Taste of Non-Taste: Why Bollywood is so hard to understand in West

Taste of Non-Taste: Why Bollywood is so hard to understand in West

The writer is a Finnish culture producer and a journalist who studies in “MA in Film Studies” –program in Jadavpur University

I remember when I saw the first Hindi film music video in my life. A man and a woman were dancing on a field – most perhaps in Switzerland. The woman was singing with unbelievably high pitch. I hadn’t heard anything similar ever before.

The music video was from David Dhawan: “Chal Mere Bhai” and the year 2000. After the very first time I saw the same clip so many times that I stopped wondering what the music video was about. Preferably I’d say I just simply got hooked.

“Chal Mere Bhai” -video was something new and exotic to me. Same is the reaction with most other Western viewers when they watch Bollywood for their first, for their second or even for their third time.

I got to know a long time ago Switzerland is the place where most of the Hindi film dance sequences are being shot. There was a documentary on Finnish television channel about Indian filmmakers travelling to the Alps with their production teams and caravans. European landscapes fascinate the Indian cinema audiences – when going to the movies, the viewers get also an experience of another country without travelling a single bit. This was the whole purpose of cinema, when the Lumière brothers started to show their clips in 1895-96 all over the world. Films were windows to the other worlds, realities and sceneries. One could think now, Hindi film makers are still following the original idea of Lumières literally. Many of the Hindi films are still made partly outside India for the aim of giving the audience a “journey” with only the cost of a movie ticket.

“Something new, something exotic” – in comparison with the Hollywood norm

When Lumière brothers first screened their “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” (1895) in different European countries, the viewers were said to be terrified. The audience thought that the train will hit them. Later on, though, this reaction was acclaimed to be only a myth.

Whether it’s true or false, the audience in Mumbai was said to watch this same “scary” screening of “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” as if they’d have always seen similar films. Maybe this special occasion and the relaxed Indian viewers’ attitude were hinting that the basis for a large film production was there already. It’s the well known fact that India has been the world’s biggest film industry for a long time, producing 800-900 films year.

Bollywood is as large as Hollywood in the amount of new productions being made. Still Hollywood seems to stay the world’s most dominating film industry since the end of the First World War. The rules and the film language of the commercial US-film industry are followed everywhere else. The mass audiences of different countries are used to watch mainly this specific line of film making. Hollywood style means simply transparency in technical means, visual images and rationality in plot. Anything that is out of the Hollywood mode is seen easily as something interruptive or as hard to understand.

Kitsch or too long music videos - reactions in Finland

During 2003 “Love and Anarchy” film festival in Helsinki, Finland, six more or less typical Bollywood films were included to their program. One point to make out was that for example in the screening of Karan Johar’s “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (2001) the Finnish audience was reacting to the special effects, overacting and excess of expressions differently than the Indian audience would do. When a woman was shown in close-up, with her hair blowing (without a natural source of wind on the background), it was taken simply as camp or kitsch, as a special effect that is made with “taste of non-taste”, without any certain meaning. The audience’s first reaction was to laugh about it.

It’s not long time back, when large amount of the Indian production in Finland was systematically judged as over acting or too long music videos. There was no separation between Bollywood and the other Indian cinemas. Still there were some critics and journalists who were more aware of the different Indian traditions and the context of Bollywood.

It’s a different situation all together, when you’re watching Bollywood in West or in India. I’ve experiences from Finland, UK and India, where I’ve sat among the other viewers. London has a big number of Indian inhabitants. People are used to Bollywood along the mainstream output. In Finland, the cinema watchers might laugh when an Indian watcher wouldn’t. Much of cultural symbolism and habits might not be transferred in a way the director has meant it. The adaptation of Asian production tends to happen only on the surface level.

Prakash Jha’s “Death Sentence” (1996) was shown on television in Finland approximately six years back. In Indian context “Death Sentence” is a feministic film and not the most typical Bollywood example, but in Finland it could be read from a media review that the whole film is about comical over acting and sort of entertainment of television soap operas. This seemed a bit too heavy argument, as the people working in media spread their attitudes widely to the review readers and to the potential film viewers. In this case the journalist should have known better the context of “Death Sentence”.

