Buck in the Stacks #3:
The mind behind Jabberwock
An Interview with Jai Arjun Singh
Jai Arjun Singh is a New Delhi native and a freelance journalist. He consults for the feature section of the Business Standard, and is the author of Jabberwock, a blog containing his reviews of books and film, with insights into modern culture: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com
Jai, can you tell a bit about yourself?
About my relationship with cinema: I was an avid watcher of Bollywood films (that is, mainstream Hindi films) as a child but around the age of 13-14 I drifted away from them and became more interested in international cinema - starting with Hollywood and British classics from the 1930s-1950s and later moving on to world cinema. I also read voraciously about cinema as a youngster, thus developing a strong knowledge base which continues to help me today, when I'm blogging or writing a film-related article.
Around 3 years ago I renewed my acquaintance with Hindi films (thanks largely to my girlfriend, who's a Bollywood buff) and since then I've been watching new Bollywood films quite regularly, as well as rediscovering childhood favourites on television.
In your opinion, what makes Bolly films unique?
One thing non-Indians don't always understand about Bollywood is that many of these films (even in the present day, when Bollywood has supposedly become more intelligent and sophisticated) come from an age-old tradition of entertaining the "masses" - that is, the large Indian lower and lower-middle class, who lead difficult lives (a large percentage of India's population lives beneath the poverty line and can't afford three meals a day). Most of these people aren't concerned with the finer nuances of cinema as an art form and they don't care for such things as meaningful character development or a realistic plot - what they want above all else is three hours of rollicking entertainment, full of songs and fight sequences, and an oversimplified story where there are clear-cut good Guys and Bad Guys, and it's obvious who wins in the end. Mainstream Hindi films often hold therapeutic value for the masses. For instance, unemployed young men, frustrated about corruption, inequality and the general unfairness of their daily lives, may get vicarious satisfaction from seeing the "heroes" single-handedly destroying the "evil" elements of society (and, in the bargain, wooing and winning the beautiful rich girl). Though there have been exceptions (in the form of intelligent directors and scriptwriters), by and large the idea has not been to make logical, internally consistent films but films that are made up of a series of "paisa vasool" sequences strung together. ("Paisa vasool" is a colloquialism roughly translating as "getting your money's worth".)
For more on my ambivalent relationship with Bollywood films, see an example from Jabberwock: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2006/03/face-that-launched-thousand-gyrations.html
Inevitably, a western viewer would see the typical Bollywood film as loud, overwrought and melodramatic; in fact, this is also how the average urban Indian (who has been exposed to more realistic films from around the world) sees Bollywood. (It's another matter that many of us still love it for what it is - after all, we did grow up with these movies and have strong cultural connections with them!) But for the bulk of India's moviegoing population, these films continue to be the only real source of entertainment.
I must clarify here that by "typical Bollywood film" I'm referring to what we call commercial or mainstream cinema; characterized by formula-driven scripts and obeisance to the star system.
But I am western and I don't see this. I see magic and mystic honor. I see virtue and emotion set free.
I think we're speaking at two different levels now. As an Indian who's grown up with these films and who regularly sees the effect they have on the mass audience in the country, I can't view them in distant, exoticised terms (your remark about "magic and mystic honour" suggests exoticization). There's a huge viewership base in India who takes these films very seriously indeed, accepting what goes on in them at face value (and not in terms of magic and mystic honour) . This is personally disturbing to me, because it's indicative of a naive, simplistic worldview where there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys and where good triumphs over evil in the end. And in the long run, I believe that the typical Bollywood film has had a somewhat detrimental effect on the national character; this is a generalization of course, but Indians are often a judgmental, self-righteous people, quick to paint the world in black and white terms, and to point fingers at others without engaging in a reasonable amount of self-analysis. (I don't know if you know anything about the ongoing cricket world cup in the West Indies; India has been knocked out in the first round and the level of debate, and the viciousness of it, has been incredible. For instance, the players are being painted as villains who have "betrayed" the country. I can't help thinking that at least some of this response comes from the Bollywood tradition of melodrama.)
Also, do read this post I had written a long time ago, about the Bollywood films of my childhood vs. the souped-up Bollywood films of today: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2005/06/bollywood-whats-changed.html
What was your latest experience in watching a Bollywood film? Was it in the theater or at home? Do you have a preference?
My girlfriend and I prefer to watch new releases in the movie-hall rather than on (pirated) DVDs, so we go to the theatre a lot. But I also watch older films (the ones that show on TV or the ones I have in my DVD collection) at home - when I have the time! (My job entails a lot of reading, which takes up plenty of time - so my movie-watching has been on the decline.) My last Bollywood film was Mani Ratnam's Guru starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. (I assume I can't call Mira Nair's The Namesake a Bollywood film!)
How did you like Guru?
I enjoyed it on the whole (Mani Ratnam has a good visual sense and his moviemaking is nicely stylized) though I was irritated by the ponderousness of the final scenes: the courtroom speech where needless - and unconvincing - justification is provided for Guru's actions; where we're fed this pretence that everything this shrewd businessman did was for the Common Man's benefit.
Any closing thoughts on film in a global sense?
I think variety in filmmaking styles and approaches should be welcomed. In India, for instance, it's very frustrating to hear the annual debates centred around what type of film India should send to the Oscars for the foreign-language film category. "Experts" go on about how Bollywood should make more films that adhere to American standards of excellence, as if the Oscars were the only thing that mattered in the world of cinema. I think it's important for all countries to have their own distinct cinematic idioms - and not to blindly ape Hollywood just because it's the world's best-known film industry.
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