Saturday, May 10, 2008

Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema: A Visual Jouney through the Heart of Bollywood by Johan Manschot and Marijke de Vos

What I like most about Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema is that I think it would have worked as well for me when I first browsed it at my university library a few years ago, a total newbie, as it does for me now. It covers components of movies - songs, mythology, marriage scenes, villains - and aspects of the worlds of producing and watching movies - publicity, censorship, branding. (Click here for the book's official website or here to see some pages.) Because the book is a series of essays, none longer than twenty pages or so, the reader easily gets to see how these ideas interrelate. The essays can stand alone equally successfully, so you could hop into the book and read just the chapters that interest you, and a novice wouldn't get lost. If it were up to me, I would change the order of the chapters a little, so that the typical components of a movie (types of characters, film-making jobs, an overview of religious references, the role of escapism) came before the discussions of how a movie is marketed, the introduction to the Tamil movie industry, and the overview of the popularity of Hindi films in other parts of the world. But that's a fairly minor quibble, especially since it would be very easy for someone to read the chapters in whatever order they want. The book really is an excellent introduction to the world of movies and movie culture. As Amitabh Bachchan says in his forward, "the authors analyze the emotional ingredients that form the essence of India and Indian cinema." I wouldn't say that job is finished - it's only 150-odd pages long, after all - but a hearty serving of the ingredients is here. And there's still plenty for people who already know a bit (or more) about Hindi cinema, and I found myself thinking about interconnections between topics and films that I hadn't noticed before. Some of the information was new to me, but even when it wasn't, there were examples I hadn't thought of, films being discussed in light of ideas I hadn't considered, etc.

The subtitle of the book is telling - there is extensive, clever, and gorgeous use of film-related images. Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema really is a visual treat, with layers of textures, details of posters, photos of ephemera, sequences of stills from films, and snapshots of people engaging in movies (whether as viewers and fans or working in the industry - hoarding painters, projectionists, stars, etc.). I felt like I was looking at a scrapbook that had been lovingly assembled and notated over the decades. The only down side: dark pages with white text made marking up text or taking notes with my regular ol' black ink pen downright impossible. I also liked the variety of authors (who are all included in an "about" section at the end of the book, complete with brief biographies), and there are several whose other works I will soon be tracking down.

Here are some ideas that struck me in particular:

