Yap Yok Foo
2003-08-27 00:34:09 UTC
Bollywood: Frequently Questioned Answers
Richard Corliss gets an education in Indian cinema from his readers
Three or four things I now know about Indian movies:
The number of films produced in India these days is closer to 600 than
to 1,000. Thanks to the gently persistent James Schumeister, who backs
up his claim with stats from Yves Thoraval's book "The Cinemas of
The language is Hindi, the religion Hindu. (I already knew that! Why
didn't I write that?) Thanks to reader Khelan. (I also know that
"Awara" isn't "Aware" and "Mother India" isn't "Mother Earth." On rare
occasions my fingers run away with my brain. I've retrieved it now,
Jism is the Hindi word for body, not for a body emission. Samira
Sarbakhsh of Manhattan admonishes: "The word 'jism' is derived from
Old Persian, is pronounced 'jesm' with the 's' and the 'm' pronounced
separately, and means 'body.' I find the commentary a bit culturally
insensitive in light of the fact that Indians are so conservative as a
people." No offense meant: I may have misunderstood my local Indian
video-store clerk when he said the word had the same meaning in
English and Hindi.
I know nothing about Indian films. How did I finally figure that out?
By glancing at a Chat area on bollyWHAT.com. Quite a few
correspondents were annoyed by my mostly complimentary remarks about
their national cinema. (What if I'd hated it? Would they have noticed
the difference?) The gentlest remark, in response to my writing that
my wife didn't think much of the choreography in one number I showed
her, was from Kalpana: "I would like to see Richard Corliss and his
wife attempt to dance like SRK [Shahrukh Khan] and Aish [Aishwarya
Rai] in 'Ishq Kamina' before commenting on their dancing." (Note to
Kalpana: Mary C. dances like a dream, Richard C. like a bad one.)
Among those who wrote directly to me, I received only one
BollyWHAT-style excoriation, from Sanjay Gang of Boston: "Your recent
column, while attempting to be cutesy, comes across as yet another
tired old repackaging of the cows, caste and curry stereotype of
India." The rest 70 or so, a veritable Bollywood blizzard for this
column were much kinder, often lengthy, always informed and
informative. I thank you all for sharing your Bollywisdom with an
outsider. And now I will exploit your good nature by sharing your
acuities with our other readers. And next time the last time I
will get to the Bollywood Ten lists of actors, writers, composers,
Let's recap the 10 FAQs:
1. Why are Indian movies so long?
Mehboob Khan's "Aan" was one of the few Indian films of the 50s to get
a released in English theaters. This Eastman Color swashbuckler, with
Dilip Kumar (in his smiling, not soulful mode) as a Hindi Douglas
Fairbanks, is a relatively brisk, buoyant affair. Yet a London
reviewer couldn't resist sniding, "It goes aan and aan and aan."
I don't think Indian films are boring, but there's no question they
run 30 to 60 (to 90!) mins. longer than the average movie from
America, France, Mexico, Hong Kong or Burkina Faso. The simple answer,
I suppose, is that they are longer by the amount of song material. But
there must be something in the Indian entertainment appetite that
wants a full evening's masala.
In my column, I wondered, jocularly, whether Indians were "length
freaks." The acerbic Mr. Gang replied by asking, "By whose standard?
Hollywood's? Maybe its the other way maybe it is Americans who have
a limited attention span. Without the obligatory sex scene every 15
min, Hollywood movies would be hard pressed to go over 60 min." Well,
I'd say Hollywood films have too much smirking and too little sex, but
that's for another discussion.
2. Why don't the characters kiss on the mouth?
The short answers are: (a) Sometimes they do. "In 1983 in Sunny Deol's
debut film 'Betaab,'" recalls Rajul Mehta, "kissing scenes reappeared.
In the 1990s many Hindi movies had lip-kissing scenes, particularly
Aamir Khan's movies (e.g. 'Ishq'). In fact he is supposed to have
kissed the maximum number of his co-stars."
