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 here.