As more of us get the chance to discover Indian films on streaming services, WriteMovies’ Director Ian Kennedy explores these often lavish films to ask whether Hollywood should take Bollywood more seriously. He discusses the appeals of Bollywood films for English-language audiences, and asks whether Bollywood should take ITSELF more seriously to break through to the rest of the world now that PARASITE has shown that non-English-language films can triumph!
The death of Indian film industry legend Dilip Kumar (whose legacy we discussed here) marked the end of an era, joining today’s massive Bollywood productions to the epic stories that helped form so much of the modern Indian film industry back in the 1940s and 1950s. Across not just the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) but also in many other countries (like Iran and Somalia, plus among the growing communities from the subcontinent within countries such as Britain and the USA), countless millions of people enjoy the Hindi-language genre known as Bollywood. Its budgets are enormous, its outputs extensive, and it’s easier to find and experience these movies than ever before in the rest of the world thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. But the international entertainment industry, often dominated by English-language output, has rarely taken Bollywood’s films seriously. And yet, if PARASITE can win Best Picture at the Oscars, then surely it’s time to look again, and consider whether it’s time that the rest of the world to take Bollywood seriously.
My relationship to the Indian movie scene started unexpectedly and early. My home city has big Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, and in my early career I was a writer on a BBC soap aimed at communities like them. The series frequently drew on Bollywood influences and I even got to write scenes starring real Bollywood stars – and as a result I also got approached several times about writing for other Bollywood-related movie projects. Still, it wasn’t until much more recently I started watching those movies myself, and I can honestly say I find them refreshing. What’s more, I think that Hollywood and international audiences should be giving Bollywood a new look. It’s a great counterpoint to the often frustrating system we all have to deal with everyday as professionals and audiences. There are a lot of reasons to take Bollywood more seriously. Here are some of mine.
REASON ONE. Here’s a good one to start: budgets and production values are so high in Bollywood these days, that if you’re looking for ‘moving wallpaper’ to put on your TV during the daytime, you’ll find Bollywood movies way more attractive and varied in settings, action, music and cinematography than you’d get from the same diet of Hollywood movies. TWO: What’s more, because every Bollywood movie is made to be watched by all generations in a country where today’s religions and conservatism go back further than anywhere, you’ll find that nearly all Bollywood movies are totally family-friendly, even the big action movies. So, THREE: if you want your kids to grow up enthralled by cinema without having to endure a constant diet of Disney-Pixar… this might be a fun way to go. And they might grow a more global consciousness at the same time, which is no bad thing. Needless to say, if you don’t speak Hindi, you’ll have to watch in subtitles – but English phrases and dialogues turn up frequently and naturally within this too, so there’s always something to keep you connected.
SANJU (2018) is a great way in to understanding the history and tropes of the Bollywood film industry. It’s a biopic that aims to set the record straight about Sanjay Dutt, a troubled Bollywood star from the early 1980s to now, and follows him through drug addiction, alcoholism, womanizing, gun and terrorism charges, and prison. Sanju is presented as deeply flawed but always warmly relatable, and the film is often funny and eye-opening, with sequences in the USA as well as in India (Bollywood can afford to film wherever it likes). Because his parents are eminent Bollywood stars themselves – and his father also enters politics at a dangerous time – the movie also reveals the workings and culture of Indian cinema and politics from behind the scenes, without indulgence. (Bollywood is extremely dynastic, which actually creates the protagonist’s inner conflict here: his father wants to turn him into a new version of himself, but Sanju can’t cope with constantly living in his shadow. If you know who’s related to who, and who used to be in love with who, the casting of SANJU makes for some very amusing cross-generational inter-relationships!) The usual Bollywood tropes that deter English-speaking audiences – such as the frequent singing and dancing and flights of fancy, the doe-eyed yet tough male stars – are convincingly and authentically woven into the story here, both through Sanju’s work and the influences on his life, and the flights of fancy are fully explained by the drugs that he is taking at the time. There’s even a big climax about the perils of ‘fake news’. Very 2018, but this film is built to last too.
As a script analyst, I found a lot to appreciate about this. There was clearly a huge amount of material that could have gone into this movie – but instead it focuses very sharply on just a few key relationships and the moments that turn them. It leaves out lots of nostalgia, celebrity gossip, movie trivia, and almost the entirety of Sanju’s prolific womanizing, but while recognizing them and seeming to hide nothing. The script holds back some good surprises and has some moving scenes. You leave it with a bigger respect for everybody involved, and understanding of the world they have to live in providing more reasons to take Bollywood more seriously.
So reason FOUR: Bollywood movies CAN balance spectacle, drama, action, music and dance, plot and character development, and authenticity – convincingly. A lot of the time, you have to indulge Bollywood movies in at least one of these respects – but for me, SANJU nails them all.
This is Part 1 of Ian’s series, Reasons to take Bollywood more seriously. Look out for the next articles coming out over the coming weeks!