Dec 30, 2007

Tears for change in Taare Zameen Par

This years tearjerker award definitely goes to Taare Zameen Par. And let's send this years best blockbuster movie award to the same movie (if these awards exist, that is). Taare Zameen Par (stars on the ground) is produced, directed and acted by Aamir Khan, the big star of Lagaan.
This is the first movie I saw in India that actually made the tears roll down my cheek. And looking around me in little shame, I saw I wasn't the only man wiping his face with a hanky. Okay, everything is done to make the tears come down. Music swells at the right moment, people cry constantly, the drama is huge, the kids are extremely cute. But all that is no problem since the theme is so well chosen and played out.
The movie is about Ishaan, a boy with extreme problems in school and therefore at home as well. He is constantly scolded for all his lack of concentration and intelligence. We find out slowly that he is suffering from dyslexia, and big daydreaming and fantasizing. He prefers making drawings and watching puddles of water reflecting the sun, like stars on the ground. Aamir Khan plays the sensitive and clini-clown like art teacher who is finally able to get through to the more and more depressed and almost suicidal boy. He uses alternative teaching methods liberating the kids creativity, which helps him to understand maths as well. The main inspiration for the teacher is to give children the freedom to fantasize and be creative, instead of devouring bulks of knowledge.
The movie is a complaint to the Indian school system or rather career-minded society, where the focus is on being the best and becoming an engineer or IT-specialist. It is a tribute to daydreaming, using fantasy and being moderate. But it is also strong demand for respecting and taking care of the children who can't cope with today's demands. Children with mental handicaps, or just a little less intelligence. They too are like 'stars on the ground'.
Okay, a little cheesy maybe, a little over the top (sometimes they make dyslexia look like having HIV...). And maybe not so original to a western mind. But very important in a world where having to compete gets more pressing every day. Maybe movies need to be a little over-the-top optimistic and emotional to have the power to change us hardheaded people. What's realism anyway? Here's a trailer:

Dec 6, 2007

Long live the Youth!

Not long ago, with a lot of noise, the return of The Queen of Bollywood was announced. The 40-year old mother, Madhuri Dixit, would perform the leading role in a new film Aaja Nachle (Come Dance). The Queen of Bollywood is also the Queen of Dance, so the title was promising.
The movie turned out to be some kind of a flop. Bad reviews in papers and on weblogs and few visitors. This is Madhuri at her most successful, in the movie Tezaab (1988).

A lot of researchers on Indian film have noticed a change in the movies of the last decade or so. Starting with movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the main protagonists of the movies were not mature and wise people anymore, but instead youngsters in college, mainly facing the 'problems' of romance. This could have something to do with a growing interest of big international brands trying to market their products through the movies. Good funding for the filmmakers, good marketing for Coca Cola and Reebok.
Is this the reason nobody wants to watch the dancing queen, who should actually be at home taking care of their children? See her dance and judge for yourself.

