As much as I love Bollywood, it’s time to face the fact that the Indian movie industry is going through a severe identity crisis. Ever since the turn of the century, Bollywood movies have strived for more “modern” stories and themes. However, the distinction between modernization and Westernization was quickly confused, resulting in an unbelievable inconsistency in film quality.
The reason for this conceptual blurring of modernization and Westernization is that a lot of the more liberal, taboo subjects new Bollywood adopted had distinctly Western associations. It’s uncomfortable for filmmakers to write about homosexuality and extramarital affairs on Indian soil when much of the population vehemently denies such things. It’s too difficult to dress an actress in booty shorts and a bikini top without putting her on a beach in Europe. And the only way to accommodate non-native actresses, like the American-born Katrina Kaif, is to write characters specifically for them, who live or grew up in other countries.
In the beginning, it was refreshing. Movies like “Kal Ho Naa Ho” showed innovative and respectable use of Western themes. The characters interacted with the setting to the point that New York is as much of a character in “Kal Ho Naa Ho” as Aman, Rohit or Naina. I can’t imagine the story unfolding in any other city.
At the same time, writer Karan Johar maintained the balance between Indian traditions and American culture. His characters saw themselves as New Yorkers as much as Indians. The film even explored the culture of the Indian community in the United States with subplots like arranged marriage services.
Then things took a turn.
Films were set in different countries for no apparent reason. Katrina Kaif gets way too many roles. Movies set abroad seem less interested in the diaspora as compared to the fabricated party vibe and sexuality of the West. The starkest visual cue of this is the fact that background dancers in item numbers are now almost always Caucasian women. I’ve been able to trace this back as far as the song “Shava Shava” from 2003’s “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham,” but now those women are everywhere.
This isn’t some sort of xenophobic reverse-racism. The European dancers hired for Bollywood item numbers are excellent at what they do, but it’s a small, subtle change with enormous implications. In a previous column, I discussed the problematic messages that the Indian media sends about women, and this is no exception.
At its harshest, the message is that Indian women aren’t good enough. You danced in our movies, but we decided to upgrade to taller, thinner, whiter models. And since the media has an undeniable influence upon body image, Indian girls and women will start aspiring to a beauty ideal that is physically impossible for them to achieve.
Worse yet, this “outsourcing” of backup dancers has made it exponentially more difficult for the thousands of struggling female junior artistes in India to find work. About a year ago, I read an article in Cineblitz magazine which stated that female junior artistes make just enough money to live in slums; they’re often forced into prostitution either for money or to progress their careers. Bollywood’s obsession with physical beauty and impressing the west is causing suffering among India’s own.
And what about the outstanding English lyrics that now pervade Bollywood music? This is supposed to be a method of branching out and getting Bollywood to appeal to wider audiences — namely, Hollywood’s audience. Unfortunately, the English lyrics are so insipid that they beg to be mocked. All I want is a catchy, enjoyable Bollywood song that doesn’t include a single mention of disco (seriously, what is the deal with the disco references. It’s 2013). Is that so much to ask?
The main problem with this is that English is not the first language of most of Bollywood’s lyricists. Their English isn’t bad, and they can most certainly speak it fluently … but conversational skills don’t equate with an ability to write poetry, which, at its roots, is what lyricism is all about.
Last year, my parents and I watched the terrific “Vicky Donor,” about a man who becomes a sperm donor to make money and has trouble getting his family and girlfriend to accept it. The film was fantastic — appropriately dramatic and poignant, while simultaneously so funny that we had to stop the DVD multiple times and wipe our tears. The songs were excellent, from the haunting ballad “Pani Da Rang” to the irresistible beat of “Rum & Whiskey.”
The result of these dueling stimuli is an industry that is almost entirely hit or miss with the films it produces. For years I’ve been summarizing Bollywood’s evolution as “the good movies are getting better, the bad films are getting worse.” There was a time when I could casually watch Bollywood movies for simple enjoyment. Now they are either brilliant or abhorrent, and the former is far more rare.
As much as I love the exceptional quality of movies like “Vicky Donor,” I still have to know that “Race 2” exists and will probably make an obscene amount of money. With a little more attention to story and detail, Bollywood movies have the potential to be modern and relevant without crass Westernization. Only then will this industry gain the respect it desires and deserves.