Newsweek Rebuttal

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Once again, I find myself stepping up to defend Bollywood from the stereotypes thrown around by the Western media. This time, the culprit is Newsweek magazine with this article called “Bollywood Gets Real” by Jason Overdorf.

The crux of his argument is that Bollywood is ditching the candy-floss mass entertainers for grittier fare and he uses the success of Kaminey and Dev.D to back up his argument. The article is illustrated with a picture of the (white) Kalki Koechlin dolled up as the prostitute Chandra in Dev.D.

First of all, let me list out the highest grossing Bollywood films of 2009 so far and their genres for you, just to give a sense of perspective.

1. Love Aaj Kal – modern romance
2. Wanted – Southie masala remake
3. Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani – straight up Bollywood romance
4. New York – middlebrow thriller
5. Kambakkht Ishq – raunchy masala comedy
6. All the Best – clean masala comedy
7. Blue – action

Bear this in mind as Mr. Overdorf discusses what he thinks about the new trend in Bollywood.

My interpretation of the Newsweek piece is that Mr. Overdorf feels like finally Bollywood is putting out movies that he understands. And then Mr. Overdorf confuses “accessible to Western audiences” with “good.”

Here is Mr. Overdorf on Kaminey:

“But for aficionados of the Hindi-language genre, Kaminey is a revolutionary manifesto. It takes classic Bollywood tropes—estranged brothers, a case of mistaken identity, high drama approaching slapstick comedy — and presents them with Hollywood-style realism instead of Bollywood’s wink-nudge mix of melodrama and posturing. At the same time, Bhardwaj makes clear that he sees Kaminey as a counterpoint to the terrible films Bollywood has churned out over the past two decades.”

First of all, grouping all Hindi language films into a single genre – the “Hindi-language genre” as he helpfully calls it – reduces the cinematic output of the varied parallel and popular film houses of Mumbai to a single type of film. This means that Pakeezah and Dhoom 2 are the exact same type of film for Mr. Overdorf: Hindi language.

Calling Kaminey a revolutionary manifesto also shows a glaring ignorance of recent Bollywood films, as Johnny Gaddar covered much of the same ground in 2007, as did Parinda in 1989.

And I would like to know how many of these so-called “terrible” films Mr. Overdorf has actually seen. What are the cultural politics at play when an American writer can dismiss two decades of Bollywood cinema as “terrible” without presenting his credentials to make that call? Mr. Overdorf seems to feel that just because Bollywood has put out films that he doesn’t understand, it makes them bad films. But does the industry that churned out not one but TWO Transformers movies plus a movie based on the comic strip Garfield really have all that much clout in calling every single Bollywood film from the last twenty years “terrible”?

Back to Mr. Overdorf:

“For years, as competition from satellite television and Hollywood has hardened audiences to the old formulas, Bollywood producers and directors have been striving to create a new idiom that retains the charm of the genre’s classics but is fresh enough to pack theaters. With a few exceptions, they’ve failed.”

What data is he using to justify this statement? Every film from the last twenty years has flopped? I’m assuming Mr. Overdorf didn’t attend any of the packed screenings of Om Shanti Om at his local Indian movie theatre. And talking about revitalizing old formulas, what do you call the Saif Ali Khan genre? Hum Tum, Love Aaj Kal, etc. etc. have basically changed how romantic comedy is done. There could have been no Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (#3 this year) without Hum Tum.

Says Mr. Overdorf:

“But now a new crop of young directors, led by Bhardwaj, is reinventing the Bollywood film. Their movies still have songs, but the characters no longer lip-sync, and the dance sequences have a natural, unchoreographed feel. They’ve scrapped the cheesy multicolored costumes and are more likely to set their films on gritty streets than in glamorous mansions.”

First of all, there have always been movies like this in Bollywood. This isn’t some new trend. From Kora Kagaz to the aforementioned Parinda to the recent Black & White, Bollywood has never been afraid to make films that are a bit more realistic than the mainstream fare. Mr. Overdorf purposely misunderstands the difference between popular and art house cinema, which is understandable considering that he feels that all Hindi-language films belong to the same genre: the “Hindi-language genre.” If he had actually done some research, he couldn’t have made this generalization.

Remember the top films that I listed at the beginning? With the exception of New York, which is an unusual film, the rest of the top films of 2009 feature lip synced songs, garish costumes, and plenty of rich people who live in mansions. People enjoy those things. It’s like Mr. Overdorf can’t understand that people enjoy things like lip-synced songs, garish costumes, and elaborate mansions without caring if they are realistic or not.

And here, Mr. Overdorf makes things up out of thin air to justify his arguments:

“The new wave of competent, realistic, story-driven films is already beginning to overshadow the big-budget projects at the box office. This year both Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D and Kaminey outperformed Chandni Chowk to China. In 2008, little, innovative flicks like the terror-plot drama A Wednesday and Rock On!, the story of a Mumbai rock band reuniting for one last gig, earned better returns than more conventional Bollywood fare like the superhero action flick Drona.”

Bollywood watchers will remember that both Chandni Chowk to China and Drona were promoted as being close to Hollywood films. Going back and calling them conventional is just outright false. Wanted is a conventional masala film – Drona is not. Drona was hyped as being just like a Hollywood film and as something different from the usual mainstream output. And CC2C was said to “bridge the gap” between Hollywood and Bollywood. Again, these were not conventional films. Ironically, one of the many complaints against CC2C was that the songs were shortened. People would have enjoyed the film much more if it had been made more in the mold of a conventional Bollywood film.

Mr. Overdorf ends on a culturally snobby note:

“Everyone is trying to lay claim to the new Bollywood, whether through feebly acted, poorly written films like A. R. Murugadoss’s Ghajini or savvy hits like Kaminey. But the challenges remain great. ‘The headwind we got on Kaminey was incredible,’ says Screwvala. ‘It took everything we had to keep it going and market it and get it out there.’ It’s the kind of triumphant ending that makes you want to break into song.”

Ghajini, the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, is not good enough for Mr. Overdorf, which shows you exactly what he thinks about Bollywood in general. In Mr. Overdorf’s world – Ghajini, the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, is a joke. And Kaminey, which did very well with the critics and but wasn’t really embraced by the Indian public, is the new face of Bollywood.

This just speaks to the disdain that Western cultural critics, like Mr. Overdorf, have towards things that are popular in other countries. Just because Mr. Overdorf doesn’t understand the appeal of films with lip-synced songs and melodramatic acting, they must be worthless. Because Chandni Chowk to China and Drona flopped, they must be “conventional” films.

Mr. Overdorf, I would like to see the research you did for this piece because it looks to me like you didn’t do any at all.

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