The AMC theater at Block E has started offering at least one Bollywood film per week. This seems to be a national trend for AMC, and I’m not sure precisely how well it plays in the Twin Cities. There’s certainly a potential audience for the films, as the Indian population of Minnesota is somewhere around 30,000, representing the second largest Asian population in the state behind Hmong. And these releases are obviously intended for the Indian immigrant population.
Foreign films are often re-edited before being released in the United States to smooth over cultural differences that might leave the film’s new audiences bewildered. This is not the case with the Bollywood films. The film currently playing at Block E has what seems to be an endless number of jokes about the difficulties of translating back and forth between Hindi, Tamil and Punjabi. I am sure the question of mutual intelligibility is a keen one in India, where a census in 1961 discovered 1,625 different languages, but those jokes don’t translate well when your only language is English.
Not that this is a complaint, mind you. I watch foreign films, in part, to learn about the world, and you don’t learn much when a film has been re-edited to contain only details that you are already familiar with. And Bollywood really is its own creature, with its own conventions, and it would be a shame to extract that just to play to a foreign market.
I have been watching Bollywood films with some regularity for about a year now, after a fashion. I stumbled across a restaurant called Bombay Express, tucked into that narrow walkway behind Macy’s, between the department store and a parking lot. I’m quite fond of Bombay Express, and so eat there often. It’s not the best Indian food in the Twin Cities by any means; when I am looking for a really well-prepared Indian meal I tend to head to Ghandi Mahal or Bombay Bistro. But Bombay Express’ food is cheap, fast and tasty, and they have a vegetable biryani that I can eat pretty much anytime I’m hungry. They also serve Mexican food, for some reason.
Best still, their television screens constantly play Bollywood films, or, at least, one specific part of Bollywood films. There is a word from Indian cuisine, masala, referring to a collection of spices, that is applied to the dominant film genre of India. Bollywood likes to offer films that have a little bit of everything, including, to my ongoing pleasure, musical interludes. And so Bombay Express offers these interludes nonstop. I don’t really have the space to start a discussion on either Indian popular music or the dances employed in these videos; suffice it to say that no dance style ever goes completely out of style in India. Contemporary videos will make use of Indian classical dances, country-western line dancing, ballroom techniques and Michael Jackson moves. Jackson, in particular, seems to have as thoroughly populated Indian choreography as the humble potato, which originated in South America, has populated Indian cuisine.
It’s not unusual to see these musical interludes separate from the film that produced them, by the way. They are sometimes shot separately from the film, by a different group of filmmakers altogether, and are just spliced into the movie with little concern for continuity. Which is fine, as the musical numbers serve sort of a dream ballet function — they relate, to some degree, to the main part of the film, but don’t forward the plot, and are intended to stand alone. These music videos are sometimes released months in advance of the film they ostensibly are part of, and have lives of their own outside the film. They’re often preposterously fun, and, once you get used to them, it starts being disappointing that Hollywood hasn’t adopted this convention. Frankly, the new “Mission Impossible” film isn’t going to feel complete unless Tom Cruise breaks into song at some point.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, he’s a pretty big star, isn’t he? Well, no he isn’t. Not by Bollywood standards. Although he has a certain amount of international cachet, Cruise’s audience is primarily American, and we’re a country of 312 million. But if you’re a star in Bollywood, you’re playing to an audience of more than a billion in India alone. There is a reason Bollywood stars rarely cross over to make American films as compared to popular performers from other countries, such as France’s Gerard Depardieu or Italy’s Asia Argento. And that reason is as follows: Who needs a smaller audience?
And so the world’s biggest movie star isn’t going to be somebody like Tom Cruise, but instead somebody like Shahrukh Khan, who starred in the film I saw at Block E yesterday, called “Ra. One.” Unless you watch Bollywood films, you probably haven’t heard of him, but if you have even a passing familiarity with Bollywood, he’s inescapable. He has 70 films to his credit, many of them smash hits in India. He has won a record-breaking 14 Filmfare awards, which are the Indian equivalent of the Oscar. And, unlike Tom Cruise, he can sing. Although, to give Cruise credit, the diminutive actor can dance.
“Ra. One” is a typical masala. It’s huge and sprawling, so long it requires an intermission, and leaps back and forth between elaborate action sequences and low comedy, with Shahrukh Khan getting banged in his groin every few minutes and doubling over while people around him make exaggerated faces to broadcast their horror that his family jewels would be so abused. It’s a patchwork, of sorts, gluing together all sorts of elements from other films, including American action films (“Terminator 2” may the film’s biggest influence) in telling of a computer programmer in London who accidentally creates the perfect supervillain. It’s also loaded with special effects — the film’s creators brag that this movie has more effects shots that “Avatar,” a film that was nothing but one long effects shot!
The results are preposterously entertaining. I don’t think these Bollywood films are being marketed to anybody but the local Indian population, and that’s a pity. Whatever jokes a script may make about embarrassing near-cognates between Punjabi and Hindi, the films are made in the language of popular entertainment, and that’s an international language.