  • In "Publicity," P. K. Nair discusses the relationship between the integrity of a film and the style of promotion used to market it (page 34). To be honest, this is not something I've thought much about, but it makes sense. A recent example that stands out to me is the SMS-sounding lingo on the Tashan website, as well as the barrage of promotions for it in its Facebook group, indicating the target audience is 1) tech users and 2) young. The author says that television's reliance on snippets of song picturizaitons has gotten so commonplace that it's hard to tell one film's promotional material from another, but since I never see films advertised on tv, I haven't experienced this struggle to establish an identity for a new film.
  • In her essay called "Credits" about the main characters in a typical film, Deepa Gahlot touches on the limitations in female roles, and even just these few sentences (pages 55 and 57) made me want to read more of her work. Maybe I haven't looked in the right places yet, but I just haven't read enough about this.
  • Brahmanand Singh proposes that Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man films "introduced an unrefined realism into mainstream Indian cinema, a genre that gave rise to a series of ill-planned, plotless movies with largely gratuitous action" (page 115). If I had been drinking coffee when I read that, it would have come out my nose. So maybe that's what's wrong with 80s films! It's a good question: what are the effects on movies (particularly stories and their execution) after the Big B got big? If his movies tapped into a taste for violence, what were filmmakers to do to satisfy that taste after he was gone (or at least no longer angry)?
  • Sudha Rajagopalan has an article on the affection for Indian popular cinema in Soviet Russia (pages 138-9). In the 50s, Soviet audiences responded to the personal- and family-level emotions and stories in Hindi films that so contrasted with the state and community concerns portrayed in Russian films. Viewers found Bollywood melodrama cathartic. Movies also felt ethnogrpahic, transporting viewers to a different place. And you have got to see the Soviet posters for Indian films illustrating this article. These posters make Commando look...well, good, full of danger and secrets. Bollywood behind the iron curtain is a phenomenon I've been wanting to know more about, and her article makes me feel like I have a good starting point for reading more. (And yes, I can't wait to track down her thesis on the same topic!)
  • Any of you who have read this book: what do you think of Nasreen Munni Kabir's discussion of the rise of popularity of Bollywood in the west? Monsoon Wedding and Bend It like Beckham "made Indian entertainment appealing and acceptable. It seemed that the west had suddenly fallen in love with all things Indian" (143). This is yet another aspect of Indian cinema I haven't read much about. Those two films were certainly pivotal in my own awareness of Indian movies - they were the first I ever saw (I'd heard of the Apu triology but hadn't seen them [and still haven't - yes, I know]) - but I don't know how typical that is. To me this quote seems overstated. Forget "all things Indian"; "a new awareness of Indian cinema" might be more accurate. Anyway. I wouldn't argue against the phenomenon of those films serving as "gateway" pieces, but in the landscape before Netflix and prevalent downloading, I wonder how many people who were curious for more had easy access to Indian films? Kabir raises more interesting points: in India, the fixation on popular cinema has distracted interest away from other art forms; the power and ubiquity of Bollywood imagery and figures to advertise; the reliance of cable channels on movies for programming. In closing, the author proposes that "unless audiences in the west develop a sustained love for the films themselves, and not just the world of Bollywood, with its glamorous stars and spellbinding songs and dances, it is difficult to believe that their interest in Indian cinema is more than a passing fad." (All of these ideas are from page 145.) For starters, how are stars, songs, and dances not a part of "the films themselves"? They do not alone make a film, obviously (though producers have tried), but in this very book other authors have discussed how central to films music is, how choreographers become directors for the dance sequences, how viewers in many parts of the world react strongly to different actors. And wouldn't you have to have experienced and respond to "the films themselves" - have some kind of personal reaction to or history with them - in order to be interested enough to explore "the world of Bollywood"? I don't think it can be argued that the films Kabir points out as opening the western mind to Indian films, Monsoon Wedding and Bend It like Beckham, have a boatload of glamorous stars or songs and dances, so implying that western viewers were hooked only by those traits doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe I'm just taking this too personally, feeling vaguely like my love has been insulted - based on her biography in the back of the book, she has clearly spent more time thinking about this than I have (and has an extensive resumé in Indian film-related projects in the UK).
So there you have it. Tons to think about and learn, no matter what you already know about or have already experienced of Indian cinema - and illustrated so thoughtfully and with such care and passion, you'll take many times longer to read this book as the text length suggests because your eyes will not want to leave the page. I have no doubt I'll return to this book often as movies yet unwatched remind me of arguments or examples made here, as the ideas in it continue to interrelate and feed my learning and curiosity. Vah vah!

12 comments:

memsaabstory said...

Looks like a book I need to add to my Bollybookshelf! Great! :-)

Re: Monsoon Wedding and BILB, I saw them after I was hooked already on Indian films, but am not sure that they would have gotten me started if I weren't. Monsoon Wedding might have, but I don't think BILB would have (Monsoon Wedding taking place in India with a big wedding etc.)...

Rizwana said...

Bollywood movies do get their clutches into you and won't let go. I too have my own love affair and have found quite a source to feed it. Have to share it here. Please check out this new website www.TinselVision.com for your quota of Bollywood movies and TV.

moana.masala said...

i have to get this book as i'm all about asking hard questions (though not necessarily about answering them ;)).

K3G was my first foray into hindi film. i'd watched BILB but hadn't connected that to the richer tradition of hindi film. K3G was overwhelming for me. i had to *not* think about it for a few months before going back to it, watching it again and accepting the film wholeheartedly. that opened a whole new world for me. i guess what i'm rambling on about is that perspective is important. i decided to love indian films and now i do.

maybe that makes sense. . . maybe that doesn't.

Beth said...

Oh no, if K3G had been my first movie, I might have run away screaming. That's quite a piece to engage with right off the bat.

If you read it, do tell me what you think! It's so fun to read, although as someone just emailed me, it can be hard to focus on the text and actually read it because the graphics are so lovely!

Bollyviewer said...

