Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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."
* Term courtesy of Indiequill

20 comments:

The Mighty Mango said...

I have a bit of a suspicion that the article's author is one of those who hates Bollywood because it's razzle dazzle or because it's the cinema of the masses, so to speak, so she's taking it out on Americans. I have NRI friends in the U.S. who laugh (good-naturedly) at me because I like Bollywood more than they do. I feel like the article is a more-mean-spirited version of the same.

getfilmy said...

Love this post Beth!

You're actually much kinder than I would've been. The author of the Firstpost article has an obvious disdain for commercial, mainstream Bollywood and she's taking her ire out on people who actually deign to like it.

The way I read it, my problem certainly wasn't with American critics or their opinions but with the author's glaring embarrassment for the films that are represented by her own country. There's nothing wrong with the films or critics/viewers/bloggers who like such films. It's with the author.

Basically she's mad that unlike her, people like Devdas more than Peepli Live. And she took it out on "the Americans". How childish.

Beth said...

Mighty Mango - I get that feeling too, though I have not followed up on it to see what else she has written, so I didn't think it useful for me to propose it in the piece. :) In a way I understand that reaction - I'm embarrassed by a lot of US tv, but I'm not going to go around being upset that other people, even foreigners, like it. * shrug * No accounting for taste. :)

getfilmy - Thank you! I had a moment while writing of getting irked that she is maybe somehow wanting to displace a dislike of mainstream films onto anyone other than the people who made and demand them, which doesn't make any sense to me at all. I also understand being CONFUSED that people who didn't grow up with Bollywood like it, but that's a very different emotion than snark.

Sigh. Some writers are pissed off that people don't like Peepli Life; others are pissed off that people don't like Akshay Kumar comedies. Why can't we just all like what we like, have CONVERSATIONS about it, and then agree to disagree with no attack on someone's grounds for being fond of or responding to something?

memsaab said...

I actually left a comment there which has either not been moderated yet or has been rejected...you made exactly the point I wanted to (because I felt very targeted by her disdain based on what most movie critics would consider my own very poor judgment---I LOVE DARA SINGH). You can't lump 100 years of movie-making into a single category, or judge every person who likes or dislikes some of them and not others as stupid based on your own opinion. She does seem very defensive too, as the other comments point out.

Pawan said...

I've been noticing this for some time now and I also read Ra.one's good review with some amount of shock. It maybe purely from an Indian's point of view, but if Ra.one is getting such reviews in US, what makes us so sure that the other 'foreign films' that get good reviews are actually not getting the same treatment? We in India give a lot of importance to the view from the west. What if a crouching tiger or Johnnie To's films which are as impossible and as masala are actually also feted because of 'the low begotry'? What then? Would this man or woman change her prespective of that cinema too?

(Laura) said...

THANK YOU. You nailed it. I've been thinking about this article all day, trying not to let it bug me. As a little white Polish girl (and a GAY to boot!), it's hard to explain to people why I love Bollywood so much. But those who know me are well aware that it's certainly not in a "hipster irony" way. I think Bollywood AND Hollywood films run the gamut from insipid fluff to inspired masterpiece. And there is no shame in loving ANY movie from either end of the cinematic spectrum for whatever reason(s) you want. Movies mean way too many things to way too many people to made such broad accusations and assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Liking a particular movie is all very well, but I think we also need to agree on critical standards. What is a 'good' movie, or a 'great' movie? Is it just something we like a great deal, or should there be at least a few objective criteria such films must satisfy? There are many Hindi masala movies I like, but I would never call them great cinema. (There are also good and bad masala movies, as you will surely agree, but less us leave that aspect out for the time being.) There is nothing wrong in liking Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas, but when it is included in a list of top global films of the new millennium or whatever, raising one's eyebrows is perfectly justified. Just 'liking' something doesn't make it a masterpiece. I may like reading say, Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown, but that does not make them better writers than say Martin Amis or Don Delillo. Let us not celebrate philistinism.

Beth said...

memsaab - Oh I hope your comment shows up! Yes, I think there is a smidge of disdain going on in this, though I don't know what it's based on exactly.

