Archive for the ‘Bollywood Cinema’ Category

I recently watched Prakash Jha’s “Raajneeti” and must say as a Pakistani that the film has shaken me with its portrayal of Indian politics. If Mr. Jha didn’t have a well regarded history of social activism and had himself not contested parliamentary elections, I would have dismissed his portrayal of Indian politics as typical Bollywood hyperbole or ravings of a mad man. Boy, does he present Indian politics as a “game” – and that too, an utterly ruthless and cynical one – where the objective is victory at all costs.  Absolutely nothing – vote purchasing, caste exploitation, paperwork tampering, physical intimidation, slush funds, corporate extortion, local bribes, police misuse, arranged marriages, sexual blackmail, and even murder – is beneath Indian politicians. Some of this might be true of Bihar – supposedly the Wild West of India as well as Mr. Jha’s home state – but could this be true of India as a whole?

With their victory at all costs attitude, the Pratap clan in “Raajneeti” is no different from prominent Punjabi and Sindhi vederas (ie. feudal lords) in Pakistan! I read somewhere that nearly 20% of members of Indian parliament have criminal backgrounds. If that is true, then I guess the portrayal of politicians’ attitudes and actions in the movie is not that far off the mark. I must also say that the disparity between the lives of ordinary Indians and the rich political class is absolutely shocking. Please, I am not being overly sensitive. For example, I know sons of former Chief Ministers and Federal Ministers from school days in Lahore and so am familiar with the idea of ultra-rich families contesting elections. Still, given the stability and supposed maturity of Indian democracy, I expected the voting public in India to be more circumspect about choosing their leaders as well as holding them accountable.

As an aside, a significant portion of dialogue in the movie is in Sanskritized Hindi. This means that as an Urdu speaker, I had to rely on subtitles for nearly 70% of the movie… a very different experience from watching standard Bollywood fare. This was especially true for lines dealing with politics. With MNIK (My Name is Khan) a few months ago I never had any problems following on-screen Hindi. I wonder if an average person in Northern India uses such heavily Sanskritized Hindi in everyday conversations.


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The controversy and emotions surrounding MNIK (“My Name is Khan”) notwithstanding, it is amazing for me to see the coverage the film – and by extension, Bollywood cinema – is getting in prestigious Western mainstream as well as trade press. Not only has the movie been viewed favorably and at length in New York Times and Los Angeles Times, arguably America’s two leading newspapers, it has also garnered good reviews in Variety and Hollywood Reporter, the two major trade papers of the US film industry. And now Washington Post, the newspaper with easily the best coverage of foreign affairs and domestic politics, has published a major piece on the movie’s 9-11 theme and Bollywood cinema’s global impact. As per the article quoted below, it is to Bollywood’s credit that it exploring serious topics – within Bollywood conventions, of course – that have been avoided by Hollywood.

[Song-and-dance Bollywood makes room for 9/11-inspired films; The Washington Post; By Rama Lakshmi; Sunday, March 7, 2010; Copy and Paste]

An Indian Muslim in the United States downloads the travel itinerary of President George W. Bush, packs his backpack and arrives at an airport quietly chanting “Allah.” As nervous passengers remove their shoes, belts and jackets at a security point, the man is singled out for a search and interrogation. The scene is from “My Name Is Khan,” one of several recent Hindi movies set against the backdrop of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More than eight years on, films about those cataclysmic events are making a surprising appearance in the song-and-dance world of Bollywood.

The movies – three in the past eight months – are in Hindi, run about 150 minutes each, use Indian actors and include several songs as well as a large dose of romance in the Bollywood tradition. But the action takes place in U.S. cities, with cameras panning sprawling green college campuses, cookie-cutter suburban homes and Greyhound buses rolling along open interstates. “These Indian films set in America show two mirrors: how the two great democracies of India and America play out what it means to be a Muslim, and democracies are presumed to have all the answers,” said Shiv Visvanathan, an anthropologist at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. “They may be Indian stories, but today America is a canvas that belongs to everybody.”

The movies focus on feelings of Muslim alienation, human rights abuses, bigotry and the threat of terrorism – issues that India is grappling with on its own soil. Several Indian cities were torn by bomb blasts in 2008, culminating in attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people that November. An uproar about abuse and prejudice soon followed when many Muslims were randomly arrested in a nationwide police crackdown. So far only one movie about the Mumbai attacks has been released, although others are in production. But most of those are low-budget projects. Some filmmakers say it is safer to situate plotlines in a land far from India, a multi-religious cauldron that is predominantly Hindu and is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, amounting to 130 million.

“We are a volatile and vulnerable country. We have to tread the path very carefully here,” said Karan Johar, director of “My Name is Khan.” “India is a democracy, but creative people often do not feel protected enough to say some sensitive things here.” The first of the Sept. 11 movies was the summer hit “New York.” “My film was about the prejudice and paranoia that became shrill after 9/11,” director Kabir Khan said. “Everything that followed is a consequence of that event, even the Mumbai attacks. Nothing is isolated.” “Kurbaan,” which dealt with global terrorism, was released late last year. Critics say the movies underline both the global debate about Muslim identity and Bollywood’s global ambitions.