...and (b): Mostly, Indians don't. As Arvind Kumar of the Indic
Journalists Association International, "You won't see public display
of affection in public in India even off-screen."
3. Why do the characters have to sing and dance?
"Subtlety is not one of the strengths of Indian commercial cinema,"
Indu of Asian STAR TV. "If a person is happy, just a grinning face or
even ecstatic dialogues don't seem to be enough to express the
happiness. So, we resort to songs that make the message loud and clear
that, yes, we are thrilled about something. Same logic for confused,
mad, sad or love. Maybe it's not real after all, who breaks out in
sychronised dances with 40 extras when one is happy? But it's a
characteristic of Indian cinema."
I've written elsewhere that movies give audiences what they don't
have. In the U.S., an economically comfortable nation, films often
deal with life on the edge: danger and deprivation are glamorous to
those who have everything. The same, upside down, applies in India:
it's a poor country, so the movie image is of the middle, upper-middle
and fabulously-rich classes. As Abhishek Pandey e-loquizes: "More than
999 million of India's one billion people live a life that is
completely opposite of what we all see on the screen. Hardly any will
marry for true love or have a chance to frolic on the beaches of their
own country, let alone a Caribbean or a European country. So,
Bollywood gives them what they can't rationally have dancing,
singing, and beautiful women included."
4. Why don't the actors sing?
"Because they can't," is the curt response of e-mailer Sribuddaraju.
"Actresses are mainly used as props for glamour in the male-dominated
film industry." Another point is that India has a wonderful tradition
of vocalists; movies would be nuts not to use them as playback
I was wrong in writing that all-time playback diva Lata Mangeshkar had
recorded "something between 30,000 and 50,000 songs," Satish Kalra
e-mails: "It has been catalogued that she sang no more than 5,067
Hindi songs between the years of 1945 to 1989. Add about 20% songs in
other regional languages, and the total could be a little over 6,000.
... Her sister, Asha Bhosle, has sung more songs than Lata, and her
total from all languages may be around 10,000." The info, as Bhagwant
Sagoo and others pointed out, is from the exhaustive reference work
"Hindi Film Geet Kosh" by Harmandir Singh, aka Hamraaz a multivolume
study I plan to buy as soon as I win the Powerball Lottery.
5. Why can't they dance?
I acknowledged that I may be ignorant of the codes underlying Indian
dance. And Sunny Singh agrees with me: "You are right you do miss
out on the cultural codes of bhangra, laavni and various other folk
dances that are incorporated into the dance numbers in Bollywood. The
'Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham' number 'Shava Shava' echoes the bhangra
dancing you would see at many family parties in northern India. That's
why it's so popular: it's the way we dance anyway, just glamorized for
screen! So it may seem unsophisticated to you, but it works just fine
to us." And Arun Kumar, who has translated Gulzar's lyrics for the
A.R. Rahman songs from "Dil Se," indicates that "The gestures and
movements to the lyrics of the songs are often not translated
literally. When the girl says, 'Don't come near me,' she will often
make a dismissive gesture, which if the song is not translated
properly can be confusing."
Some readers distinguished between male and female actor-dancers.
"Many of the original Indian movie actresses came from a background of
professional dance and 'dance-drama'," says Ajay Divakaran of
Cambridge, Mass. "Even the acting was visibly influenced by the
expressions developed in Indian Classical Dance. Even today Indian
actresses are often trained dancers. Most dance teachers in India are
male, but they are seen as some kind of aberration. So Indian actors
are typically untrained and it shows in their dancing. The Indian
classical dance purists are of course horrified by Indian film dances.
They see them as bastard products."
Some great terpers: the Tamil stars Prabhu Deva and Kamal Hassan
(trained as a dancer), Hindi hunk Hrithik Roshan (and yes, Sri Jan, I
have seen "Kaho Naa Pyar Hai" he move fine). "I think Travolta was
terrible compared to Shah rukh Khan," assertive Adnan Khan maintains,
"and in 'Mudjse Dosti Korage' Hrithik Roshan does a moonwalk that mo
white Western musical dancer could dream of doing! Hey, Mexicans
aren't the only browned-skinned people with rhythm!"
