Monday, May 24, 2010

In Search of the Elusive Indian Audience's Psyche

As payback for Dolce's latest post that Namak had to sit helplessly through, with her reactions changing from amused to embarrassed, to outraged and finally to: “She did NOT just put up pictures for all that too!!”, Namak has now locked Dolce in the bathroom for the duration of this post and has the podium all to herself and her random thoughts on Indian audiences.

I've always been puzzled about the complex equations that lead a good movie to flop and a bad movie to smash all records in the Indian Film Industry more so than in other film industries, so this question is always at the back of my head when I talk to someone about Indian films. This story is about one such conversation that left me even more puzzled.

Coming back from seeing “Darling” in a suburban Toronto theatre a few weeks ago, a very shy Andhra boy started talking to us. I suppose the two white chicks at a Telugu movie with no subtitles would prompt people to go “wtf”, and it prompted not one, but two guys at different moments to come and express their surprise. This young lad accompanied us for a long part of the journey home. After talking a little bit about the movie we had just seen, we start chatting about other movies and discover that we are both Allu Arjun fans - judging by how his face lit up when I mentioned I was excited about Vedam coming out soon, I really don't think he was just saying it to make me happy. (By the way, I can hear Dolce banging on the bathroom door wanting to get out, but I did say no fangirling in this post, so nope, no gushing about Arjun allowed.)

As we're talking about films in general, I ask him the question that had been on my mind since I started watching a certain kind of Southie films: what's up with this stalking business and why is it considered acceptable by the Indian audiences? He tells me that “Arya” was actually a “trend-setter” and after learning that I didn't like it, he proceeds to explain that yes, he does feel sorry for the girl a bit when she is being pursued, obsessed over, and essentially emotionally blackmailed into accepting the hero, but he, the audience, knows she should end up with the hero because, well... because he's the hero and we know he's a great guy!

At this point I start thinking: really? So are you telling me this whole time the joke was on me because I was getting into the movie and identifying with the characters and, you know... doing what one does with every movie, which is judging it from inside the world it creates? Because there I was thinking I was an educated audience, meanwhile I'm being schooled by this young man who clearly can separate the movie from his principles in real life... I must have been wrong all along then!

As the conversation progresses however, we get to another point where we disagree, and this one is even more thought provoking. We're talking about “Varudu” and he asks me if I liked it.
“Well,” I go, “barring the dialogue which I didn't understand a word of, so if it was badly written I wouldn't know, I thought it was a pretty good movie”.
“Really?” he rebuffs. “I didn't like it.”
I go back in my mind to scenes from the film and think: wow, the dialogue must have been really bad then, because I can't think of any other reason to truly dislike Varudu, especially if you're a fan of... that guy whose name I will not mention lest Dolce knock down the door and come at me with a machete.

I try to test the water a little bit more:
“Oh come on, how could you not like it? The last fight was all colours of awesome! (teaser for it at the end of this trailer)”
“That's just it, I didn't like that part at all. It was so... artificial”.

HUH??? If I had a penny for every millimeter that my eyes grew bigger by after hearing this... well, let's just say I'd never have to go to work again and I'd watch Tollywood movies all day...
So let's get this straight: he thinks Prabhas outrunning a car and ripping off its door while being chased by an angry mob of machete-wielding goondas in “Darling” is just fine, but the fight in Varudu was... and I quote: “artificial”???
“Well, that's different”, he explains, “that felt more real.”

Oh sweet gods, so now the story should feel real where before it was isolated from reality with surgical precision? And you're telling me that while I was enjoying a very sleek, gorgeously choreographed fight sequence against some (decently done) colour coordinated CGI backgrounds and thinking it's the best thing I've seen since House of the Flying Daggers (granted, mostly because HOTFD didn't have any good looking guys), the intended audience for this movie was thinking: “Bah, this is too artificial, I don't like it.”? Sure it was over the top, duh!, but where is that fine line between “believable” over the top and “artificial” over the top? I have no idea! To me they're all pretty unbelievable and at the same time they're all pure badassness!

