Filmi Girl drew my attention to this amazingly uninformed review of the much-talked-about Rajnikant release Endhiran. Now I have not seen Endhiran and so cannot say if I would agree with Roger Moore’s assessment of the film’s merits or not; but that isn’t the point here. I do know that were I writing a professional review as a journalist I would try to avoid such easy-to-research mistakes as calling it a Bollywood picture and criticizing lead actress Aishwarya Rai’s singing voice. And if I did make a mistake (as everyone does on occasion) I would be a whole lot more gracious in acknowledging it than he was in responding to a polite comment pointing out that Bollywood is the term for Hindi language cinema and Endhiran is a Tamil film, where the industry is usually referred to as Kollywood.
Mr. Moore said:
You’re narrowing the definition of “Bollywood” to one the rest of the world might not agree with. It’s too long, it’s musical, it’s chaste and it is silly and it was made in India.
Who is narrowing the definition of “Bollywood” here?!
He goes on to defend his ignorance much in the same way racists do theirs: “I have seen lots of Indian films!” (“Some of my best friends are black!”) while continuing with condescending remarks like this:
And I had no idea the Subcontinent had taken possession of our beloved Americanism — “Dude.” It is, to borrow a phrase from you, “Very very silly.” To use a Yiddishism common in these parts, it is “kitsch.”
I see about a dozen Subcontinental films a year — and have for years. We have a South Asian Film Festival here, some Bollywood fare is brought in by a local entrepreneur who knows there’s a big Indo-Pakistani audience in Florida and I get a generous dose of films from there on DVD. “Endhiran” is better executed than some, but is vintage Bollywood (Kollywood, what have you) goofy.
Perhaps he just isn’t very intelligent: I understood almost immediately when I started watching Hindi films that the actors and actresses onscreen did not sing for themselves, and pretty early on I even knew that the playback singers were at least as popular as the film stars (and *gasp* learned some of their names!).
Beyond that he gives us this gem as if he is under the grandiose misapprehension that he represents the entire American public (which includes me for one):
I am writing for an American audience, friends. I’ve been [sic] scores of films from India. Satyajit Ray classics that transcend east and west, to cloying culturally narrow pop pieces from Bollywood and its imitators. And when I review them, be they “Lagaan” or “My Name is Khan,” I review them through American eyes. Hit in India or not, this one doesn’t offer much to Americans but a lot of UNINTENTIONAL laughs.
Why am I wasting my time on this review from an ill-qualified, immature, defensive, narrow-minded person? (I’m not even going to speculate as to why the Orlando Sentinel couldn’t find someone with better qualifications, not to mention critical skills, in a state with a “big Indo-Pakistani audience.”) I am positive that I wouldn’t find his reviews of American movies any more insightful or worth reading as thoughtful criticism; and his opinion doesn’t matter one way or the other to me at all.
But it is the kind of attitude that I face all the time with even well-meaning people who can’t understand my love for Hindi cinema. How to explain that you can’t sum up almost 100 years of movie-making in India with a statement as glib as “it’s too long, it’s musical, it’s chaste and it is silly…”? Does anyone try to sum up Hollywood in the same way?
Sure, almost all films have songs and dances. India is a country with a long history of song and dance as a primary form of expression. And many of those songs and dances are just plain gorgeous, both musically and in the sheer poetry of their lyrics. And there is a big wide world of diverse influences in them: something for anyone who tries to access it, as it were.
Are they long? Well, when not chopped into pieces by dvd manufacturers, yes they are. When people who have traditionally worked hard all day in a field (and don’t have a television or radio at home) pay for an evening’s entertainment—almost literally with their own sweat and possibly blood—they want their paisa vasool, especially when afterwards they return home to a place with no electricity. As Indian society gets wealthier (and busier, and evenings are thus truncated) I would bet the films will get shorter, although I could be wrong (and don’t really want or need to be right). I’ve seen quite a few 90-minute western films that seemed to me like they’d never effing end and I sit enthralled through Sholay at three hours.
Are they chaste? Well, it depends on how you define chaste, I guess. All I know is that I find plenty of heart-catching romance and sensual pleasure in films like Blackmail and actors like Dharmendra and Shammi. I don’t really need to see people sticking their tongues down each other’s throats, especially when their heads are the size of a freight train on the big screen.
Are they silly? Sometimes. Breathtakingly, maniacally, fantastically silly. But if silly is not your thing (poor you), there are plenty to choose from which aren’t. I’ve even written about some of them here, although I adore silly. There are lots of good knowledgeable writers out there who have written about even more of them. You can find them if you want to!
To overlook the ongoing and large-scale influences on a century of Indian cinema—endemic poverty, governmental interference through excessive taxation and censorship, thousands of years of history, the constant threat of war, and so on—is to blindfold yourself. To dismiss a huge body of work from people as diverse in talent and in perspective as anywhere else is just plain stupid. Do you have to want to watch Indian cinema? No. Is it okay to summarily dismiss it without really knowing what you are talking about? Again, I have to say no (although evidently Mr. Moore and no doubt others would disagree with me).
And let’s be fair here: plenty of Indians themselves dismiss their own cinema as worthless, and many have never seen a Mehboob Khan film, or even heard of Himansu Rai, or Faredoon Irani, or Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Indians too put very little effort into making the depth of their cinema history accessible to we firangis who are interested. Films are badly subtitled, if at all (those of us who enjoy older cinema really suffer on that score), and many times the songs—which are often not mere “interruptions” but used to carry the narrative forward—aren’t subtitled even when the movie is. Picture quality is abysmal and nothing is done to find the best print which might be available: a vhs tape of someone’s vhs tape is converted (badly) to digital and slapped on a disc or two (which may or may not work) and sold.
All I know is that I watch plenty of Hollywood films too and see quite a few of the same issues for which Indian cinema is rightly or wrongly vilified: sloppy direction, poor camera work, trite or ludicrous stories, sexism, racism and so on. Do I love all Indian films? No, emphatically I do not. Lots of them ARE really bad, and some of the common tropes out-and-out enrage me as a human being. But my journey into Hindi cinema with an open mind has rewarded me in ways I never dreamed of, and for which I will be eternally grateful.