“Why are Indian films obsessed with 9/11 suddenly? It is a way of addressing local fears as well as pretend to be globalized,” Nandini Ramnath, film editor of Time Out Mumbai, said in an e-mail. “It’s easier and less controversial to talk about global terrorism in the abstract and from a distance than to discuss the motives that fuel similar actions by regional fundamentalist Indians.” But some battles are still being fought here at home. Shah Rukh Khan, the lead actor in “My Name Is Khan,” recently spoke out after no Pakistani cricket players were selected for an Indian tournament. Ties between India and Pakistan have soured since the Mumbai attacks, blamed on a Pakistan-based Islamist group. A Hindu nationalist party, Shiv Sena, questioned the actor’s patriotism.

His movie posters were burned, and cinemas showing the film were vandalized. Fighting back tears, Khan said on television: “I am a good Indian, and I never thought I’d have to say this on a TV channel. That makes me sadder.” In the film’s last scene, Khan’s character delivers a message to the U.S. president: “My name is Khan. And I am not a terrorist.”

The original article is available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/04/AR2010030405760.html

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The article below is a good synthesis of Pakistani arguments against availability of Indian cultural entertainment. It is also a good illustration of Pakistan’s identity crisis reflected in ongoing attempts to ban Indian soaps and films on account of danger posed by “Hindu culture” in “spoiling the moral fabric and minds of young Pakistanis”. I agree with the author that Pak film industry’s offerings are markedly inferior to that of Bollywood, that it is impossible to force customer behavior in today’s Internet-driven information age, and that arguments for defense of “our culture” and “ideology” are nothing but reflection of the state’s deep insecurities about national identity. Just like the author: “I’d settle for a Karina Kapoor and Sharukh Khan dance duet rather than a combusting item number involving a hip-hop religious scholar and a born-again Pakistani” any time, if given a choice.

[Cry babies, arent they?; DAWN; Nadeem F. Paracha; 13 Dec, 2009; Excerpts; Copy and Paste]

Ms Odho is certainly not alone in suggesting a ban on Indian entertainment content on TV and in Pakistani cinemas; in fact, one can find a number of Pakistani film and TV directors and actors toeing a similar line. The economic reason being given by Odho and co is that the arrival of Indian films and TV programming is knocking out Pakistani talent, rendering it jobless. This does make sense. But at the same time, one is right to start questioning the commercial and creative depth of talent which has clearly failed in the face of a competition that we are told is low on creativity. I seriously have very little sympathy for Pakistani film and TV artistes who are calling for a ban on the import of Indian films.

What are they to be replaced with? The so-called Lollywood is a creatively bankrupt entity, and it has been an empty shell long before Indian films were even allowed to be shown in our cinemas. This year on Eidul Azha not a single Urdu film was released. Anyone blaming the exhibition of Indian films in Pakistan for such a downturn is really being a cry-baby. Theirs is a hollow excuse, conveniently ignoring the fact that both creatively and commercially Pakistani cinema never did recover from the slump its fortunes started to experience ever since the early 1980s. The reasons were many: The Zia-ul-Haq dictatorships illogical censor policies; the invasion of the VCR; and the sudden erosion of any worthwhile directorial and acting talent in the industry.

Of course, attempts were made to supposedly revive local cinemas lost glory, but they ended up with one-hit-wonders that simply did nothing to substantiate the proudly trumpeted claims of a revival. What Ms Odho and the likes conveniently minus from their rhetorical equation is the importance of having good cinema halls and multiplexes. Their survival is vital in both the cultural as well as economic context. Cinemas started to be turned into gaudy shopping arcades and parking lots once Pakistani films began their creative and commercial decline, and today their survival is squarely dependent on the influx of Indian films and Hollywood blockbusters simply because Lollywood has absolutely nothing worth offering. There has been a clear lack of talent in the industry for a long time.

The cultural reasons being given by the detractors of Indian content on TV and in cinemas is at best surreal. The worst in this case has something do with Indian films and TV soaps supposedly “spoiling the moral fabric and minds of young Pakistanis.” Such talk seems rather bizarre especially when it comes from “modern” and glittery TV and film personalities. Its quite a sight watching them mouth the sort of “concerns” that have otherwise been the rhetorical calling card of the loud clergy and rightwing religious parties. With the kind of power that is now on a young persons fingertips, thanks to the anarchic proliferation of all the goodies the information age has to offer (Internet, dozens of channels, etc.), old fashioned conservatism in this respect is certainly a lost cause as a way to try to control who is watching what.

Secondly, when the detractors bring into play expressions like “our culture” and “Islamic morals” and how they are “in danger” from the Indian entertainment onslaught, this is a fairly reactionary and defeatist argument, really. What this is actually proving is that whatever it is that they call “our culture,” is no more than an overtly suspicious and frail concoction that cannot withstand competition, and that either it has more to do with the detractors own creative insecurities, or worse, their wholesale absorption of what the religious parties and the state of Pakistan have been peddling in the name of “culture” and “ideology.” Lastly, I think the detractors should be more concerned about obscenity on TV that has little to do with “Hindu culture” or quivering seductive bodies.

This obscenity has to do with the scores of characters we see on our TV screen spouting utter hatred and demagogic misconceptions about history and religion. Good entertainment, as well, but I’d settle for a Karina Kapoor and Sharukh Khan dance duet rather than a combusting “item number” involving a hip-hop “religious” scholar and a born-again Pakistani.

The full article is available at: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/columnists/nadeem-f-paracha-cry-babies-arent-they-329

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