Concluding his series about whether English-language audiences should take Bollywood films more seriously, WriteMovies Director Ian Kennedy explores the career of evergreen star Salman Khan, the tropes that still limit the global audiences for Bollywood films, and looks at the potential for Bollywood films if they can also take THEMSELVES more seriously.
BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN is about a deaf and dumb 6-year-old Pakistani girl who becomes stranded alone in India, and the struggle to reunite her with her family. The first part of the film unfolds in stunningly beautiful Kashmiri mountains to show her life in Pakistan. The cinematography here is stunning. Her mother takes her to India, in a desperate attempt to enable her to speak and hear, but they are separated and the girl is trapped alone in an unfamiliar country. The girl is easily the most adorable kid I’ve ever seen in a movie, and having her both deaf and mute enables her to take a much bigger part than a child her age could normally be given in a movie. She and her mother are easily strong enough to carry the first Act of the story by themselves. Before we even see the character who becomes our protagonist.
REASON NINE: Bollywood scriptwriting doesn’t care about obeying the storytelling ‘rules’ that Hollywood expects us to. We can judge for ourselves whether that works, every time.
Act Two suddenly begins with the film’s first song, which also introduces Khan’s puppyish protagonist – which was a bit of a jarring experience for me, for many reasons, as a total newbie! But I soon learned to roll with this kind of thing. We’re treated to a huge, Technicolor whirlwind introduction to the local Indian culture, showing our protagonist’s love of Hindu deity Bajrangi, and the obligation that puts on him never to lie or mislead people – which leads to plenty of amusing scenes later, when it runs counter to what he needs to do in order to reunite ‘Munni’ with her family.
BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN is a beautifully-shot, epic and often adorable movie that totally shows why Bollywood adds something different and valuable to world cinema. A lot of its features are typical of Bollywood, and run contrary to what any US-focused script analyst like me would normally tell a writer to do. It’s extremely long, and the plot developments are both very predictable and usually telegraphed long in advance. It tugs on the heartstrings shamelessly. And like so many Bollywood movies (well, Khan’s especially), it has a protagonist who is both sweet, good-natured and naive enough to take home to meet your mother… and tough and musclebound enough to win a fight with anyone evil.Even though you’ve kind of guessed all along what they’re gonna do, the ending of the film still brought a tear to my eye. It’s just so sweeeeeet! That adorable kid!
And here’s what is most extraordinary about the story. That thing I said about it being about a deaf and mute Pakistani girl stranded in India, potentially for the rest of her life? It actually happened (though the other way round: Indian girl trapped in Pakistan). And nobody knew it until after the movie was a massive success! Here’s a British newspaper’s take on it: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/26/bajrangi-bhaijaan-woman-stuck-in-pakistan-for-13-years-goes-home-to-india
There are a LOT of flaws here in even the best modern Bollywood films, from a Hollywood-minded analyst’s point of view. That seems true of all of Khan’s output (such as era-spanning smash hit BHARAT, MMA drama SULTAN, and romantic thriller BODYGUARD, and action thrillers EK THA TIGER and its sequels), as well as spectacular action films like RACE and its sequels. It’s also true of different major films with different stars – such as historical epics like LAGAAN and JODHA AKBAR, and early classics like MUGHAL E AZAM (see our tribute to its star Dilip Kumar here). What’s more, because Bollywood appears to be dominated by the same couple of families going back generations, I don’t get the feeling it ever really thinks seriously about adapting its DNA to reach out to audiences that didn’t already grow up on its tropes.
But it should. Because the scale, scope and quality of Bollywood filmmaking is awesome. And if it could only find a way to combine its own tropes, with the conventions of other audiences… then English-language audiences wouldn’t primarily understand India through films told from a Western point of view, like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, EAT PRAY LOVE, and THE DARJEELING LIMITED. India is soon to become the world’s most populous nation, and is maturing and growing in confidence and wealth every day. Its cinema scene is far wider than just Bollywood. But now PARASITE has shown the way for distinctive non-English-language films to triumph globally – I think it’s time Bollywood took itself more seriously, and tried to make a film that hit all its own notes and still inspired global audiences to enjoy and revel in what makes Indian cinema great. If anyone working at high levels in Bollywood would like a free second opinion on projects with that goal, then we’d love to hear about it…
Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous articles on taking Bollywood more seriously: