2004-12-24

Indian cinema: We never learn

I saw a Bollywood film last night, after a long time. Sadly though, not much has changed during the time I didnt watch one. Why is it that one never has a truly endearing moment in a Bollywoord film -a moment where you conjoin with a character as if the events unfolding in front of your eyes, are a recollection of events in your past depicting exactly how it all happened? Or that it was just how you, and others around you, reacted?

Why do I, and almost everyone else that I know who watches them, feels Bollywood films are loud, usually obnoxious, with characters that are mere caricatures of how we truly are, and only escapism for entertainment value? And why we, believing and knowning what we believe, continue to watch them? Worse still, why do those who make them, continue doing so?

This made me wonder if we Indians are really as loud as they project us? But how come I never broke into a song, running around trees with a girl? Ah, perhaps I wasn't lucky enough. But I don't think anyone else I know was. How many of us have had such vastly varying socio-emotional moments as depicted in our movies? How many of us really wage a personal war against the system? Is personal justice is the only justice delivered in India? Are relatives always loud and overbearing? Actually, they probably are...

The Indian mythology is a rich source of myth, legends and heroes. The stories have evolved over many a millennia to reach their present form, and it is safe to assume they have undergone changes over time, as the stories were passed by recitation from one generation to another. It isn't unusal for the same (or similar) story to appear in different texts, each giving a slightly different version. The mythology is a ripe source of interesting accounts of gods fighting demons, fire breathing dragons and countless miracles sprinkled liberally across the text. Thus we do have a rich enough background to provide colour. Just think of the various different gods we have, and the miracles they are capable of performing. Who can compare a god that has only walked on water, to ours who lift mountains, defeat terrible demons and even hold the entire universe in their mouth?

Added to this mythology is also the richness of culture, especially the inclination towards the fine arts of classical music and dance. So much so, that we have classified the juice or flavour of feeling conveyed by an artform - the "rasas". The culture, together with the richness of mythology has provided for many a night spent by the fire, with powerful stories enacted and delivered by artists taking the art to its highest form. It is this background that undoubtedly provides us the undying love for song and dance.

Our land, rich in spices, abundant natural resources and precious ores, has been annexed by several kings and conquerors over time - from Alexander to Gengis Khan - and all have been rewarded with untold riches. However, each conqueror found the richness of land extended beyond treasures that could be snatched, and either chose to stay on, or left behind a band of followers who brought with them new ideas and art forms, further enriching the culture.

Prior to cinema, presentations of various classical dances, recitation of classical songs and stage plays were a key source of entertainment. Art was revered, and artists were given the paid regard and reward, who in turn, devoted their lives to excel in their chosen art form. I remember the stage plays mostly in the form of nautanki, or ramlila, were the most popular forms of entertainment, other than sport. These plays were mostly religious in nature, carrying a moral or social message. The fickle and restless audience was kept interested mostly by melodrama, colour songs enacted by skilful dancers.

It is this song and dance background that infiltrated into the Indian cinema. Raja Harishchandra, India's first indigenous full-length feature film released in 1913, was a mythological film depicting the life and times of King Harishchandra. Subsequent films also revolved around mythological characters or the great leaders of the time. Perhaps due to the novelty and inexperience of the new artform, and perhaps due to the background of stage plays, moments of high emotion and drama were displayed via songs. It was this, more than anything else, that sowed the seeds of the Bollywood tradition to resort to using songs to portray intense emotions.

Sadly, the years of experience in both the media and the understanding of the audience's response to movies, has been more or less wasted. Bollywood films of today are polished like a pop-video or an advertisement, but there is little substance beneath the gloss. The storylines change little across films, and one can almost feel the actors going through the motions, having been through the cookie-cutter several times. The loud, slight exaggeration of stage actors to convey emotions to all corners of crowd, has been carried over in a medium that captures the slightest nuance. The focus on appearance and saleability has led to lack off attention to detail. Film-folk in India are stuck on the island that was meant to be a stepping stone.

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