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.
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.
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.