Bully for Bollywood

With 'Lagaan,' the Indian Movie Industry Is Poised to Cross Over

A movie theater in Madras
photo: Jonathan Torgovnik

Bollywood's hallmark exuberance may be paling, however, says Lee Server, author of Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo, with a shift toward films that are more self-consciously restrained and polished. "Those movies used to be the most phantasmagoric chorus numbers, where they'd really put everything and the kitchen sink into it," Server says. "Now they look identical to a J.Lo video. A growing sophistication has come there, an Americanization."

Indeed, Film City seems to be interpreting a whole new breed of Bollywood films through the gauze of Western consciousness. There is Kaante—a Reservoir Dogs-type heist caper starring Amitabh "Big B" Bachchan, the Godfather of Indian cinema—which has the distinction of being the first Bollywood film to be shot entirely in the United States with an American crew. And in Mitr, My Friend, co-director Revathy, a veteran Bollywood actress, challenges the masala formula by examining the struggles of an Indian American family living in California through English-only dialogue and a 97-minute duration.

Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan in Lagaan
photo: Hardeep Singh Sachdev
Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan in Lagaan

But lengthy running times remain the norm, and may prove an obstacle for wider distribution. "People used to be willing to pay money and sit in a theater all day," says New York-based film producer Tanya Selvaratnam, whose feature On-Line premiered at Sundance this year. "Now Western culture moves a lot faster, and people are not used to it." The melodrama that saturates Hindi movie productions is a further hindrance, according to Server. "I don't think it's as easy a mix as the Hong Kong genre," he says. "The gaudiness is not going to really sift into modern-day Hollywood, which tends to remain fairly naturalistic."

Still, Selvaratnam says there is no replacing the escapist gloss of a Film City drama. "There's great satisfaction in Bollywood movies because people don't cry and scream and go to their rooms. They cry and scream and dance."

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