Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Are you saying Bollywood makes GOOD movies too??"

As usual it started with me getting all worked up about someone making a passing comment at the table that Bollywood actors suck... And also as usual, this was coming from a person who has seen a total of... half a Bollywood movie. After trying really hard to not start a lecture about ignorance and speaking without knowing what the hell you're talking about, I eventually landed myself in a discussion on the way home about why it is that Bollywood keeps being judged without being given a right to defend itself. The debate started with "Well, even if they DO make good movies, Bollywood is not exactly doing anything to dispel this bad opinion (as gratuitous as it may be) that people have of it.". While trying to objectively get to the "why" of that, we touched on a few interesting points.

1) People are far more aware of bad Bollywood movies than they are of good ones.

Why is that? Well, for one because word of mouth seems to work really well with trash: "Hey, I saw this unbelievably bad youtube video with this jeep crashing into a helicopter, it was Bollywood (no, it wasn't, but let's not even go there), here, you watch it too!". Or "Dude, I read that the most expensive Bollywood movie ever made is with this guy who turns into a robot and then turns into a CGI snake. We should get high and watch it, it's gonna be so trippy." Or "OMG check this out: this guy is rapping in English but it's not English and it's really really bad, it got like a million hits. Watch it, it's Hi-larious!". I could go on but you get the idea.

So naturally, when that's the kind of stuff that goes viral, it's hard to blame people for assuming the worst.

But that said, you really can't control what goes viral and what doesn't. So then where is the part that you do control? Well, sadly, it doesn't get much better there either. Distribution. Which brings us to...

2) Banking on only the big heroes is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What movies get good distribution overseas? The ones that are guaranteed to bring in the moolah from existing audiences, of course. So regardless of the quality or subject matter of the movie, if it stars SRK, Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan, it'll be in every theatre known to Indians. Now here's the problem with that: none of these heroes make movies that are going to change someone's opinion about Bollywood. They think the acting is crap... well, I doubt Akshay will change their mind on that. They think Bollywood movies are full of nonsense and ridiculous shit. Uh... yeah... I love Dabangg but it IS full of nonsense and ridiculous shit. They think Bollywood movies are there just to justify the song and dance routine and some silly love-story. Hm... something like Ra.One won't exactly make a case for plot over shiny dance sequences with the heroine looking hot, wind blowing in her hair. And at least if the dancing were still top notch, then maybe, just maybe the audience of such films as "Step Up" and "Save the Last Dance" would be tempted to go for it. Sadly, apart from booty-shaking, there's not a whole lot of good dancing coming out of the big productions in Bollywood these days (not you, Munni, you still rock!).

But I digress. To further complicate matters, these are exactly the type of movies that, because they are built around star-power, come in assuming a body of knowledge that the North American audience doesn't have. It's fun when you're in the know to get all the inside jokes and all the references to other Bollywood movies or other heroes, but it's no fun to sit there hearing the rest of the audience roar with laughter and have absolutely no clue what just made that scene so funny. So the movies that get the widest distribution are also the ones guaranteed to alienate any potential non-desi movie-goers.

You see how this argument will now start going in circles: good distribution is assured for actors who already appeal to the desi masses because that's who's going to bring in the money. These actors will be watched and enjoyed by the same people every time, which ensures that the next release will also come to town. And so the world turns. And the people who are NOT already on the SRK batmobile or the Salman Khan bandwagon? Oh those guys... well, they can go watch Harry Potter.

This part of the problem also gets mirrored on the media side of things. What does the radio cover? What movies will get an article in The Star? Whose arrival did you see on TV during IIFA? Guess! Why? Because that's what sells the paper, that's who people want to hear about, that's who they already know and love. How do you break this vicious cycle when none of these mass media outlets have any interest in reaching that part of the audience that *doesn't* already know about Bollywood? God only knows...

3) On the other side of the distribution coin, movies that could appeal to non-desis never even get marketed to them.

I remember being completely dumbfounded that Shor in the City didn't screen anywhere in Toronto. Here was an opportunity to introduce a movie with an actor that North American non-desi audiences were already familiar with (Sendhil Ramamurthy), banking on the success of the TV series Heroes, and thus potentially gaining yourself a new audience. My friends had no way of knowing if the movie was any good (and nor did I), but they would have gone to see it just for Dr. Suresh. How crazy would it have been if that movie ended up changing people's minds about Bollywood (because it actually is pretty damn good)? We'll never know...

