignorance, but I fail to see how can someone call Ozu "melodramatic". You obviously neither know Ozu nor you understand melodrama.

    My sincere advice for you will be to please revisit least his Tokyo Story and get hold of and read Paul Schrader's book on Ozu called "Transcendental Style in Film".


  7. Alok: thanks for the first comment. Just for the record, I have seen Ozu and Bresson. But I think it's self-evident that when I'm calling Kaun minimalist it's relative to most other Bollywood films I see these days.

    Also, ref. your second comment, no one is under any sort of obligation to be an Ozu fan, you know (or a fan of any other director). And I'd appreciate it if you didn't use my blog to call others "boorish" and "neanderthal". If you feel so strongly about the subject you can directly mail Anangbhai.

  8. Oops! I was just trying to be funny! All those caustic adjectives, I thought, were quite funny. Or, may be not...

    I will definitely think twice before doing something like this in future.


  9. Alok: if you really didn't mean offence, no problem. I'm always accusing everyone else of lacking humour so I guess I was due for a set-up of this sort :)

    Anangbhai: Can you send me your piece, would like very much to read it. (And btw *whisper whisper* don't use the word 'copy', it has very bad connotations for movie writers in the blogosphere ;)

  10. jai, agreed u'r a fine writer...but i dont't think that gives u the licence to hold forth on anything and everything.

    no offence meant here, but spare a minute - and a thought - for the millions who make a film hit or a dud.

    they, i'm sure, would never subscribe to your views of bollywood films beng "lowbrow".

    and i still can't get over the fact that u singled out himmatwallah to make ur point. in case, u'r not aware, the jeetendra-sreedevi starrer was a super duper hit.

    I know that a hit doen't necessairly have to a gr8 film (and vice versa), but jai, the pt here is that the fiml critics -- and i think u aspire to be one -- have sensibilities far far dif from what masses crave. and the masses DON'T READ UR REVIEWS be4 showing a thumbs up sign to a film (and thank god for that!)

    the story of the evln of human ciilisation has been variously descibed -- one school understands this progression in terms of the evolution in ARTS and AESTHETICS. so, a khalid mohamed or a nikhat kazmi (or even u for that matter) might have studied arts / cinema or whatever at a "highbrow" centre in the us / europe (and hence ur revulsion for the typical bollywood fare) but u wd constitute a hopeless minority here, in ndia!

    coz, it's the unwashed masses, the ones who ferry ur luggage at rly stations, the ones who clean ur houses, the ones who sleep on pavements , it's THEY who make a BOLLYWOOD film hit. not ppl like u and me, believe me.

    it's here, i think, that the contribution of actors like jetendra / govinda has been immense. they were quite successfully able to bridge the class-mass divide.

    chances r that u will underastand the pt; chances r that u won't.

    but let's celebrate the bollywood AS IT IS -- with its all gaudiness, buffonery, senselesness in place. believe me, but for bollywood, the vast majority of india won't be able to survive the india constituted by the priveleged few like u and me!

  11. Hi Anonymous,
    Thanks for the long comment, I always appreciate those (except for the ones that are personal attacks, but that’s another story).
    Except for the first sentence of your comment, I agree with almost everything you’ve said here. Yes, critics have different sensibilities from the masses; yes, what the unwashed masses think about a film is every bit as important as what the critics have to say (and of course, in terms of a film’s performance it’s far more important) ...and yes, Bollywood’s buffoonery and gaudiness should be celebrated for the particular role it plays in this particular country...BUT yes, I do also have “the licence to hold forth on anything and everything” if I’m doing it on this space. This is my perspective and there’s no pretence that it’s anything else. I’m not holding up any of my views as gospel truth or the final word on any topic; in the final analysis it’s purely my opinion, backed up by my reasoning; and you are of course free to agree or disagree.

    Anyway, you missed the point of the post somewhere along the way. It isn’t a judgement on Bollywood per se, it’s a refutation of the idea that Bollywood is all that different today from what it was 15 years ago. (Now that again is of course purely opinion.)

    On a lighter note, please, please, please don’t bracket me with Ms Kazmi. If she’s “highbrow” I’m happy to be anything else, even if it means watching Govinda films for the rest of my life.

    Here are a couple of links you might want to read if you have the time/inclination:


  12. superb! it i think ascribes to the fact that most things these days need to be packaged well and need not contain anything of substance and this too is a result of this.

    I think in recent movies Black was one such example. It was slick, well made (at least acc. to some) and eeked out tears.. but as far as technique, story and treatment goes SLB's Khamoshi - The Musical was much more superior and he perhaps has never reached those heights again...

    Cant compare much to movies of the 80s.. coz they were seen as a child and I r'ber them perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

  13. I am anonymous no. 1 in this comments box. I failed to understand what qualified as 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow'. I am sure Jabberwock was right in picking up himmatwalla for it is everything what Indian sensibility is not. It repletes with misogyny, bad humour and vulgarity. Lets take a simple movie without any frills...ummm..ok, lets take rajnigandha. Amol Palekar looking like a dork and Vidya Sinha so very ordinary . But what a pleasure to watch...

  14. Thanks for nothing, Jabberwock! I am now stuck with a song from Himmatwala in my head, and I hold you responsible.. ;-)

  15. Jabberwock, contrary to what you think about my Bollywood worshipping status, I agree with most of what you have said here, but not all of it. As I've said in other places, the film Black is a case in point of great technical expertise trying to pass off as an emotionally involving film. It fails in that respect, yes, completely, but what you've got to see is that ten years back, Black would not have been made at all -- at least not as a mainstream film with mainstream stars and getting a widespread release -- let alone manage to be a moderate hit. Any number of films being made these days -- take the recent Parineeta for instance -- are made possible because the film-makers are willing to look beyond the formula. Now Parineeta, which I am going to watch today, may turn out to be badly made and cringe- inducing for someone who has read the Sarat Chandra novel in Bengali (forgive the immodest digression), but as someone who closely watches Bollywood I can't help but feel glad that they are trying to adapt great literature into cinema, which wasn't something too many people attempted back in the early 90s. I can kill SLB for the hash he made of Devdas, but I can't honestly say he made a film that was worse than Dil or Beta.

  16. And I really admire you World Cinema types, but could we please leave the Ozus and the Bressons out of a discussion started by, of all things, Bunty Aur Babli?

  17. Am someone who can argue both sides of this argument , depending on which side the opponent wants to bat in real life. However really i think Bollywood is great. Both in the 80's and even today.
    Something which can make you forget for 180 miutes about your empty love life, your ex, your dirty closet and skeletons within.
    Few, if anything can take this space.
    Don't go to the movies as often as Id want to but enjoy each one of them, some more than others...

  18. Man, this is such a needed and true post....where is the soul in today's movies? Shouldn't they reflect the ordinary struggles of our everyday lives? Aren't there enough dramatic stories that are set accross the small towns and cities of India?

    I hate this cosmetic artificial posturing, the supposed cool gestures lifted directly from America, the technical gloss without anything underneath and the Karan Johar type shitty stories.........I hate this commercial, artificial top down pushing of supposed cool songs, gestures, styles etc. by the this limited closed group of directors......It's like artificial candy floss, like an electric diya....dosen't make sense......

    Where's the soul, where's the story, the dialogues, where are the identifiable characters, where are the real as opposed to plasticky and fake emotions ??