The Bollywood Diaspora
Paul Andrew speaks with Laurie Benson, Curator International Art, National Gallery of Victoria about Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood.
Laurie, how and when did the term Bollywood come about?
"Bollywood" is an amalgam of Hollywood and Bombay, the heartland of Bollywood. According to legend, it was first used by reporters in the late 1960s or ‘70s and it has stuck. Some people in the industry in India accept and use the term, and others hate it. Apparently it is in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Laurie what do you love about this huge exhibition?
It is fantastic to do a exhibition based on a film industry, a first for the NGV. Bollywood is a great subject because of the amazing colour, artistry and sheer beauty of the posters. There is a huge range of emotions and expression in the posters which make them unique. And they always tell you what is going on in the films, especially when romance is at the heart of the movie.
Romance is an underlying theme to all Bollywood film- what type(s) of romance does it represent?
Some Bollywood movies can have three or four love stories happening at once, so there is great scope for all sorts of dramas. Many are about relationships which for reasons of class, wealth, caste, religion and racial background are often not meant to be. In Bollywood though, love usually, but not always, triumphs. Filmmakers often use the star-crossed lovers theme to expose the sadness of the many divisions in Indian society.
Bollywood portrays glamour and celebrity- what does this exhibition tell us about the Indian cinema star system?
A really interesting thing with the posters is that the stars names rarely appear on them. Everybody knows who all the stars are so it is unnecessary. And today, there are so many fanzines and web-sites devoted to the top stars that you can practically learn what they eat for lunch. India is obsessed with their film stars and some are revered like gods.
Salam Namaste was shot in Melbourne- is this film a part of a growing tendency towards Indian diaspora filmmaking?
Salaam Namaste was totally set and shot in Melbourne; it is very rare for a Bollywood film to not at least be partially be set in India. Usually with love stories, somewhere along the line the families of the lovers intervene and try to influence whether a couple stay together or not. And the idea of a couple living out of wedlock would only occur if they were "bad people" who would undoubtedly come to a sticky end. In Salaam Namaste, Nick and Ambar are young independent professionals who eventually decide to live together, although they are aware of the possible consequences. Ambar inevitably becomes pregnant, and much of the film is about how they handle that. Albeit in a very light hearted way. Filmmakers are definitely targeting the Indian diaspora as a financially viable audience. The trend make movies about the diaspora really took off in the late 1990s and it is continuing to grow.
When I visited the exhibition I was seized by the large number of Indian families gathered around the Salam Namaste installation?
Salaam Namaste is a contemporary story about the life of two Indians in Melbourne so it would not be surprising that it is a popular part of the show. The clips we chose to accompany the poster and costume in the exhibition are dance numbers set around well known Melbourne landmarks. The image of Preity Zinta's character, Ambar, who moonwalks on the steps of the GPO and dances around Docklands while eight months pregnant is one that does seem to strike a chord. Dazzlingly Bollywood.
Bollywood film is widely known for its singing dancing and colour- they are musicals on the scale that Hollywood produced many decades ago- is this why there is such popular western interest in the form- particularly now in the current era of war and terror?
While Bollywood is all about escapism, it is probably the more western style music such as hip hop, contemporary costume design and choreography that is making them more accessible to western audiences rather than our current problems. While the underlying themes of romance and action are still very Bollywood, the look of many Bollywood films are more western oriented.
Bollywood has been influenced by Hollywood blockbusters and MTV- what are some examples?
Since the first films were made in India, American cinema has had a huge influence on Indian film, and many many Hollywood movies have been remade by Bollywood by setting them in an Indian context. Jungle Princess, a Fearless Nadia movie from 1936, is based on Tarzan, although it is centred on an Indian girl who was shipwrecked near a jungle and raised by lions. In terms of style though, a most obvious one is Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), a hugely popular film outside India which features the almost mandatory nightclub/disco scene. The style is very upmarket and the focus is very much youth oriented. The style and choreography is very MTV, but the story is pure Bollywood.
Bollywood is also commercial Hindi cinema with strong moral points of view ?
The most talked about moralistic feature of Bollywood cinema is the treatment of sex. Until the 1980s, kissing on the lips was banned by censors in India, so filming a sex scene was obviously out of the question. However, today the boundaries are being pushed and Salaam Namaste for instance has a controversial and fairly steamy sex scene. But still today, not every star will kiss on screen. Romantic love was played out in the fantasy world of the song and dance number, rather than the standard physical expression that has always been part of western movies. Romance is integral to every Bollywood film, so virtually all the posters in the exhibition reflect that.
