a few thoughts in response to Firstpost's "My favourite bimbo: Why America loves brain-dead Bollywood"
This article in Firstpost is probably upsetting a lot of people. Normally I see little good in joining the fracas, but this time...it's personal. So here are a few thoughts about the piece—not a full rebuttal, because I agree with some facets of it, and not even particularly well-organized, because it is only 8:30 in the morning. Also, I am talking about what is in the article itself, not in the comments, where, last time I checked, there were some great points being made on a variety of finer aspects of the piece. Also important to add is that I very rarely read any of the American critics named in the piece, so I do not have my own informed opinion of what they do and don't tend to like or value.
- If only the title had said "some mainstream American critics in some big mainstream publications" instead of just "America." Because that's who seems to be the actual subject. And curiously absent in the article is Roger Ebert, surely one of our best-known critics for decades, who likes mainstream Bollywood so much he profiled it at his "overlooked" festival in 2005—"overlooked" because he feels popular Indian cinema is not widely enough known or experienced in the US— with a showing of Taal, at which director Subash Ghai was present and participated in a panel discussion. (I have written at length about my experience of seeing Taal at Ebertfest here.)
- Of course, saying "Americans" is almost as silly as saying "Indians." What does that even mean? The kinds of Americans who read film reviews in mainstream publications? The kinds of Americans who have ever felt that foreign cinema is something they can/should try out? The kinds of Americans who have actual pragmatic access to Bollywood at all?
- Take a gander down my sidebar of links, and you will see many Americans who publicly, and with thought and care, express their love, understanding, appreciation of and questions about Bollywood. It's just that most of us don't write on those topics for newspapers or magazines.
- Assuming that Americans like "the circus" aspect of Bollywood is an odd critique and probably dismissive both of the circus and of viewers' tastes and abilities. Much of Hollywood is the same, and we Americans go to those movies and love them and discuss them etc. We have our own gargantuan indigenous "entertainment machine set to dazzle," so would it be too surprising that we respond to those of other cultures as well?
- There's a great point in the quote from Sandip Roy that while some of the larger, louder, more visually-based charms of Bollywood are more easily discerned and enjoyed by the American audience he's watching a film with, "The heart stays behind, lost in the subtitles." Short of every potential Bollywood viewer in the world becoming fluent in Hindi, I'm not sure what can be done about that. Those of us who don't speak Hindi and love Bollywood anyway are working on it, and if we ever come up with an easy solution, we'll be sure to package it along with DVDs in which someone has actually bothered to proofread the subtitles. Is this problem more endangering of appreciation of Bollywood than it is of, say, Hong Kong action films or Italian spaghetti westerns or French new wave? I have no idea, but I can't really imagine so. Surely one can like, appreciate, and engage with cinema without having a particularly deep understanding of the culture that made it. It is a way to begin building that very understanding. However, not knowing the culture intimately does of course mean that that viewer isn't getting everything out of the movie that they might (even things the filmmakers didn't necessary intend). That is the risk taken by any person—gasp!—engaging with cultures other than their own.
- I feel like there's a dilemma in here, which is not the author's fault at all and that she is hinting at for discussion, that Americans liking Bollywood for the same reason that millions of Indians and other people around the world like it is problematic. Why is it somehow wrong for us to like Indian candyfloss? Why is it a scorn-worthy hipster-y stance labeled "kitsch is cool" when critics do it? Maybe these critics genuinely like SRK hamminess and bright colors. Is that not their right as thinking participants in cinema?
- What is wrong, of course, is for anyone, American, Indian, or otherwise, to assume all cinema from India (or America or anywhere else) is monolithic. Nobody gets to do that, but keeping your mind open to differences is hard, especially in the face of popular culture machines, and it requires work, which it seems lots of people don't want to do. Professional critics of course have an obligation to keep their brains on while they watch, and I think most of the ones I read do, even if they don't consider every single scrap of relevant history/context/opinion that we may want them to in every single, no doubt word-limit-imposed, review.
- I do agree that Bollywood abroad, or at least in the US, does probably generally suffer from "the soft bigotry of low expectations." How to change that? The mainstream, widely-read critics could play a role here, that's for sure, by expressing to American readers what they love and value and find interesting about Bollywood. And isn't that one of the things they they do do by getting excited about some of the mass entertainers?
- I really resent the last paragraph that says that the underlying message of some of these American reviews that love Ra.One but are unimpressed by Peepli Live is that "'serious' cinema is best left to those who know how—in Hollywood, France, even Iran. Our [India's] job on the international cinema stage is simple: look pretty and play dumb." That's unfair to Bollywood and other Indian cinemas, and it's unfair to international audiences. It's also unfair to the need to allow for variation in taste. Rachel Saltz doesn't like "Jesus Aamir"*'s Peepli Live? So what? I'm sure she's not the only one. I don't particularly like some of the "serious" or "message" Hindi films I've seen either (for example, Amu and Bawandar), not because razzle-dazzle and heroic arm-flings are absent but because they are laborious, pedantic, obvious, and boring.
- I'm glad the article ends with a jab at the reputation of Pamela Anderson. That's exactly what I'm talking about. Americans get pegged as blonde and shallow and artificial and facade-oriented all the time. And guess what. She's Canadian—or at least, as my Canadian friends like to say, "Born in Canada, made in the USA."