A French critic put once down Satyajit Ray’s master piece. Almost comparable situations can still occur, when cultural exchange happens in a too weak way.

East vs. West – six contraries and problems of understanding

1. The primary contrary fact in the comparison between Hollywood and Bollywood is that although India produces more films, US is still the highly dominating film industry in the world markets. Through the diaspora, more and more Indian films are spread to Europe. In Finland the production is still hard to reach.

When people don’t get to see Indian films, they tend to make crucial judgements with too little material and knowledge. Another problem must be laziness: film journalists and critics don’t use enough of time for searching information about different Indian directors and about their motives for making the film which they did. Many times journalists and critics don’t have time for a proper background work.

2. The logic is different in India and in West. Films repeat the logic of their background culture. This is why Hollywood films are linear, transparent and rational. On the contrary Bollywood films are “messy”, packed with emotions and dramatic changes in plot. It’s said that in India chaos means order and order means chaos, non-logicality is the actual logic – things aren’t planned, they just happen. Because of the two different logics, Bollywood might be difficult to swallow at once in West. Bollywood films are said to be difficult because the dance sequences “break” the plot (this is said when Bollywood films are watched with “Hollywood lenses” on). In India the dance sequences are a must and they’re included to the plot for fulfilling the demand of the melodramatic form and the demand of entertainment. Dance sequences come to Hindi cinema from folk theatre.

3. Differences in the concept of reality. Hollywood film style and storytelling are based on rational everyday reality. In West the religion is also quite separated from the daily life, compared to India. In India Hindu gods are everywhere, at homes, in institutes, on the streets, even in places where you wouldn’t expect any altars. People are used to believing in mythical figures with many hands or elephant’s head. Also the visual art tradition is different in Europe and in India. In Europe the notion of perspective is followed. In India the pictures are two dimensional and many times naive and surreal in style. So in Western and Indian films also two different kind of realities meet. One is based on rational reality and the other is based on mythical reality. Both of them are equally truthful at last – they’re just different.

4. It can be noted that the Western mass film audience takes European art films and Indian commercial films similarly. From a view point of a mass audience they both are hard to follow, because of the anti-Hollywood -plot. So what comes to the art film – commercial film –separation, Indian art film comes closer to Western commercial cinema and on the other hand Indian commercial film comes closer to the art film in West. When the Western mass audience gets to see Indian commercial films, they might be surprised due to their generic expectations. What make Bollywood films remind the art films in Europe, are the structure and plot which are out from the Hollywood norm.

5. Entertainment includes serious values in India. Even if Bollywood is watched sometimes only as camp or kitsch in Europe, it’s just the very first layer of the cinematic experience. When one looks through the melodramatic form to inside, most Hindi films talk about the meaning of family, state of a woman or of the significance of traditions and community. This should be stated more in West – it gives depth for understanding the biggest Indian production.

6. As well as it’s said that Bollywood is escapism from reality, it can also be said that Bollywood is making reality ”whole” and fulfilled. Watching two-three hours of hindi cinema can increase the quality of life for crowds. Bollywood might be needed for this purpose.

What should be the aim in future

Satyajit Ray was fascinated by the European art film and made suggestions what the Indian cinema should be. He was speaking the foreign audiences in his mind. Ray talked about technically advanced representation (as in Hollywood) and the Indian content, which means basically Indian topics and landscapes. Ray’s films were also shorter than normal Bollywood films, which are considered long in Western standard.

Directors like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Ghadha have become known in Europe with their half Western and half Indian –production. These directors are popular because of their easiness. At the same time someone could say that when a film is between two different modes, it’s not properly characterized and lacks of sharp expression of a certain style. Internationalized Indian directors can’t be called Bollywood film makers. They gather big masses to the cinema halls, which is still a good thing. Through these “semi-Indian” –films the Western audiences can take a step forward to become interested of the real Indian cinema.

The advanced and universal way to establish film critic would be considering the director’s motives, background and the context of a specific film no matter where the film maker is from. When writing about a culture which isn’t one’s own, the journalist should be aware of one’s limitations. Also crucial and strict judgements should be avoided, so that spreading wrong information could be avoided. There should be a possibility to consider other industry along Hollywood – especially when talking about as big industry as India is.

--Anna Pesonen

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