Monday, February 27, 2012

Michael5000 vs. Bollywood

At the Movies with Michael5000

I don’t really know much about Indian "Bollywood" film. I've only been watching it because it's what the kids are into, as far as I can tell. It may be significant that many of the young people I know are Bhutanese, Somali, Ethiopian, or Iraqi by birth. But whatever. I decided to take a look.

Dabangg ("Fearless"), from 2010, was the first step on my journey. It is an action/adventure/comedy/romance, which sort of introduces my first point: though certainly not without their conventions, Indian films seem a little faster and looser with genre than what I am used to. They are a full-blooded sort of entertainment, and want to make you laugh AND cry AND gasp AND cheer AND leave the theater dancing. But then, they've got more time to work on you -- Dhabangg's 125 minute running time would make it a generous American flick, but it is quite short by Bollywood standards.

The hero here is a stoic cop with strength, skill and agility that are equivalent to Terminator-like superpowers. He is only modestly corrupt (which is as good as a cop seems to get in Indian film and fiction), but he has issues with his stepfather, his half-brother, and his unattainable love object that he must work out between the action scenes. In terms of internal logic, everything that happens is all very preposterous -- I defy anyone who has watched the movie, for instance, to outline a coherent explanation of the wedding scene -- but that is not supposed to bother us. There is, I believe, a reduced expectation of rationality in Bollywood film, as in opera or musical comedy. Think Pirates of Penzance.

Speaking of music, one of the singular features of Indian film is that they are nearly all what we might call "musicals," although American studios haven't much made musicals for some decades. And anyway, the Indian version goes beyond a character suddenly breaking into song and dancing around a lamppost a la Singin' in the Rain. These are big Big BIG showstopper numbers with large dance choruses, multiple settings and costume changes, and lots of showy camera work, color, and effects. They can be quite startling until you begin to recognize the cues or the timing that suggest that a song is coming.

I have come to a working hypothesis that the "songs" are not to be understood as literally happening within the film narrative, but are rather intended to represent the interior emotional state of the characters. The kids love 'em. When they talk about a movie they like, they like to argue about which was the best song.

Tees Maar Khan (2010), an action comedy, was my second stop, and it established that I have bad taste in Indian film. The critical community as a whole loves Dhabangg, and thought Tees Maar Khan stank. I thought it got pretty funny after an admittedly lame first act. The premise is that a team of con men will try to rob a train, and for reasons that escape me now they figure the best way to do this is to pretend to be making a movie in a remote railside village. This makes it into a movie about movies and movie personalities, and I may have liked it more than I ought to have because its overt jokes about Indian movies come along just in time to help me in my studies.

Because of their length, Indian films usually have intermissions. Just before the break in Tees Maar Khan, a dim henchman asks the eponymous criminal mastermind "when will we start the mission?" The boss says "We'll start the mission," and then looks smugly at the camera: "after the intermission!" I thought this was a hoot. I may have been drinking.

My fourth film was Partner, which is perhaps even more preposterous than the other two. It concerns a "love guru" -- a dating coach for shy men -- who must help manage an intensely irritating but heart-of-gold client and then, as you have already guessed, deal with the fact that he himself has fallen in love. This premise probably predates written language in human literature, but in this particular iteration there are many peculiar whistles and bells thrown in. At one point the hero must spend several minutes fleeing a guided missile on a jetski. There is a comically short, megalomanical gangster figure who pushes the plot along during the first half and then disappears once he is no longer needed. I thought it was fun, and liked the title song the best.

An interesting aspect of cross-cultural film watching is trying to decode the style and fashion deployed by the filmmakers. It took me a quite a while to recognize that the lead character in Dhabangg, with his thin mustache, aviation glasses, incongruous dress shirts, and apparent inability to move his facial muscles, was supposed to be attractive. I have since been assured that, in cultural context, he is a pretty hot item. Similarly, the love guru in Partner occasionally makes sartorial choices that even a fashion-indifferent person like myself can immediately see would get him beat up behind the school at recess. Except no, he's actually quite stylish according to the semiotics of the target demographic.

The third Indian film I watched was My Name is Khan. It is a very different kind of Bollywood movie. Set in the United States, it is an odd construction that borrows elements of Rain Man and Forrest Gump and makes an impressive stab at exploring American post-9/11 paranoia and reaction. As you can imagine, it's a complicated beast. The short version is that I thought it was fascinating and fairly well realized. The long version? Eh, maybe later.

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