Or take another little piece of good cinema, Dhobi Ghat. Would people who watch foreign movies from Europe be interested in seeing this and loving it? Most likely. And yet its entire marketing campaign was aimed at convincing existing Aamir Khan fans that this is not your typical Aamir movie. (Which by the way led nowhere because those Aamir fans still went in expecting another 3 Idiots and they still bitched about the movie being crap, so a wasted effort if you ask me). Not only that, but despite the very cool website and the dozen of "making of" featurettes, the film only had one trailer, and that trailer didn't really say anything about the plot (not saying it's easy to make a trailer about this movie without giving away the plot, but if I hadn't already been interested in the director, that trailer wouldn't have convinced me to see it). So with this in mind, what potential did Dhobi Ghat have to attract that audience that would have given it its due? Almost none. It was people like me who already love Bollywood that went, loved, wrote and... that's it.

Not really Bollywood, but I can think of a few people who would have really appreciated the Pakistani movie Bol... if only they had known about it. But even I discovered it by fluke during the one week when it played in the city. This type of film would have made the film fest circuit, I think... but it never seemed to even try even though it came out right around TIFF. I know I would have gone to it at TIFF instead of Chatrak.

And fine, forget these off-beat movies, they probably don't get much of an audience even in their home country, it's unfair to ask their producers to spend more on marketing when they're likely to not recover their money even at home (though that argument lacks vision completely, but whatever, let's accept it for argument's sake). Then what about some true blue Bollywood like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or even The Dirty Picture? Not technically your typical Bollywood blockbuster (although these days it's very hard to say what IS your typical Bolly blockbuster), but in my opinion a good enough combo of Bollywood pizzazz and a good story line. Not too much thinking required, mostly full-on entertainment with a few misty-eyed moments here and there. Certainly neither of them a perfect movie, but enjoyable enough for an evening out. Did either of them get promoted outside the desi-verse? If they did, I never saw it.

Let's go even further with this: do we really think that those legions of teenagers who flock to the theatres to sigh and swoon their way through Edward and Bella's love story would not be interested in watching something fun like Mere Brother Ki Dulhan? Is there any valid reason why they would not also fall in love with a Bittoo in Band Baaja Baarat? Because other than the fact that they're required to read subtitles, I really can't think of a reason why they wouldn't be a perfect audience for this type of movie coming out of Bollywood. Why, then, is this audience not targeted when clearly they love the genre?

Now I'm not saying I know how to really reach these audiences with a marketing campaign, because if I did, I'd move to India tomorrow and hit up Aamir Khan Productions for a job. But what I do know is that I saw posters for Cooking with Stella all over downtown Toronto when that movie came out. I know that Videsh (Heaven on Earth) was shown in theatres that had never seen a Bollywood movie before. And I know that Breakaway was allegedly the most watched Canadian English-language movie of the year. Now they could all have something to do with the fact that some of the big names involved in the production are Canadian citizens. Still... maybe worth studying what it is that they are doing right.

Though I will say, one thing that would really help and it's beyond me why it's not happening, is instead of making movies in English, how about putting some subtitles on those youtube trailers? And hey, while we're at it, if you're releasing the songs as a promo, stick some subs on those as well! It's nice that you want people to appreciate the music and the visuals for themselves, but you know what, a lot of times the beauty of a song lies precisely in the way the lyrics match the music and the moment, and if you don't understand the lyrics, that moment is likely to pass you by. Not to mention that a trailer with subtitles is more likely to be disseminated on Facebook, Twitter and all those magical places where friends of friends would now have a chance to actually understand what you're so excited about as opposed to feeling like an idiot for having to ask so many questions about what you just posted. The internet is the strongest marketing tool right now. USE IT! But I am wasting my breath, I know...

This screencap stolen from

Without getting into Bollywood's Hollywood complex which I find ridiculous anyway, I really wish Bollywood producers would explore the concept that maybe they don't need to change Bollywood to make it more marketable, it might be enough to just... market it properly!

Last but not least, and this is the one point where the biggest changes can be made...

