Growing up I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the term “Bollywood”, all I know is that I found it funny because it seemed to sound like a cheap rip off of Hollywood. So in my mind it was natural to assume their movies were similarly sub-par, after all how could a developing country with its lack of cinematic history compete against the mature American film industry. I considered this assumption justified when I watched my first few Bollywood films, they were so bad that I can’t even bother to remember their names. The stories were always invariably tragic, the plot straight as an arrow with few twists if any, the director must have been a monkey because all he ever did was use a sudden burst of background thunder before zooming in on an actor’s face and finally they all seemed to be musicals. Now, I have nothing against musicals some of my favourite films are musicals such as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady” but for every film produced to be a musical, that’s just boring, sometimes you need a good action film or psychological thriller like”Charade”. So needless to say I decided never to watch a Bollywood film again.
Some years went by and I was fortunate enough to stumble onto an interview on CNN with an Indian actress, Preity Zinta. I had no idea who she was but just as I was about to change the channel the interviewer asked a question that I found myself very interested in, “So what’s with all the Musicals in Bollywood?” I decided to let her reply before changing the channel, and what she said made me give Bollywood a second chance. She spoke about how many indians actually live a hard life, filled with poverty and disillusionment and that’s why Indian films are filled with so much song, dance and colour, to provide them with a momentary escape from their tough existence.
This took me completely by surprise because I found myself having committed a great mistake when watching those indian films many years a ago. I had tried to evaluate them from a western standpoint, when in fact these films were not meant to be evaluated in such a fashion. The issues they centred upon which I found mundane and overused were actually things that they in india were grappling with but the western world had moved on from. Issues like arranged marriages, poverty and patriotism. So I decided to give Bollywood one last try.
I scurried to my local video store and began to browse the Bollywood section. I knew that this might well be my last chance to try and appreciate Indian film so it was important that I picked a good movie, because if I didn’t then all was lost. As I spent several minutes looking through the videos one suddenly caught my eye. It was titled,”LAGAAN” and though I had little idea what that meant by reading the back of the case I discovered it centred around a game of cricket. I reasoned that since I loved cricket this would probably be my best bet and so scampered home to watch it. (See Trailer Below)
In a nutshell, I loved it. The story was wonderful and epitomized India’s desire to be seen as equals with its colonial master. The use of cricket which has come to illustrate India’s global emergence really tied into the story, in fact I could hear in the background of the movie one of the British officers saying, “this country has a great future in this game.” The director’s use of camera angles and choice of shots were more than a match for his Hollywood counterparts. I was also largely pleased with the use of musical numbers. They were used to highlight key moments in the film and they added to the films charm and made the audience feel part of the adventure and did not take away from the plot at all. The actors were also very good, the lead, Aamir Khan reminded me a little of Leonardo Di Caprio. In hindsight now, having watched some of his other works, “Three Idiots”and “Fanaa” for instance, I would say he definitely has the versatility and energy that Di Caprio has.
After my experience with “Lagaan” I have since watched a few other Bollywood films, some good, some bad and some ugly but I have come to the opinion that poor films regularly occur in Hollywood as well so I’m not holding it against them. It goes without saying that the future of Indian cinema is very bright, they not only have a strong home audience which is blessed with a rising standard of living but the export of Indian culture through global migration has made Indian films more appealing to western movie goers. This has even led to hybrid East/West films such as “Bend it Like Beckham”, “On the other end of the line” and “Bride and Prejudice” becoming increasingly popular.
Indian film has grown up very quickly and their directors are fast learners, they don’t have the long history that Hollywood has as a result of great directors like Sir David Lean or Alfred Hitchcock which means they are still building their legacy and what it means to produce a truly Indian film. The old Bollywood films that I first watched and despised are from a bygone era and boy am I glad they are.