Yesterday I went up to the Peabody Essex Museum near Salem, MA for part of the Bombay Film Festival there. Anupama Chopra was to hold a discussion about her biography of Shah Rukh Khan, and then Eklavya—this year’s entry from India to the Oscars—was showing, followed by a discussion with Vinod Chopra.
We didn’t think about the fact that October is basically Crazy Person Month in Salem—tourists from all over participating in the Disneyfication of the historical tragedy that was the Salem witch trials, dressing up like slutty witches or pumpkins and creating traffic snarls and parking nightmares (the usual museum parking garage fee was hiked up from its usual $5 to $20, for instance); and apparently the whole scene scared the Chopras too, because they fled soon after Eklavya started and there was no post-film discussion. Sadly, Filmigeek who was supposed to meet me there also got trapped in the mayhem and hightailed it out too.
But Anupama’s session on her SRK bio and the state of Hindi films today was very interesting. She talked first about the past 10-15 years of Hindi film-making and how it has changed due to the advent of multiplexes and the entry of corporate financing. She also briefly addressed the issue of the name “Bollywood”, saying that many industry people dislike the term and find it derogatory and disrespectful, including her husband; but that she feels at this point that “Bollywood” is a brand, and it’s here to stay so people should stop complaining about it and get on with things. That is actually my point of view as well, although I don’t feel I have much right to comment, not being Indian, and I try not to overuse it.
Then she showed a short film which interspersed an interview she did with SRK with scenes from Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan documentary. It was a cute interview, with SRK being charming and veering between his self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing personas—nothing new if you are an SRK fan, except that she asked him some intelligent questions which was a nice change (probably for him, too).
After that she took questions, and she maintained her grace and sense of humor through all the earnest but annoying questions about why Bollywood doesn’t do more films about the injustice of the caste system and the terrible poverty (I always want to point out that Hollywood doesn’t often deal with the dark side of our culture either). She also made the interesting point that NRIs are generally more conservative than urban Indians; they don’t want to see gritty or dark Indian films. They want to see the clothes, music, dancing and close-knit families that they are nostalgic for.
She was asked about all the controversy that surrounds Oscar nomination time every year. She said many producers don’t even enter their films since they would have to pay for everything that being a nominee would entail—travel to the US, hotels, clothes, etc. And she pointed out that there are many other film centers in India besides Mumbai, and many of the other centers (Bengal, south, etc.) don’t feel that they get their due and are overshadowed by the Hindi film industry. I spoke up at that point about how passionate Indians are about films too, in a way that Americans in general are not; and since every single man on the street has his own definite opinions, naturally there is great interest and involvement in the whole proceedings. She agreed, and said that even Brad Pitt is not literally considered a god here, but that SRK has women showing up at his door every other day who want to wash his feet and then drink the water from it (loud chorus of “ewwwwwwwww”), and temples are built to Amitabh Bachchan, and so on.
All in all, it was very interesting and she was wonderfully articulate and knowledgeable, and patient and charming.
I won’t go into a review of Eklavya here, except to say that on second viewing I liked it even better (and I liked it a lot the first time around). I felt I caught more than I had the first time around. Great performances from everyone (I’m really liking Raima Sen these days, loved her also in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd), and beautiful cinematography that’s definitely worth seeing on a large screen. It’s proof also that India is capable of films as technologically advanced as the west. I personally think it’s a good choice for the Oscar entry, although I’m not too hopeful it will make the final cut—I think the message on dharma will be mostly lost on a western audience—but it would be a nice surprise if it did.
I was also pleased to meet Abhijat Joshi, the very talented script writer who works with Vinod Chopra and Raju Hirani on their film scripts (Eklavya, Mission Kashmir, Lage Raho Munna Bhai). We talked about how much I love Hindi films and he said that he’s noticed that Americans throw themselves whole-heartedly into their interests, which I thought was a very nice way of putting it! They introduced the film, gave out their email addresses in case we had questions, and then they were gone.