Bollywood: Frequently Questioned Answers

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Three or four things I now know about Indian movies:

The number of films produced in India these days is closer to 600 than to 1,000. Thanks to the gently persistent James Schumeister, who backs up his claim with stats from Yves Thoraval's book "The Cinemas of India."

The language is Hindi, the religion Hindu. (I already knew that! Why didn't I write that?) Thanks to reader Khelan. (I also know that "Awara" isn't "Aware" and "Mother India" isn't "Mother Earth." On rare occasions my fingers run away with my brain. I've retrieved it now, thanks.)

Jism is the Hindi word for body, not for a body emission. Samira Sarbakhsh of Manhattan admonishes: "The word 'jism' is derived from Old Persian, is pronounced 'jesm' with the 's' and the 'm' pronounced separately, and means 'body.' I find the commentary a bit culturally insensitive in light of the fact that Indians are so conservative as a people." No offense meant: I may have misunderstood my local Indian video-store clerk when he said the word had the same meaning in English and Hindi.

I know nothing about Indian films. How did I finally figure that out? By glancing at a Chat area on bollyWHAT.com. Quite a few correspondents were annoyed by my mostly complimentary remarks about their national cinema. (What if I'd hated it? Would they have noticed the difference?) The gentlest remark, in response to my writing that my wife didn't think much of the choreography in one number I showed her, was from Kalpana: "I would like to see Richard Corliss and his wife attempt to dance like SRK [Shahrukh Khan] and Aish [Aishwarya Rai] in 'Ishq Kamina' before commenting on their dancing." (Note to Kalpana: Mary C. dances like a dream, Richard C. like a bad one.)

Among those who wrote directly to me, I received only one BollyWHAT-style excoriation, from Sanjay Gang of Boston: "Your recent column, while attempting to be cutesy, comes across as yet another tired old repackaging of the cows, caste and curry stereotype of India." The rest — 70 or so, a veritable Bollywood blizzard for this column — were much kinder, often lengthy, always informed and informative. I thank you all for sharing your Bollywisdom with an outsider. And now I will exploit your good nature by sharing your acuities with our other readers. And next time — the last time — I will get to the Bollywood Ten lists of actors, writers, composers, movies, etc.



Let's recap the 10 FAQs:

1. Why are Indian movies so long?

Mehboob Khan's "Aan" was one of the few Indian films of the 50s to get a released in English theaters. This Eastman Color swashbuckler, with Dilip Kumar (in his smiling, not soulful mode) as a Hindi Douglas Fairbanks, is a relatively brisk, buoyant affair. Yet a London reviewer couldn't resist sniding, "It goes aan and aan and aan."

I don't think Indian films are boring, but there's no question they run 30 to 60 (to 90!) mins. longer than the average movie from America, France, Mexico, Hong Kong or Burkina Faso. The simple answer, I suppose, is that they are longer by the amount of song material. But there must be something in the Indian entertainment appetite that wants a full evening's masala.

In my column, I wondered, jocularly, whether Indians were "length freaks." The acerbic Mr. Gang replied by asking, "By whose standard? Hollywood's? Maybe its the other way — maybe it is Americans who have a limited attention span. Without the obligatory sex scene every 15 min, Hollywood movies would be hard pressed to go over 60 min." Well, I'd say Hollywood films have too much smirking and too little sex, but that's for another discussion.

2. Why don't the characters kiss on the mouth?

The short answers are: (a) Sometimes they do. "In 1983 in Sunny Deol's debut film 'Betaab,'" recalls Rajul Mehta, "kissing scenes reappeared. In the 1990s many Hindi movies had lip-kissing scenes, particularly Aamir Khan's movies (e.g. 'Ishq'). In fact he is supposed to have kissed the maximum number of his co-stars."

...and (b): Mostly, Indians don't. As Arvind Kumar of the Indic Journalists Association International, "You won't see public display of affection in public in India even off-screen."

3. Why do the characters have to sing and dance?

"Subtlety is not one of the strengths of Indian commercial cinema," Indu of Asian STAR TV. "If a person is happy, just a grinning face or even ecstatic dialogues don't seem to be enough to express the happiness. So, we resort to songs that make the message loud and clear that, yes, we are thrilled about something. Same logic for confused, mad, sad or love. Maybe it's not real — after all, who breaks out in sychronised dances with 40 extras when one is happy? But it's a characteristic of Indian cinema."

I've written elsewhere that movies give audiences what they don't have. In the U.S., an economically comfortable nation, films often deal with life on the edge: danger and deprivation are glamorous to those who have everything. The same, upside down, applies in India: it's a poor country, so the movie image is of the middle, upper-middle and fabulously-rich classes. As Abhishek Pandey e-loquizes: "More than 999 million of India's one billion people live a life that is completely opposite of what we all see on the screen. Hardly any will marry for true love or have a chance to frolic on the beaches of their own country, let alone a Caribbean or a European country. So, Bollywood gives them what they can't rationally have — dancing, singing, and beautiful women included."