4) Bollywood is such a self-centered industry.

Why not come out of its comfort zone and do some cross-pollination? I'm not just talking about Anil Kapoor being in the last Mission Impossible movie, or Aishwarya Rai being in the Pink Panther, or bringing in the awesome Poorna Jagannathan for Delhi Belly, although that's not a bad start. I'm talking about doing some joint projects, getting some experience elsewhere, bringing in some talent from abroad, just engaging with others. How many Hollywood actors have been in European movies? All the good ones. How many Hollywood directors watch Asian and European movies on a regular basis. Judging by what they list as their favourite movies, I'd say a lot. How much traffic is there back and forth for production staff across the continents? Enough. Sure it took decades to get to that kind of interaction, but Bollywood needs to come out and play already. Building itself a little fort of self-righteousness from which it scoffs at the other film industries while secretly wanting to be them will never be the way to go. National pride is nice and all but when Zoya Akhtar and Kiran Rao are the only two directors (that I can think of) who list non-Indian movies as their all time favourites on a regular basis, you know there's something rotten in the state of Denmark.

If people here were exposed to some Bollywood actors, cinematographers, plot-lines through this cross-pollination, their tolerance and curiosity for the real deal would probably increase substantially. And then it might go beyond Slumdog Millionaire and "that guy who won the Oscar for the soundtrack". Then you'd hear things like "Let's go see this Bollywood movie, it's with that girl from [insert title]. I love her!" and "Check it out, remember that awesome choreography from [insert title]? The same guy did the choreos in this movie". Or better yet "Wow, I LOVE this song. Here it is with subs. Hey wanna go see the movie it's from?". Sigh... Instead, actors from Bollywood would never be caught dead saying they'd like to be part of a foreign movie, the Indian actors who ARE part of international productions, such as Freida Pinto, are scoffed at, and whenever choreographers, singers and actors from North America do get involved in Bollywood projects, the enthusiasm is always one-sided and it's not on this side of the Pacific.

Until one or several of the above elements changes drastically, I will keep having to fight with friends to prove that Bollywood does *gasp* make good movies, while Indian films will continue to be this alien entity that holds nothing familiar and hence nothing of interest.

To end on an anecdotal note, I'll leave you with the best example that was given me last night during this discussion. Bollywood is like the Blackberry Playbook. It can do all these totally neat things, it's powerful, it's capable, it's reliable. But when it came out, it lost a lot of ground because of unfavourable comparisons to the iPad. Did anyone bother to look at what makes the Playbook different? Nope. All everyone wanted to see was how it fares next to the iPad in all the features that could be compared. And what about the areas that the iPad never even touched? Well, those don't matter and Blackberry certainly never bothered to highlight them. So in its own world, the Playbook is this awesome little product that will never get its due because its marketing campaign let it down. I don't have an iPad so I won't start comparing which one is better (and I don't really care, so please feel free to NOT start a debate over this), but the point is, just like with Bollywood, most people won't even give the Playbook a chance because it allowed itself to be positioned as Number 2 from the get-go. Why would I get the Number 2 product when Number 1 is readily available?

Ah... but what if Number 2 was not a number at all? What if it was just... say... the letter A?


Ness said...

this is a post to which I will refer every single person I know who has ever openly mocked my love of Bollywood/failed to understand it/ seen precisely 2 minutes of a Bollywood film and declared them all to be the same/rubbish/themselves an expert.

this is an excellent post. excellent.

Dolce and Namak said...

LOL Oh, Ness, don't I know so many of those people too! :) I suspect my big mouth keeps them at bay in conversations, so they never get to annoy me too much, but most will never go as far as actually watching one. Sigh...

Thank you for reading and for liking. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow...Dolce...this post is just genius.

Aamir's ecstastic reaction to your Dhobi Ghat review shows how little creative,intelligent analysis of Bollywood there is out there. You should seriously email some Bollywood magazine, send them a link to your blog and ask if you can do a column for them.

Plus, you just know that they will love the novelty of a gori BW journo. Ive seen articles in Filmfare before that have covered blogs like Beth Loves Bollywood, just because the idea of a white woman who likes Bollywood is worth covering.

I'm not joking- tweet at Jitesh Pillai or something, you run the best BW blog that I've read. And you could get to talk to the stars and do interviews and stuff, maybe. :-D


mm said...

