In my last semester as an undergraduate student in Asian Studies, I was introduced to Bollywood through a sociology course on Indian cinema. Until that point, my studies had been on East Asia (specifically Japan), and I really enjoyed Japanese films from the postwar period (Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio, etc.). Because I have never really liked musicals, I didn’t expect to enjoy Bollywood as much as I do. I realize that an instruction manual probably isn’t necessary, but I think that having been introduced to these films in a classroom setting made them easier for me to understand. I’ll share some of the information that helped me to understand and enjoy Hindi film.
- Suspension of disbelief is essential
Films that are based on/grounded in reality are popular in the West. This is probably because film in the West was inspired by the photographic still image (motion picture). For comparison, Japanese film was originally influenced by theatre, so early Japanese films looked like they were shot on a stage. Early Hindi films, however, take their influence from epic religious and mythological texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, so Bollywood films tend to be very dramatic and contain fantastical elements.
The very first Bollywood film that I saw was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) (K3G, for short), and I found it difficult to understand how out of nowhere the characters could be transported via song and dance to the desert. I also wondered how Rahul and Anjali had managed to support themselves in London after being disowned by their family. My professor explained that Indian audiences probably do not ask these questions, as realism isn’t valued in India the way that it is in western cinema (you don’t have to answer these kinds of questions to enjoy the movie). Sometimes fantastic scenes are added without explanation, and we have to accept this in order to follow the story: we have to suspend our disbelief. When I find myself asking these types of questions, I find that they distract me from the film. I remind myself to let go and just watch.
Bollywood movies can be overly dramatic, sometimes even downright cheesy. One example from K3G can be seen when Rahul confesses his love for Anjali to his father. His father’s disapproval of their relationship is highlighted by loud thunderclaps and flashes of lightening (indoors). Each roar of thunder redirects the camera to a nervous and upset Rahul (who is actually trembling). Melodramatic elements like this convey the emotional states of characters and communicate the emotional intensity to the viewer. With each thunderclap we become aware of how these words affect Rahul, rendering further explanation (or response on Rahul’s part) unnecessary. Melodrama is used to summarize emotional states using sound effects, scenery, lighting, etc. The added layer of drama really works on an emotional level: at the end of the film, thirty year old bodybuilders in my class were brought to tears by Rahul’s reunion with his parents.
To enjoy Hindi cinema, we have to accept it for what it is, and not expect it to be something else (American, or Japanese, or…). I apologize if I have spoiled this film for you, but my next point might explain why that shouldn’t bother you too much.
- The outcome is usually predictable
So, if the hero always gets the girl, then what are we watching for? The focus of these films is not what happens, but how it happens. Come along for the ride: it is an emotional roller coaster. Bollywood films tend to be driven by the emotional experience, as opposed to plot and narrative. You know that the main characters fall in love, but if they hate each other during the first hour of the film, how does it happen, and is it believable on an emotional level?
- Song and dance
Song and dance are an important part of Indian culture, as whenever someone sings and dances, they are paying tribute to the Hindu god Saraswati. Song and dance are derived from traditional performance, which is still very much alive in the culture and is, therefore, integral to the film experience (in fact, many films made today are still based on religious texts). Dance sequences, aside from providing music and exotic spectacle (attracting audiences), convey emotional states, reveal social and cultural differences/similarities, and communicate these themes (and others) to the audience, often bridging generational, social, cultural, and linguistic gaps for the viewers (Indian audiences, for just about any given film or genre, tend to be multi-generational and contain people from various ethnic/religious backgrounds, economic classes, etc.).
The love song between Rahul and Anjali in K3G communicates the intensity of the emotional connection between the pair to the audience, replacing the need for an elaborate narrative build up. The rest of the film is about the circumstances surrounding the relationship, so by summarizing the beginning of their relationship with song and dance (in about five minutes), this important part of the larger theme is explained and put into perspective for the audience and the smaller story of how their pair got together does not distract or subtract from the larger theme. When I watched the film in class, the song was not subtitled (which is the case for many older Bollywood films), and in spite of this, communication was not lost: the dance explicitly conveyed the emotions with their complications and all. So, song and dance is sometimes spectacle, and sometimes it is integral to the plot of the film.
- Cultural context
It isn’t necessary to learn about all aspects of India and its peoples before delving into Bollywood. You don’t need to know that the film Devdas (2002) is based on a novel written in 1917 which has been the basis for several other films, or that the Ramayana has influenced just about every Indian love story ever in order to enjoy them. It is interesting to know that Hindi films often work around taboos like sex and sensuality through song and dance (and with the ubiquitous wet sari), but one begins to grasp these things after watching a few films. Just remember that there are some things that you may not know or understand. Try and keep an open mind, and you’ll figure it out.
Now go ahead and give Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham a try!