The centre of the Indian movie industry is in the Indian city known as Bombay, which has since been renamed Mumbai. Owing to the industrial resemblance with the American movie city Hollywood, the Indian movie industry came to be known as Bollywood. Bollywood is now an industry of massive proportions, and far from simply producing cinema; it is also closely interwoven with industries concerned with music, clothes, magazines, DVDs, jewellery and cosmetics.
Bollywood has become popular culture, which is distributed worldwide and sells at a phenomenal pace. The Bollywood film, far from its popularity being isolated to India, has also found popularity amongst ‘Indians’ in Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka etc), countries where Indians were originally sent as indentured labourers such as South Africa, Jamaica and Mauritius, and increasingly with the growing group of Indians in western countries, especially Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA.
The Swedish anthropologist Hannerz describes these groups of people descending from one source culture and living across the globe as a global ecumenicity. The concept no longer refers to the biblical diaspora in which the expulsion of the Jews determined the image. The present notion of diaspora is detached from its religious meaning and now refers to physically scattered but, but still culturally related communities, who all form a specific global ecumenicity. (R Gowricharn, Professor of multicultural cohesion and transnational studies at the University of Tilburg, The Netherlands)
In this sense, communities of Indian origin consider themselves as one large civilisation of which the Bollywood popular culture is an intrinsic part. Therefore the popularity of the Bollywood movies is not restricted solely to resident Indians but is massively far reaching, encompassing the entire South Asian diaspora, and extending further to a major part of the world’s population. Since the turn of the millennium Lagaan has been nominated for an Oscar, Monsoon Wedding achieved blockbuster status and Devdas was the first Bollywood film to be screened at Cannes.
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Additionally with the momentum of Baz Luhrmann’s Bollywood-inspired musical Moulin Rouge, and the stage production of Bombay Dreams (by A R Rahman and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber) it seems entirely evident that the Bollywood aesthetic of song, dance and extravagance is on the brink of becoming wholly mainstream. Meanwhile, the surprise British hits Bend it like Beckham and Anita and Me have brought to light another perspective: the stories of the Indian diaspora.
Since India’s independence its cinema has arguably been the most influential cultural force for shaping and reflecting the evolving landscape of Indian identity, helping create a sense of nationhood through the power of film alone. Now, with desi communities thriving throughout the world and often using Bollywood films as the main window to reconnect with their homeland, some non resident Indians are creating a distinctly original cinema, using film to explore their identities amidst the ever present cultural pull of their motherland.
Indeed, Indian cinema plays an essential part in the identity of the South Asian diaspora. To a remarkable extent, the Indian diaspora have come to heavily depend on Bollywood films in shaping their own reality in their new homelands. It is the cinema of the South Asian diaspora that offers a glimpse of this relationship between cinema and identity, and between subcontinent and diaspora. (Identity through Bollywood Cinema, J Takhar)
I would therefore suggest that Bollywood popular culture feeds the cultural needs of the South Asian diaspora. This applies especially to the language, the religion (which is rarely absent in a film’s narrative, the customs and the traditions of the ‘homeland’. Bollywood offers recognition and identification, pride and self-esteem, cultural identity. Primarily in the case of young non-resident Indians a development termed in the social sciences as creolisation is taking place.
Particularly in western countries young people are explicitly creating a distinct profile for themselves by way of their appearance as belonging to the Indian civilisation, while at the same time adopting the mannerisms, career demands, and male female roles predominant in western society. Certainly to some extent, it appears that young Indians within the South Asian diaspora derive their cultural identity from the content of Bollywood popular culture.
Western audiences first discovered Bollywood when film producers and distributors realised that alternative and substantial profits could be found abroad in the South Asian diaspora. During the 1990’s, the overseas territories quickly became a major source of revenue. As the market grew, Hindi films moved from small local cinemas to large multiplexes, with the popularity of so called crossover films like Bend it like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding and Gurinda Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice all contributing to the acceptance of a Bollywood aesthetic by mainstream international audiences.
For western audiences the attraction of Hindi cinema is undoubtedly the lavish combination of so many different elements often lacking in modern western cinema, executed with energy, vitality, joy, and infinite inventiveness. The crossover films of the South Asian diaspora encompass and flaunt the same extravagant heart and soul that reflects the passion of both the filmmakers and of the Indian culture itself. In terms of plot, the crossover film usually centres on a protagonist who is caught between two extremes.