6. Why are the actors usually light-skinned, even in films from
The hot-button issue, with most of my correspondents on the same side.
Some readers, often Tamil residents or fans of Tamil and Telugu films
(in southern India), listed several stars of darker hue. Sourabh Gupta
points out: "Though fair actors might be favored by the producers of
the movies, the masses seem to care less. Ajay Devgan ... Manoj Bajpa
... Suniel [Sunil] Shetty, Rajnikanth, and even Mithuh Chakarvathy
were all stars. even if they weren't fair skinned. The elitist in
India might have the conception that fair is beautiful, but I think
masses will love anyone who can act or represents them."
But the majority agreed that the stars on the screen are
lighter-skinned than most of the people watching them. It's not just a
movie preoccupation. "You'll find every girl in India trying to make
herself more fair-skinned than she is by every cream possible,"
observes Arun Mani. "Hence all the skin care products in India are
designed to match the mindset by advertising to give a lighter skin. I
am pretty sure most people in India don't know what the word 'tanning'
means Mothers don't let their daughters out the sun, lest they will
get dark skins. And guys in India always think the basic requirement
for a girl to be beautiful is that she should be fair! So
white-skinned people in India think they are good-looking. If you look
at south Indian movies, the actor might be dark-skinned; but the
actress will be light-skinned." Often they are imported, as Madras'
ace auteur Mani Rathnam did with the Nepali actress Manisha Koirala.
The prejudice could be a vestige of the caste system: "In general, the
lighter the skin color of an Indian, the higher social class that
person is perceived to have," says Risha Patel. "It is thought that
the darker individuals must have been through multiple hardships
e.g., works in the sun which causes them to have a darker
complexion." Or it could be a hangover from the Raj and earlier
colonizers of the subcontinent. "There are plenty of dark skinned
actors and actresses, especially in South Indian movies," observes
Sribuddaraju, "but they are made up to look fairer than usual due to
the age long discrimination against dark skin in favor of
light-skinned 'superior' races that invaded and settled down in India
throughout the ages."
Beauty is power, power beauty. Is light considered right because it is
the color of the dominant class or caste? Or do the powerful simply
get to decide what's attractive? Here's a sad generalization: In
Europe, the U.S. and Africa, as well as India, the light-skinned
Northerners are the bosses of the dark-skinned Southerners.
"Shade-ism," prejudice based on skin gradients, exists everywhere, as
attested to by this poignant tale from Tammy, an adoptive mother in
"Having two beautiful Indian daughters, one with medium skin and one
with dark, I can tell you that there is prejudice based on skin
gradients in India, including southern India where my girls are from.
I saw it when I was there in 1994 to pick up my lighter-skinned
daughter. "You are so lucky to be getting her" they told me, as the
caregivers ignored my companion's darker- skinned child. Mallika was
spoiled in the orphanage. They would rarely put her down. They were so
loving to her that they didn't really let me be with her until we left
"A few years later we adopted Maya from the same orphanage. She came
to us with all the signs of neglect. She had no expression and no
muscle-tone in her legs. She swayed to pass the time and even though
she was the same age upon her arrival as Mallika, couldn't talk or
walk. A few weeks after her arrival she began to thrive because she
actually had someone to cuddle her and love her now. We have her in
special education programs to make up for the 16 months of little
brain development. (The first two years of brain development are
crucial to the intellect of the person.) I don't know if we will ever
get her to the point that she could have been at had we gotten her
right away. Interestingly, we have not found this type of prejudice in
our country. Many more people remark on how beautiful Maya is. We have
even been approached by a catalog photographer who wanted to
"When I was in Kerala I photographed a scene of dark-skinned Indians
in line in front of a movie billboard depicting all light-skinned
actors. As a social studies teacher I talk to my students about it. I
love India but there is a little piece of me that will always hold
them responsible for any future problems that Maya might have."