H'mm, lots to say on this topic, but for now let me just make a few points.

Part 1

To continue with your Playbook and iPad analogy, what if the Playbook marketed itself as the iBook (oops, that's taken), so how about the iPlay? You see the point? Why is it even called Bollywood? Right there they set themselves up as a second class imitation, and not a genuine film industry with its own conventions. The whole "Bollywood" marketing started some time in the early 1990's -- I suspect, about the same time as the economic liberalization policies being introduced in India. Since I can't remember the exact date when I first encountered this term as opposed to "Hindi movies", I can't say for sure which came first, Bollywood or the economic revision, but they are close enough.

Well, before that, as I said, they were known as "Hindi movies" to all Indians, just like "Telugu movies", "Tamil movies", "Kannada movies", "Malayalam movies", etc. (Notice I didn't say "Bengali movies" -- they were more likely to be known as "Bengali films" -- i.e., arty films for serious filmgoers, and not popular entertainment for the masses). For the non-Indians, there was just "Indian films", of any language. Now since this non-Indian audience tended to be the generally foreign film viewing one, used to reading subtitles, they were mainly familiar with the "art films" rather than the commercial ones, mainly because those were the ones whose makers bothered to provide subtitles. Thus a small division between different type of films in India grew into an almost unbridgeable chasm in other countries - or at least which didn't already have a tradition of viewing commercial Indian films, such as Russia and several countries of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

When marketing term "Bollywood" was coined, it came with an equally canned marketing approach, of selling these fiims as lighthearted romances with big song and dance numbers, not much drama, and always a happy ending. In other words, they were deliberately sold as fluff. Why anyone thought this would attract foreign viewers from the coveted markets -- the ones with a strong currency that was worth several times the Indian rupee -- I don't know. Meanwhile almost all the Indians I knew, along with me, kept asking, 'What the heck is this 'Bollywood'? Never heard of it before!" But the Americans used to ask me - "Do you watch Bollywood movies? I heard they're all musicals and nobody kisses!" So the marketing campaign was a success at one level -- they had established a recognizable brand name. But at another level, they had established it as a brand of inferior quality. Unfortunately, this branding was so successful that getting away from it has proved nearly impossible in the two decades since. Even Lagaan, which brought "Bollywood" to a lot of people's attention by virtue of its Oscar nomination, still only confirmed people's preconceived ideas of these films being fluffy ones filled with song and dance. As superior as Lagaan was to the average Hindi films of its time, was it as good as an average Hollywood film in terms of its story or script? No.

mm said...

Part 2

So the first problem is in the very way the industry identifies itself. The other problems are that most of the current generation of film makers in Bollywood (I use the term advisedly) are not familiar with the history or structure of their own industry, or the heritage of story telling from which the films' structure is drawn. Since they don't understand what made their films work in the past, and since the liberalization served to exacerbate Indians' sense of inferiority with the sudden access to films from other countries, they threw the baby out with the bathwater, and decided that the problem wasn't badly made films, but films made the Indian way. Hence you now have the new Bollywood filmmakers all frantically trying to follow the "Hollywood model" in their films, usually with very bad results. Even the best of them only achieve a pale imitation of a Hollywood movie, which then gives rise to the question, "Why should people who want Hollywood style movies watch these imitations in a foreign language with actors they don't know, when they could far more easily watch a real Hollywood movie?"

Sorry, I'm going off on my own soapbox, but basically, having established "Bollywood" as an ersatz Hollywood, the makers haven't realized that they need to offer a uniquely different product to attract non-Indian viewers, and are busy trying to eliminate all signs of difference.

This was supposed to be my "short" comment, and still it exceeded the character limit and I had to break it into two parts. So I think I'll stop there. I hope it makes sense. :)

Larissa said...

