how the world sees america

Bollywood Chaos over Hollywood Dreams

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Clash of movie star cultures: Hollywood star Richard Gere got into serious local trouble for kissing Bollywood's Shilpa Shetty in April.
Mumbai - "A Bombay [performer] wouldn't dream of world fame. But an American in Los Angeles would," says Shubra Swaroop, an aspiring independent screenwriter in India who got her master's degree at CalArts just outside LA. She's listened to the dreams of film-star-wannabees in both India and America, and chooses India to pursue her own.

At age 25 after completing a master's in literature in Bombay University, she decided to join her high school boyfriend, an aspiring filmmaker in America. She applied for creative programs in California on a hunch that she wanted to be a writer, like her poet mother. It was her first time out of the house and she expected "to feel more maladjusted than I was." But she "loved the freedom of it." The "education system in India is more stifling" but in America she found she could "create her own path; the professors asked me to use my head, not tell me what was right…The system allows you to experiment with what you want to do."

She did have to adjust: she was used to the "larger-than-life characters," stark contrasts and "loud emotions" of Indian movies. In California she adapted to a "more subtle" U.S. style. At the same time, she adopted some of the professional expectations of Los Angeles, putting her manuscripts in a "particular format, particular script, particular font, typed in a certain way." It was part of the systematic industry she saw in America. "It's definitely far more professional in Hollywood, run by corporate houses and executives…Here it's more chaotic."

But the opportunities made possible by this chaos -- compared to the rigidity of Hollywood -- along with her natural affinity for India and some post-9/11 visa delays led her to return to India to make a name for herself. She wrote a novel in America but hasn't published it yet. And she's now writing screenplays and editing others in Mumbai.

Unlike LA, "Money is here in smaller pockets, often controlled in more personal sorts of ways, not by big production houses" so production happens much faster, more often, and more spread out over a larger area with more newcomers. The industry here produces twice as many pictures as the U.S. does, she points out.

"A middle-range actor here can create a production house. And if the middle-range actor does one small film that does well, he's made it." There's more "room for an individual to make it very big." Whereas in America, smaller independent houses have been "bought up by Warner Brothers and Independent, made part of the system, but here there doesn't seem to be a system in Mumbai; it's unpredictable that way."

Mumbai "chaos" versus a Los Angeles "system," she says. She chose the former because she's Indian, because of race, because of family, because of patriotism, and most importantly because of opportunity. It's tough to break into the industry here too, often controlled by nepotism and underhanded deals, but she's confident about the future as the industry grows.

She explains: India's movie market is segregated primarily by language, not yet as carefully by audience demographic or subject-matter. Indeed, if you go anywhere in this country, you'll see lots of huge movie houses with thousands of seats, but few smaller ones, and fewer multiplexes with many screens (although those are now appearing in shopping malls).

The demand for formulaic films in different languages is still high, she says. But as more multiplex theaters arrive, theater owners have an incentive to try to play different types of films, Shubra believes. She also thinks that as the chaos orders itself, there'll be more money for independent pictures, which she hopes to make.

Right now, she worries that people are scrambling to make the big pictures. She hasn't sold her scripts in a major way yet; they often address more serious issues of struggles in Kashmir or existential questioning. Not the stuff of Bollywood screens.

Experimentation in Mumbai, she feels, in currently undervalued. "There's a formula here, just as there is in the U.S." It's fine, she says, and India has an incredibly rich history in filmmaking, but she just hopes that as the Indian film industry moves from "chaos to a system" it will create room for her own experimentation, without costing her the opportunities as a newcomer that today's chaos provides.

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Comments (7)

BV:

Bollywood pictures are piece of junk for educated balanced thinking individuals. Unfortunatly the producers cater to their core audience. The ignorant mass is there in great numbers in developed countries as well. The dualistic thinking ignorant mass in developed world accuse Bollywood of song and dance ( Although song and dance is the only thing in those movies, that could be charecterized as entertainment). What disturb me most about many Bollywood movies is their disturbed version of morality. Unsophisticated morality was prevalent in US too, but most of it was in distant past. It troubles me the eye for an eye, hand for a hand morality is good as long as the guy/gal doing it is good looking!!. The bad looking folks using the same morale for different reasons is villified!! I guess that works in sophisticated cultures too!!!

Haifal:

India has its own tradition of story telling that very much connects song and narrative; Bollywood draws on this. It is unfair to talk of evolution; there is a different narrative structure at work in Bollywood, and some supreme works can come from it

Also, the cinematography in Bollywood films is bar none the best in the world.

JT:

That's because movies remains a major outlet for the music industry in India to publish their talent. In the US, they produce proprietary videos to go along with songs. There, the songs (most of them, not all) are probably produced first (or while a movie is in production) and then the video scenes are produced as a part of the movie. Agreed that it looks strange to a third party watching those movies. Hell, it looks pretty strange even to most Indians after they grow up, because those are not real life scenarios. But it is what it is, and as long as the public continues to buy it, it will stay that way.

There used to be many movies produced in Hollywood which had similar song and dance sequences decades ago. Eventually they faded out because the demand faded. Same thing will happen in Bollywood. It takes time for cultures to evolve.

Anonymous:

Why they make all movies into a musical? The characters in the movie all break out to "song and dance" for no reason at all. It is very hard for international cinema viewers to understand.

JT:

I agree, but the problem is that our opinions are not a majority. Let's face it - majority in India likes those kind of movies. It's a perfectly valid, market-driven system, whether you or I like it or not. I liked it when I grew up there, may be because I didn't know better. I don't like it any more, but I can see why others growing up there continue to like it. Over time, the masses there will be exposed to enough external art, and force the producers to make better movies. Until then, we have to deal with it and live with only one or two great movies a year which are worth watching in our opinions.

Anish:

Amen Vijay. Give me a good, entertaining, movie without crappy songs and the typical love-triangle-with-a-villain-and-an-evil-step-mother story line - and then I'll actually start watching Bollywood!

Vijay:

Most Bollywood films are crass, over emotional, copied pieces of junk.

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