Well, readers, I have just returned home from my first taste of Bollywood, courtesy of a pre-screening of Agneepath at C-U’s Art Theater. I have been wanting to see what the fuss was all about, and I actually had a day I could set aside (almost literally) to soak it all in.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term Bollywood, much less what it means, here’s a bit of clarification. The concept is simple: Bombay, India’s version of Hollywood = “Bollywood.” Some people mistakenly believe the term encompasses the total array of films produced in India, but Bollywood (or Hindi cinema) as a style consists of mainly musicals with rather melodramatic plots. Though most films are in Hindi, with subtitles, I noticed a few instances of English words (or Hinglish – shudder) breaking through here and there. But its main appeal is spectacle; if you imagine something like Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge but in Hindi, you have a decent grasp of the style.
Agneepath (which apparently means “on the path of fire”) had a bit extra going for it–something for everyone, so to speak. Not only was there melodrama, music and dance, but also a plot filled with vengeance and violence. In retrospect, it struck me as an unusual blend of The Godfather and Guys & Dolls. The story follows the life of Vijay Chauhan and his quest for vengeance in the wake of his father’s murder. He also wrestles with his changing relationship with his mother, seeks to connect with his baby sister, and falls in love somewhere in there. The love story was very played down for something that was otherwise quite melodramatic; Kaali (the female lead) mentions marriage once, enough to point out to the audience that Vijay does not wish to marry, and so her life is what it is, and she is okay with it. Come to think of it, I can’t remember Vijay or Kaali kissing even once, although there were at least a couple of scenes where it would have been very natural, if not downright expected.
The main plot, as I mentioned, is about revenge. Vijay’s father is brutally murdered unjustly, while the people of their village do nothing to stop it. Vijay then swears revenge on those responsible. There was in fact quite a bit of violence in the movie, though I can’t adequately compare it to something like the Saw movies, as I am not interested in seeing movies filled with gratuitous violence. Vijay’s father is hanged at the beginning of the movie, and unlike American movies, the filmmaker chooses unflinching closeups of the dying man’s face combined with wider shots of the father actually being dragged by a rope up the tree. It occurred to me as I was watching this that most American movies dealing with hangings usually only show dangling feet–and even then they can be controversial, as was the case with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. In this film, the scenes of the hanging linger painfully, particularly the scene where ten-year-old Vijay is on his knees, weeping at his dead father’s feet. I remember feeling uncomfortable watching most of the hanging, although I don’t know how much of that was the violence of the scene and how much was the constant reminder that his young son was watching the entire spectacle. It definitely puts the viewer in the mood for revenge, and was revisited a couple of times throughout the movie. There are also plenty of other fight scenes, with lots of shooting, stabbing, and slicing. The violence there didn’t seem to be more violent than other movies I’ve seen, but combined with the recaps of Vijay’s father’s hanging, did keep me feeling uneasy.
“But wait?” you say. “I thought you said Bollywood movies were musicals?” Oh yes, there was music.
Everything from social events like birthday parties and weddings to religious ceremonial parades were done up in high musical fashion. THIS is what drew me to investigate Bollywood in the first place! Beautiful costumes, huge decorations, synchronized choreography among dozens of dancers (something you just don’t see much anymore), and the music which is of course different to my ears, combined to be a fairly good break in the tension and relief from the revenge-laden storyline. I’m sure the cultural aspects of the music were somewhat Western-ized to attract more viewers, but the aspects of Indian culture that remained were enjoyable to experience. And have I mentioned how incredibly gorgeous Hrithik Roshan is?! Oh my goodness. Handsome like Hugh Jackman, with beautiful gems of eyes, and the thickest, most luxurious head of glossy black hair I have ever seen. Wow, wow, WOW. And *he* even did a little bit of singing and dancing, plus spent plenty of time wearing an open-chested shirt. My goodness. Yum!
About the only culture clash that struck me as a bit ridiculous (but funny) was the great pains the filmmakers took to warn viewers about the dangers of smoking. During the opening credits, one panel read “Cigarette smoking can be injurious to your health”, and then during a dance number where Kaali is lighting cigarettes for a line of men, the same verbiage was displayed at the bottom of the screen where the subtitles are. This is particularly funny because the film’s villain is peddling COCAINE. Which apparently isn’t so harmful for your health that you need to be warned about it.
All in all, I’m really glad to say I’ve been introduced to Bollywood. Though next time I might try a romcom like the one I saw in the trailer beforehand–I’m pretty sure there will be less violence! The Art Theater is playing Agneepath this Saturday at 10am and Sunday at noon. Be advised, the run time listed is 260 minutes, which does not include the intermission. Agneepath is rated NR, with subtitles for all but the songs.
If you loved this movie, you need to watch Jodhaa Akbar. I streamed it on Netflix, and could watch it over and over. Bollywood is great stuff!
Thanks for the tip!
NIKHIL LETHA-SOMAN says
Bollywood has, for long been popularized in the west, as grand spectacles, with over-the-top extravaganza and music. But that is not what it is all about. But if that is where your interest lies, catch up on classics like Swades and Lagaan. However, if subtlety is your thing, you can watch Satyajith Ray films ( not exactly Bollywood, they are Bengali films) or recent films like Queen (comedy), Haider (Shakespearean drama based on Hamlet) or Ugly (a psychological thriller).
By the way, your blogs are excellent. Beautifully written and honest :). KEEP WRITING…
Thank you so much for the recommendations. And the compliment!