7. What's with those kooky credits?
"All credits start off with the image of a god / goddess and a
prayer," proclaims the all-knowledgeable Sribuddaraju. "Raj Kapoors
films start off with [his father] Prithviraj Kapoor praying to Shiva
before the shot takes one to RK Studios' emblem, that of Raj Kapoor
holding Nargis" in the famous attitude (and poster) from "Barsaat."
Sribuddaraju avers that star billing is determined by a mixture of
seniority and popularity. But I'll stick by my story that, in the 50s
at least, age often came before beauty (Prithviraj was top-billed
above Nargis and Raj Kapoor In "Awara"), and female before male (Mala
Sinha, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman all were listed above Guru Dutt
in the films Dutt directed and starred in). Raj Kapoor exercised an
ostentatious modesty, taking his actor billing in "Jagte Raho" below a
few dozens stars and bit players exactly as Orson Welles did in the
credits for "Citizen Kane."
But why are the credits in the colonial language? "English credits are
not a surprise," instructs Mukul Bakshi of San Francisco, who disputes
my claim (taken off an internet chat site, so it must be true!) that
only two to three percent of Indians read English. "If you visit, you
will notice that most shop-fronts, road signs, bus routes, etc. are in
English. So too, are film credits, posters, etc. When I lived in New
Delhi, and was creative director at J. Walter Thompson, all the
advertising I created was in English. There are 14 English daily
newspapers in that city (there is only one in San Francisco). About
55% of the population is literate. Of that, about 80% went to what in
India are called English Medium schools, where all subjects are taught
in English, starting from first standard. That means over 400 million
people read and write English, and that makes India the world's
largest English-speaking country."
8. What's the Hindi word for "plagiarism"?
The standard Indian film review will tell you which U.S. movies the
new Indian was "inspired by." Critiques of "Koi... Mil Gaya," the
Rakesh and Hrithik Roshan sci-fi thriller that opened around the world
last week, noted the film's similarity to "E.T.," "Forrest Gump,"
"Big" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." With Bollywood movies
now getting the occasional reviews in U.S. newspapers, Indian
producers have to worry that they'll catch unwanted attention from
Hollywood lawyers. They've already caught hell at home. In May the
Indian Supreme Court banned the 260-episode TV drama "Karishma: The
Miracles of Destiny" (starring Karishma Kapoor) because it was too
close to U.S. novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of
Opines Ashok Talwar: "I have never heard 'The Magnificient Seven'
being labeled plagiarism." True, that remake of "The Seven Samurai"
took no official notice of Akira Kurosawa's original. Neither did "A
Fistful of Dollars," a remake of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo." In the 30s,
Hollywood remade European hits "Intermezzo," "Pepe le Moko" (as
Casbah") and in 1994 four U.S. pictures ("True Lies," "Intersection,"
"Mixed Nuts" and My Father, the Hero") were, bizarrely, remakes of
French movies, as was last year's "Unfaithful." But all these were
acknowledged, paid for.
I am sure there is some difference that I don't understand. One factor
to consider is that Indian film industry is exposed to Hollywood but
there is little exposure in the other direction. When people see
something they like they tend to adapt it. I see a lot of copying of
fashion and influence on popular music from India in the U.S., but it
is seldom acknowledged. Even the Indians don't make any issue out of
Bharath Chari blames it on the creative bosses: "The script writers in
India do have original ideas but most of time are browbeaten by the
producers or filmmakers into lifting entire plots word for word from
popular movie in the U.S. They are even given instructions as to which
movie to choose." OK, but how do they usually get away with their
purloining? As e-mailer Manyam wrily explains, "that's homage to our
copyright system: we have none."
Then there's the piquant proposition that intellectual property is
theft. "While [the uncredited remake of another film] is crass and
proof of lack of creativity, using the word 'thieving' in this context
is wrong," argues Arvind Kumar. "It is those who use violence and cage
those who imitate others using Government resources who hate the idea
of liberty. The so called intellectual property rights (patents as
well as copyrights) are a violation of one's intellectual liberty."
