Time to Slay the Dragon

[The first of a series of three columns I wrote for Box Office India in the summer of 2010 on Bollywood crossover]

    Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon hangs over Bollywood these days like a B-Movie monster.  In almost every discussion of the possibilies of Hindi films crossing over to a “mainstream” western audience, this Chinese movie is brought up as an example of a movie from a wildly different culture and filmmaking tradition that won the hearts and minds of a vast and deep American audience.  
    Two words, and they’re not Slumdog Millionaire.
    Monsoon Wedding.
    Yes, I know, Monsoon Wedding was not made by a Bollywood director per se, it was made by an Indian, an NRI, living in New York. Indians keep pointing this out to me, adding, “It ‘s not a Bollywood film.”
    I agree it was not made by a Bollywood Director. But I take issue with the latter statement.  In many ways, it is a classic Bollywood film.
    It has:

    Sweet-hearted romance
    Star-crossed lovers
    Secrets, Lies and Misunderstandings
    Family Drama
    Beautiful Settings
    A Big Fat Indian Wedding
    Plenty of Music and Dancing including...
    A Monsoon Dance Number, and
    A Happy Ending.

    The only things missing are two long-lost brothers raised in different faiths and a Deewar-style fight scene. In every other respect, Monsoon Wedding honors the masala movie.   Mira Nair transforms the Hindi film formula by using those elements in her own unique way, transcending its genre just as Crouching Tiger did, and all great films do.  It’s a  distinctly Indian movie, and never plays to Western stereotypes of India, employing its masala elements in a completely organic way, becoming something new and different.   As a crossover model, it’s far more relevant than CTHD.
    In a recent column in the Mumbai Mirror, Aseem Chhabra argued that Hindi film can never crossover if it concentrates on what it thinks the western audience wants, if “Bollywood film-makers are so obsessed with getting their films seen by the non-desi audience in the US that they have put the cart before the horse – more focussed on imagining what their perceived audience would like, and less with the quality of the product.“
    Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon succeeded,  Chhabra noted, not by trying to be a Western movie, but by being a  Chinese film, and more importantly,  by quality, by telling its story in a way that captured the imagination of the whole world.   Or, as the great Billy Wilder, put it, all it takes is a good story, well-told.
     Monsoon Wedding wasn’t as big a blockbuster as CTHD, but it was a certifiable hit that continues to gain new admirers whose affection borders on evangelical.  Ask my fellow ferangi folk if they’ve seen an Indian movie, and while a few might mistakenly say Slumdog Millionaire, the vast majority say, “Monsoon Wedding,” and then are moved to praise it soulfully. 
    Granted, Monsoon Wedding is largely in English, which helps.  Subtitle-phobia sinks a lot of films in North America.  It’s not an insurmountable obstacle but those foreign films which breakthrough the fear tend to be heavy on visual spectacle, like CTHD, and low on nuanced dialogue.  Still, Monsoon Wedding is so well-told and well-made, and it touches something so  universal, that I think it would have done well even if done in an Indian language.
    If there’s one emerging theme in Indian film in 2010, it might be Bridging the Divide, with cross-cultural offerings like My Name is Khan and Kites, and in parallel cinema, The Japanese Wife. Leaving aside Aparna Sen’s fine film, which never aimed to be a blockbuster, the other two got great reviews from western critics and did respectable box office overseas, but drew much more mixed reactions in India, to say the least.  Forgive the pun, but the trick seems to be bridging the divide without burning the old bridge behind you.
    Great stories, scripts,  actors,  directors,  composers, choreographers and technicians --  all the ingredients are there for films that can win at home and abroad.   But first, Bollywood has to stop looking to China and America for the answer.  It lies within.

Sparkle Hayter is a writer and occasional producer who spent two years working with Bollywood on behalf of a Canadian movie channel.