Monday, June 18, 2012

Why this American girl needs her Indian movies — especially Bollywood

After recent hubbub over a blog post saying Americans enjoy Bollywood only as the film world’s “blond bimbo,” I found myself evaluating again why I’m so drawn to Bollywood — it’s certainly not because I think of Bollywood as a bimbo (or blond; I don’t think a single blonde exists in Bollywood!). I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had a hard time in the past deciphering or putting into words what attracts me to Bollywood or why I feel so strongly about it. But after more than a year of contemplating this, I have perhaps found some answers, though I doubt this post is capable of being comprehensive.

Perhaps on the most basic level, it has to do with believing in something. Because mainstream Indian cinema is what scholars describe as “pre-cynical.” That means, as Suketu Mehta writes in Maximum City, audiences in India, the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia “still believe in motherhood, patriotism, and true love; Hollywood and the West have moved on.”

Perhaps the greatest appeal for me in fiction, both on film and in literature, is not just a suspension of disbelief but also a suspension of cynicism. It is true that while I’m hardly the most cynical person you’ll ever meet, I admit I’m fairly skeptical. It’s probably fair to say I don’t believe in true love. And I don’t want to be a mother, though family for me is a very strong value. Because I’ve studied nationalism, I’ve also developed a degree of skepticism about “the story a nation tells of itself” — not a skepticism of patriotism, per se, but of national identity politics.

But because I am so cynical about the real world, I genuinely enjoy suspending my cynicism to watch or read an emotional story of love. Because we all do wish that life worked like that. It’s perhaps the same reason that we feel drawn to superhero films, science fiction and fantasy: Imagining and experiencing through fiction a world different from and better than our own is far more appealing than, say, reveling in the actual darkness of our world, no matter how accurate the picture is. (I say this with full conviction in my faith, but the same concept is basically true of religion: We believe in a world or existence better than the one we’re now in and then work to obtain it.)

I’ve heard Bollywood described by detractors as ridiculous — but why must emotionality be written off ridiculous? Emotion is always dramatized in film because it’s rarely visible. Simply because Bollywood chooses to treat it without a dose of cynicism does not mean it’s any more ridiculous.

But of course an American’s love for Bollywood cannot be explained by only that lack of cynicism. Because if that were true, why would I be so particularly drawn to Indian movies rather than just noncynical Hollywood movies? Because the fact is, jokes about the real nationality of my dil aside, I am not Indian. I’m American, particularly a very proud daughter of the American South and its cultural traditions.

But Indian culture and my Southern culture share many values: Family is crucial. Patriotism runs very, very deep (the South started a war over that once). Religion and respect (for elders especially) hold society together. Food is a must. When you party, you party hard (Punjabis especially!), but you always work twice or three times as hard as you party. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your culture, everyone else is going to do it for you, so you never take yourself too seriously (for the South, this is Jeff Foxworthy jokes; for India, it’s filmi-ness). Even the wild Indian love for cricket has a counterpart in the fervent Southern love for college football (especially SEC football).

Because of all of these things, I feel a sort of affinity with Indian culture. In many ways, we share values that many other cultures no longer respect. I believe that even most of American culture doesn’t value family, patriotism, religion, respect for elders and hard work anymore, and Hollywood certainly doesn’t.

That is often why and where Hollywood and I part ways. Simply because we’re from the same country does not mean we’re the same culture. Hollywood in no way represents or understands my culture. But Bollywood? Bollywood does.

Bollywood understands that I don’t watch a movie to see tons of sex that’s somehow meant to imply a relationship. Bollywood understands that family is a concept with weight and meaning. Bollywood understands that music conveys emotion. Bollywood understands that there are generational issues that can be resolved without shunning one’s parents or tradition.

And because Bollywood understands values — and I understand its values — and because it allows me to suspend cynicism, I love Bollywood. And I need it.


  1. I really did not understand that article at all. What are they trying to say anyway? Are they putting BW down or American people? I love BW for so many reasons. I started out as trying to familiarize myself more with hindi and with indian culture. (I know BW doesn't represent daily indian life but there are some elements of truth in some movies.)But it evolved into more. I love the fact that BW isn't afraid to embrace true love and happy endings. I love that sex is not the big thing. (Another reason why I am sick of HW) And like you said there isn't much cynicism in most BW movies. I like the serious indian cinema and I like the candy floss.
    Maybe if I understood better what she was trying to say in her article I could comment better. But I think BW cinema is far from brain dead.

    1. Hi Michelle:

      I agree — I couldn't decide whether the article's writer really hated Bollywood or really hated Americans. The reasoning was just so unsound.

      It's funny that you point out that BW doesn't represent daily Indian life — the last time I told a desi that I'd learned Hindi through Bollywood, he quickly exclaimed, "We're not all like that!" It's not like I assumed that Bollywood is real life. Hollywood is no more real life than Bollywood is (even though it strives to have a more "realistic" outlook). Movies are movies, regardless of what country they come from. Reality shines through in the best of them, but the majority of them are fiction for entertainment purposes. And that's fine because that's what they're designed for.

      Thanks for commenting. Love the points you made as well!

  2. I love BW because of all what you said above, and because I find BW so much more refreshing than HW - with color, culture, music. HW is basically devoid of culture. It's hard to find movies that celebrate true American culture, whether they be Southern, African American, Midwestern, ethnic/immigrant-American. Usually HW concentrates on graphics, side effects, action, sex, showing the good life, or a serious, enlightened portrayal of life. Frankly, its been hard lately to find a good, new HW movie I want to watch. BW has diversity, and most importantly, it has culture. After 1 movie, and that movie's songs and dances, I was hooked. South Asian culture is so fascinating. And its not just the values, its also the culture. So, for example, while many argue that the older movies (i.e. the 90's) which were more family-oriented, like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, were the best (a very nostalgic POV), I also find that modern BW movies are equally good. Yes, they are "less modest" and "more sensual" if you know what I mean. But, they have been improving in ideas, creativity, graphics, etc. And they still have culture in them - from dress to music and dance! My American teacher at high school saw parts of Om Shanti Om and she loved it. She was raving about it for a while, on how colorful it was, how funny and lighthearted it was. I think that's the appeal for BW. And I agree, Americans need to watch more foreign movies, especially BW (as in, non-Western, because Spanish, French, German, etc films still deal with similar HW topics and in a same style). Americans need to watch more Egyptian and Arabic, Bollywood, Korean, Japanese - Eastern in general - movies.

    1. Totally agree with you that Hollywood has no culture... It's mostly just movies for the sake of movies and special effects anymore. And yes, Bollywood is much more diverse! I love that.

      I also love Bollywood's different decades because older films have reserve, and even though newer films are less modest/more sensual, they maintain the upbeat, positive tempo of Bollywood. They are, in essence, fun.

      When I started my Bollywood blog with the Alligator (that I had to give up when I graduated, sadly), I wrote about why Americans should watch more foreign films, especially why Gainesville needs more foreign film. :) I studied film briefly at UF, and we went into early Russian, German and French film. Unfortunately these days, almost all European films try to mimic Hollywood as a standard and it's less diverse than it once was. Still, I enjoy the odd Latin American and British film here and there... I wish I had broader tastes than even that, though.

  3. And Persian! They have some deep films! But Bollywood is the most diverse by far!

  4. I read your articles and editorials, that's how I came to this blog!

    1. Oh, I see! :) I never know; I just learned recently that one of my old journalism professors uses this blog as an example in a class.

  5. great to view your article its informative, to watch all movies online

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