Monday, May 13, 2002

It's also interesting to read Sterling's thoughts on Indian movies, in particular:
But! As a necessary consequence of globalization, Bollywood is finding a growing audience inside the USA. I'm one of them. Nothing odd about that -- it's like my wife's fondness for Hong Kong costume dramas, or my daughter's ferocious need for anime cartoons. The question is: as we globalize, is India Westernizing, or is America Indianizing?

(The answer is both , and the consequence of this is that we end up with two cultures that remain distinct from each other, each of which is more complicated than what existed before). This makes me wonder certain things. Firstly, where can I get a wife who loves Hong Kong costume dramas and a daughter who has a ferocious need for anime? (Applications are of course welcome). Secondly, why do so many cool people like Sterling come from Austin, Texas. (A long and involved discussion as to why the
very Americans that European left-wing elites consider to be cowboys and rednecks are in fact much more sophisticated and better educated than the European left-wing elites are should be taken as read here) . Thirdly, and only somewhat related to this, I went to see Monsoon Wedding last week. This contains a lovely portrait of middle class life in Delhi, but is a very conventional film: basically Father of the Bride or (even more
closely) Betsy's Wedding in an Indian setting.

What is interesting of course is that this is the most successful Indian film with English speaking audiences in North America and Europe. It has a certain "We will make a very conventional non-Hollywood movie and put it in art-house cinemas and people who think that Hollywood movies are beneath them will go to see it" quality about it, but it still isn't bad. I still think it is a sign of what is coming, but not perhaps as direct a sign as I had hoped from reading the reviews and feeling the buzz.

To be truthful, given the nature of Indian cinema, I was expecting something a little lusher. Not lusher, necessarily, in terms of the performances or the setting, but lusher in terms of art direction and cinematography. The fact that most of the movie was super 16 Steadicam took me a little by surprise. Super 16 Steadicam worked fine - and gave a little more intimacy to the characters I think, but still, I was expecting something a little more of a genre film. Something a little closer to a musical perhaps, given the nature of a lot of Bollywood's output. That's not to say that Monsoon Wedding is entirely not a musical, but it is largely not a musical. And, amongst other things, Bollywood is about musicals.

Despite this film being not quite what I expected, Indian popular culture is clearly rumbling towards us, and this film is none the less part of it. Indian cinema , and Indian pop culture more generally but mostly Indian cinema, is coming into the western mainstream. "Which country in the world makes the most movies per year?" (India) has long been a Trivial Pursuit question, but it has been little more than that. This was popular culture that until recently fell into the category of There were some things that westerners are not meant to see . Maybe, or perhaps even probably, you can blame this on India's four decades of deliberate economic isolationism. The film output of India has been more or less completely divorced from the rest of the world. The films have not generally been seen outside India, or even in English dubbed or subtitled versions, but this seems suddenly changing. Maybe it is the DVD, and the format's near mandatory subtitles, or the end of Indian "self-reliance", of maybe, just, as Sterling says, just the inevitable spread of globalisation (although I think that's more a way of restating the question than an answer). In any event, things related even tangentially or directly to Bollywood seem to be everywhere. Bookshops suddenly contain novels set in the Indian film industry. A stage musical called "Bombay Dreams", a co-production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and A R Rahman, and set in the Bombay film industry, is playing in the West End stage in London. The British part of the Indian diaspora is suddenly making
movies about the cross cultural Indian/British experience, and they are outgrossing "The Scorpion King" at the UK Box office.