Mostly, the conflict arises between the established traditional Indian values that are at odds with the modern Western lifestyle that the protagonist is trying to live in. Very often this will be shown within a family unit that lives abroad, where the parents are trying to keep the ‘spirit of India’ alive in their home, while their children deal with being caught between two clashing cultures. In this way the cinema of the South Asian diaspora examines the problems closest to their hearts – those of identity, and the conflicts of tradition and progress.
In both Bend it like Beckham and Bollywood/Hollywood, the protagonists try to talk their parents into coming to a compromise, but when failing to do so, resort to rebelling against the older generation’s wishes. In Monsoon Wedding, similar conflicts are shown but with five different storylines wound together. The protagonists in all three films try to find their place between a cultural generation gap, amid intense societal pressures, while still being true to their own desires and needs.
Such a tug of war of emotions and beliefs usually culminates in the older generation coming to realise their faults and finally willing to compromise with their children to achieve some sort of ‘happily ever after’ ending. The directors that aim to market these films to more than just the Indian and diaspora market are well aware of the culture that exists in India, and it’s appeal to audiences worldwide. They include small snippets of South Asian culture and tradition in their films, adding the appealing sense of exotic luxury that their country is known for.
In three examples above, the directors chose to base the storylines around a central wedding. This motif of an Indian wedding showcases and encompasses everything there is to celebrate about Indian culture – decadent foods, joyous dances, folk music, lush costumes, colours and fashions inconceivable in western society. Without letting these films fall into the Bollywood mould, the wedding gives the plausible and realistic opportunity for music and dance.
It is presumed that a typical western audience would struggle through a Bollywood masala movie, finding the spontaneous dance sequences, frequent costume changes and ‘happily ever after endings somewhat unrealistic. The crossover films of the South Asian diaspora allow the viewer to enjoy these elements, but in a more modern, toned down presentation. They make reference to classical forms of Bollywood filmmaking, whilst simultaneously differing completely.
This cinema is a true reflection of the diaspora itself, the films presenting an amalgamation of old and new, the traditional and the modern, creating a new and individual identity of their own making. Therefore, where the most popular theme in masala movies is that of forbidden love, crossover films try to seem to approach issues more relevant to the diaspora. Highlighted subjects range from molestation and escort services to culture shock and arranged marriages.
It would appear that these filmmakers manage to take subjects that have long been considered taboo, and present them in a fresh a realistic manner, accessible and acceptable to South Asian diaspora and western audiences alike. What all these films have in common is an irrepressible zest and energy. Like Bend in like Beckham, whose narrative is driven by the distinct bhangra sounds of Bally Sagoo’s hybrid music, they are less an indication of a Bollywood influence than an encompassing tribute to the life affirming tradition of Indian music and entertainment.
With the exuberant vitality and commitment to certain aesthetic delights long ago abandoned by Hollywood, the cinemas of both Bollywood and the South Asian diaspora will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on mainstream cinematic culture. Elements within the Hindi industry believe that Indian cinema will be accepted world wide only if it becomes more realistic and renounces song and dance. However, in my opinion it would miss the point entirely for Bollywood to ‘go to’ Hollywood, a film culture whose glory days it echoes in such spectacular style.
Main Hoon Na, directed by Farah Khan in 2004, combined Saturday Night Fever, Patriot Games and Lethal Weapon with the sort of multidisciplinary joi de vivre Hollywood no longer commands. Indeed hefty hints and wacky whispers harking back to the golden era of mainstream Hindi cinema carpet this delectable piece of pop art. The film showcases Khan’s evident adoration of Hindi cinema, and rather than be condescending about conventional formulas, she uses them entirely to her advantage.
Khan revels in every morsel of the kitsch and even turns it into a kind of impromptu feast of fury, farce and familial values, resulting in a particularly ‘viewer friendly’ production. Main Hoon Na, although containing a little very amusing and innocuous vulgarity, never resorts to double meanings to entice the audience, and there are multiple ‘tooth and nail’ moments in a lengthy but rarely lingering narrative. The adoration for R D Burman’s music is evident in the composer’s recurrent melodies and in Alu Malik’s spirited score, whilst Ranjit Barot’s sound design is a prominent measure of the film’s technical finesse.