Nov 28, 2007

Om Shanti Om: Bollywood in the mirror

I've been in India for about 10 days now, and visited two movies so far. (Might have to increase the frequency a little ;-0) The first one was Jab We Met, your typical lovestory with beautiful mountainscenery, a catchy panjabi-style song and a very happy ending. The empty cinemahall indicated this would probably not become a superduperhit, as the posters sometimes announce. The one that is currently running to become at least a superhit, is called Om Shanti Om, starring today's legend Shah Rukh Khan. (When he appears on the screen, half of the audience start screeming and whistling in adoration.) The story in short is the following. In the 1970's, Om Prakash (SRK) wants to become a famous moviestar. Partly because of the lifestyle that comes with being rich, but also because he's in love with the filmstar Shanti. Some romance arises between the two, but unfortunately, Shanti is married to and pregnant of the succesfull but sly director Mukesh. When Shanti gets in the way of Mukesh's success, he decides to burn her alive in a filmstudio. Om fails to save her, and dies half an hour later when he gets hit by a car that is taking the pregnant wife of filmstar Kapoor. Om's soul however, reincarnates in the baby that is born. This baby turns out to become the biggest superstar ever, Om Kapoor. Slowly, Om starts realizing in flashbacks and through his fobia of fire, that he used to be Om Prakash before. Besides that, one girl who auditions for the role of the heroine, Sandy, appears to look exactly like Shanti. He decides to take revenge on Mukesh, who just so happens to want to make a movie with Om as the leading star. You'll have to see for yourself if Om gets his revenge or not... Ok... He gets it. But not without the help of Shantis ghost, who still lives in that burned studio.
The joy and the meaning of this movie is however not that much in the story. Mainly, it is because the film is a movie about movies. It is a tribute to Bollywood in the shape of a big wink. The first half being shot in the style of the seventies, gives us a look on how film used to be back in the days. By overacting even more than SRK usually does, fun is made with the way they danced and pants with huge flairs.
When Om fantasizes about a speech he gives at the Film Fare Awards, he expresses his passion for film. In short, no matter what the problems in life are, movies provide us always with happy endings. Director Ms. Farah Khan seems to be saying that movies are like the ghost of Shanti, who suddenly come and give you some help when things get bad.
Then in the second part of the film we indulge ourselves in todays Bollywood, with an abundance of female beauty, latest gadgets, high technology and the lifestyle of the more-than-extreme rich. The funny and sort of cute Om of the first half, is now a cool and not 6- but 12 packed superstar. During scenes in the filmstudios, we cannot but see the words Maybelline and Nokia every minute. Even the dialogues are paid for it seems when Om tells how much he likes his Nokia-bluetooth headset, so he can talk to more people at the same time. Then as a sort of grand finale, during the very catchy song Om Shanti Om, an array of big stars from the past and today are appearing for some steps in the dance. The applaud they get from the bystanders onscreen, are hard to seperate from the noise in the cinema offscreen.
As a viewer, one gets a small overview of the changes in the form of the films themselves but also of the happenings on the set. A little hint is given of corruption happening in the production, with the character Mukesh. The movie takes us a bit behind the screens, on the set, and makes us think about what movies could be about.
Unfortunately, the wink to films of the seventies in the first part, disappears for an abundant appraisal of the almost divine Shah Rukh Khan, a good friend of director Farah Khan. If the second part of the film is also an ode to the movies like the first part, then we see that todays Bollywood is about SRK, and nothing else. But for all the Dutch (or other) readers who want a good introduction to what Bollywood is all about: Go put on your pink sunglasses, watch this and sing OM SHANTI OOOOM!

Nov 1, 2007

On the word 'Bollywood'

By this time, I must have read the word bollywood 2,45 million times. As a Dutch guy, who first heard of it about 7 years ago, I thought the meaning was pretty simple. Bollywood movies are the movies from India. The ones with complex love stories, dance and happy endings. And that's what most of us Dutch probably think it means. Hollywood with a Bombay touch.
Having read the word a little more, I have noticed the word is a multiplicity of meanings. And a word with its own power.As said, popularly used, it means movies from India. In more academic studies, it is more often referred to as the popular cinema from Bombay, which means it is spoken in Hindi with a touch of English and Urdu. Besides that there is a lot of regional cinema, from the different states of the country (Like Tollywood, from Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh). And, besides that, there is a small stream of alternative cinema, also referred to as realist cinema. Some people say that realist cinema is the real and good cinema, which means the popular stuff is mere entertainment. Others I've come across see in this an elitist point of view that underestimates the power of popular culture. 'Aight!
I haven't made my choice yet, but in a few months, I should be able to provide you with some arguments on this issue :-)
Last week I read an article that made me write this post. Madhava Prasad says that the word bollywood ( is only recently used, in India as well as outside. Before that people spoke of Hindi cinema or Indian popular cinema. The change in name also reflects a change in society, according to Prasad. It is a society where a new class in society has come to be of more importance, namely the Non Residential Indians (NRI's). These are the Indians in the diaspora, the ones that work and live abroad, approximately already about 11 million people. A huge market for the indian film, since a perfect way to stay in touch with the motherland is through films! As a result, a lot of movies have new heroes these days, for example in the shape of Shah Rukh Khan as a Nasa-technologist who feels homesick for the simple village life back home in the movie SWADES. The popularity of the word bollywood, reflects the popularity of an Indian identity that is English speaking and globally oriented. Not to forget, an identity that makes a lot of money as well. The word bollywood is shaped by changes in the country, and is shaping the Indian film culture as we know it around the globe.
But I have noticed that the popular cinema culture in India is much richer than just this. Indian cinema is as complex and as diverse as the people of the country where it originated. A lot to study :-)

