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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

Bombay Invasion

“Masala movies” arrive in Springfield

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I saw the most popular Indian film of 1997 in an art-deco movie palace in Calcutta. The actors spoke Hindi, and the film wasn't subtitled, but I could still figure out what was going on. That's because the movie Judaai lifted its plot from the Hollywood tearjerker Indecent Proposal.

In Indecent Proposal a billionaire playboy offers a million bucks to spend the night with a happily married woman. Judaai's story is notably similar, except it's played for laughs, with plenty of singing and dancing, and the main characters have switched sexes--this time, a rich woman wants to pay for the companionship of a happily married man. When Judaai's characters finally learn that money can't buy happiness, the audience doesn't seem surprised. The film follows the tried-and-true recipe of Indian commercial cinema: flout tradition, then reaffirm its value. Indecent Proposal becomes decent.

The utter predictability of the film--and its incidental mixture of slapstick, action, and melodrama, laced with bombastic pop songs--explains why a lot of people laugh at the world's most prolific movie industry, though India's mainstream film business, commonly known as Bollywood, has always been in on the joke. Each year dozens of Hindi pictures shamelessly plagiarize Dirty Harry, and most of them include dance numbers. Who expects originality, much less art?

I sensed a change last year after visiting a grocery store on Devon Avenue in Chicago's Little India. The store--one of many mom-and-pop operations in the neighborhood--stocks thousands of videotapes pirated from Indian movies. I was looking for a copy of Lagaan, the first Bollywood film nominated for an Oscar since Mother India 45 years ago, but the store didn't have it. The proprietor directed me to what seemed an unlikely destination: Blockbuster Video.

A crossover hit in the U.K., Lagaan is a genuine Bollywood epic, spanning almost four hours with an intermission. Set in 1893, the film follows a group of impoverished villagers as they learn to play cricket in order to take on a team of British soldiers in a marathon three-day match. The contest is devised by an unusually cruel colonial official, who challenges the villagers to a game they know nothing about after hearing of their complaints against an excessive tax, or "lagaan." If they win the match, he tells them, the lagaan will be dropped for three years; but if they lose, they must pay triple.

The film is a real crowd-pleaser, an often ham-handed good-versus-evil entertainment, recalling an era when moviegoing was an all-ages event. Lagaan has won audience awards at festivals in Locarno and Leeds, and it's earned a few million dollars in the U.S., mostly from limited screenings catering to South Asian immigrants. Now, with the backing of Sony Pictures, Lagaan has landed at the Blockbuster, and many foresee a new boom in Bollywood.

Western markets are fast becoming a major source of revenue for Indian movies, which have always been popular in other parts of Asia, Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. According to the Film Producers Guild of India, revenue from film exports is growing by 50 percent a year, and distributors already make more than a quarter of their total profits overseas. Indian movies routinely open among the top-ten films at the U.K. box office, and nearly every major American city has at least one theater that screens an occasional Bollywood show.

Not surprisingly the big Hollywood studios want to get in on the action, and the Indian government is trying to grease the skids, likening its low-cost, high-skills movie industry to another export success: the information technology business. Universal, Warner, and Fox are reportedly looking to distribute Indian movies, and Sony and Fox want to produce pictures to feed satellite television channels. Production investment in Bollywood movies will jump 70 percent by 2006, predicts Karsten Grummitt of Dodona Research, a U.K.-based company covering the film industry. Though fewer than half of Indian households own a TV, in just ten years India has become the world's third-largest cable market, behind only the U.S. and China.

India actually has several film industries. More than 500 of last year's approximately 800 movies were made in a language other than mainstream Hindi, such as Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Bengali. But the Hindi-language Bollywood, based in Mumbai, is the only industry making more films now than a decade ago.

Outside interest is a relatively recent development, sparked by the success of Bombay, a 1994 Romeo-and-Juliet musical set against the city's Hindu-Muslim riots of the early 90s. That film's director, Mani Ratnam, was already well-known for his Tamil movies, which were later dubbed for the larger Hindi audience. His Nayakan--a retelling of The Godfather (with dance numbers, of course)--launched the career of Bollywood star Kamal Hassan, and Roja--the story of a political kidnapping in Kashmir--became a national success. Bombay was Ratnam's first Hindi movie, and its release was delayed by protests from both Hindu and Muslim groups. A bomb was lobbed into Ratnam's home in Madras (now Chennai), allegedly by mobsters ticked off at the film's depiction of a Muslim woman marrying a Hindu man.

Yet the public turned out to see Bombay, making it a big hit in India and a modest one abroad, and Ratnam was subsequently given his own retrospective at the Toronto film festival. Polygram India sold five million copies of Bombay's soundtrack, encouraging other foreign music companies, such as Sony and EMI, to set up wholly-owned subsidiaries in India. A.R. Rahman, the composer of Roja, Bombay, and Lagaan, wrote the songs for Andrew Lloyd Webber's new stage production, Bombay Dreams, a Bollywood-inspired musical that opened in London last spring.

And now Lagaan lands in Springfield this week for three screenings at the Esquire Theatre. With production and marketing costs skyrocketing in the U.S., it may be only a matter of time before Bollywood invades the local multiplex. If you're interested in seeing the next big thing, now is your chance.

Also from Patrick Arden

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