4. Why don't the actors sing?

"Because they can't," is the curt response of e-mailer Sribuddaraju. "Actresses are mainly used as props for glamour in the male-dominated film industry." Another point is that India has a wonderful tradition of vocalists; movies would be nuts not to use them as playback singers.

I was wrong in writing that all-time playback diva Lata Mangeshkar had recorded "something between 30,000 and 50,000 songs," Satish Kalra e-mails: "It has been catalogued that she sang no more than 5,067 Hindi songs between the years of 1945 to 1989. Add about 20% songs in other regional languages, and the total could be a little over 6,000. ... Her sister, Asha Bhosle, has sung more songs than Lata, and her total from all languages may be around 10,000." The info, as Bhagwant Sagoo and others pointed out, is from the exhaustive reference work "Hindi Film Geet Kosh" by Harmandir Singh, aka Hamraaz — a multivolume study I plan to buy as soon as I win the Powerball Lottery.

5. Why can't they dance?

I acknowledged that I may be ignorant of the codes underlying Indian dance. And Sunny Singh agrees with me: "You are right — you do miss out on the cultural codes of bhangra, laavni and various other folk dances that are incorporated into the dance numbers in Bollywood. The 'Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham' number 'Shava Shava' echoes the bhangra dancing you would see at many family parties in northern India. That's why it's so popular: it's the way we dance anyway, just glamorized for screen! So it may seem unsophisticated to you, but it works just fine to us." And Arun Kumar, who has translated Gulzar's lyrics for the A.R. Rahman songs from "Dil Se," indicates that "The gestures and movements to the lyrics of the songs are often not translated literally. When the girl says, 'Don't come near me,' she will often make a dismissive gesture, which if the song is not translated properly can be confusing."

Some readers distinguished between male and female actor-dancers. "Many of the original Indian movie actresses came from a background of professional dance and 'dance-drama'," says Ajay Divakaran of Cambridge, Mass. "Even the acting was visibly influenced by the expressions developed in Indian Classical Dance. Even today Indian actresses are often trained dancers. Most dance teachers in India are male, but they are seen as some kind of aberration. So Indian actors are typically untrained and it shows in their dancing. The Indian classical dance purists are of course horrified by Indian film dances. They see them as bastard products."

Some great terpers: the Tamil stars Prabhu Deva and Kamal Hassan (trained as a dancer), Hindi hunk Hrithik Roshan (and yes, Sri Jan, I have seen "Kaho Naa Pyar Hai" — he move fine). "I think Travolta was terrible compared to Shah rukh Khan," assertive Adnan Khan maintains, "and in 'Mudjse Dosti Korage' Hrithik Roshan does a moonwalk that mo white Western musical dancer could dream of doing! Hey, Mexicans aren't the only browned-skinned people with rhythm!"

6. Why are the actors usually light-skinned, even in films from Southern India?

The hot-button issue, with most of my correspondents on the same side. Some readers, often Tamil residents or fans of Tamil and Telugu films (in southern India), listed several stars of darker hue. Sourabh Gupta points out: "Though fair actors might be favored by the producers of the movies, the masses seem to care less. Ajay Devgan ... Manoj Bajpa ... Suniel [Sunil] Shetty, Rajnikanth, and even Mithuh Chakarvathy were all stars. even if they weren't fair skinned. The elitist in India might have the conception that fair is beautiful, but I think masses will love anyone who can act or represents them."

But the majority agreed that the stars on the screen are lighter-skinned than most of the people watching them. It's not just a movie preoccupation. "You'll find every girl in India trying to make herself more fair-skinned than she is by every cream possible," observes Arun Mani. "Hence all the skin care products in India are designed to match the mindset by advertising to give a lighter skin. I am pretty sure most people in India don't know what the word 'tanning' means Mothers don't let their daughters out the sun, lest they will get dark skins. And guys in India always think the basic requirement for a girl to be beautiful is that she should be fair! So white-skinned people in India think they are good-looking. If you look at south Indian movies, the actor might be dark-skinned; but the actress will be light-skinned." Often they are imported, as Madras' ace auteur Mani Rathnam did with the Nepali actress Manisha Koirala.

The prejudice could be a vestige of the caste system: "In general, the lighter the skin color of an Indian, the higher social class that person is perceived to have," says Risha Patel. "It is thought that the darker individuals must have been through multiple hardships — e.g., works in the sun — which causes them to have a darker complexion." Or it could be a hangover from the Raj and earlier colonizers of the subcontinent. "There are plenty of dark skinned actors and actresses, especially in South Indian movies," observes Sribuddaraju, "but they are made up to look fairer than usual due to the age long discrimination against dark skin in favor of light-skinned 'superior' races that invaded and settled down in India throughout the ages."

