The Bollywood Conspiracy

How we've all been duped - DUPED, I tell you - into believing Bollywood movies are no good.

Bollywood has seen a major improvement in its image in the US ever since 2001 and the Academy Award Foreign Film Oscar nomination given to LAGAAN. It didn't win, though perhaps it should have. Shortly afterwards, DEVDAS appeared, introducing American audiences to Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Since then, Aishwarya has appeared on Oprah, Shahrukh in National Geographic, and a brief flurry of articles declaring Bollywood to be the "next big thing" came and went. In India itself, meanwhile, filmmakers continue to underperform against expectations, the predicted next big thing failing to materialize like the editorial prophets declared.

It doesn't matter. What those writers fail to realize is that they are right, Bollywood really is the next big thing, but they are looking in the wrong place. The media wants to look in the theaters, where the money goes for new productions and where the stars come out to do photo shoots and interviews. But it's a waste of time. Sure, the new movies will continue to be OK, with some occasional hits. But the real action is in a much more mundane location: the video shop, where thanks to the advent of the DVD format, and for the first time ever, hundreds and hundreds of Bollywood films are now available, cheaply, with English subtitles -- something the old rental tapes pretty much never had. Now, anyone can buy one for five bucks and see what it is all about. Actually, it's even easier than that: just add one of an ever expanding library of Bollywood films to your Netflix queue.

And the more I watch, the more we watch, the more amazing Bollywood cinema becomes. Suddenly, here they are, a group of movies beginning in the 1930s and going on up to today, a body of work equal to or greater than the output of Hollywood during its entire lifespan, an incredibly diverse range of pictures that provide an alternate idea of the language of cinema, an idea we had never been exposed to before now. Entering the world of Bollywood cinema is almost like entering one of those mirror universes that the STAR TREK franchise loved so much -- so much like the movies you know, but yet changed in some fundamental way. And sometimes, also just like those mirror universes, they are exactly like the movies you know, but with pasted on mustaches that fool no one.

Prior to LAGAAN, the only time Indian movies were mentioned was to deliver a specific message, in two parts: (1) More movies are made in India than anywhere else in the world, and (2) they are all shoddy rip-offs of far superior American films. For example, I remember reading in several articles that, after GHOST (1990), there were "12 different remakes of GHOST made that same year."

Now, I know better. I now know that many movies that are alleged "rip offs" of Hollywood movies, look very little like the original -- especially after about six song and dance routines have been inserted, and an additional hour romantic interlude has been placed in the middle. I now know that Indian movies have a very long history, and movies that are inspired by a Hollywood picture like GHOST are often just as likely to also be inspired by one or more of the classic "ghost maiden" films of Bollywood as well. I now know that India has many different languages and many regional cinemas. Occasionally the actors and crew work across regions, but in many ways they remain independent, just as in other regions of the world, such as East Asia, where Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea all make their own movies and often cross over talent. So when one speaks of "12 different remakes of GHOST," these aren't all necessarily intended for the same audience. A Tamil version might get released and be a hit, so a Telugu, Malayalam, or Bengali version might follow, and especially a Hindi version may get made -- that's where Bollywood steps in -- and get national distribution.

So, these Western media articles primarily served to allow readers a condescending chuckle, not to encourage readers to seek out and view these films for themselves. So much for the media.

Film critics, and film studies teachers, fare no better. Prior to LAGAAN, the last Indian movies to get any kind of critical attention were the Bengali films of Satyajit Ray. This makes sense in a way, in that for many critics, what is most important in films is "realism". Satyajit Ray was inspired by Italian cinema like THE BICYCLE THIEF and French Jean Renoir films, films that had been critically lauded. In making his films, he used a similar filmic language to these, and so in the context of the international art film market, his movies were immediately understood. In depicting real people, and ditching much of that song-and-dance stuff, of course he was going to get the attention of critics worldwide. Make no mistake, I think his films are great. But there is a lot more out there, and by constantly pushing attention over to this Bengali filmmaker, once again Bollywood was excised from the discussion. The implication was that he had to work outside of the Bollywood system to make a good movie, while those inside continued to languish in the mind as popularist musical pap. My own experience at university: many Film teachers and students saw and discussed Ray (especially the Apu trilogy), and exactly none of them went on to discuss anything else about Indian cinema. They knew nothing about it, and quite frankly neither did I. In a discussion I had this year with recent graduates in Film Studies from Columbia College in Chicago [a college devoted specifically to the Arts], I discovered that all of them had seen one, just one, Indian movie. And it was PANTHER PANCHALI.

But among film teachers, at least, there has been change. Finally, over the past ten years, I have seen a critical re-appraisal of the works of Guru Dutt, bearing fruit in a retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (and perhaps elsewhere). It's a good start. But there is so much more worth attention. The classical "spectacle" films could use a dusting off, like the recently colorized and re-released Mughal-E-Azam, or the 1930's film HUMAYUM, which impressed Cecille B. DeMille back in the day. Guru Dutt, yes, his work needs more exposure. Other directors like Raj Khosla, Bimal Roy, Gyan Mukherjee, and others, are worth another look. The actors, too, who had a great influence on their own careers and the films that were made around them: Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, and Dev Anand. All of these riches, and I haven't even gotten out of the fifties yet.

