Indian Movies: A Primer
This post is probably long overdue, but as with everything else, I’ve been too busy to blog about it. I’ve received enough ribbing in my life about Indian movies, Indian songs and everything to do with Indian culture. People making fun of “dancing around coconut trees”, moving their heads and hands in a horrible imitation of what they consider Indian dance, and laughing at music – all of which I am expected to agree with and laugh at. I don’t confront residual racism directly, and until recently, I myself would have been unqualified to confront it [But that is not really the point].
So, with the axiom that knowledge is power, I am giving all my readers a tour of that great Indian institution: Indian films. Before I start, I must disclaim that I am by no means an expert, and I have not seen every movie out there [that would take roughly 100 years], and I am only able to give my point-of-view from three languages. Yes, surprise, there is more than one Indian language – roughly 20 official languages, in fact, spread out over 26 states. But the languages with an active film industry are not that many – Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu and of course, Hindi (popularly known as Bollywood). I am familiar with three of them – Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil. My interest in Indian movies was only recently revived, after having considered most of them in disdain. I still do, but I have learned to appreciate the gems too.
Yes, most Indian films fall into the western-created genre of “musical” – with the song-and-dance routines that the world makes so much fun of. To be fair, I don’t watch them when I watch movies, I press skip immediately – but that is not to say that I don’t appreciate the music. The music and film industry in India are inextricably linked, and to speak of one is to speak of the other. Independent albums do exist, of course, but rarely do they achieve the kind of mass distribution that film music does. The music industry is not so much artist-driven, which is to say image-driven, but by actual musical appeal. The real stars of the industry are the “music directors”, not individual artistes, who compose and put together the music for films. Singers enjoy a lot of celebrity too, but for their voice and musical talent, not how pretty they are. Which is also to say, no one really gives a damn about how any of these artists dress, who they date and how much weight they have put on, as long as they sing well. It allows for the better germination of talent, and a more even distribution of credit – if Britney Spears makes the chart, all credit is given to her, instead of the talented composers behind it.
That is of course, for the music industry. The actors and actresses, fortunately or unfortunately, are in the same position as their western brethren, except with some obvious differences. Curiously, there exists a trend where when actresses get married (often to a fellow actor), they retire with immediate effect from the industry. This trend has made me throw up my hands in frustration many times, as many a talented actress disappears from the screen to be a baby-machine. A few women carry on, of course, especially when they get older, and they can do mother-roles that do not require them to come into unchaste contact with a male actor.
There are significant differences between the three industries I am expert in, the great divide being “north indian” [Hindi] and “south indian”[Tamil, Malayalam], the details of which is best left to an honours thesis. But the relative sizes and glamour of the industries go in the order of Hindi >Tamil > Malayalam. I am not even too sure where the other industries fall. Before I go further though, I must introduce two concept scalled “remaking” and “dubbing”, two very popular devices, given the language barriers between the various populations. Popular movies in one language are often remade in other languages – which involves the entire reshooting of the film with the native actors and directors. “Dubbing” simply involves changing the soundtrack and voice-overs into the selected languages. The flow of talent, contrary to belief, is surprisingly multi-lingual and versatile. Most major singers, music directors, actors and film directors have dabbled in least two languages, sometimes all three, especially if they start from the lowest rung of the ladder (Malayalam).
Malayalam industry (until the recent years) was a rather more talent-driven industry, smaller in size, but less glamour-driven. It was also a fertile germination ground for many ideas, which have been dubbed and remade by the other two industries, which are noticeably bigger. The flow of ideas is rather one-way though – rarely has a movie made in Tamil or Hindi been adopted into Malayalam. Talent is always being lost to other two industries, though, since they offer better monetary rewards. In the recent years, it has been dying, using the same old actors and same old plotlines. Some of the best films made are the earlier films.
The Tamil industry is currently schizophrenic – it alternates between the hard-to-understand-dialect-Tamil-speaking villagers’ violent dramas, and the “modern” airy-fairy romances with young good-looking actors. You cannot know Tamil cinema without knowing the singularly important term Thalaivar – translated as leader, who are not just popular actors – they are icons, models, sources of inspiration, who have a fever-fanatic following bordering on worship. They typically make films which all have the same plot, and tone the same overbearing hero-centricity to a point where the central character is elevated to a perfect, “inspiring” person who acts ridiculously pompous, has the moral high ground over everyone else, dispensing advice and morality. The Thalaivar of this generation, Rajani Kanth (my singularly most hated actor) especially has the unsavoury habit of titling the films after the name of the hero character, and also has the even more unsavoury habit of propagating a male-chauvinist, mysogynistic message in his films, in which he believes women to only be capable of being mothers and wives. Besides the Thalaivar films, the type of films made tend to be, in my opinion, mostly trash, owing to the unnecessary high drama and deep-seated misogyny that is endemic to the Tamil character and film.
Bollywood, probably with western influence, has undergone significant changes recently. There are more and more independent films with unique themes and new plots, and quite a leap has been made in the realm of film techniques by the more adventurous ones. These new genre of films, often made entirely in english, have left the song-and-dance at home, preferring a more realist approach. Of course there still are the blockbuster variety – the types with star-studded casts, snazzy music with elaborate dances, and pretty clothes. There is also an almost overwhelming trend to shoot some movies entirely in foreign countries, exploring Indians resident there. This is a clever move, in my opinion, by directors to allow them to explore subjects that would otherwise be considered too immoral for characters living in India, and simultaneously appeal to both the native and emigrant Indians.
Of course, with any industry this size, there are a lot of films which fall into the definition of absolute crap, just like Hollywood. In fact, 90% of the industry is just the same old crap recycled, not to mention unrealistic escapism with the formulaic guy-gets-the-girl, and absolutely idiotic ideas and portrayals of love. Okay, not that Disney has given us realistic ideas about love and relationships, but most Indian film-makers really have no idea what love entails. I do have a lot of criticism on the Indian film industry, a subject for another day, not in the least being the place of women in films and the overbearing hero-centricity in most films.
Another standard offering by the average movie is the action-scene, often a fighting scene where the Hero sails into the situation, punches out all the bad guys and saves the damsel in distress, who is about to be raped (or in the really bad Tamil movies, where the villain is going to marry the heroine). At least, that used to be the norm. There is a slow but sure backing away from that kind of male chauvinistic hero-centricity, but sometimes manifested in other ways where the Hero engages in needless rescuing of some sort of situation.
Now that we are all primed with the background information, next post, I shall give a list of movies I think are worth watching, if anyone is interested. Stay tuned!