Monday, November 30, 2009

bollywood gets real

By Jason Overdorf | NEWSWEEK
Published Nov 27, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Dec 7, 2009

Midway through Vishal Bhardwaj's 2009 movie Kaminey (Scoundrels), the hero is captured by thugs looking to recover $2 million in stolen cocaine. As the goons torture him to find out where he's hidden the drugs, they run into a problem: he stammers so badly that they can't get a word out of him. So sing, they say. Out come his answers, to the tune of a popular song. Problem solved. Except the hero the thugs have captured isn't the thief. His twin brother, who lisps, stole the dope. And the twins haven't spoken to each other for years.

For those unfamiliar with Bollywood films, the scene, like the rest of Kaminey, plays as if it were directed by Guy Ritchie. From the tortuous plot twists to the ludicrous double speech impediment, Bhardwaj treads the tightrope between comedy and camp—keeping it just straight enough for the audience to suspend disbelief. But for aficionados of the Hindi-language genre, Kaminey is a revolutionary manifesto. It takes classic Bollywood tropes—estranged brothers, a case of mistaken identity, high drama approaching slapstick comedy—and presents them with Hollywood-style realism instead of Bollywood's wink-nudge mix of melodrama and posturing. At the same time, Bhardwaj makes clear that he sees Kaminey as a counterpoint to the terrible films Bollywood has churned out over the past two decades. The song that the stutterer uses to answer his interrogators, for instance, comes from Karan Johar's schlocky 1998 romantic comedy Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens). To Bollywood fans, the message is clear: Bhardwaj is staking a claim as the true heir to the industry's classic legacy. "I have grown up on these kinds of films," the director says. "They are there in me, and there is nothing wrong with them. They have high kitsch value. It's just a matter of presentation."

For years, as competition from satellite television and Hollywood has hardened audiences to the old formulas, Bollywood producers and directors have been striving to create a new idiom that retains the charm of the genre's classics but is fresh enough to pack thea-ters. With a few exceptions, they've failed. But now a new crop of young directors, led by Bhardwaj, is reinventing the Bollywood film. Their movies still have songs, but the characters no longer lip-sync, and the dance sequences have a natural, unchoreographed feel. They've scrapped the cheesy multicolored costumes and are more likely to set their films on gritty streets than in glamorous mansions. "Kaminey would be able to compete with any film in the world in terms of its design, per-form-ances, inherent narratives, editing, pace—everything," says the Indian-born Hollywood director Shekhar Kapur, whose 1998 film Elizabethwas nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The stakes are higher than ever. The Indian entertainment and media industry is projected to grow 11 percent a year from 2009 to 2013, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers—well above the global average of 2.7 percent. Hollywood studios, encouraged by the global success of India-inspired projects like The Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire, want a piece of that pie. This year UTV inked an agreement to distribute movies for Walt Disney Pictures in India, following Disney's $200 million investment in UTV in 2008. With the release of this year's Chandni Chowk to China, Warner Bros. became the third major Hollywood studio to produce a Bollywood film. Indian billionaire industrialist Anil Ambani recently formed an $825 million joint venture to produce films with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. And early next year Ambani's film company, Reliance Big Entertainment, will release the multicultural romance Kites. Starring Bollywood hunk Hrithik Roshan and set in Las Vegas, Kites—purported to be India's costliest film ever—will get a heavy push in the U.S. market. "Indian companies are starting to realize that there's a world outside India, and you can make a difference by looking at the global market," says Timmy Kandhari, who heads Price-water-house-Coopers's India Entertainment and Media practice.

The new wave of competent, realistic, story-driven films is already beginning to overshadow the big-budget projects at the box office. This year both Anurag Kashyap's Dev.D and Kaminey outperformed Chandni Chowk to China. In 2008, little, innovative flicks like the terror-plot drama A Wednesday and Rock On!, the story of a Mumbai rock band reuniting for one last gig, earned better returns than more conventional Bollywood fare like the superhero action flick Drona.

Some of the biggest stars of the old-style genre films—Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, and Priyanka Chopra, among others—have begun to embrace the new medium. Even Johar, who as the director of the glitzy but vapid films Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham remains the poster boy of everything wrong with Bollywood, has begun to show interest in coherent stories and realistic acting. "We're doing three movies with Karan Johar right now, and all three are much more heavy on script," says Ronnie Screwvala of UTV Motion Pictures. "Every single emotion in there is real."

As Kaminey's playful use of classic Bollywood tropes suggests, the best of the new movies still have at heart a self-reflexive interest in the old films. Kashyap's Dev.D, for instance, is the 10th remake of one of Bollywood's most successful classics, Devdas. Kashyap plays off previous treatments, which depicted the title character as a doomed romantic, to explore modern India's ideas about female sexuality. In his version, the elegant courtesan Chanda becomes a sex worker in Delhi's grimy ghetto, and the dreamy Dev is a filthy drug addict. But where prior versions condemned them to a tragic end, Kashyap allows them to find redemption in sexual love. And by practically throwing the audience's beloved story in its face, he turned a movie with the whiff of the art house—ordinarily the kiss of death in India—into a box-office hit. "Everybody thinks they know what Bollywood cinema is, and they often [associate it with] commercial Hindi cinema," says Emmanuel Grimaud, an anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who worked on the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. "But nobody really knows what it is because it is changing so much. 'Bollywood' is just a label."

It's a label that still carries a lot of weight. Everyone is trying to lay claim to the new Bollywood, whether through feebly acted, poorly written films like A. R. Murugadoss's Ghajini or savvy hits like Kaminey. But the challenges remain great. "The headwind we got on Kaminey was incredible," says Screwvala. "It took everything we had to keep it going and market it and get it out there." It's the kind of triumphant ending that makes you want to break into song.

With Anita Kirpalani in New York

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