Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hooray for Bollywood

I've been savoring the differences between Hollywood and Hindi Cinema. (My friend Nitin tells me the correct term for Bollywood is Hindi Cinema.) I was pleasantly surprised a year ago when I first experienced it. Though Sholay shows its age, it provides a good starting referent to Bollywood. Kudos to my friend Debraj to got me started with this film.

In a Hollywood movie, you are best advised to start with a short story, and make a screenplay from it. That is because a typical novel would take many hours were you to do a scene-by-scene adaptation to a screenplay. Bollywood has no problem with time. They typically make much longer movies. This results in a lot more story to enjoy.

Another difference and the main one I want to bring to your attention is Bollywood's moral compass. It is magnetized differently than Hollywood's. I'm not taking this opportunity to cast aspersions on either Hollywood or Bollywood--different does not mean wrong. I am only going to note differences. And if you think those differences constitute depravity or something very good, that's your decision.

The first thing I noticed about Bollywood is that they are not afraid to mention God. In the USA, any movie that mentions God had better do so in an ironic or comedic fashion, or it's going to be filed in the "Inspirational/Faith & Spirituality" section of the video store. The only time secret agent 007 was ever in church was at his wife's funeral. Otherwise, if you hear deity's name taken in a Hollywood movie, it is most likely taken in vain. Bollywood, not so much.

India has had to negotiate a diverse collection of faiths, and Bollywood wants to sell tickets to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Pious members of each of these religions will likely hear respectful mentions of deity in a fairly inclusive fashion. The US solution to the problem of religious pluralism is total silence. To Hollywood, deity is something like Voldemort of whom no one dares speak his name.

In both Hollywood and Bollywood movies it is altogether right and proper for the antagonist to die in the last reel. But the protocols for killing off the villain differ. In Hollywood, it does not matter how much evil the villain inflicts upon the hero, s/he'll try to take him alive--then helplessly watch him die. The script writer will then oblige the audience by making the villain go for his gun or fall onto some stabby object, like a wrought-iron fence, or a wood chipper, or molten lava. Whereupon the Hollywood hero will then respond with regret while the audience is doing fist-pumps.
Bollywood is a lot more eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth. If you smother my asthmatic family member with a pillow, I'll smother you with a tractor exhaust pipe. If you jam my race car into the wall resulting in a fiery crash, I'll do the same to you. I was shocked when I saw this happen in a kid-friendly family drama.

The only counter-example of this was a movie where a woman serially married men who for various reasons needed killing, and she murdered them one after another only to get off Scot-free by becoming a nun.

All the while nobody is allowed to kiss nobody on screen.

Bollywood also seems to have a greater tolerance for government and official corruption. If you ever see a dirty cop, a bureaucrat who takes bribes, or a corrupt politician in Hollywood, they are villains most vile. But in Bollywood this kind of behavior is laudatory provided he share his ill gotten gains with the poor. I have no way of knowing whether Indian official culture is more corrupt than American official culture, but its cinematic portrayal seems to be much more accepting of it.

They say that a fish can tell you nothing about water. This is because he's in it all the time. Foreign cinema provides a window into not just other cultures, but by way of contrast it tells you something of your own. The US has enjoyed a dominant place in world culture for most of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we're seeing other countries developing sophisticated movie making establishments.

It was a bit shocking the first time I heard two characters conversing in Hindi and lapse into Hinglish, uttering a word or two of English. This is the future of world culture: a mix of distinct national cultures that holds lessons for everyone. I think we'll see a convergence on the good and an appreciation of the differences.

Hooray for Bollywood. If you don't agree, I'll give you a tight slap.

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