Sunday, May 14, 2006

What is wrong with Bollywood? [UPDATED May 18, 2006]

In response to this discussion (like all my favorite discussions, about art, philosophy, and Hindi cinema -- not in that order!):

At the risk of gross (and perhaps crude) oversimplification, let us take two "works of art": Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings and the Ajanta caves. Stripped to the bones, both are paintings on walls/roofs. One indubitably represents the work and vision of one man, even if aided by dozens of people under him; the other is the product of centuries of artistic expression, worked on by generations of artists and artisans over a period spanning several centuries, such that the notion of "authorship" when it comes to the Ajanta cave paintings is absurd. It's not about "better" or "worse" (both are widely considered unsurpassed works of art); yet only the Sistine Chapel paintings may properly be considered a "work of art" in the traditional Western sense. With the Ajanta cave paintings the "line" between "art" and "(mere?) culture" is blurred, such that one might just as soon call the Ajanta cave art a cultural tradition as a work of art (one reason why ideally I think one ought to, if one were speaking of the Sistine Chapel paintings and Ajanta art in the same breath, speak of both as being (rather than great "works of art") at the summit of artistic expression.

Why do I raise the above in the context of this discussion? Because, taking the above (provisional) distinction as a paradigm, I would not equate the "traditional dishes conjured at home" with lack of originality; rather, the "traditional dishes conjured at home" represent cooking as a creative process, just as the work of the master chef does, but in a different way. In the former, at its most extreme the cooking is seen as an activity that comes naturally (often problematically, as something that is natural to women)-- to the point where many traditional cooks will deny that they are doing anything different ("this is the way it is made"); individual differences nevertheless seep in-- hence we are able to say that one cook is simply better than another, even though both are making the same dish and have no intention of making a new dish.

I am obviously simplifying for the sake of discussion, but I think the hundreds of films that were traditionally made around a similar set of themes, represent a certain artistic tradition (a different one from that focused on the "new" work birthed from the brain of one author), not lack of creativity. If the individualized "difference" that the tradition needs to survive (in the sense that the recurrence that the tradition needs to survive cannot be "mere" repetition) is not interesting enough, not distinctive enough, or not creative enough, the tradition stagnates. That is perhaps what happened to traditional Bollywood cinema by the end of the 1980s and the 1990s (Sunny Deol violent action film, part 46), but at its best the tradition represented great artistic creativity, without any pretensions to "originality" in the sense of "nothing like this has been done before": Mansoor Khan's Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and J.P. Dutta's Yateem are two striking examples.

What we have today in Bollywood is intellectual bankruptcy, i.e. a failure to appreciate both what makes the traditional paradigm, and what makes the Western paradigm, "great". Today, most of Bollywood's leading lights confuse several logically distinct propositions, with the result that Hollywood (its own intellectual bankruptcy notwithstanding) is held up as the "model" of progress, modernity, and "daring" cinema, and the "native" tradition is itself seen as the problem. Yet making films "like" Hollywood does has come to mean merely ripping off American films (and not just American; Sanjay Gupta's recent Zinda was a remake of Park's Korean Oldeuboi), and arming oneself with a pose and, all too often, an aura of self-righteousness. The detestable Ram Gopal Verma at least has the virtue of honesty: he's open in his desire to kill (what he terms) song-and-dance cinema. But others are guilty of the same sort of muddled thinking. Thus when someone asks Rakesh Roshan why he's making Krrish, he doesn't speak of the great business opportunity this represents (a perfectly respectable answer), nor does he simply speak of a story that needed to be told, of something that was left unfinished at the end of Koi Mil Gaya: he tends to also respond with lines like "Even in the West they make sequels." No kidding.

Put differently, these contemporary filmmakers are unoriginal even in their lack of originality, seeking to preserve the "replication" urge of the old ways, all the while consigning those old ways to the dustbin. But the bar is now different, and they have been found wanting. I might sound harsh, but that is the game they have chosen to play (by contrast, no-one could legitimately criticize Mansoor Khan or JP Dutta with being thematically unoriginal since that was never their aim; whether consciously or not, they were marching to the beat of a different drummer, more accurately to the beat of a different tradition of drumming). The contemporary attitude is: we need to make violent, sci-fi, sexually explicit, whatever-the-hell sort of films "because Hollywood does." I have nothing against any of these genres (I have a certain taste for them myself), but these filmmakers seem to believe they can blithely discard the traditional gameboard while at the same time adhering to the traditional dispensing of "originality" in the Western sense. "Daring" and modern cinema at no cost. It doesn't work that way, and they can't have it both ways.

[Note: I stress again that when I use words like "originality", "tradition" etc. I am using these terms in a provisional sense to make a point, and not because I believe these terms to have a stable meaning that cannot be further interrogated. For instance, even the work that purports to be utterly original must of necessity owe a debt to a tradition (indeed, many traditions). Take the Taj Mahal: it is undoubtedly sui generis, but it is also recognizably heir to the same architectural and philosophical traditions one sees at work in Humayun's tomb in Delhi, or Itmad-ud-Daulah's tomb in Agra.
Nor do I wish to present my comments above as an illustration of some "essential" East-West/Orient-Occident dichotomy. The Sistine Chapel/Ajanta cave examples could be "flipped" to (for instance) the Taj Mahal/France's Chartres cathedral, and the same point made, except this time the shoe would be on the "other" foot, in that one might say of the Taj Mahal what one said of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel magnum opus, that it represents the oeuvre and vision of one man, even if the labor of many others (conversely, to attribute the Chartres cathedral in totality to "one architect" would be unjust). Put differently, I was trying to simplistically represent two different artistic registers, not to say that the difference could easily-- or even should-- be mapped onto an Indian/"Western" divide.]


Masale.Wallah said...

Great post! Discovered your blog through Sepoy's and plan to be a regular visitor, henceforth.

Qalandar said...

Thanks! Hope to see you here more often...