Sunday, February 11, 2007

Introduction to Bollywood

Our oldest son loaned us a Bollywood DVD. If you don't know anything about Bollywood, it is India's answer to America's Hollywood--the filmmaking studios of Mumbai (formerly Bombay--from whence the "B" in the name).

From what I understand, Bollywood puts out about twice the number of big-budget films as Hollywood does. And Indian films have a unique character: lots of emotion, lots of singing and dancing, no s*x. . . .

Well, now I've seen a bit of it for myself: 3 hours and 40 minutes worth of it or so in the film "Lagaan," starring India's mega-star Aamir Khan.

If you are non-Indian and interested in enjoying a bit of Indian culture, I can't imagine a nicer introduction. Set in 1893 Raj India, it presents an overbearing British captain against common Indian villagers. The captain demands double lagaan--i.e., double taxes. And he does so in a year in which the villagers are overwhelmed, already, with a drought. The villagers, for their part, at the behest of the film's hero, stand up against their British overlords.

Besides being introduced to what seems like a "new" (because unfamiliar/foreign) entertainment form,1 you will enjoy the truly heartwarming story of an underdog hero overcoming those who would persecute him and his people. You'll get to enjoy a foreign game as well, since much of the film centers around cricket.2

I think my favorite parts of the film were all the songs and dances! Truly. So uplifting. The [subtitled] words are beautiful. Far more complex than anything I have heard in modern American songs. The lyrics reminded me, almost all of them, of Psalms from the Bible. After watching the film and imbibing the music and lyrics, I came away thinking I may, actually, understand a bit of ancient Jewish culture better than I did before!

Which reminds me. . . .

Two years ago, when I visited India, several Indian Christians told me how "false" "The Jesus Film" is.

"Why?" I asked.

"Think of it!" they said. "Would God send one solitary angel to visit Mary and announce that she was to bear the Messiah of the world? No! There would be legions of angels with him. And they would be dancing and singing God's praises! . . . It is unimaginable that it could be any other way!"

After watching my first Bollywood movie, I think I can almost see their point!


1 I should note: "Lagaan" exhibits a number of characteristics for which some film-viewers may have to be prepared to forgive apparent "defects." Among them:
  • The songs and dances are obviously lip-synced. Not primarily because the lip-syncing is so awful (it's not); rather . . .
  • When the songs and dances occur out-of-doors (which they almost all do), as the characters shift from speaking to singing, the soundtrack shifts from non-echoed and outdoors-realistic to heavily indoors echo-y.
  • Most characters are simplistic to the point of being cartoonish: the bad character has no redeeming qualities; the hero is beyond human. . . .
  • Male characters exhibit a full range of emotions, including tears--some tears to the point of embarrassment for this American audience member.
  • A number of obvious "impossibilities" occur:
    • Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all get along famously.
    • The hero touches an Untouchable and argues for the Untouchable's acceptance on the "Indian" cricket team--the team heretofore already mentioned, composed of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It takes an impassioned speech on the part of the hero and less than two minutes of brief dialog for all opposition to this otherwise deeply-engrained cultural taboo simply to disappear and the Untouchable--a crippled Untouchable, no less!--is accepted on the team.
    • An English female character who knows no Hindi when she is first introduced becomes an almost fluent Hindi speaker in just a couple of days.
    • The same English female character falls in love with the local Indian hero and all but converts to Hinduism in the space of a few weeks, at most.
  • The English subtitles are hard to read due to horrible--often almost non-existent--spacing. The words, or, I should say, letters, simply run together.
Besides the apparent "technical" defects, I should note that the film includes a Hindu worship scene in which devout Christians may be put at some level of discomfort. I am not sure how to describe the experience.
  1. The scene includes obvious devotion to the Hindu gods depicted.
  2. The worship is done in the form of song. I don't recall if there was much dancing. A little, I think.
  3. You would almost think the lyrics of the song came from the Bible. They included appeals to the "Lord" and "Saviour."
  4. I have never seen such obvious, wholehearted religious devotion exhibited in a commercial film production. Ever.

2If you are unfamiliar with cricket, it would be helpful, before watching the film, to acquaint yourself with its basic terminology. . . . You should probably know something about it, anyway, for basic "cultural literacy," but if you don't know how it works, the entire second half of the film may make little sense.
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