Those of you who have been downloading "Finding Nemo" and bootlegging
Eminem CDs: remember that argument when your case comes to trial. It
Well, if there's anything original about Indian films, it has to be
the music. Think otherwise. Suresh Ramasubramanian asserts that it's
"not just the movies but a lot of Indian film songs are knockoffs of
anything from Classical and Opera to Rock and Pop." He recommends, as
I do, a site on "inspired" Indian films songs. Though, honestly, at
least one of A.R. Rahman's songs must have come out of his own head,
not an obscure CD that these musicologists have tracked down.
9. Tell me about non-Bombay Indian cinema.
Lots of mail here, mostly about the blooming (not, apparently,
withering, as I indicated) southern Indian film centers. "May be u
havent stepped in to the tamil movies any further than AR rahman's
music," shorthands Vivek, "because u have missed the tamil movies
biggest star Rajnikanth (and if u dig deeper u get more)." Vivek was
one of seven Bollywood e-ducators who spoke highly of Rajnikanth. It
happens that my Tamil film scholarship is pretty much limited to
Rahman's music and Rathnam's films; Mani's "Dalapathi" starred
Rajnikanth, and I was impressed though, not knowing Tamil, I may
have missed a few dialogue subtleties. By the way, as Prabu
Parthasarathy (and several other readers) informed me, "Tamil moviedom
is dubbed Kollywood because most of the studios, labs, etc. are in a
suburb of Madras called Kodambakkam."
It's a big movie world out there, requiring much dedication. "I would
recommend you give yourself a few years to checking out the pre-80s
Tamil and Malayalam films," my voluble, valued correspondent Nithin
advises. "Of course, you want to have a special reason to welcome
anything new and different in your mind and heart, and Tamil and
Malayalam culture very bountifully provide you with that. Their film
creations are borne out of non-aggressive, light-hearted values, a
democratic and open-minded approach and, most of all. a classy
creative abandon that Hollywood can definitely imbibe to its own utter
Sign me up, Nithin. And find me a place in New York City where I can
find lots of old, subtitled Tamil films.
10. Where can you get DVDs?
All the places we mentioned last time, plus some distributors'
websites, such as Baba Digital (for a good selection of classics) and
the more comprehensive Eros Entertainment (classics, moderns and song
compilations). If you're near a theater showing Bollywood product
there are more than you'd think you can get advance tickets at
Sulekha.com, "the #1 Indian online community." For other Dilwale dish,
try the news-'n-gossip site indiafm.com, which currently has this
morsel: "Rumours are that Aamir Khan might be featured on the cover of
TIME Magazine." (If it were true, wouldn't I tell you?)
But Bollywood fever can be stoked any place: where you see movies,
where you shop, where you eat. We take testimony from Ohio's Jennie
Sexena, a film preservationist for the Library of Congress and, she
confesses, "an unapologetic film geek since about the age of 11. So,
in July of 1999, when I visited an Indian restaurant/market that also
had Bollywood DVDs available, I bit. My first film was 'Bombay,' my
second 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,' and I was a goner. I also took the
opportunity to infect my fellow co-workers at the preservation lab.
One is now enthusiastic about Hrithik Roshan and another is absolutely
bonkers over Shahrukh. ... There is something almost intoxicating
about movies that are so emotional and unashamed of it.
"Two years after my initial exposure I was on a plane to visit India.
That trip was life altering. ... And now, four years later, I am
married to an Indian man and about to give birth any minute (Please!)
to a half-Desi little girl. And in true Indian fashion, my husband's
parents are living with us right now, although I'm sad to say they
will be returning home to India in a couple of months. So I'm an
American bahu in a joint family! I often tell my husband that
depending on how he feels about his life at any given moment, all
praise or curses must be laid on Bollywood!"
So you see how a case of Bollywood fever can lead to wedding bells,
and leave the victim with the warm shivers of shaadi-freude.
*************From Uncle Yap**************
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