Pawan and Anonymous - (I group your responses together because I want to say something very similar.) I, personally, am not comfortable with the idea of objective standards of what a good film (or book or whatever) is. While I most definitely do not want to celebrate philistinism, as Anon says, I think there's huge scope for variation AND that the more important question is the intent and thought of the person making the judgement. There are as many reasons to like something as there are people to like it. So I guess I don't agree with Anonymous that there is a need (forget about a possibility) of defining critical standards for the work - but I would happily try to dream some up for each person's thought processes, both creator and consumer/viewer/reader. :)

Anonymous, I would also agree with you that putting Devdas on a list like that is downright hilarious and I personally wonder A LOT about the criteria, but I'm not going to wave away a whole nation's opinions and attitudes based on one list.

Laura - EXACTLY. Yay!

veracious said...

I actually get where this author is coming from,. They do generalise quite a bit, which is unfortunate, but all the same, I think the central issue at play here is actually pretty age-old.

It's the question of whether non-Indians who get into Hindi films come from a place of pure shameless, exoticism-seeking that usually leads to lazy stereotyping ("Well, you know Bollywood is all about the colours and glamour, not so much the story!"), a slightly dismissive/mocking attitude and potentially even racism underpinning those ideas ("Indian people can't make great cinema, so they stick to these dumb entertainers!").

Now, that's some viewers of Indian films outside India (and yes, sadly, some people inside India as well). These are often the people who don't develop a deeper understanding of the cinema, or the culture that produces it. They can be critics, or they can be casual fans, they may even be hardcore fans but with a very "set" idea of what Bollywood should be.

In a way, everybody is free to enjoy whatever they like, however they wish to enjoy it, but I think the author's point that this kind of limited understanding and limited enjoyment, especially by critics who are seen sometimes as arbiters of good taste, should not be encouraged. It doesn't matter what Rachel Saltz enjoys but when she eludes to the fact that Ra.One's story sucks and that's not only common in Bollywood films but to be expected, that's a problem in my eyes. It's dismissive, it's patronising, on top of all that it's bad film criticism.

I think this actually applies to a very select group of people, who may be critics, or fans, but I'm sure we've all encountered one. I think if you are one of these types of viewers, then the heart does remain behind the subtitles, because you're not engaged with the story or the characters, or the emotions on-screen - but even when I watched DDLJ sans English subtitles, something about the emotions and characters certainly translated, and it instantly became a favourite of mine. Now, I wasn't watching it, laughing at the melodrama but not the comedy, or just waiting for the next colourful song - I'd say if you're doing that, or just watching Hindi films for "hipstery enjoyment of kitsch", well, I'd say you're doing it wrong, and you're doing a disservice to a great cinema.

(General you - not directed at you, Beth, I know you're not this sort of fan .. but I'm just sayin' - some people are.)

Beth said...

veraciously - It's great to hear from you about this because you are fan of various stripes of Indian cinema AND you are not American. I guess I just don't really know why it's worth hand-wringing over WHY people like what they like. I know I have my preferences for what people will do, but at the end of the day, what's it to me? AS LONG AS they don't go around telling everyone that the cinema is exactly and only what they think it is. Which is maybe the problem when it comes to critics. But...I don't know, are we not trusting people to think for themselves anymore?

Maybe it's because as an American I have seen myself represented abroad by mindless and silly and violent and, yes, bimbo pop culture for decades that is (mysteriously to me) beloved by millions around the globe, and I am worn out of telling non-Americans how different those things are from the lives of people I actually know. If I flipped out every time someone praised Tom Cruise, I'd have lost my mind ages ago.

However, I certainly agree with you that implying that, say, lackluster plots or writing are typical of Hindi films is definitely a big problem and no professional writer should say things like that. Laziness of thought is pretty inexcusable, in my book, no matter who is committing it, and it's extra inexcusable when you are in a position of some kind of power or sway.

I just can't quite shake the feeling that this author is somehow frustrated that "Americans" don't like Bollywood for the same reasons and in the same ways she does. Which is not unique to her - we've all met people like that about a range of media or cultural product. It's a particular kind of snobbery.

