Billy's Bollywood Explorations: Introduction
It was she who suggested to me that I also write in this blog about a topic that has become increasingly dear to my heart: Hindi cinema. I was on an Emirates flight in May and tired of all the Hollywood options on the entertainment system after a particularly dispiriting experience watching the execrable No Strings Attached. To my horror, I suddenly realized that despite listing movies as one of my passions, I had never actually seen a single Bollywood movie. How could this be?
I quickly scrolled through the options and settled on Tees Maar Khan. By the end of the song Sheila Ki Jiwani, I was hooked. Fortunately, back in Afghanistan, it is easy to find DVDs of the latest offerings. Yet in my desire to somehow experience more of the largest movie industry in the world, I lacked any frame of reference. I had always bolstered my sense of myself as a connoisseur of Hollywood by reading the major American film critics and following all the major award ceremonies; whom should I read about Bollywood, and which award ceremonies meant anything? Recommendations from friends always help, but while the cinematic tastes of my friends back in the USA range from the considerable variety produced by Hollywood to all kinds of intriguing independent and foreign cinema, I knew very few people who regularly saw Bollywood movies.
As I started online research, I encountered something very strange. Indian writers interviewing major Indian movie stars often asked if the star would make a film in Hollywood, yet no one asks Tom Cruise if he would make a film in Bollywood. In some of the Hindi movies themselves, one senses a certain insecurity in the number of scenes (or entire movies) set in the United States, or rather, an idealized version of the United States. The more recent a movie is, the more common English dialogue is. Of course, the name “Bollywood” is a portmanteau of the colonial name for Mumbai and Hollywood. It makes almost as much sense for American cinema to operate under the name “Humbai.”
These neo-colonial attitudes persist in the other direction as well: despite the fact that the Indian movie industry is the largest and most popular in the world by many measurements, it is virtually invisible in American media, though this has changed slightly in recent years. Moreover, even the most educated Westerners do not feel the compulsion to be culturally aware of Hindi cinema, as they might for the latest Hollywood offering.
I was particularly shocked one time when I was watching a Shah Rukh Khan film in the common area of my guesthouse, during a week when I had already seen a couple other films starring him. A Western guest walked through and joked, “Oh, there’s your actor again,” suggesting with his tone that this was an obscure talent that only I knew about, although SRK is one of the biggest superstars in cinema history with a fan base of over one billion people. The fact that SRK was detained upon entry to the United States is more than a humiliating commentary on the excesses of airport security: it is an indictment of the fact that apparently, none of the American airport personnel recognized one of the most famous people on the planet.
One of the two or three regular readers of this blog (the absence of comment on this blog leads me to doubt whether any of the hundreds of entries I’ve written over six years has actually appeared on the internet) may observe that Bollywood does not seem to relate much with the cultural diplomacy theme of this blog, which generally covers my work as Violin and Viola Teacher at Afghanistan National Institute of Music and Founder and Director of Cultures in Harmony. However, I have found that since I have started to watch more Bollywood films, I have much more to talk about with my older Afghan students, who are far more familiar with Bollywood than with Hollywood. Cinema, like music, is a universal language, and our shared admiration for certain actors and actresses has brought us closer together.
Therefore, I will continue to blog on occasion about the music school in Kabul, about Cultures in Harmony, and about cultural diplomacy in general. Every Friday, I will try to write another installment of “Billy’s Bollywood Explorations.” I will cover movies in the order in which I’ve seen them, so at present, I have a backlog of about 20 movies. I will start next week with Tees Maar Khan, Robot, Action Replayy, and Kambakkht Ishq, the first four movies I saw. I’ll rate each out of four stars and write some very brief impressions about each.
If you’re another one of those living in a grayscale world bereft of Bollywood’s color, splash, and passion, perhaps my opinions will help you decide where to start. If you’re a longtime fan of Hindi cinema, feel free to laugh at how naïve my opinions may sound or how much they diverge from the general consensus regarding a movie’s quality. More importantly, feel free to send along recommendations.
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