Beauty is power, power beauty. Is light considered right because it is the color of the dominant class or caste? Or do the powerful simply get to decide what's attractive? Here's a sad generalization: In Europe, the U.S. and Africa, as well as India, the light-skinned Northerners are the bosses of the dark-skinned Southerners. "Shade-ism," prejudice based on skin gradients, exists everywhere, as attested to by this poignant tale from Tammy, an adoptive mother in the U.S.:

"Having two beautiful Indian daughters, one with medium skin and one with dark, I can tell you that there is prejudice based on skin gradients in India, including southern India where my girls are from. I saw it when I was there in 1994 to pick up my lighter-skinned daughter. "You are so lucky to be getting her" they told me, as the caregivers ignored my companion's darker- skinned child. Mallika was spoiled in the orphanage. They would rarely put her down. They were so loving to her that they didn't really let me be with her until we left for Madras.

"A few years later we adopted Maya from the same orphanage. She came to us with all the signs of neglect. She had no expression and no muscle-tone in her legs. She swayed to pass the time and even though she was the same age upon her arrival as Mallika, couldn't talk or walk. A few weeks after her arrival she began to thrive because she actually had someone to cuddle her and love her now. We have her in special education programs to make up for the 16 months of little brain development. (The first two years of brain development are crucial to the intellect of the person.) I don't know if we will ever get her to the point that she could have been at had we gotten her right away. Interestingly, we have not found this type of prejudice in our country. Many more people remark on how beautiful Maya is. We have even been approached by a catalog photographer who wanted to photograph her.  

"When I was in Kerala I photographed a scene of dark-skinned Indians in line in front of a movie billboard depicting all light-skinned actors. As a social studies teacher I talk to my students about it. I love India but there is a little piece of me that will always hold them responsible for any future problems that Maya might have."

7. What's with those kooky credits?

"All credits start off with the image of a god / goddess and a prayer," proclaims the all-knowledgeable Sribuddaraju. "Raj Kapoors films start off with [his father] Prithviraj Kapoor praying to Shiva before the shot takes one to RK Studios' emblem, that of Raj Kapoor holding Nargis" in the famous attitude (and poster) from "Barsaat." Sribuddaraju avers that star billing is determined by a mixture of seniority and popularity. But I'll stick by my story that, in the 50s at least, age often came before beauty (Prithviraj was top-billed above Nargis and Raj Kapoor In "Awara"), and female before male (Mala Sinha, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman all were listed above Guru Dutt in the films Dutt directed and starred in). Raj Kapoor exercised an ostentatious modesty, taking his actor billing in "Jagte Raho" below a few dozens stars and bit players — exactly as Orson Welles did in the credits for "Citizen Kane."

But why are the credits in the colonial language? "English credits are not a surprise," instructs Mukul Bakshi of San Francisco, who disputes my claim (taken off an internet chat site, so it must be true!) that only two to three percent of Indians read English. "If you visit, you will notice that most shop-fronts, road signs, bus routes, etc. are in English. So too, are film credits, posters, etc. When I lived in New Delhi, and was creative director at J. Walter Thompson, all the advertising I created was in English. There are 14 English daily newspapers in that city (there is only one in San Francisco). About 55% of the population is literate. Of that, about 80% went to what in India are called English Medium schools, where all subjects are taught in English, starting from first standard. That means over 400 million people read and write English, and that makes India the world's largest English-speaking country."

8. What's the Hindi word for "plagiarism"?

The standard Indian film review will tell you which U.S. movies the new Indian was "inspired by." Critiques of "Koi... Mil Gaya," the Rakesh and Hrithik Roshan sci-fi thriller that opened around the world last week, noted the film's similarity to "E.T.," "Forrest Gump," "Big" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." With Bollywood movies now getting the occasional reviews in U.S. newspapers, Indian producers have to worry that they'll catch unwanted attention from Hollywood lawyers. They've already caught hell at home. In May the Indian Supreme Court banned the 260-episode TV drama "Karishma: The Miracles of Destiny" (starring Karishma Kapoor) because it was too close to U.S. novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of Substance" trilogy.

Opines Ashok Talwar: "I have never heard 'The Magnificient Seven' being labeled plagiarism." True, that remake of "The Seven Samurai" took no official notice of Akira Kurosawa's original. Neither did "A Fistful of Dollars," a remake of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo." In the 30s, Hollywood remade European hits — "Intermezzo," "Pepe le Moko" (as Casbah") —and in 1994 four U.S. pictures ("True Lies," "Intersection," "Mixed Nuts" and My Father, the Hero") were, bizarrely, remakes of French movies, as was last year's "Unfaithful." But all these were acknowledged, paid for.