There's another interesting question bubbling in my head, which is along the lines of how it's fascinating that some Indian writers get upset when foreign fans like "issue films," accusing us of poverty porn; some get upset when we dismiss masala as cheesy and stupid; and others get upset when we like masala romps, accusing us of bimbo-fying their cinema culture. :) Can't please everyone! And, of course, how could you, given the huge diversity of Indian films, writers, blah blah blah, and there's no surprise there are so many different views. Just sayin' - damned if you do, damned if you don't. Which is all very far beside the point.

Katherine said...

You know, I had two thoughts just pop into my head when I read the original piece. The first was the intial critical reaction to the film Amelie: in France, critics were initially really lukewarm towards the film, mainly because there was this feeling that Jeunet was presenting some kind of American ideal of French kitsch, almost as bad as making a film about a guy in a marine pullover and beret carrying a baguette.

That made me think that maybe, on some level, we're all kind of protective of our cultural product, and the image it presents of us abroad -- or worse, the image it reduces us to, which is really the problem, especially if it prevents us from looking at the broader cinematic traditions of a country, arthouse or popular or regional or indie or whatever.

The other thing I wondered about was HK film (and one of your previous commenters mentioned Johnnie To). My impression is that some kinds of HK film are considered very cool, and To's gangster films are probably the best example. You're hip if you're into those films. But I also know that reviewers here really didn't know what to make of the HK Lunar New Year films that released here, and their reviews reflected that. They were trying to review a film without a sufficent understanding of the cultural context. Of course a LNY film would be found wanting, using certain critical standards or benchmarks. Often kitschy, silly, breezy, they're designed as family entertainment to celebrate a holiday -- maybe not unlike some of the Diwali masala releases.

I'm of the opionion that there should be room for all these types of cinematic experiences. I love my arthouse films, but I also love my popular or indie or kitschy fare, too (and in many different languages).

There. A couple of thoughts, perhaps a propos of nothing at all, but I'm glad you took some time to formulate some more coherent thoughts about that piece.

Beth said...

Katherine - That's very interesting about Amelie, and I absolutely agree that most people tend to be protective of their cultural products and the effects of them. I wonder if that is quite a bit of what the author of this article is working through, even just subconsciously?

And yes - there is room for everything, surely! And if we are not willing to make room for it, at least for other people to experience it even if we don't want to, we have some seriously questions to ask ourselves.

Abhinav said...

Hi Beth,

Probably this is the second time I am commenting on your blog. (First time when I commented the Minimal Movie Poster blog link :))

The article made me laugh, and the concept of movie reviewing itself is illogical in my opinion.

The Indian movies which reach US do not represent every movie made in India. (Like the same way, most of the award winning Hollywood cinema, never reaches India.) We got to see mostly the Fantasy, Adventure and Action part of Hollywood and not the emotional part in most of the moderate sized Indian cities.

Same way, the only movies which were marketed there were full of dance, songs and colors. And I see nothing bad in that too. That how the movies are made here, that is what the difference in culture actually is.

Telling that Americans (again, as you said, this word makes no sense) look Indian cinema as a circus, rather makes the American viewer who watches Indian movies look dumb, that is certainly not the case.

You countered every point pretty easily. Obviously, Beth loves Bolly.

maxqnz said...

I think the validity of Get Filmy's summation is proved by the the logical omission in the author's argument. She attacks "The West" for liking Devdas (and in so doing lists most of the reasons I despise that film) but completely ignores its status in India. Clearly, acknowledging that it was so wildly popular at home would have been an inconvenient truth. Devdas was the first step to my developing a rabid intolerance of SLB, but I'd never contemn people for not sharing my view of it. If she'd wanted to honestly condemn the myopically steotyped perception of Indian cinema abroad, she should have chosen a film that tanked at home but was adored offshore.

zeeniebaby said...

I find it ironic that the author in the original article bemoans the presence of Devdas with such 'prestigious' movies as Avatar and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I know plenty of Americans who are frustrated that the whole world thinks of Avatar as the epitome of American film making. I am pretty sure there are plenty of Chinese people who are not thrilled that their cinema has been reduced to kung fu, wise masters with long beards and people leaping around in choreographed fights.

To a certain extent I can see the author's point. A large number of Americans I have met are amazed that seemingly smart and educated Indians genuinely enjoy Bollywood movies. All the comments about the singing and dancing in Bollywood movies can become tiring. I am just glad that so many Americans now know about Indian movies. Most of them might come for the song and dance but eventually some of them stay for the heart.