My search for understanding the Indian audiences goes on, it seems every conversation guides me further away from my destination.

Time to let Dolce come out, I suppose, we'll need to pacify her before the next post.


Anonymous said...

but he, the audience, knows she should end up with the hero because, well... because he's the hero and we know he's a great guy!

Haha, I love this, because it's exactly what I think whenever people start complaining about stalkerish romances. It's a movie, and we know he's the hero, so what's the big deal? Sure in real life stalking is creepy and weird, but in real life you don't have the guy's back story to reassure you that he's actually your dream man. :-P

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Emily, nice to see you here! Thanks for stopping by!

I see what you're saying about knowing the back story (which is exactly what IMO makes Arya 2 so awesome and so perfectly acceptable), but there are two sides to this. One of them is, of course, the point of view of the heroine, who has no reason to accept the stalker, regardless of what the audience knows, even more so in a movie like Arya where he is downright annoying and doesn't even try to win her over, he just decides she should love him because he loves her (though why he loves her is anybody's guess). Ah... if only life were this simple... :)

The other thing that always gets me is that yes technically we should know he's a great guy, but as much as I am all for obsessions (being a rather obsessive nature myself), I still don't find obsessing over someone healthy in any way (ahem, unless he's a movie star active in a certain South Indian film industry :P), so to me that takes away from the affection I am supposed to feel towards the hero. I, the viewer, can't approve of him if he's a psycho (again, Arya 2 is the exception because Arya 2 embraces its quirkiness and is fully aware of exactly how demented the hero is).

Sure, it's a movie, but it's how audiences navigate between being outside the movie and being inside it that always puzzles me...

Gauri Radha गौरी राधा said...

It's funny how certain things totally fly in one context and then they fail all in another. I think there's a huge suspension of disbelief with Indian audiences, more so than with western audiences, but then there are certain prerequisites within that suspension which must be met to make the movie acceptable.

I read a quote by some actor or director, can't remember who, which applies especially to desi movies, I think. He said that basically within each film, the world created has to exist believably within and of itself without having to answer to the restrictions or conventions of any other fictionally created world.

When that set-up is properly in place, then everything becomes plausible inside of that construct. The SI and BW movies that "work" seem to lay down this backdrop effortlessly, while the ones that don't give rise to all kinds of contradictions and problems with believability.

I think Indian audiences maybe just take this whole idea to a more "musical format" level, hence the complete acceptance of breaking out into song and dance and the choreographed SI masala fights and stalker leads and everything else we've got going on.

You know what Dolce, I can't remember where I was going with this now. Okay I'll end this half-baked comment here instead of boring you further!! Haha.

Dolce and Namak said...

Not boring me at all, Gauri. And I couldn't agree more: the events only have to work within the context of the movie, the outside world should not even matter when you're watching one. But that's kind of why I am always perplexed when the two get mixed: like people expecting certain things to be believable (in their relation to the real world) but at the same time they're willing to accept another side of the same plot despite it being ridiculous.
At any rate, everything else I'm fine with, but still working on my stalker acceptance skills. Though I think I've come along way from almost pulling the plug on Dil Se a long time ago. :P

Gauri Radha गौरी राधा said...

"At any rate, everything else I'm fine with, but still working on my stalker acceptance skills."

My friend, I think this particular theme is possibly going to disappear altogether rather soon. It seems (thankfully) less and less prevalent these days, as Indian movies branch out and change and grow. [Says the girl who mainly only watches dance videos!! Haha.]

But yea, Indian cinema is growing by leaps and bounds and a lot of older and outdated conventions are going by the wayside, which is a good thing.

Dolce and Namak said...

Gauri, may the South also hear you :D The sad part is, they're still there when you watch older movies :-/

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