Ask any typical Westerner if they have seen a Bollywood film and the answer most probably will be, no. And those who have would describe Indian films as song and dance monstrosities.
There’s nothing new or offensive about this reaction, as many educated Indians would share the same view.
The West never paid much attention to Indian movies, only occasionally showing respect for directors like Satyajit Ray who received an honorary Academy Award in 1992 on his death bed.
In the 1930s, Baburao Patel, a mediocre filmmaker and the feisty editor of India’s first film trade magazine Filmindia, toured Europe to meet many of Indian cinema’s detractors, and berated them on the atrocious quality of the stuff they inflicted on the world.
Eight decades later, the world opinion on Bollywood films largely remains dismissive. The reason behind this is not the lack of technical gloss but poverty of content.
100 years of Bollywood
This year, Bollywood celebrates 100 years of its cinema. But has anything changed in terms of content in the world’s largest film-producing industry?
The good news is that the answer is more yes than no.
In the past some Hindi filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Chetan Anand and Mehboob Khan made content-rich films of global standard. Some films travelled to Western film festivals and garnered accolades. But they never became mainstream trends.
But that is changing now.
Indie goes mainstream
With the rise of the multiplexes and a well-off middle class as patrons, there has emerged a middle-of-the road kind of cinema in India. This cinema is rich in content and often avoids the traditional song and dance formula. The result has been a rich cornucopia of films that have succeeded both commercially and critically, at home and abroad. Examples are Udaan, Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 & 2, Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani, English Vinglish and Vicky Donor.
Wedged between the low-brow potboilers and the big budget blockbusters, this new segment of films is getting support from corporate production houses.
Eyeing the global market
The irony is that Bollywood is the world’s most prolific film-producing industry but has it emerged as global cinema? The answer is not yet. Bollywood might already be popular in South Asia, Middle East and parts of Africa but it is yet to become a part of the mainstream in Europe and North America.
For a long time, Bollywood didn’t even care about this market. It had a big domestic box office and cable TV market. Now that Bollywood is making content rich films with a global idiom, it is seeking global audiences beyond the Indian diaspora. It wants its share of the US$300bn global film market from just $5.4bn. And the West is taking notice of it.
When Gangs of Wasseypur released in Paris, it described its director Anurag Kashyap as India’s Tarantino on posters. Hollywood Reporter went overboard to describe Kashyap’s film: “Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace,” it said.
After a hiatus of many decades, Bollywood films have started to get noticed in festivals like Cannes and Toronto. This year, for example, Cannes Film Festival is celebrating ’100 years of Indian Cinema’ and there are five films in the festival connected with indie cheerleader Kashyap. Bollywood actress Vidya Balan is on the jury. In a recent interview, Kashyap said, ‘we’ve got a seat on the bus now’. There has been a European wave and a Latin American wave. He hopes that the world cinema will soon see an Indian wave. The global audiences can hardly wait.