After reading your post I went to the library to get this book but got sidetracked by "The Kapoors" (by Madhu Jain) on the shelf and spent a few hours with Kapoor-related trivia instead! :-) Have to get my hands on this one, though.

About the popularity of Bollywood in the West, I think one big factor is the large number of Indians in North America as well as Europe. Everywhere we Indians go, our movies go with us! This probably makes Bollywood movies more 'visible' in the Western world which in turn increases the number of encounters a Western person has with Hindi movies. Out of several people seeing movies, there are bound to be some at least who'd like them. Besides, Hollywood is waking up to the fact that not only is India a vast untapped market, the large Indian diaspora in the West is also a fast growing market. Investing in Bollywood films or movies starring Bollywood stars is a great way to tap this market. (It works - I wouldnt have watched Mistress of Spices had there been no Aishwarya). So, Bollywood is getting more exposure in the West and this should certainly enhance its popularity.

Bollywoodblogger said...

Hi blogger! You've been tagged. Visit my blog for details, under 'Tag, You're It' posting: http://bollywoodfashionpolice.blogspot.com/

veracious said...

"Oh no, if K3G had been my first movie, I might have run away screaming. That's quite a piece to engage with right off the bat."

I don't know, Beth, a first film doesn't have to be the best. I was attracted to Bollywood via K3G and it's not a favourite anymore and I'm not a fan of KJo films, either, but it's an okay start for many.

With that said, I honestly haven't seen that many getting into BW through Monsoon Wedding or BILB - Bride & Prejudice on the other hand seems like a gateway for many. Which is odd, because it's definitely the worst film out of the three.

I would love to check this book out but unless I find it in my library, I doubt I ever will.. Coffee table books are not something I enjoy ordering from Amazon or similar; the shipping costs are ridiculous!

Beth said...

Bollyviewer - Oooh, I want to read The Kapoors but last time I checked it's not in my university's massive library system (booo!). I think you're totally right about the Indian population's influence; the author of that essay in the book mentions that as well, focusing on the UK. I don't pay particular attention to the financial end of Bollywood, and I'm curious what effect the Saawariya experiment is having on Hollywood involvement in Indian films.

And how was Mistress of Spices? I think you're the first person I've met who'ss een it!

Bollywoodblogger - Fun site! I'll enjoy the pictures.

veracious - Oh I agree that a not-great movie can be a great starting point - my first movie is Mujhse Dosti Karoge!, for god's sake - but for me, personally, I don't think K3G would have appealed. I think I would have lost it at Hrithik's sleeveless electric guitar playing.

Bride and Prejudice was my gateway even after having seen the other two - and for me it was for a very specific reason: Gurinder Chandha had a page up on the movie's site about some traditions and conventions of Bollywood to which she was nodding in her film or by which she was influence. I'm not even sure I had heard the term "Bollywood" before that - I knew about the Apu trilogy and that was about it for Indian films of any kind.

I highly recommend this book - and it's definitely much more than a coffee table book in content, though that does not help with shipping :)

Bollyviewer said...

I am probably the only one who actually liked Mistress of Spices, too! :-( I loved the idea of spices being magic and good for people but wish that there was a more interesting male lead than Dylan McDermott.

Dont you like Mujhse Dosti Karoge anymore? Its been one of my favorites - where else do you get Hritik and Rani together!!!!

Beth said...

That makes me want to see it - sometimes one good review is enough for me, especially, as in this case, if I like the lead. I really do like Aishwarya's performances, generally, which I know is an unpopular opinion.

As for MDK, indeed I do still like it. The Hrithik/Rani pair is very enjoyable! (And I like Kareena, too, another unpopular opinion!)

Todd said...

Wait... You mean this book has writing in it? Every time I've leafed through it I've been too dazzled by its fabulous design to notice that it contained actual words, much less informative and thoughtful ones such as those to which you referred. Crazy. I'll definitely have to give it another look.

Beth said...

I've had it since Christmas and it took me until April to dig through to the words. They are totally worth it, though of varying levels of interestingness due to 1) your own interests and 2) the different writing styles of all the people involved. There are definitely chapters I liked more than others. And the pictures will get more meaning, too! Reading: it's a win-win.