The Rules of Bollywood

Well, during my pitiful convalescence here at Ritu and John’s house, I’ve passed a lot of time watching Bollywood movies. Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, Nagina, and other movies the titles of which I forget. It’s very interesting for me to experience such an overwhelming flood of another culture’s imagination, values, ideals, and fears in one shot like that. Kind of addictive, too.

I’m trying to piece together some rules to hold on to as I watch these films, of the sort that I hold on to (unconsciously, of course) when watching Hollywood movies… you know, the cop always needs to get put on suspension and go it on his own; the hero always gets his girl, or some better girl; love does conquer all; things like that.

In Bollywood, the rules aren’t all so very different, but there are some variations and differences worth noting:

  1. The best time for a song-and-dance routine is right bloody now! The cast tends to break out into song-and-dance routines at what are sometimes surprising moments. My favorite ssurprise moment was in Nagina, when the shapeshifting Snake-Woman starts facing off the snakecharmer in a very threatening (yeah, right) dance routine. I’ve started to catch on to the moments when crescendoes of soundtrack suggest one of these routines is coming, but it still catches me off guard sometimes.
  2. India is the best place in the world. Of course, in Western film foreign countries are often portrayed as kind of seedy or scary or dangerous, brimming with hidden threats and “shifty native” predators. But in India it seems a theme that all characters truly, deeply want to come home to India. They love the country for the goodness it instills in them, because of their inborn patriotism, because of the greatness of India, because of their culture and heritage, and of course, because of the next point.
  3. Families… families are everything. They’re so absolutely important to all of these movies (all of the ones I’ve seen) that I cannot imagine a Bollywood movie in which family plans no role, positive or negative. The main point of tension seems almost always to be focused on the headstrong father (or the love-sick son or daughter, if you’re looking at things from another perspective). It’s interesting because so often movies seem to me to be a kind of open letter to the patriarchy, but I don’t know how much of that is meant to soften older men, how much is supposed to be an expression of discontent, and how much is narrative pattern used over and over. It must be a combination of all of them, of course, but if so, it seems to me Bollywood, while being strikingly conservative in some ways, is also surprisingly liberal in terms of the conservative types of fathers being discussed in the films… which I know very well are out there. In any case, regardless of, or perhaps because of, the challenges and troubles they present, family dramas seem always to be the tapestries into which other dramas—feuds, romances, wars, the very Partitioning of India—are woven, the context in which Bollywood is most at home.
  4. Love at first sight is possible. True love. But it can really, really complicate your life. You can end up an outcast from your family, married to someone you don’t love, rebelling against tradition, breaking someone else’s heart and your own as well, all because of pesky true love. But it seems also if you just hang in there with it, things come out well in the end. In the movies, anyway. The other nice thing is that, more often than not, it’s either mutual, or something you can pull the beloved into sharing with you fairly easily.
  5. It doesn’t matter as much whether good or bad comes to you, it’s how you make the best of it. Characters put up with some amazing crap from people, from their societies, and they simply find a way to make do. Forced marriages, being a family outcast… if you have strength of will (and a loving spouse doesn’t hurt), you can live with just about anything.
  6. It ain’t over till everyone’s nuptials have either been concluded or at least planned. This reminds me a lot of Shakespeare, and seems to be pretty understandable to me, for a society where, for many people, marriage is more an expectation than an option. So far I don’t think I’ve seen one movie, not even one, lacking a marriage scene. (I may be misremembering, though).
  7. The prettiest girl is the heroine. Similarly, the handsomest man is the hero. Other people may dance okay, may be the winners in love, may triumph in peripheral ways, but the hero is the handsomest man, and the heroine is the prettiest girl (in a clean, decent sort of way). I think it’s the chastity and cleanliness of the heroine, and even the patriotic chastity of the hero, that is unusual to me. “I would never try to sleep with you before marriage. I may not have been before there, but I am an Indian” runs one line in Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, at least roughly (that is a half-remembered subtitle, so bear with me if it’s off).

Huh. I don’t know, sometimes I think living in one of these movies would be a nice break from real life. Everyone knows their place, everyone has a place. It’s not like in Western film, where characters seem to me to be fundamentally unrooted, atoms floating around and colliding, clashing, melding, exploding, or bonding, each pair of atoms its own context. In Indian movies, there’s a bigger context, a world we all fit into, one we can map from the movies. Not everyone has a sports car, not everyone is the leader of the football team. But everyone has a family, and everyone wants love. In this way, Bollywood films remind me of my experience of Korea, where people all seem to fit themselves and one another into a much deeper hierarchy than just how one looks, or dresses, or the sort of car one drives. Surely, those things matter all too much in Korea today, but age is a fundamental hierarchy that everything else must fit into… or, at least in the country, it’s still sort of that way.

But of course I don’t know much, I’ve only seen ten or so movies.

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