Author: Mallory Nezam
In the 2009 Oscar award-winning best picture of the year, Slumdog Millionaire, the young Jamal dives into an Indian toilet in order to score the autograph of his favorite Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan. Although the scene is sensational, Bollywood fans are devoted. Bollywood is a well-established and thriving industry within India and, according to RedHotCurry, an Asian entertainment website, it is the largest film industry in the world, a whopping 4 billion cinema tickets sold in the last year.
With the explosive success of Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood’s appeal is moving quickly beyond the subcontinent and into the rest of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that the 7th annual Indian Film Festival held in Los Angeles was the most exciting yet. The Indian Film Festival ran from April 21-26 at the Arclight in Hollywood and featured documentaries, animated films, shorts, and comedies. The highlight of the festival was a tribute to Anil Kapoor, a long-time known Indian actor best known for his role as the game show host in Slumdog Millionaire.
April 21st was opening night of the festival. On the red carpet, everyone was buzzing about a new age of Indian cinema, paved by the success of Slumdog Millionaire.
“You don’t have to be in India to be into Bollywood,” claimed Kunal Nayyar, an Indian actor in the new U.S. TV series, The Big Bang Theory. “Especially with the success of Slumdog, it just made Indian cinema all the more accessible.”
In the U.S., Indian culture has become a growing interest with the increasing popularity of yoga, Indian religions and Indian-inspired clothing, like pashminas. Yet the recent popularity of Indian culture has manifested itself as more of a commodification of culture than a genuine interest in the issues of the country and its people.
Indian cinema, however, seems to be changing that relationship. Although the entertainment industry is still driven in part by economic interests, the growing popularity of Indian cinema within the U.S. will allow for India to share much more with the American people-its stories, the pulse of the country.
But what exactly and how much can film communicate? In an age where India is becoming a growing presence in the world culturally, politically and economically, how much of India can we learn from its films? From Slumdog Millionaire we were exposed to the life of poverty, the exorbitance of the rich, corruption, pollution, and development, and the stories of children. Slumdog vividly shared parts of India that haven’t been accessible making India only a movie ticket away.
Filmmakers approach the task of representing India in vastly disparate ways. Although many Bollywood films still have their song and dance sequences which for so long have defined Bollywood cinema, other directors are focusing on social issues unique to this culture.
“Cinema tells a lot about a different place and my major issue was to be realistic,” said Sushrut Jain, director of the short film Andheri, which played at the festival Thursday night. “I specifically wanted to tell stories that are not usually told in Indian cinema.”
Jain’s film takes place in a suburb of Bombay and is told from the perspective of Anita, a live-in housemaid who runs away. The project is Jain’s graduate thesis at the USC film school. Jain’s film is based on real events. His challenge with creating a “realist” film is negotiating between telling the truth about an unvoiced perspective while still maintaining the drama necessary to make his film something that will hold peoples’ interest.
“The film has to be realistic, but not boring,” Jain said. “The goal is to make the film honest but captivating.”
Indian filmmakers of Jain’s persuasion are concerned with sharing with the world stories about India that they would never otherwise hear. Despite the fact that these stories can be hard to witness when represented so realistically, they expose realities of India. Cinema brings you into these worlds in a way that few other mediums can.
We need realist films like Jain’s to teach us about India, to show us what really goes on in the world’s largest democracy, in a place that is projected to surpass the United States economically in the next 30 years, as measured in a recent Goldman Sachs report. That is not to say that there isn’t still a place for the song and dance of Bollywood. This type of entertainment, whether seen as a celebration of India, of the glitter that lies underneath all of the muck — or as escapist therapy: a way of dealing with the harsh reality of every day life — is still a major appeal of this genre.
However, perhaps with the renewed focus of the more weighty issues of India, Indian cinema will become a means through which the complicated, difficult and nuanced realities of India can be shared with the world.
“There are still so many stories which can be tapped,” said Anil Kapoor, the game show host Prem Kumar from Slumdog, “and true stories that we still need to tell.”
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