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The New Bollywood: Slick, Sophisticated and High-Tech

New America Media, Commentary, Sandip Roy Posted: Nov 16, 2007

Editor's Note: The South Asian Film Festival that opens today in San Francisco not your mother's Bollywood, writes NAM Associate Editor Sandip Roy.

My mother thoroughly disapproved of Bollywood. Good invariably triumphed over evil, but my mother didnt think anyone should fritter away three-plus hours with heroes whose unbuttoned shirts revealed a thicket of chest hair, and vamps whose slit skirts flashed way too much thigh. Wholesome films meant The Sound of Music. My mother hasnt really changed. But in the age of globalization and a booming Indian economy its not my mothers Bollywood anymore.

The films are definitely far more slick and technically really smooth, says Ivan Jaigirdar, artistic director of 3rd I, whose annual festival of South Asian cinema opens today in San Francisco. A festival that showcases independent South Asian cinema might once have turned its nose up at Bollywoods crass commercialism. But no longer. Bollywood is definitely part of the language of cinema coming out of South Asia, says Jaigirdar. This year, alongside documentaries, shorts and indie features, the festival is screening both an achingly romantic 1957 black-and-white classic (Pyaasa) as well as Don, an ultra cool 2006 underworld movie which India-Wests entertainment editor Lisa Tsering describes as an all singing, dancing Bourne Supremacy.

Don, itself a remake of a 1978 film, is a perfect example of the new Bollywood - slicker, its stunts more sophisticated than the old school pow-bang-bam, and with better editing. It hops seamlessly from France to Malaysia to Mumbai with a bevy of semi-clad Eastern European beauties, says Anupama Chopra, author of King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema. Its a designer film made by someone who belongs to the new generation of young directors. They have traveled the world, or at least have had 15 years of exposure to the West, thanks to satellite television, says Chopra.

The star of the old Don and the new Don in many ways epitomizes the changing Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan, still a lion of Indian cinema, famous as the angry young man of the seventies, remains a legend with his own waxwork image at Madame Tussauds in London. Hes an icon, but he didnt do an ad 'till 1996, says Chopra. Shah Rukh Khan (the new Don) is part of our daily lives in a much bigger way, on television constantly, plugging 20 products. Hes an omnipresent brand. Stardom is now less godly, but far more amplified. He is a star of India, Inc.

Globalization has been good for Bollywood, says India-Wests Tsering.

Its opened up a whole new market in the diaspora. Its also opened up the industry to a new pool of talent. Indians, like Manish Acharya, who went to film school in the United States, are returning to India with new ideas and tech savvy. Acharya considers himself part of a new breed of filmmakers who will take Indian cinema to urban educated audiences around the world. His debut film, Loins of Punjab Presents, which goes backstage at an Indian Idol competition in New Jersey, has been hailed by novelist Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi in the Hindustan Times newspaper as a film that goes for underbitches with bite, rather than a slew of sad South Asian underdogs mutterin' about post-colonial sorrows.

My audience is the cosmopolitan Indian who might go to see a David Cronenberg film, as well as the latest Shah Rukh Khan movie like Om Shanti Om, says Acharya. And that Indian in New York is not that different from that Indian in Bombay. Whats different now is Acharya can make a film catered to them.

Even 20 years ago, in order to break even, a Bollywood film had to play in small provincial towns, rural India, big metropolises, and, as Lisa Tsering puts it, make all the aunties cry. Now, with multiplexes mushrooming all over India, quirkier films like Acharyas can find urban audiences who look and sound like him they drink Americanos and speak Hinglish, a mixture of Hindi and English. With the film industry being recognized as a bona fide industry by the Indian government, ad companies and corporations have gotten into film production, instead of it just being shady mafia bosses trying to launder money. Sony just released its first big Bollywood co-production, a lavish musical (but of course) called Saawariya.

But there is a price for that success, says Tula Goenka, associate professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University, who has worked with both Spike Lee and Mira Nair. At one time in a country as diverse as India, Bollywood was the lingua franca. Now, that audience is fragmented, says Goenka. Not everyone is exposed to the same movie at the same time. Rural India has fallen off the map, says Shyam Benegal, probably Indias most famous art house director, who made a landmark rural quartet of films in the seventies. When your revenues come from overseas or from the cities, it influences the kinds of films that are being made.

The image makeover of Bollywood hasnt meant the worlds biggest film industry has been able to cross over to the West, though Goenka isnt sure the biggest Bollywood filmmakers even care about crossing over. But India-Wests Tsering remembers how the blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham actually lost its place in the U.S. top 10, despite raking in over $1 million on only 73 screens when it opened because they didnt report the numbers properly to Variety.

But the bigger issue is Bollywoods image. Even the term Bollywood implies its a copy of something, says filmmaker Soam Acharya. Bollywoods image in the West is still all about camp and kitsch. Soam gave up on Bollywood years ago until his wife Shari reintroduced him to the films as a condition of their marriage.

Now their short film, Devi Brown, a blaxploitation-style twist on Bollywood action films of the seventies, plays with everything that he once hated about the industry. Stripping the macho hero out of the plot and overdubbing it, the Acharyas created Devi Brown, kickass heroine out to avenge the loss of both her honor and her famous egg biryani recipe. At four minutes, Soam says Devi Brown is the deconstructed Cliff notes version of a Bollywood film that has mayhem, romance and everything else. But more importantly, its been a way for a new generation to come home to an old faithful.

Related Articles:

Holy Cow: Films Set in India Show the Country in a New Light

When Hollywood Meets Bollywood, Warning Bells Should Ring

Indian Feminists Despair As Film Star Marries a Tree

Movie Star Cited in Criminal Case for Onscreen Kiss

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