Is Bollywood really Indian cinema? We all know Bollywood is a big industry and to an extent has protected us from Hollywood films. But has it also helped us relegate other Indian films to the periphery?
I should give a big round of applause to Bollywood and the films it produces; because not only does it advocate ridiculous ideas and morals, but also generates a discourse on these very same ideas. The truth is that Bollywood is nothing more than film theatre, and why not: Bollywood picks up people from theatre backgrounds and so naturally what they bring is filmed theatre. In a wicked twist of fate, graduates from the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) often end up working as technicians or other such cogs in the wheel of this circus.
While we Indians celebrate the pure entertainment we derive from Bollywood, the West stereotype us. You have a core of Western academics or ‘Indologist’ pointing out the red in, say, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas to an equally illiterate cohort of students who would gladly lap it up as “Indian culture”.
Arguably the problem doesn’t lie with Westerners stereotyping us, but we Indians stereotyping ourselves in this fashion. When the Westerners then try to look at films that aren’t very ‘Bollywoodish’, you can almost hear the White man shouting “Let’s watch something non-mainstream!”. What I mean here is, when Bollywood created a monopoly through distribution there weren’t many film makers getting their names outside of India, heck India as a nation still fully didn’t open up her economy until much later. People wanted to view an India as it would exist, post colonialism.
Enter Satyajit Ray…
His project, the Apu-trilogy beginning with Pather Panchali, soon turned into an overnight sensation. Ray remains an iconic figure of Indian Cinema even to this day. What did he achieve for India? Well, he painted an amazing image of us not only to the West but for the rest of contemporary India as well. Some might say , but he achieved far more than that. Knowingly (my bets) or unknowingly he surpassed all his peers ( his contemporary, Ritvik Ghatak, died in obscurity). Yet he launched a scathing attack at what he didn’t understand in the New Wave in India (Films by Mani Kaul & Kumar Shahani among others) . One has to just read a few pages in his book, “Our Films, Their Films” to appreciate what his understanding and view of Cinema was.
Whilst Ray enjoyed fame and success through his own hard work and perseverance, it’s still worth noting that, unlike his peers, he made it into Bourgeois culture. How did Ray succeed? Some attribute his success to fans from around the world who helped push for his legitimization as an “Auteur.” So today you find his films everywhere, but what about his peers? To the West, Ray didn’t have any and therefore most Indians don’t know of any either.
After Ray passed away in 1992, the West looked for something new – “Let’s watch someone more urban!…”
Enter Mira Nair…
In sharp contrast to Ray’s earlier films which focussed on rural life, Nair’s works revolves around Urban life.
What once again started off as something impressive (Salaam Bombay) quickly melted away as she rose to international fame. When Mira Nair made Monsoon Wedding she was not even concerned with the growing middle class in India, her representation of India became what the west wanted to conjure up. Arguably Mira Nair doesn’t have the faintest idea of what India might be like, she’s obviously way happier creating a discourse around her own marred understandings of India.
My point being that Bollywood hasn’t just lived in the shadows of international success of Hollywood. We as a people live under an inferiority complex to the west and hence cannot embrace our own film makers. Can we atone for the artists who created Cinema that was thrust to the corners? Can we give Mani Kaul the applause he deserved for his first film, Uski Roti or any of his other works? Can we recognize the talent of Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan and wonder how he took 12 years to find funds for his next feature? Or better yet can we discover G.Aravindan’s spiritual style of film making in Esthappan? Can we at least acknowledge the presence of John Abraham and not look dumb founded when we hear he passed away? I hope we can someday.