Change of plan

So that's how doing research can be a difficult process. Change number 1 concerns the question: what do I actually want to know? After a meeting with my professors yesterday, the plan of the thesis got changed a bit. Starting off with the Multinational Corporations seemed to be too specific to start with. Now, my question is a bit broader, and will be more focussed on the process of meaning-making in the films as well as with the audience, instead of the more economic-political context. The objective and questions have become the following:

To gain more knowledge about the way popular culture, specifically Indian film, constitutes meaning in the life world of Indian youth. This knowledge could be a basis for critique of current film policies, or give ideas for educational practices.

Research question: How do Indian youth incorporate values that are being promoted by current Hindi movies?

  1. Which values are being promoted by current Hindi movies?
  2. How do Indian youth incorporate these values?
We also changed my extremely strict, (dutch?) time planning. Now my plan is to finish in August, and not in March. It would be a waste of quality (and fun!) to rush through this. Good research takes time and flexibility. More changes will come soon, most probably.

Oct 23, 2007

Research question

Today, my research design got approved. It will consist of two parts. I will answer the first question with literature research, and the second one with interviewing young movie-watchers! How I look forward to sitting in a tea or coffee bar with a recorder and talk about movies, with the sound of honking autos, and the smell of incense or.. something else..
Here's the idea:

To gain more knowledge about the way international markets are involved in the creation of the youth’s life world through popular culture. This knowledge could be a basis for critique of current policies, or give ideas for educational practices.

Research question
In what way do multinational corporations influence the contents that Indian youth withdraw from current Hindi films?

  1. In what way are multinational corporations involved in producing the contents of the current Hindi film?
  2. How do Indian youth incorporate these contents?
I'll keep you posted on the proceedings.

Oct 4, 2007

Why Indian film?

Watching the Bollywood (or Hindi, Bombay) movies, as an escape from the heat during my previous trips to India, I saw that something big was happening. During the three hours of romance, action, song and dance, the audience clapped, sang along and cried with the actors. They were living in another world.
But also by walking in the street, one notices the importance of film for the daily life of many Indians. Huge billboards everywhere advertise either a movie or a shampoo by using the cool faces and beautiful bodies of filmstars. Filmsongs surround you everywhere, coming from shops, autorikshaws, houses and hotels. And when talking to kids in the street, one of the best ways of making contact is having a conversation on the movies. 'Who is your favorite hero?'
Then if you read the newspaper, cinema will be there in many pages. Actors turned politicians are discussed for their behaviour, or the impact of certain movies is monitored.
Bollywood cinema is, maybe even more then Hollywood, interwoven with almost every aspect of the Indian daily life. This means that the way people are making sense of their lives must have a relationship with the complex world of cinema as well. For example by thinking about what they want with their future. Big political and economic changes of the real world are being told and constructed in movies, and like that made available to the people.
The power of the movies might be much bigger than just 'moving' people to tears. It might also be moving people to new opinions or attitudes. This is where my research comes in.
To start coming to a question, it seems that the movies contain a huge paradox. On the one hand freedom and new behaviour is expressed in the films, like individual sexual choice for women. On the other hand these new freedoms go carefully hand in hand with the laws of tradition. A free woman will in the end most often succumb to the rules of family life and/or religion, wearing a red saree instead of jeans. The harmony is being restored. What does this mean for the way people think about things like freedom and tradition?

Last August I met some of the best researchers of India on these topics. Their research centre in Bangalore, The Centre for Study of Culture and Society, should be the best place for me to try and answer my questions. With plenty of cinemas and videostores around the corner :-)