So the media scoffs and critics hold up their noses. What about fans of "Mondo" cinema, the crazy, wild, over-the-top cult and horror films made across the globe and greedily consumed by fans who want weird? Alas, they, too, have been misled. Exhibit A in this case is the wonderfully entertaining book MONDO MACABRE by Pete Tombs. It focuses on the horror films of the Ramsay Brothers, again turning away from mainstream Bollywood cinema and encouraging readers to dig about in the fringe to find the real gems. Bollywood does not have a grand tradition of horror films, other than the occasional ghost woman, singing a haunting melody out in the mist. These films are more romance and mystery than horror. So if you come to Bollywood looking for Horror, you've got to dig. While Tombs' book was a goldmine for grey market video dealers, again it did little to encourage readers to delve into Bollywood cinema as a whole. Which is a shame, because 1970s and 80s Bollywood has some of the most outrageous films I've ever seen in my life. Wild spy films, villains with underground island lairs, last minute helicopter escapes. I've seen a man lasso an airplane with rope and prevent it from taking off. I've seen a man's pet cobra communicate to him, Lassie-style, that the heroine is hurt. I've seen a man exchange diamonds for his mother's life -- while in the air, in two different airplanes, his mother being pushed out on a cable suspended between the two planes, the diamonds on the other cable. The insanity is endless. And horror fans need not feel left out with murderous snake women (NAGIN) and rapists (HAIWAN) in the wings. Anyone who does not think mainstream Bollywood cinema can be over the top, "Mondo", outrageous entertainment, has never seen JAANBAAZ. The problem with MONDO MACABRE perhaps is not so much its content, but the fact that there is no equivalent book covering the non-horror and near-horror mainstream of Bollywood.

Why doesn't everyone know about the abundance of riches that is Bollywood cinema? The problem is not Bollywood, it is the way we shape the questions we ask of it. The critics looked for "auteurs" and realism using the language of Cahiers du Cinema, and found Satyajit Ray to praise. The Mondo fans looked for horror using the language of Hammer and the italian "giallo" and found the Ramsay Brothers. But neither is a productive way to approach Bollywood. You've got to take it on its own merits, understand its own genre distinctions, and categorize it using its own cinematic language. With the arrival of Bollywood on DVD, with English subtitles, we no longer need to rely on the critics or the experts of the obscure. Now, we can be our own tour guides, with a little help from review sites, the, "Best Of" lists, and the like, we can see for ourselves just what Bollywood is really all about. And while I hope the best for the continued success of Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, they are just standing on the tip of the iceberg.

Bollywood really is the "next big thing." And they way it gets there is through individual critics and film lovers re-evaluating their previous misconceived notions, one DVD at a time.


In no particular order, here are some of my favorite Bollywood films of the moment, if you're not sure where to start:

1. HARE KRISHNA HARE RAM. Hippies hang out in Nepal and get high and believe in free love, but star Dev Anand will have none of it, and goes to Nepal to retrieve his sister (played by the beautifufl Zeenat Aman), who has turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Hare Krishna and getting stoned was all the rage in the US in the early seventies, thanks to the Beatles and other influences, now we see how it looks from the other side of the world. A heartbreaking drama filled with action, romance, and immortal music. It also doesn't hurt that Zeenat Aman is one of the most beautiful women in the world.

2. CHINATOWN. Shammi Kapoor made a career out of being a goofball in a series of love stories, filled with lighthearted antics and free spirits. While I enjoy those films, special mention should be made of this black and white crime drama, in which he has a twin brother who is a gangster, and upon his brother's capture, is asked by the police to impersonate him to infiltrate the gang. Later remade with Amitabh Bachchan (DON), the original has less explosions but more heart.

3. AMAR AKBAR ANTHONY. All of Manmohan Desai's films are of the "Lost and Found" genre (children, separated, later find each other through a series of unbelievable coincidences), and he is the master. His films are not movies so much as pageants of life. This is the all-time classic of three lost brothers growing up under different religions and coming together again. Amitabh Bachchan has a show-stopper with the song "My Name is Anthony Gonsalves," and Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor also have their moments to shine. This film will make you grin from ear to ear, from beginning to end.

4. MAHAL. Ashok Kumar starred in a series of noir films in the fifties, this has to be the darkest. A horrifying tale of madness and obsession as a man who believes a spirit from a past life has come to take his soul, leads him to never stop traveling, and drive his poor wife to be gripped by paranoia and madness worse than his own. An amazingly dark and atmospheric film.

5. HEY RAM. The story of a normal, secular Hindu (Kamal Hassan, who also directs), who is driven to extremism by the partition riots, and eventually embraces as his duty the assassination of Gandhi. Not for the faint-hearted. Hassan has created something of a masterpiece, here, and helping matters is Shahrukh Khan, who shines as his Muslim friend and perhaps his last thread of humanity.

And there are more, lots more, where that came from. Click here for the most recent list of all the Bollywood movie reviews posted at The Illuminated Lantern.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 24, 2006.


Amazing, insightful article. Only one note: The first movie on your list of five is called 'Hare Rama Hare Krishna', not the other way around. I'm not trying to split hairs...just don't want to see a superior piece of writing blemished by a small mistake. Hope you don't mind.

Posted by: Nan at April 30, 2006 06:46 AM

very good article. If I would get a penny everytime a friend of mine responds to my Bollywood-fever with the same old prejudices you identify and dispell here, I would have been rich!

Posted by: daniel at June 8, 2007 12:36 PM

Hi,its a good article.But it's not some sort of conspiracy.its just that at that time people in the west were not interested in some 3rd world cinema. But when india opened its gates to globalisation and started to grow west become curious. People here really get suprised when people got crazy for shahrukh khan.There german media even reported that he is more popular than the pope.
Lastly things are looking good for bollywood and in future it will become more popular thanks to fans like you.

Posted by: Tapan at May 5, 2009 04:43 PM
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