Always About the Spectacle
Almost after every Bollywood screening, I am bound to hear some unflattering remarks being passed off amongst the crowd, about how bad something is, bitching about the beautiful stars (from members of the opposite sex) sharing the latest gossip, or just plain slamming a film that it's an unauthorized copy of something, even if I felt there were merits to the film, or that I fell in love with it heads over heels. Then Shekhar Kapur, producer of the documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, who is in town to grace the ScreenSingapore event and here to present the film, shared an insight, that though Bollywood as a genre may be absurd, it still received a lot of love. And I thought this probably accounted for the massive box office takings some films achieved both domestically within India, and worldwide, even though the Masala formula gets milked time and again.
To try and explain a Bollywood film, or one's love for it (at least for me) to non Bollywood fans, is a futile attempt and exercise likely to lead to exasperation. One of the primary reasons why people get put off, or why they semi-mock the films, are the massive song and dance sequences that can be inserted quite randomly (not all the time though), bringing the audience to far fetched fantasy locales overseas touting the best scene scapes in Switzerland or Scotland, or Singapore even, or creating a catchy number just to have the most recent up and coming starlet gyrate to it, and produce yet another infectious, easily replicated dance routine in clubs. Get past this misconception about the coconut trees, and one will see the light at the end of the tunnel, that Bollywood films have sprawling dramatic storylines often to deal with love and passion, and the song and dance sequences the mere spice to flavour up the main course.
For those watching this documentary with the hopes of getting an introduction into the Hindi film market based out of Mumbai (previously Bombay, which gave rise to its Bollywood monicker), then your hopes may be a little bit dashed because this documentary, after its first few minutes where you may think you're in for an intellectual discourse from academics, researchers, critics and the man on the street, is anything but chock full of talking heads providing their respective insights. You don't get that, and neither will you probably be enlightened by the time the movie ends. It is not that film to try and educate, but it is that film to experience.
It was a deliberate decision to have two directors attached to what I would call the best-of montage series of Bollywood musical sequences from films in the last 40 to 50 years, and it's fairly updated given clips from hits like Dabangg, and Dum Maaro Dum even with Deepika Padukone performing the remake of the titular song, which gratefully for this documentary I got to watch snippets of the original performance from an earlier film that looked really kinky too with plenty of drug induced almost-slumber in a beat that's of total opposites to the updated version. Producer Shekhar Kapur roped in both Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Jeff Zimbalist to helm the film, one obviously familiar with Bollywood, while the other obviously quite not, to try and make sense of all the sights, sounds, colour, choreography, that encompass a typical Bollywood film.
So what do you get? A very smart teasing opening of the song Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se, to bits of the energetic number from Dhoom, and it continued like a roller coaster ride of songs, songs, and more songs, together with dances from most of the big name Bollywood stars, in scenes lifted from Bollywood films to provide a musical montage where one's senses of sight and hearing got engaged in a full frontal assault. It's like the perfect Bollywood pill to try and force feed an audience not bred on Bollywood, like a full blown psychedelic brain washing technique to try and drum out the “I can't understand why Bollywood films have song and dance” thought process, to attempt to showcase what anyone not watching a Bollywood film regularly, would be missing. For those who have watched these films on showcase before, it becomes a nostalgic trip down memory lane on some of the moments that would have probably served as hook, line and sinker that got one addicted to its kinetic energy.
In deciding upon this presentation, it is likely to come with extreme responses – those who enjoy watching the film and enjoy it even further, those who hate it because of its lack of insights, and then the new converts who will find it quite a blast to want to find out more. I suppose the effort here through this film is to reach out to would-be converts who are apprehensive in tackling another genre, the fence-sitters who need an additional push before plunging headlong into a vastly new experience that Hindi, or Indian cinema for that matter, provides.
But if touted as a documentary, I would have appreciated it a lot more if there were little unobtrusive subtitles that will introduce the title of the song, the title of the film and probably to educate who the bevy of stars are each time they come on screen. Granted it may look a little MTV style in presentation, but therein lies the educational component, that anyone interested to know what song is currently played, or the movie it is featured in, can do so post-screening at their own time to find out more. Providing a little assistance goes a long way, and doing so is akin to marketing a Bollywood film through its songs and soundtrack first and foremost. I won't claim to know a lot, and these markers in a superb collective film like this one serving as a route map and showreel, will definitely help.
Then there's the documentary narrative structure which was a little bit too loose. At times I can sense that it's trying to group its musical segments into themes such as Hero, or Villain, or Beauties, Politics, and the likes, but the delivery and outcome was something left to be desired, possibly because the editors could have been clueless about the context in which the musical segments were taken out from, or that trying to force fit disparate ones together may have backfired. But thematic grouping may help an audience, especially those not in tuned with its presentation style, to understand the narrative importance that these numbers bring to the table.
To some it may be a genre best left untouched, but to others a religion filled with glamorous, worshipped demigods. Bollywood is something to be experienced, where truly it's to follow your heart and not your head, to go with your desire to want something fantastical and larger than life from your cinema. I'm certainly in that camp.