Usually when people think of foreign movies, they think of deep, insightful films, more akin to the indie film genre in the U.S. Many go on to capture such accolades as the Palm d’Or, foreign films Oscars, and headline several of the world’s major film festivals.
Then there are Indian films.
Bollywood represents the biggest share of the Indian films that are produced every year, and they are almost always produced in Hindi, the national language of India. There are, of course, other films that are produced in other Indian languages; their respective film industries usually have nicknames closely resembling Bollywood (Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood, etc.). Most are loud, with loose plots, weak acting (but gorgeous actors) and plenty of musical numbers replete with hundreds of extras and questionable choreography.
And that is why so many people love them.
While I haven’t watched that many Malayalam films (I’m such a bad Malayalee), I’ve watched enough to notice a definite trend from good to embarrassing. Gone are the films that were hailed by the world community as intricate exercises in storytelling and acting. Vaanaprastham is still one of my favorite films to date. The problem with films after that is that they have begun to veer too closely to the Bollywood model. Dancing does not work when half of your actors wear shirts and lungis.
P.S. When your male leads are currently 40, some knocking on 50, you may need to find new actors. Sorry Mohanlal, Mammooty, et. al.
Bollywood, at least from my perspective, seems wholly incapable of producing a film that would be universally well-received outside of India. That is to say, a film with a strong plot, strong acting, and (alas) no music (or at least not the gaudy musical numbers endemic in Bollywood). In essence (as a friend of mine put it) they resemble movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, though not quite as good. At least as late as a few years ago, I could watch a Hindi film with some mild appreciation of the plot. Now, I don’t even have that. Even the songs are getting unbearably bad, with rare exception (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na comes to mind as one such exception from this year’s batch of films). The last good film that I can think of is probably Omkara. Everything since then has been abysmal.
If I had to name the best actor in Bollywood, I’d have to go with Amir Khan, possibly even Saif Ali Khan (based especially on his performance in Omkara). I’m not even sure I can name the best female actress, most are awful. Aishwarya Rai does sometimes shine, as does Rani Mukherjee, but neither are particularly good.
There are only a few films that have come out of India that are deserving of any merit, in the context of the world community as a whole. Most seem to be coming out of the Bengali film industry, though I have yet to see a Bengali film. Many people have lauded the films of Satyajit Ray, his films are first on my list. The same is true for Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, though the latter I wouldn’t really categorize as an Indian filmmaker, as much as a filmmaker of Indian origin. Her films don’t necessarily incorporate Indian culture all the time.
I can’t help but turn to Indian films as a sort of source of comfort, because of how over the top they tend to be. Sometimes I just need to completely lose myself in a silly romance with lots of singing to forget how crazy life really is, most of the time. Maybe that’s why that film model is still so widely used; in a country where poverty and hardship is still present in large numbers, sometimes people just need to lose themselves in lighthearted movies. Yet if India wants to gain any respect in film circles, it will need to slowly begin the shift away from these movies towards deeper plots and better acting.
That being said, I’m going to go watch a Bollywood movie.