Ryan said...

That girl seems like a real asshole. I love Bollywood (and it's mostly not just my thing for Indian girls peeking through) I mean there's a lot hollywood can learn from Bollywood (like for instance, how a low budget thriller like Dum Marro Dum could be better filmed and acted than every hollywood movie of 2011)

Hippie Dippie said...

I've always held a feeling of animosity with mainstream media around the globe stereotyping commercial Hindi cinema as dumb and unintelligent. Out here in India there's a particular kind of audience that prefers watching the so-called 'parallel' cinema, and popular cinema is something that has always attracted the masses, the major chunk of population. So it has always been efficient to pass on a message via the latter kind of films, that too without letting the audience get bored. And sometimes, it's not even necessary to carry any message at all.
Another kind of stereotype is the one that associates commercial Hindi cinema with glitter and glamour. It's way beyond that - a point that even the 'serious' critics will never understand.
I really enjoyed reading this post of yours because it felt like a voice for my own opinions.

Sev said...

I have grown up in India and watched B'wood. I love the old movies but I realize that most is kitsch. I may watch it and like it but my heart truly sings when I come across gems of independent movies like Satyajit Ray's movies or Vanaprastham or The Shining or Annie Hall.

Since there is so much likable muck that is churned out in B'wood, Indians who have some level of interest in cinema beyond the vaudevillian movies that MOST Bwood movies are, tend to appreciate and even celebrate these movies-even though the efforts may not have been entirely successful. The reason is that we see independent, content-driven movies as growth (rightly so)-creative growth which unfortunately, Bwood movies don't represent. THey are, at best, akin to McDonald's fastfood.
As an Indian viewer, I tend to take pride in the slow growth of creative, non-Bwood movies like the ones made by Dibaker Banerjee or Anurag Kashyap. This is our version of the independent movies that are made even in Hwood though admittedly most such movies are barely watched by a tiny fraction of the movie -going audience (A Single Man picked up steam and was released more widely only after its Oscar nominations were announced). They may not seem too unique to the Western audience compared to Bwood ones,(most efforts can't be succesful enough to win over the world), but as an Indian audience, I appreciate the uniqueness of the stories and more importantly, the desire to be creatively honest and not conform to the regular Bwood-movie goers' palate. For this reason, I appreciate makers like Ram Gopal Verma though his last few movies were pretty dull for me to watch in their entirety. At least he makes the effort to do something novel.
Bwood is not art-most of it (the SRK movies) are gibberish. I don't think they'll stand the test of time. I want Indian directors (at least some of them) to make the effort to make movies of a brilliance such as Bandini or do Bigha Zameen or Mother India. I see such movies as our stock of great art-every country has its share. America has Scorsese, Allen, Italy has Fellini, Sweden has Bergman...We can only discover our share of greats in India if we as an audience appreciate and support the independent minded movie makers. I guess its juvenile to expect foreigners to do this for us-we (the INdian audience) have to lend the support in this case. Its not the job of "Americans" or any other movie going audience-they should be free to enjoy what they like though the list in Time was ridiculous. I'm glad at least a few Americans agree with me on that..:-)

Sev said...

And just to let you know- I find most Amir Khan movies over-rated..Some are even bad by Bwood standards-Mela, RAja Hindustani, Ghajini, even 3 Idiots. And I find Amir very pretentious and narcissistic. The only mainstream Bwood actor I consider worth any skill and desirous of creative growth is Abhay Deol. But ultimately the master craftsman we have in India (hindi movies) at the moment are ones that often end up playing supporting roles in big Bwood movies for the sake of survival-Irrfan, Manoj Bajpai, Ranveer Shorey (3 of my absolute favourites). ...India doesn't treat its talent well-maybe that's why audience such as myself feel the need to celebrate every little effort-esp. by fringe players...:-)
I didn't think Peepli Live was mindblowing-but I liked it though I detested Amir for the way he fought with the director and pretty much took over the final product. I'd call Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster mind-blowing (I should have mentioned its director, Tigmanshu Dhulia, in my earlier comment)...Highly recommended in case you've not watched it..
Thanks for the fun post....

mumbai paused said...

A fitting reply. :)