A Cinema of its Own

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I was going to write a review of Baahubali: The Beginning, the Indian film that is all the rage right now, having broken all box-office records in India. I had planned to write about what makes a great epic film. But the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by something else altogether.

Some years ago, when Aamir Khan’s Ghajini came out, a friend of mine was all excited to see it solely because it was a remake of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which was one of his favourite films. He did, and came away sorely disappointed, even though it generated positive reviews, achieved blockbuster status in India and did well around the world. The problem was, he had gone to the movie expecting it to be like Memento, but was met with the usual Hindi song-and-dance and melodrama.

The problem was, he didn’t understand Indian cinema.

The film industry in India is one of the biggest, most prolific in the world. Forbes reported that 1,602 films were produced in 2012 alone. The Indian film industry is also completely self-sustaining. By number of tickets alone, Bollywood outsells even Hollywood (even though Hollywood revenues remain unmatched).

So, why did that friend of mine not get Indian films?

The massive juggernaut that is Baahubali, the Telugu/Tamil fantasy epic directed by S.S. Rajamouli, has a story that we’ve come to be all too familiar with – the rivalry between a good king and his evil brother who usurps the throne while the good king’s son escapes death as an infant only to return as an adult to avenge his father. Yet the film works, for two reasons. One, it is well-directed, imaginative, a barrel of fun and is genuinely exciting. And two, it is appropriately over-the-top, melodramatic and fearlessly idiosyncratic in the grand, old Indian-cinema tradition.

The film also uses Hollywood fantasy-epic conventions, such as two colliding hordes on a battlefield and stylish slo-mo’s, something we’ve seen over and over and should now be a tiresome staple of big battle scenes. But in the hands of Rajamouli, there are many refreshing twists and turns in Baahubali‘s 45-minute battle where everything that happens advances the story, unlike in a Hollywood film where big battles are mostly just for showing off CGI.

Yet, I knew I wasn’t just seeing an Indian-cinema version of a Hollywood fantasy epic. What I was experiencing was quite something else. I started to think about why I like Indian cinema and what draws me to it.

Like no other cinema in the world

Mainstream Indian films work according to their own rules and by their own logic. They are like no other mainstream films in the world. In fact, Indian mainstream cinema is like no other in the world.

That friend of mine who was disappointed with Ghajini, tried to explore why there was always the fascination with song-and-dance in Indian cinema. In the end, he couldn’t figure it out at all. I had a late-night conversation with him recently, and I came away thinking I might know why.

Indian cinema is the only one I know that is so tightly linked to the culture of its people. (Do point it out to me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it would affect my theory even if Indian cinema is not the only one.) What I’m trying to say is, Indian mainstream cinema has such a strong cultural foundation that it dictates the formal requirements of its films, making these requirements resistant to compromise, dilution or even alteration. Take any of the usual elements out of a mainstream film, and it no longer qualifies as a “mainstream film.”

Film and cinema are a wholly western invention, yet Indian culture has successfully assimilated and melded them into its own that even when Indian cinema remakes Hollywood films, like Ghajini, or uses Hollywood conventions, like in Baahubali, Hollywood gets gobbled up and churned back out as something totally Indian. You may have marauding hordes on a battlefield, but even this becomes an operatic kind of song and dance, an epic mythological war more from the Mahabarata than from The Lord of the Rings.

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Because it’s so culturally specific, Indian mainstream cinema naturally will not be understood or appreciated by everyone. Like my friend who couldn’t understand the appeal of Ghajini, and who thinks Indian mainstream cinema is mere escapist entertainment of the lowest common denominator, a statement with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

Take, for example, comedy, which can be culturally specific too. One culture’s comedy may work according to its own rules and logic that another culture might not understand. And that’s how I perceive Indian mainstream cinema to be, which is so culturally specific that it operates according to its own rules and by its own logic. That is why to some people, a sudden song-and-dance routine in the middle of a film that is so fantastical that it cannot be part of the real life depicted elsewhere in the film. But within Indian mainstream cinema’s universe, it all makes perfect sense as a metaphorical diversion (and a chance for audience members to visit the restroom or have a ciggie break in the long runtime!).

Why that friend of mine didn’t get it was because he was measuring Ghajini against Hollywood conventions. To the rest of us who love Indian cinema, it didn’t matter that suddenly Aamir Khan was singing and dancing in the middle of a desert, or that the story was much less complicated and much more melodramatic than Memento. To the untrained eye, Indian mainstream films may look like simplistic “escapist entertainment,” but oftentimes there is much more going on beneath the surface. This is especially true of earlier black-and-white Indian films. Take for instance, K. Balachander, the great director who gave the world Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan. His films with Rajinikanth were very far left of what was conventional at the time, exploring themes that were shocking or unheard of back then in stories that were much more complex than they seemed.

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It’s also interesting to note that for a time, during the golden era of Malay films to be exact, our local films also had song-and-dance routines, which is really because the Malayan cinema industry from its inception employed directors from India. It was the same, Malay films at the time were complex human dramas punctuated by moments of “escapism.”

