Between Reviews: Hollywood Calling

Posted on October 31, 2009


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As we’re inundated with Hollywood-style films gussied up in Bollywood clothing, it’s hard not to think about those who make these movies and those they’re made for.

NOV 1, 2009 – WATCHING RECENT RELEASES LIKE ACID FACTORY and Blue (and even not-so-recent ones like Dhoom) – films that make reviewers reach for rote adjectives like “stylish” and “cool” and “jazzy,” because it’s all about how they’re made, rather than what they’re made of – there appears to be a diminutive, vaguely-disreputable sub-genre of Indian cinema begging to be recognised: the Hollywood film for those who don’t watch Hollywood films, made by Bollywood filmmakers who aren’t terribly interested in making Bollywood films. (I use the term “Bollywood” a bit loosely, for even Tamil moviegoers, for instance, are subjected, on occasion, to embarrassments like Dhaam Dhoom, which strive to bring the slam-bang action-adventure aesthetic to a culture more attuned to the one-against-many dishoom-dishoom.) Only the spoken language in these films is Indian. Everything else – the stunts, the locations, the attitudes, the clothes (Dia Mirza’s catsuit in Acid Factory?) – is imported wholesale from the West.

When earlier filmmakers “borrowed” from elsewhere – how I love that euphemism, as if intellectual property were something that could be taken, used, and then “returned” with interest – they at least took the trouble to Indianise these ideas. (To be fair, though, it’s easier to condone such uncredited copying in the olden days, when concepts such as intellectual theft and plagiarism were still cloudy constructs.) Namak Haram may be the bastard child of Becket, but there’s a legitimacy to its existence – it was reworked, assiduously, from the ground up. The king became a capitalist, the priest transformed into a communistic union leader (his allegiance, therefore, transferring from God to suffering fellow-men), and more importantly, the palace setting mutated into the kind of slum that was instantly recognisable to people across the length and breadth of the nation.

Such considerations are alien to Blue, which sits smugly in the knowledge that hits are no longer dictated by commoners across the length and breadth of the nation but by the elite sitting in the multiplex pockets. Take the sequence, early on, where Akshay Kumar and Sanjay Dutt face off in a boxing ring. The banter consists of lines like, “Boss, gehne par mat maar dena,” and “Main abhi paida nahin hua hoon.” Translate these, and you get thoughts that are Western in idiom. (“Boss, mind the family jewels,” and “I wasn’t born yesterday.”) We are increasingly seeing films being made by the elite who think in English – and yet, later on, Akshay spouts a line of dialogue with the word “sampatti” in it, when he could have said “treasure” or “wealth.” This pure Hindustani word fits in neither with the Westernised character nor the Westernised tone of the film.

Why, then, is it employed? The reason, paradoxically enough, is in order to reach out to the very audiences that the multiplexes have spurned – the audiences who do not watch Hollywood movies. There’s an infuriating smack of condescension in these tactics, when filmmakers think that by tossing out a few “Indian-sounding” words as sops, their films become “Indian,” and therefore palatable to viewers of the traditional Bollywood movie. The ploy is downright risible in the scene where Lara Dutta, in a crisis, grabs the radio controls of the boat and yells, “Mayday, Mayday, Come in coastguard, hamein madad ki zaroorat hai,” – because, you know, the oceans of the Bahamas are patrolled by officers fluent in the tongues of India. The effect is parodic, as if we were watching not a bad Hindi film but a gently indulgent spoof of a bad Hindi film, from the makers of Quick Gun Murugan.

Even the character outlines reflect years and years of watching not our films but theirs. Akshay Kumar and Sanjay Dutt are essentially playing straight-up (i.e., undiluted for Bollywood) embodiments of cherished adventure-movie archetypes – respectively, the opportunistic hustler and the grizzled veteran – that have been kicking around from the days of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and perhaps even earlier. The deference to Bollywood tradition comes simply in the naming of Sanjay Dutt’s sea-faring character as Sagar, the way our peace-loving protagonists are typically – not in the “usually” sense but in the sense of conforming to a “type” – named Aman, our villains are called Durjan Singh, our valiant heroes go by Bahadur or Veer, our truth lovers are hailed as Satyapriya, and our younger brothers answer to Anuj.

In Blue, though, the younger brother (played by Zayed Khan) doesn’t pretend to be Indian – he is Sameer, and he wants to be called Sam. You’d think he’s the Bollywood equivalent of a Hollywood movie-brat – but the crossover isn’t complete, and there’s still a dash of Bollywood in him. Sam is an example of the confusion that plagues our filmmakers. “How Western can I be without completely alienating the moral and cultural sensibilities of the sap who watches Hindi films and only Hindi films?” That’s the tightrope many of today’s filmmakers are walking – teeter too much this way and you get labelled a hedonistic wannabe and risk losing out on single-screen audiences, lean too much that way and you court derision by the kids who haunt the multiplexes, who’ve all been there and done that. (They too, like the present-day filmmakers, have been weaned on the West.)

When Farhan Akhtar, in Dil Chahta Hai, coloured the relationship between Akshaye Khanna and Dimple Kapadia in purely asexual terms, you could sense that he’d already pushed the envelope far enough (with his narrative) and he didn’t want to shock an audience that had little clue about what a multiplex was, let alone a “multiplex culture.” That was, after all, 2001 – liberalisation had, long ago, made inroads into our lives, but not into our cinema, which was still conservative in many ways. But in 2009, the protagonist of Wake Up Sid shares living space with a girl and there’s still not a hint of sexual tension in the air (though, in most other respects, the “Westernisation” evident in Wake up Sid is far more real, more valid than that in Blue, not wannabe but reflective of the intersection of East and West where many of our lives collide).

Sameer, a.k.a. Sam, is like Sid. He talks like a stud and acts like a stud, he makes leering come-ons to Katrina Kaif – but in accordance with a Hollywood-style film being made with Bollywood audiences in mind, he’s been modeled after the traditional (namely, virginal) Bollywood hero. Therefore, the only zipping up he does is when he helps Akshay Kumar into a scuba suit, and the only throbbing between his legs comes from his souped-up motorbike, the Ducati 999. That’s another hallmark of these wannabe films, the fetishistic worship of shiny accoutrements of a life lived on the edge. (Acid Factory, similarly, drooled over the Lamborghini Murciélago.) Just who are these films for? The average Hollywood-movie-watcher would only hoot at these mad-scientist experiments in grafting two incompatible moviemaking sensibilities. That’s perhaps why we need a new label for these films: the Hollywood film for those who don’t watch Hollywood films.

But with Hollywood films being dubbed in Indian languages, do we need this family of films at all? Do we want to be inflicted with more such casualties of the have-money-will-spend mindset, crafted by directors who are so distanced from Bollywood tradition that they don’t even know, say, how and when to use songs? But what about the “pure” Bollywood movies? Do our filmmakers know their way around at least those narratives? For that matter, with our films having turned nuclear with a vengeance – even a romantic melodrama like Main Aurr Mrs. Khanna dispenses with parent-figures; it’s the friends who step in to assist and advise – is there even such a thing as a “pure” Bollywood movie any more? The discussion, dear reader, will be continued next week – for space reasons, yes, but let me add that I couldn’t resist ending a Bollywood-based article on a Hollywood-style cliffhanger.

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