Readers Write In #292: 25 years of DDLJ, the kind of cinema Indian cinema (esp. Bollywood) unwisely left behind

Posted on November 6, 2020

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(by Alex John)

(This write-up is not about the film)

Okay, let me kick this off with a question. How many movies do each of us want to celebrate the 10th anniversary of in 2020? How many films do we have in mind for their 15th anniversary? 20th any? Maybe a few. Now, dare ask me about the films I want to celebrate the 25th anniversary of, and I will throw a bunch of Bollywood and regional films at your face in no time. Yes, quite a few. We all know what this means. The show goes on like nothing happened, but the number of films we keep close to our hearts is hopelessly diminishing every year. Why am I, a non-Hindi speaker, still fondly remember a Bollywood film that came out 25 years ago? Don’t I watch Hindi films these days? Yes, I do. Some of them really strike a chord with me too. The last Hindi film I watched is Tumhari Sulu on Amazon prime, and boy, was that one hearty. I thoroughly enjoyed the flick, but I am sure I am not going to celebrate it after 25 years. Ask me why, and I would say the answer is pretty simple. The film did not give me anything to celebrate. Of course it’s funny, warm and thought-provoking, but nothing moved me to that scale of elation that would result in a long term relationship with it. Tumhari Sulu was like most of the notable films of this era-chirpy, cerebral and nuanced, but nowhere near to my heart like those X-gen films are.

Okay let me cut to the chase. What makes me treasure Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge even after 25 years of its release? The fact that it has everything that I inherently love in a commercial film as an Indian. The jollification, the songs, the dances, the mesmerizing presentation of the cinematic version of our ballet-inspired artistic culture, and the unapologetic use of all these things for unadulterated entertainment. The very things today’s filmmakers are almost ashamed to endorse. The things we lost in the course of trying to impress our ‘international’ audience. Indian cinema’s entertainment wing now finds itself located in a cultural no-man’s-land caught between the western tastes and desi style, with Bollywood right at the center of it. The regional industries are proximal either to the desi-ness(etc.Telugu) or the sublime approach(Malayalam) but Hindi cinema, once the entertainment powerhouse, is struggling to engage its own audience like in the past, let alone the whole country like it used to do once. Now, am I senselessly generalizing this? I don’t think so. If you think I am wrong, let me loop back to the start of this write-up. Ask somebody around his/her twenties how many films from 10 years ago he/she has a nostalgic relationship with (if you belong in the age group, ask yourself). You may ask now, what is this guy whining about? Isn’t Indian cinema still the spicy fiesta we all crave for? Doesn’t it still have songs and dances? Yes, it still has. Today’s heroes are funnier, the cheesy rom-com is still in business, the beats are peppy and Hrithik Roshan still dances like there is no tomorrow, but it…. still feels like these things don’t quite add up to anything substantially appealing. The tune-in attempts to the western tastes from the early 2000s have taken away something from Indian cinema, especially Bollywood, something that held together the aforementioned commercial factors to form the wholesome festivity our movies were once upon a time. Still trying to figure out my point? Think about what it would have become if ‘Yeh jawani hai deewani’ had a much better script. That’s what I am talking about. And that’s what we lost while trying to ‘internationalize’ our films.

Okay, are the western audiences impressed? Well they don’t really seem to be. They seem to be happy retaining the notion of Indian cinema being all songs, dances and merriments (the Indonesians, meanwhile, did explore the archives to remake a Bollywood dance number, knowing exactly where to look). A famous Malayali vlogger who resides in Germany recently claimed his German (note that) friends still invite him over to watch the 20th century Bollywood films. Do you get the feeling I am overselling this songs’n’dance thing? Well, I am not trying to, at least. I am trying to state that the quintessential song and dance Bollywood was one of the most marketable factors our cinema had and we blew that chance trying to adapt to something quite alien to our tastes. Want to learn something from the Chinese? They never tried to change their cinema for somebody else’s tastes. Even their better films where written off as cheesy once, but they kept making them and shipping them off to the (truly) international markets, and by the time the flamboyant classics like Hero and Crouching tiger hidden dragon hit the markets, the international viewers were conditioned to see greatness in the Chinese context. Do you think Korean movies were always this welcome elsewhere in the world? Nope. Their movies were considered over-emotional and the intonations funny by the western world once, but they improved vastly on their kind of cinema, without westernizing their films or anglicizing their tongue (even after all this success in the western world, we hear very few English words in Korean films).I am not forgetting that Korean lifestyle is much closer to the west than ours is, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that they never compromised their own way of filmmaking for anything, especially not for chasing the wild goose. The Japanese went a step further to make films so impressive Hollywood started making their own versions of them. We, on the other hand, kept playing the wannabe-game, and still sort of do it.

So, what are the takeaways? One, we abandoned the radiant ‘desi-ness’ in our films we adored once, leaving a void that can’t be filled with today’s half-hearted attempts at entertainment. Two, by doing so, we lost that inimitable exoticism that is eminently sellable in international markets. Three, we missed our chance to create a unique brand of Indian cinema built upon our festive, religious culture, like the Koreans and Chinese did with their cinema and culture. Towards the end of the 90s, the world started to notice our quirky filmmaking (remember the unexpected overseas success of Taal?), but we ditched it all of a sudden and started to emulate western cinema and foolishly try to sell it back to themselves (how can we forget the Barfi! embarrassment at the Oscars?). DDLJ represents the kind of cinema that we ditched for making ‘subtler’ films, the kind that plays more to hearts than brains. People still want this. Any doubt? See how the Telugu industry that still holds onto the retro style filmmaking to an extent gives a hard time to the Bollywood thespians. Karan Johar openly admitted that the success off Bahubali was a tight slap to Bollywood’s face. Telugu movie stars are becoming sensations in north India too, but I believe Bollywood, with its pan -Indian and international clout, had a better chance of continuing our ‘spice-cinema’ legacy. But who knows, maybe Tollywood is destined to do so. Maybe it’s filmmakers are going to keep our ‘masala cinema’ culture alive, and make the world pay attention to it, again. May be it’s their turn to make us fall in love with the DDLJ-brand of cinema…all over again. Like I said, who knows?