But this is not saying that all Indian mainstream films are complex stories about the human condition. Sometimes you get something like Aamir Khan’s recent hit PK, which entertains and also has something pertinent to say about the human condition, and sometimes you get great entertainment like Baahubali, with an already familiar story that is made even better with great imagination and creativity.

But it makes sense to me that Indian mainstream cinema is self-sustaining and enjoys great support from local audiences because it is so culturally specific. We in Malaysia have long been trying to discover what would make local audiences connect with and relate to, and then support, our local films. Perhaps we should be looking a little further up north for some inspiration.

(Incidentally too, I was discussing P. Ramlee’s comedies with a Canadian friend who had wanted to put together a programme of P. Ramlee’s films, and we both wondered whether the comedies, which were big hits and yes, culturally specific, would be understood by foreign audiences. In the end, I kind of figured not.)

 

UPDATE: This review is now cross-published at Row Three. Check out that fine site.

 

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16 responses to “A Cinema of its Own

  1. Nice article, spend little more time on re-editing to make it further crisp.

    As far as the dilemma of why Indian films have songs is something which I can address. For that you need to understand ancient, medieval India. In ancient India, the entertainment is primarily music and stage plays. So the stories back then (usually narrated instead of read) do have poems as part of story telling, especially when the author want to convey that the characters are getting exited in the story. Poems from the myth stories are not nonsense, they take the story forward with it. If the poem is melodic, it will rise your excitement and helps you concentrate on the story. So the stage plays/ story narrations comes with reciting poems through singing, which eventually became part of modern day story telling (which is films)., where the poems got replaced by songs. Till 70’s the songs have some link to the story. However in 80’s when films with erotic songs and nonsense songs start doing well at box office, which replaced situational songs with total nonsense songs which disrupts the story telling.

    These dumb sections does not understand movies like memento, however if you make a movie where the protagonist just wacks everything as per their(audience’s) laws of physics, submissive female roles and one or two erotic songs they will run with their money to watch such movies. Simple, dumb, brawn and erotic songs is the formula for self sustaining Indian film.

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    • Songs and melodrama in INdian movies comes from Parasi theatre influence.

      “The early plays in Parsi theatre presented Indianized versions of Shakespeare’s plays, by turning them into folk performances, with dozens of songs added in. Soon Indian legends, epic and mythological tales made an appearance as source material. As Parsi theatre companies started travelling across North India, they employed native writers to churn out scripts in Hindustani language, mix of Hindi and Urdu.

      Later Parsi plays “blended realism and fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, integrating them into a dramatic discourse of melodrama”. For mass appeal the plays incorporated humour, melodious songs and music, sensationalism and stagecraft. The success of Parsi theatre lead to the development of theatre in regional languages notably modern Gujarati theatre, Marathi theatre and Hindi theatre. Later it led to the development of Hindi cinema (Bollywood), the effect of Parsi theatre is still evident in the Masala film genre of Indian cinema and especially in Bollywood film songs.”
      -Wikipedia

      I copy pasted from wiki but I have read it too many times in articles about history of Indian cinema. Indian cinema is almost as old as Hollywood cinema and this topic often comes up.

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  2. Thanks for your comment! Yes, that is exactly my thought, that a deep cultural aspect runs in the films. That’s the reason for the song and dance routines.
    Well, luckily, today we do still have songs that are relevant to the movie and adds to the narrative. They have not disappeared completely.
    Thanks for the good history lesson!

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  3. Wow, a movie review that turns into a sociological discourse on what makes Indian films so culturally specific to their audience. I too am one of those viewers whom has often wondered what was up with all the singing and dancing interludes. You’ve helped decipher this whirling twirling kick up one’s heels metaphorical diversionary tactic.
    Conversely, I’m still wondering within the socio-economic element of Indian culture how do most audiences find the time literally to fit such lengthy films into their busy schedules. Sure in America we have the occassional ‘epic’ running time film, but on average almost all your film presentations run 150 minutes or longer in order to tell their story. I also get the impression that the word intermission doesn’t exist in your culture.

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  4. Interesting read! What is more interesting is how the Indian film industry would shape up with impending economic reforms and development. Would there be a day when indian audiences too will not be able to spend a whole 3 hours for watching a fun movie?

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  5. hi Allan,first of all thank you for this article..its awsme..and like you said..it can be a little confusing to see songs and dance in the middle of a creative story telling but believe me,when you get the lyrics and mode properly,you will know those are simply not wastage of time.Every story teller in this world has their own way of story telling..even quentin tarantino and spielsberg also have their distinct ways of explaining a story and indians have their own with songs,dances and imotions..its just the way it is!and about the length!!well with 4 -5 songs and a lengthy story to tell..3hrs seems obvious..right??because indians mostly connect to imotions and music is the soul of indian movies..go for those lyrics and you will get it.and not all indian movies have dance sequences and are 3 hrs lenghty..it solely depends on the genre and script..again thank you for this wonderful post..

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    • hi Animesh,

      thanks so much for reading. yes, as the first commentor had mentioned, the songs and lyrics are part of the story most times. like in Baahubali, i like how the whole love story between Shivudu and Avanthika was developed solely through a song and dance sequence.

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