Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The reciprocity of picturization

I'm attempting to finish a few of the dozen or so books that I'm midway through, starting with The Bollywood Reader. Not so easy when two essays in a row ("The 'Bollywoodization' of the Indian Cinema" and "Bollywood and the frictions of global mobility" -- yup, frictions of global mobility -- why am I torturing myself?) are about politics and globalization and "defining culture economically." Yikes!

They both emphasize that the term "Bollywood" shouldn't be equated with the actual films, but with a conglomerate corporate culture, a larger pattern of advertising revenue and websites and, god help us, ring tones. I can't help thinking of the guy in the Eros Entertainment ads who talks about "In-Flight Entertainment" in that clipped British accent.

Anyway, in the former essay, the author argues that, for example, a movie with product placement is Bollywood in a way that a movie without is not. And also contrasts: "The difference between the 'Bollywood' movie and the rest of the Hindi...films being made would be, say, the difference between Karan Johan and David Dhawan, between Shah Rukh Khan and Govinda..." (p. 196). Which made me chuckle, since the first Bollywood movie I ever saw was a David Dhawan film starring Govinda.

Good lord, what hath semantics wrought?

I'm not so sure about any of that, but I'm in no real position to judge. It may all be true, but it seems to miss the point in a fundamental way. Because in part, the writer is getting into all this fairly dry territory "to get to the basis of why the Indian cinema exists at all." (p. 196)

Now that's an interesting question -- largely because I've read a lot about the film industry in general (especially the American one), and I can't remember anyone ever questioning why movies exist in the first place. Various writers, especially the more scholarly ones, seem curious about the appeal of Bollywood for non-Indian audiences, which is fair game for speculation, but again is a contrast to the way most writers talk about the American media. Few people (at least, certainly few people in the U.S.) seem to think it strange that audiences watch American movies all over the world. This comes up every year when the Academy Awards are prominently broadcast to a million countries. Is it any stranger for Indian cinema in particular to have appeal outside its borders?

Other scholars seem to dwell on the issue "what's up with the song-and-dance numbers?" Why do they exist? Why do audiences like them? Movies have picturizations, and people like them, for the same reason why Hindi films can appeal to non-Indian audiences. And that is, "because they're awesome!"

I'm not even going to talk about Karz, or Mithun, or movies in which snakes play musical instruments. No, I'm going for good, solid, mainstream romance. I don't want to get all monolithic about my own taste, because of course, I know and understand that taste is a personal and (thank god!) irrational thing, that there's a whole spectrum, other people aren't going to find anything self-evident just because I do. But still, it remains true that I don't know how anyone could watch the "Maahi Ve" number in Kal Ho Naa Ho and question the appeal of Hindi films in general or song picturizations in particular.

That led me think about what I like to call, in the quasi-scholarly mode I seem to be enjoying, the reciprocity of picturization. That is, the fact that it's hard to take the "Maahi Ve" number out of context and explain exactly what's so awesome about it. I mean, you can see that are a lot of attractive people in lavish clothes, and the music and the dancing are good in and of themselves, but you don't really feel the number without the whole (however many minutes) rest of the movie that came before.

We've all seen loads of dance numbers set at weddings and engagement parties (come to think of it, I haven't seen HAHK yet...), but so far, this is absolutely my favorite. (Well, and I am fond of "Mehndi Lagake Rakhna," especially the part where Amrish Puri gets to sing all romantic-like to his wife. Sniff). But "Maahi Ve" outdoes itself. Not only is it pretty much just plain beautiful, but the song involves almost all of the emotional relationships in the movie: the boys and Preity, the boys with each other, the Mom and the Grandma, even the Grandma and the flirtatious neighbor get nudged together.

There are all sorts of little things I especially love, after watching this sequence way too many times for a girl who didn't even have the normal Midwestern wedding dance. I get all chocked up when they show the little sister waving in the palanquin. I love the little bit where Rohit's dad gets sentimental and wipes his eyes, and then his wife smacks him. Because I'm wiping my eyes too, and I need her bracing matter-of-factness. And I really love, beyond any kind of reason, the part where the song close-ups on Aman's "Jind mahi ve!" then on Rohit's "Jind mahi ve!" and then the two of them together saying "Jind mahi ve!" in unison.

I could watch those ten seconds all day.

Anyway, none of these details would mean anything at all to someone watching the song who hasn't seen the movie. And without the song, the movie would lack certain emotional resolutions. So it works as a classic of example of the fact that, when it's done well, the songs make the movies, and the movies make the songs.

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