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ISSUE 118 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/18/2005

Burgeoning Bollywood

By Jason Zencka
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 18, 2005

Much like people, movies across the world are both wonderful and strange. In India, distinctions run from the cinema houses’ often immaculate floors to their surprisingly capacious seats to the dynamic and interactive demeanor of their audiences.

India is home to several vibrant and prolific film industries, each with their own intricate mythologies. The most famous of these is “Bollywood,” a veritable empire seated in Mumbai. Bollywood produces more films per year than any other industry worldwide, and is home to such illustrious movie stars as Shah Ruhk Khan, South Asia’s answer to Tom Cruise, and Ashwarya Rai, star of the recent British-made “Bride and Prejudice” and holder of the title “Most Beautiful Woman in the World.”

These two actors, along with an extensive pantheon of other stars, romp through a cinematic terrain replete with wild costuming, giddily formulaic plotting and extravagant song-and-dance numbers.

To a Hollywood-trained eye, filmmaking of this kind can seem anything from gaudy to offensively earnest. But like America, India loves its movies, and the lucrative status of the industry keeps many of the hallmarks of its unique style secure.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are more subtle distinctions between Hollywood and Bollywood than such oft-cited disparities as the Bollywood films’ unembarrassed length (many features stretch to four hours with an intermission) or unassailable tendency to break into song.

Bollywood film, as fun as it can be, can also reflect a cultural conservatism and myriad upper-class Indian repressions. Many Indian films are mercilessly didactic, requiring cultural obedience and caste-regulated marriage from their characters while peppering their adventures with ill-fitting sexualized content.

While at first sight, Indian film is tamer than its American counterpart (until recent years, onscreen kissing was taboo), much of the intent of specific musical numbers is strictly pornographic; women’s body parts are itemized shot-by-shot in order of erotic prominence, and dance sequences feature wide-eyed male protagonists dousing voluptuous, scantily-clad women with phallic hoses.

In other words, much like people, movies across the world can be terrible. But America is no less subject to such claims. Consider the films of John Woo, Michael Bay or Quentin Tarantino. While these films are occasionally beautiful, they are also fetishistic of both violence and irony. American films have a tendency to glamorize and deify style after it is perfected, and their postmodern bent towards ultraviolence can make them cold, soulless artifacts. In this sense, it is impossible to weigh India’s cinematic patronization and cultural conditioning against our own decadence. It is impossible to weigh one against the other. Both American as well as Indian films are unique and symptomatic of respective neuroses that are reflected in recent history.

In both circumstances, the role of filmic conditioning on a national scale cannot be measured. It does seem evident, however, that films can accurately reflect, and possibly even project, different facets of a cultural ethos. These facets can be as unique and wonderful as the unbounded, imaginative dreamscapes of Japanese anime or the dark and ruminative shadows of film noir; they can also be as terrifying as a Tarintinian bloodbath or the hypnotic beauty of Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” It is both reassuring and frightening to remember that films today are made in largely hyper-consumerist contexts; they are made to be bought.

In the end, movies might be just like the people who make them: Endlessly diverse, both brilliantly articulate and incoherent and constantly fighting to transcend laziness and ugliness to reach some level of greatness. In this sense, perhaps no country's film industry can be properly blamed for anything – it is only as good or bad as its people allow it to be.

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