This feels like the way in which we were deluged from a variety of directions by greater Chinese cinema a decade or so ago. Admittedly, Hong Kong film was never quite as isolated from the west as was Indian film, which is fitting, as Hong Kong was (pretty much as its raison detre) never tried anything like self-reliance, and Hong Kong films always found their way into the west in a way that Indian film never did. Film geeks in video stores have at least since the advent of VHS spent far too much time talking about badly subtitled Hong Kong gangster films. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were suddenly arthouse darlings. A generation of Hong Kong stars suddenly gained at least some recognition in the west (Jackie Chan of course, but also people like Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh). Taiwan had produced a few films familiar in the arthouse world, but suddenly there was Ang Lee, an interesting cross cultural Taiwanese/American cross cultural film. Somehow everything seemed to merge together and take over Hollywood. John Woo was making films in Hollywood. Jackie Chan was making hit Hollywood buddy movies. Michaelle Yeoh was the most kick-ass Bond girl in history. Every film being made in Hollywood suddenly had huge Hong Kong influences. Quentin Tarantino had a big yen for all this. The Matrix ripped off everything in sight. More films were made containing Hong Kong action stars in movies that ripped off the Matrix. Ang Lee managed to move with extraordinary adeptness from straight Taiwanese projects (Eat Drink Man Woman most
notably) to Jane Austen to the American Civil War. The language of Hollywood cinema suddenly had Hong Kong's syntax running through the middle of it. Then finally came Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: filmed in mainland China
with Mandarin dialogue, directed by the Lee, the great Taiwanese cross-cultural director, using the conventions of mostly Hong Kong action and starring two great stars of Hong Kong Cinema (Maggie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat) and a mainland Chinese actress discovered by Zhang Yimou. (If there is going to be a break-out star come from all this, maybe it will be Zhang Ziyi. Maggie Cheung speaks much better English, but is probably too old). This film did of course gross an enormous amount of money worldwide and in America, and also received a pile of Oscar nominations. The mixing of Chinese cinema and Hollywood was complete, or at least mature. Hong Kong people and their style of film-making had infiltrated Hollywood.

With India this is a way off I think, but I think it is ultimately coming. And who knows. If we are lucky this will revitalise the musical.
This might be confusing for audiences of those countries that could never cope with the concept of the musical anyway (the Sound of Music was apparently released in South Korea with the songs cut out), but possibly Bollywood has spread the concept further into this part of the world. Maybe not quite to somewhere as traditionally culturally isolated as South Korea, and maybe not to Japan, but certainly everywhere else.

The musical hasn't ever entirely died, even if it seems impossible to actually call a musical a musical. As an example, get the DVD of
My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and count how many times members of the cast burst into song. The film was never promoted as a musical, but it is one.

Of course, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet has moments in which it seems about to veer this way, although given that the main actors were restricted to Shakespearean dialogue, the music could never take over the music. However, in my mind, the choir singing Prince's "When Doves Cry" in this movie was a sublime movie moment. Plus we have had Moulin Rouge, and Evita, and for what it's worth Woody Allen did one too.

As for Sterling's description of Bollywood as being run by gangsters, I think most industries are at some point run by gangsters. Whether Hollywood is run by gangsters or not depends on how you define the term. However, Jet Li and Jackie Chan (and John Woo, and ....) seem to have no trouble working in Hollywood today, whether or not they have past connections with the triads. The point I think is that Hollywood and Wall Street have lawyers and money men who are more than capable of, at a minimum, doing deals with
unsavory people in Hong Kong (and, I suspect, Bombay). Hollywood has more money, and when it comes down to it this is sufficient to draw the talent out of these places and into the more conventional world of Los Angeles. If Wall Street and Hollywood could run the mob out of Vegas, then they can deal with Bollywood.

So here is my prediction, I suppose. Devdas will gain a bigger audience in the west than any Bollywood movie before it, although it will not quite yet be Crouching Tiger. In six or seven years time, directors and stars presently working in Bombay will be making and starring in Hollywood movies. Some time in the next 10 years, a movie made in Hindi will gross more than $100m at the American Box office, and a movie made in Hindi (not necessarily the same one) will be nominated for the Academy award for best picture. Some
time in the next five years, a film directed by someone who made his or her name working in the Indian film industry, will make $50m at the American box office. This might be an American film directed by an Indian, or an Indian film aimed at international audiences. That is, it will either be the Indian Broken Arrow or the Indian Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the Indian not quite either. But I think we shall see it.

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