It happens that movies are one of my biggest interests, and from that perspective, India is a great country for me to visit. I've certainly made mention of my early experiences with Bollywood films already in this blog, but I'd like to write a fairly extensive piece on the differences between Bollywood and Hollywood, which are large. It might end up being kind of a nerdy, lengthy piece with references to lots of old movies. As always, don't bore yourself if this doesn't exactly strike your fancy. I've been slowly putting this together a bit at a time for quite a few days, so it might seem quite fragmented.
A good place to start is to give their definition of the phrase "Hollywood ending". What we call a Hollywood ending would be something like this - hero defeats the bad guy handily, gets the girl, nobody important dies, everyone lives happily ever after. That's not what they would call a Hollywood ending. We watched Gladiator, an awesome movie in which, at the ending, the main character slaughters the villain but loses his life in the process. The Indians hated that part. They said it had a Hollywood ending. I told them "no it doesn't, he dies, it's a little unusual, that's part of what makes it a good movie". They said "A Hollywood ending is a bad (unhappy) ending. And that makes it a worse movie".
Now this got me thinking - the phrase "Hollywood ending" used to mean what it does isn't exactly accurate. Lots of Hollywood movies end happily, but there are just as many, if not more, that don't. Titanic - for a very long time, the highest-grossing movie of all time. It's one of the quintessential blockbusters of our generation - far from a happy ending. The Dark Knight - also high up there. Not a happy ending. If you look at the adjusted for inflation list, Gone With the Wind tops the list and probably will never be defeated. That doesn't exactly end happily either. Casablanca - often regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood achivements of all time. Not a happy ending for the main protagonist. On the adjusted list The Exorcist is 9th. This is a brutal dark horror movie with an ending that is bittersweet at best. The Godfather and Citizen Kane are usually interchangeable on the lists of Greatest All-Time American films. Unhappy endings. The list goes on and on and on - the recent Spiderman trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, Terminator 2 are all other blockbusters with bittersweet or unhappy endings.
Now granted, for each of these there's a Star Wars, or an Iron Man, or an Indiana Jones, or any romantic comedy, and there are probably many more of these than there are ones with unhappy or bittersweet endings. But still...you can see how they latched onto the concept that a Hollywood ending is a less than joyous one.
It makes even more sense when you look at the qualifications for a good Bollywood film. A good Bollywood movie has, for want of a better phrase, what we would call a "Hollywood ending". It has to. The hero cannot die. It also MUST have songs. At least 3 or 4, and preferably 5 or 6. Additionally, it should usually have one of the 5 or 6 rotating male actors and/or one of the rotating female leads.
The only time that Indians make exception to their happy endings rule is when it is a story involving a martyr from their own history. They have a lot of movies where oppressed freedom fighters are executed or something like that, and these types of movies are played out very melodramatically. The Indians don't mind - national pride is the exception to their happy ending rule, and there is a great deal of healthy nationalism in this country.
Most of these men come out with about 3, maybe 4 movies a year. Shah Rukh Khan is especially prolific. Aamir Khan is the exception to every Bollywood rule. He only comes out with one film a year, and it's usually one of the best. His latest was 3 Idiots, which sounds awful but was given extreme critical acclaim and became the highest-grossing Bollywood movie in history. It's your typical Bollywood movie...big star, songs, the like. But it apparently makes a very modernizing statement by Indian standards. In India, there is sometimes a lot of pressure given by parents on to students that they get some kind of very well-paying job - specifially engineering, a competitive and tricky field. In 3 Idiots there is a character who was forced by his parents to go to this engineering school and he hates it. But he is a very talented photographer. Aamir Khan is basically trying to say that young Indians should be allowed to do their own thing instead of conforming to their parents desires. This is a very progressive statement by Indian standards.
The other thing about Aamir Kahn is that he has founded a very highly regarded production company. I saw the latest of that production company in theaters. More on that later.
The ladies - there are three huge ones and an array of lesser ones. The biggest one, I think, is Karina Kapoor, closely followed by Katrina Kaief and Priyanka Chopra (the foxiest by far). There are a few others, including Lara Dutta and Karishna Kapoor (Karina's older sister) but these three are the biggest. The famous Aishwarya Rai retired several years ago after a blockbuster wedding to Abhishek Bacchan. There is one large hyprocrisy about the way that these ladies behave in films. Bollywood dances are very very sexual. They were ludicrous outfits designed specifically to arouse. Yet you will never see one of these leading ladies kiss their leading man. Pratik has told me that all of the big female stars don't allow what he call "the kiss shot". But by American standards a kiss is very tame compared to some of the things that they do. This is very unusual to me.