Both V Manikandan’s sweepingly specified cinematography and Abbas Tyrewala’s ‘tongue in cheek’ banter add to the film’s technical gloss, which romances the decadent without sacrificing the basic narrative. Similarly, the India- Pakistan peace theme that intermittently arises throughout the film is sparingly projected into the plot in digestible measures. Khan succeeds in combining elements of brotherly bonding and political terrorism, and while the team of Shah Rukh and Zayed Khan allows the film its more sentimental theme, the Shah Rukh and Suniel Shetty axis provides the opportunity for a more macho element to be introduced.
Main Hoon Na uses its stars and the cult of stardom to the script’s advantage, whilst Khan appears to have shown a control which somewhat defies her gender – indeed it is repeatedly commented in multiple reviews “no Hindi film by a woman director has ever looked like Main Hoon Na”. The entire sequence on the roads of Darjeeling, where Shah Rukh chases the militant (Murli Sharma) on a manual rickshaw is not just a tribute to the ‘Chal-Dhanno-aaj-teri-Basanti-ke-izzat-ka-sawaal-hai’ sequence in Sholay (1975, dir.
Ramesh Sippy), but also incontrovertible evidence of Farah Khan’s unrelenting grip over the grammar of commercial Hindi cinema. In stark contrast where Main Hoon Na embraces the cheer and colour of Bollywood and packages it in a more accessible manner appealing to the South Asian diaspora, Company directed by Ram Gopal Verma is an impressive, taut and riveting tale of the murky ordeals, stealth, intrigue and injustice in the Mumbai’s underbelly with the evil city and its death-trap as its backdrop.
Evidently influenced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series and Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Verma ventures into excruciating details about the underworld, with its tentacles stretching out to far-flung corners of the globe. The demonic nature of the city underworld is taken to the extreme when the dangerous power tussle begins and the fight to finish game gets underway through Hong Kong, Nairobi and Mumbai. What is very particular about this film is that even though it contains Bollywood elements, it is directed in a manner very different from the average Indian movie.
The running time, at two and a half hours, although long for a Hollywood movie is short in comparison to the standard Bollywood showing time in excess of three hours. Additionally, although in Company music has importance and the main theme is used many times with visual editing worthy of any great music video, only one musical number can be seen in the entire film, and again the piece is edited in a manner that the musical performance is not cutting the audience off from the story.
This is a stark contrast to the meticulously choreographed, big name music numbers usually synonymous with Bollywood film. Very serious, limited in musical numbers and at a running time under the average, Ram Gopal Verma succeeds in becoming more accessible to the diaspora and western market, whist these unconventional elements also miraculously succeed with the resident Indian market. Despite its trapping of a popular film, it has several cinematic elements that keep the viewer engrossed.
Verma seems to have tried to jump genres and styles consciously to confuse the audience. For me one of the highlights of the film is the absence of a solid and straightforward plot with an emotional core. Instead, the viewer is exposed to a blizzard of events, major and minor, which cumulatively leaves the impact of a documentary. Cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi’s camera with the frantically cut sequences, endless mobile phone conversations, airplane landings, moodily lit interiors and relentless killings, captures the nuances of violence and death.
Therefore, whilst Main Noon Ha attracts to the South Asian diaspora and western markets by encompassing all that is considered to be typically Bollywood, Company attracts these audiences by removing these very same elements, and the crossover films such as Bend it like Beckham genuinely seem to bridge the gap between the two. The actress and activist Shabana Azm has suggested that the west wants to see India as an exotic land of drought and spiritualism, and emphasises that this clichi?? must now be wrung by its neck and thrown out. The west must realise, she says, that India lives in contemporary times.
It is maybe therefore cinema, which reflects this society that must be pushed out west. I am personally averse to the idea that a western market should judge Bollywood films according to their own paradigm. I believe that in a fast shrinking global village we must try to understand different cultures within their given contexts and not judge developing nations by standards set by the west. To remove the music and cut the length of Bollywood films, although making them more accessible to the South Asian diaspora and western markets, in short, changes the entire Bollywood paradigm.
Bollywood culture appears to be a definitive element in helping to definine and shape the identities of the South Asian diaspora whilst additionally acting as an important binding tool for them This is why I believe the crossover films best encompass all the attributes desired by the South Asian diaspora market – they entwine two cultures seamlessly, creating a unique and individual cinema that truly appears to reflect the emerging identity of the South Asian diaspora.