Your speculation about teenagers and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan / Band Baaja Baarat reminded me of the time, when I was first getting into Bollywood, that I went to see Vivaah. At some point after intermission two (non-Indian) girls came into the theatre. It was obvious that whatever movie they were there to see had ended and they snuck into our theatre to pass the time until their ride came to pick them up. But they immediately got into it, to the point that they leaned over to me to ask what time the movie would be over and then made a frantic phone call asking to be picked up later :D

That being said, I think trying to market Bollywood to a wider, non-Indian audience is a lost cause. Every kind of "foreign" film - whether it's a Hong Kong action flick, an Iranian art film, and everything in between - has little more than a "niche" audience outside its own market. There just isn't an appetite for it. It is the rare 'foreign' film that really makes it big 'overseas' - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the first one that always comes to my mind. And I'm sure the people who flocked to see Slumdog Millionaire felt they were watching something damn exotic.

Larissa said...

That being said, I've always felt that India does produce films that would appeal to that audience that goes to see the latest arty thing out of Argentina or Turkey, and that it's a shame that audience doesn't get to see those films. Dhobi Ghat comes to mind, as does Udaan, Peepli Live, even Omkara, and no doubt a host of independent Tamil, Malayalam, and Bengali films that I'm not familiar with.

The challenge is raising awareness among the (North American, especially) fans of foreign films, that there is a difference between commercial and independent cinema in India, just like there is a difference between commercial and independent cinema in the US. Already many of these films are appearing at international film festivals, now what they need is for a distribution company with the vision - and resources - to get them coverage in the 'right' newspapers, magazines and blogs, and get them screened at the 'right' theatres (like the Cumberland, the Varsity, and the Lightbox here in Toronto, for example).

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Sanyogita, as heartwarming as your enthusiasm is, I'm pretty sure my opinions would not exactly be in line with the... uh... organizational culture of Indian magazines. ;)

But that said, I totally embrace the compliment about my blog and thank you for it! :D And I hope it stays an interesting place for people like you who don't mind reading about everything and anything under the sun related to Indian films. :)

As for other writing gigs, their time may yet come, we'll see where this all goes. Right now I don't have the mind space to actively pursue such an initiative, but that may change any day. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Now for the two novelists here, MM and Larissa. :) I may answer some of your points together, so just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write so much and make such excellent points. Wish you had been there when I was actually having the discussion. ;)

The things is, and this is in reply to both (ahem, or all 4 of) your comments, I wasn't trying to find a solution for Bollywood on how to penetrate these markets, nor was I trying to analyze the internal reasons for which it's not working out here. Btw, MM, your analisys of the decisions that led to this result is way above the level that I even have knowledge about, so thank you for giving me that, so many things I never knew about. Nor was I trying to say that Bollywood could take over the world, because as Larissa, I feel that it's not something that will happen or that they should even work towards.

What I was trying to get at was why other film industries that are just as ignored (East Asian films, European films, etc.), are not scoffed at when mentioned in conversation the way Bollywood is. It's not that people are more aware of them or that they watch them more (because God knows they don't), but for some reason there is no stigma to them. Sure European movies may be perceived as depressing, but for the most part you won't hear: "I'd never watch that garbage." in a convo about European movies.

So that's what I was trying to get to the bottom of: why Bollywood has changed in the past 10 years and yet this perception continues to endure as if nothing had happened. Obviously I totally failed to make that point, but that was more what I wanted to explore. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

@ MM and Larissa (continued)

I really don't think, and here I disagree with MM, that most Bollywood movies are made in a Hollywood way, however, it's probably true that the ones that ARE made the Hollywood way (such as Don 2, the first one that comes to mind) are the ONLY ones marketed here, and that doesn't really make sense for the very reason you mentioned, MM: why would I watch a Hollywood wannabe when I can just go watch Jason Statham being bad. :D

That said, further to Larissa's point, I do think there's an audience for other kinds of movies, and that audience is different for each genre (the MBKD's of Bollywood, the Dhobi Ghats of Bollywood, etc.), and this wholesale approach is just not working for them. So here we're saying the same thing, Larissa, which is that they need to target these niches rather than trying to appeal to the whole US market as if it were one thing, and as if all the US market was interested in was shiny action and car chases. Hollywood does this type of niche marketing, that's why trailers before movies are targeted to the same audience who came to see that movie, so you won't see a trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks before a Clive Owen movie. That's more what I was thinking of when I said they should try and get to those markets (so my entire point 3) there).

But that like you said, requires awareness, and in order for people to pay attention, something needs to be done about this perception that Bollywood is not even worth checking out, forget enjoying. :-/

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