I am sure there is some difference that I don't understand. One factor to consider is that Indian film industry is exposed to Hollywood but there is little exposure in the other direction. When people see something they like they tend to adapt it. I see a lot of copying of fashion and influence on popular music from India in the U.S., but it is seldom acknowledged. Even the Indians don't make any issue out of it.

Bharath Chari blames it on the creative bosses: "The script writers in India do have original ideas but most of time are browbeaten by the producers or filmmakers into lifting entire plots word for word from popular movie in the U.S. They are even given instructions as to which movie to choose." OK, but how do they usually get away with their purloining? As e-mailer Manyam wrily explains, "that's homage to our copyright system: we have none."

Then there's the piquant proposition that intellectual property is theft. "While [the uncredited remake of another film] is crass and proof of lack of creativity, using the word 'thieving' in this context is wrong," argues Arvind Kumar. "It is those who use violence and cage those who imitate others using Government resources who hate the idea of liberty. The so called intellectual property rights (patents as well as copyrights) are a violation of one's intellectual liberty." Those of you who have been downloading "Finding Nemo" and bootlegging Eminem CDs: remember that argument when your case comes to trial. It might work.

Well, if there's anything original about Indian films, it has to be the music. Think otherwise. Suresh Ramasubramanian asserts that it's "not just the movies but a lot of Indian film songs are knockoffs of anything from Classical and Opera to Rock and Pop." He recommends, as I do, a site on "inspired" Indian films songs. Though, honestly, at least one of A.R. Rahman's songs must have come out of his own head, not an obscure CD that these musicologists have tracked down.

9. Tell me about non-Bombay Indian cinema.

Lots of mail here, mostly about the blooming (not, apparently, withering, as I indicated) southern Indian film centers. "May be u havent stepped in to the tamil movies any further than AR rahman's music," shorthands Vivek, "because u have missed the tamil movies biggest star Rajnikanth (and if u dig deeper u get more)." Vivek was one of seven Bollywood e-ducators who spoke highly of Rajnikanth. It happens that my Tamil film scholarship is pretty much limited to Rahman's music and Rathnam's films; Mani's "Dalapathi" starred Rajnikanth, and I was impressed — though, not knowing Tamil, I may have missed a few dialogue subtleties. By the way, as Prabu Parthasarathy (and several other readers) informed me, "Tamil moviedom is dubbed Kollywood because most of the studios, labs, etc. are in a suburb of Madras called Kodambakkam."

It's a big movie world out there, requiring much dedication. "I would recommend you give yourself a few years to checking out the pre-80s Tamil and Malayalam films," my voluble, valued correspondent Nithin advises. "Of course, you want to have a special reason to welcome anything new and different in your mind and heart, and Tamil and Malayalam culture very bountifully provide you with that. Their film creations are borne out of non-aggressive, light-hearted values, a democratic and open-minded approach and, most of all. a classy creative abandon that Hollywood can definitely imbibe to its own utter delight."

Sign me up, Nithin. And find me a place in New York City where I can find lots of old, subtitled Tamil films.

10. Where can you get DVDs?

All the places we mentioned last time, plus some distributors' websites, such as Baba Digital (for a good selection of classics) and the more comprehensive Eros Entertainment (classics, moderns and song compilations). If you're near a theater showing Bollywood product — there are more than you'd think — you can get advance tickets at Sulekha.com, "the #1 Indian online community." For other Dilwale dish, try the news-'n-gossip site indiafm.com, which currently has this morsel: "Rumours are that Aamir Khan might be featured on the cover of TIME Magazine." (If it were true, wouldn't I tell you?)

But Bollywood fever can be stoked any place: where you see movies, where you shop, where you eat. We take testimony from Ohio's Jennie Sexena, a film preservationist for the Library of Congress and, she confesses, "an unapologetic film geek since about the age of 11. So, in July of 1999, when I visited an Indian restaurant/market that also had Bollywood DVDs available, I bit.  My first film was 'Bombay,' my second 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,' and I was a goner. I also took the opportunity to infect my fellow co-workers at the preservation lab. One is now enthusiastic about Hrithik Roshan and another is absolutely bonkers over Shahrukh. ... There is something almost intoxicating about movies that are so emotional and unashamed of it.

"Two years after my initial exposure I was on a plane to visit India. That trip was life altering. ... And now, four years later, I am married to an Indian man and about to give birth any minute (Please!) to a half-Desi little girl. And in true Indian fashion, my husband's parents are living with us right now, although I'm sad to say they will be returning home to India in a couple of months. So I'm an American bahu in a joint family! I often tell my husband that depending on how he feels about his life at any given moment, all praise or curses must be laid on Bollywood!"

So you see how a case of Bollywood fever can lead to wedding bells, and leave the victim with the warm shivers of shaadi-freude.