With some high-profile releases in the past few years, increased press coverage, and tourist-friendly phenomena like Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood brand is quickly finding its place in American pop culture’s mainstream masala. Now, two uptown series attempt to flesh out the recent history of Indian cinema. Lincoln Center fetes mega-luminary Amitabh Bachchan, touted record-book-style as “the biggest film star in the world.” Bachchan’s retro serves as a survey of the South Asian blockbuster’s rise from its gritty ’70s roots to today’s sleek, booming, globe-trotting productions. The ImaginAsian’s “Masters of Indian Cinema” celebrates a more cerebral counter-tradition of filmmaking in India, with a series dedicated to new and classic works from art-house directors who strive for a more personal Indian cinema.
The title of Bachchan’s tribute is inspired by a 1999 BBC online poll that named him Superstar of the Millennium. Bachchan bested not only Sir Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin but presumably Sarah Bernhardt and David Garrick; Bachchan’s sheer number of film roles—almost 150 since his debut in 1969—was no doubt a decisive factor. In his first hit, the violent revenge narrative Zanjeer (1973), the towering, baritone-voiced actor established the model for his later on-screen persona: the “angry young man” who takes on the powerful and unscrupulous but displays a charismatic decorum between smackdowns. In keeping with Bollywood’s market-friendly smorgasbordism, Bachchan served as Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, and Sylvester Stallone rolled into one. He played a popular singer in Hrishkesh Mukherjee’s delicate marriage drama Abhimaan (1973) and delved into religious-themed comedy for Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), as a Christian character who emerges, top-hatted and tailed, from an enormous Easter egg to perform a musical number. Though out of favor during the mid ’90s, in recent years Bachchan has made a comeback playing world-weary but decisive law enforcers; the retro includes a number of these glossy pictures, including the supernatural-tinged neo-noir thriller Aks (2001) and the emotionally gripping Dev (2004). The latter places Bachchan as a veteran cop trying to deal with Hindu-Muslim riots, a corrupt police force, and the politically manipulated specter of terrorism; impassioned conversations between the various characters provide a more thorough examination of the social issues at hand than one would ever hope to find in an analogous Hollywood Oscar-baiter.
The Indian art cinema, however, has explored comparable topics with far more subtlety and originality, as exemplified by “Masters of Indian Cinema” ‘s auteur lineup of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Rarely screened older works include Benegal’s Junoon (1978), a morally multifaceted tale of an Anglo-Indian family’s travails during a Victorian-era rebellion, and Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Achanak (1989), a family drama that’s anti-Bollywood in its careful austerity and avant-garde temporal structure. Buddhadeb’s strikingly lensed Mondo Meyer Uppakhyan (Tale of a Naughty Girl, 2002) explores the story of a feisty child prostitute who struggles against her mother’s wishes to attain an education; it’s tempting to read this as a metaphor for the dreams of Indian cineastes, striving to leave the colorful baubles of Bollywood behind for more substantial visions.