Now I have seen bits and pieces of probably a couple dozen Bollywood films at this point but there are three that I have seen in their entirety. They are all quite different from each other, and taking a look at each of them reveal interesting things what Indians think about their movies.
The first is the latest from Aamir Khan's production company, a film called Peepli (Live) which was unusually similar to an American film. I saw it in a fairly empty theater with a screen larger than the Muller Monster Screen. The movie was about an issue that India faced in the 90s. Agriculture employs over 50% of Indians but in the 90s and early 2000s a lot of farmers were facing forclosure on their homes, which would be really catastrophic and crippling for them and their families. A governmental loophole became widely known amongst the farmers, which was that the government would heavily compensate the family of a man who had committed suicides. So there came to be a large issue of farmer suicides. Peepli (Live) follows a farmer who is deciding whether or not to commit suicide. He is a squat, rather unpleasant looking man who is not portrayed by any of the chief Bollywood actors. The film is fictional (but based on real events) and it is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. It focuses on multiple characters - the farmer, his family, a crusading TV journalist (one of dozens who descend upon the farm to make the suicide a kind of a human interest story), and politicians. There are no big actors and they all look like real people. The end is only middlingly happy. There are no songs.
I thought it was a damn good film and the sort of thing that would be good fodder for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The Indians hated it - they said "no action, no comedy, no stars, no songs". It seems derogatory to say this, but they seemed mostly concerned with the most superficial aspects of movies.
The second is called Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. It stars Adjay Devgan, who is one of my favorites, and some gorgeous Indian women. It's a gangster epic set in 70s Mumbai that follows the rise and eventual assassination of a gangster called the Sultan. But the Sultan is a good guy. It utilized a lot more realism than most Bollywood movies do, but it definitely had a distinct Bollywood flavor - several songs and very Bollywood-style romance scenes. Although the hero was killed at the end, the Indians were ok with this because the murderer, one of his subordinates, was still alive. They said that he counted as a hero too. I don't know how they rationalized this. For me it was a very entertaining movie, and it was for them too. It was one of the few successful cross-sections between American and Bollywood style movies that I have seen yet. My brother gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I asked him why not 5. He said there weren't enough songs. I could have called it.
The third was a very, very typical Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar and Karina Kapoor called Kambakkta Ishqi. It's kind of a battle of the sexes between Akshay and Karina. There are 6 or 7 songs. In the movie, Karina plays a model/doctor (the most plausible combination) who appears in a film where Akshay Kumar is a stuntman. They clash. Somehow she ends up performing a surgical procedure on him and sews her watch into his stomach. Then she sidles up to him and tries to get close enough to him (as in seduce him) so that she can secretly knock him out and get her watch back. There are other developments that involve surprise appearances from Hollywood "stars" Denise Richards and Sylvester Stallone. It's an incredibly stupid movie. I mean, just listen to the plot. It's very popular in India - sexy leads, catchy songs, happy endings. Superficial stuff.
So Indians hate an issue drama, like a romanticized gangster film, and love an idiotic romantic comedy. What does this tell us about Indian moviegoers and Indians as a society? They fall on the entertainment side of the classic art vs. entertainment debate. Hollywood is a lot more in between the two. Why is this? Why do Americans have a little more preference to darker or more realistic movies and Indians loathe them?
I think it comes down to lifestyle. Indians use film as escapism. And this is understandable - over half of India lives in impoverished agricultural circumstances. Millions more live in slums. Their lives are a little tougher - their houses are not as nice, they don't have as much variety of food. India is in many places a developed nation but a huge percentage of the population is woefully impoverished. Indians live a fairly tough life. I mean, it's not like it's AIDS-infected Africa, but it's not the Western world either. I can see why they don't want to see more of it - I can understand why Peepli (Live) would not do well. They want to see something that will make them happy, something that will show them beautiful people living in places that are far too nice to really be India having happy endings. Now my family lives comfortably, but their tastes are descended from those of their forefathers, and I completely understand how those tastes came to be.
In the United States even many families that would be considered poor live in better circumstances than Indians do. Most families live in far better circumstances. Emotionally we don't always need escapism. Our lives are nice. It's ok for us to watch an unhappy movie. In the United States, there's more of a market for darker and perhaps more artistic movies. In fact they are certainly more artistic movies.
So it would be easy for me to dismiss a Bollywood musical as fluffy trash. They are, there's really no getting around that. But they are undeniably fun. I would take a Bollywood romantic comedy over The Holiday any day. They go over the top to entertain, and the sheer effort is infectious. As long as I can watch an American movie every once in a while (and they do sometimes go to American movies) I think I will mostly enjoy the Bollywood world.