Do you think audiences are looking to morality tales again?
Film history is about swings and roundabouts in taste and what filmmakers put before the audiences, and there seems always to be some demand for morality tales. If that is a motivation for a non Indian filmgoer to see a Bollywood film, I hope a lot of the fun and fantasy rubs off on them.
Do you feel that Bollywood has become (or is becoming) a major influence on Western cinema today?
Undoubtedly as more non Indians see Bollywood films, their influence will become stronger. I guess it is easy and fun to look at a Western film and say, ‘that looks a bit Bollywood”, or you get direct influences such as the Bollywood inspired scene in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, but Western filmmakers never seem to get it quite right. Bride and Prejudice was kind of excruciating and cringe-making as it missed the Bollywood mark so much, even though it had Bollywood stars in it and part of it was set in India.
Two things struck me about the exhibition- firstly, the highly inventive, colourful and unique nature of Bollywood graphic design?
Elements that are instantly recognisable in the design is the lack of text, you usually only get the title of the film, the production company and the name of the Director; the images clearly and unambiguously indicate the narrative of the film; the colours and drawing styles are extremely bold, strong and acidic, so they stand out clearly; and at the heart of the image you can always see the hand of the artist who drew or painted the poster. I think it is this combination that makes the Indian film poster unique.
Secondly the actual exhibition design in the NGV spaces - what can you tell me about this beautifuly designed exhibition?
Although the show came from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it was indeed specifically designed here for its run at the NGV. Our very talented designers Allison Young and Daniel Jacobsen were given the brief to make the show cinematic and fun. We wanted to bring the posters to life by showing a lot of film clips, some projected as big as you see at the theatre, so that was a challenge to all involved. It is a very dynamic and exciting design and Allison and Daniel have created a really enjoyable place to be in.
How and why did this exhibition come about at the V&A in London?
The exhibition was curated by Divia Patel of the V&A, who had written a book on Indian film poster art with her colleague Rachel Dwyer. The idea of the show grew from that book and Divia drew on the V&A’s extensive collection of Bollywood film posters that the V&A has been collecting since the 1980s.
Tell me about the large scale hoarding we see when we first enter the exhibition?
That was painted by three artists from the Balkrishna Art studio, the very last firm in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) who still make large scale hand painted hoardings. The work was commissioned by the NGV for the exhibition with its basic design being created by the NGV. However in true Bollywood style, it was totally Bollywoodised by the artists. They were flown to Melbourne and painted the 6x3 meter canvas in four days. They did it in public view in Federation Court at NGVI, part of which was transformed into an artists studio. It was tremendously exciting and great to watch a quite historical event. We have filmed them at work, which is a great document to have.
A potted history of Bollywood film?
The very first moving pictures were shown in Bombay in 1896 by staff of the Lumiere Brothers, who were actually on their way to Australia to also show the same films here. Shortly after then, cinemas popped up in the major cities in India, mainly screening American and European silent films. By the 1910s a small filmmaking industry was developing in India, centred on Bombay. Interestingly it was strongly affected by German technicians, camera operators and lighting people, who were brought to India to train filmmakers. Gradually, Indian stories started to be told by filmmakers, coming from India’s rich literary and stage traditions. The industry grew and grew and grew not just in Bombay, but in every region of India which consequently has their unique film history, traditions and styles, expressed in all the different languages across the country. Today, about one thousand films are made there each year, with Bombay based Bollywood contributing around 200-250. Not all of these are major productions, there is a very structured hierarchy of films made in India, and not all are targeted for nationwide release. Many films are made quickly on small budgets, made specifically made for smallish often rural-based audiences.
How does Bollywood compare to the Hollywood industry in scale and output?
Bollywood produces far more films than the major Hollywood studios, but it is very small in terms of budgets spent on each film. I think Devdas (2001) still ranks as the Indian film with the biggest budget, of around AUD 20 million. And the average time spent making a film is much less than Hollywood. That is slowly changing however.
What are the major social, political and aesthetic changes that this exhibition represents in Bollywood since it first began producing films?
All good film industries reflect the society from which they come and the Indian film industry is no different. India has undergone major historical, social, cultural and economic changes this century. It only gained independence from British rule in 1947. It is a rich and massively diverse culture, characteristics which permeates the films. Because of that diversity, and the huge number of films that are produced in India, it is very hard to pigeon hole it. However, each poster in the exhibition tells us something about this history and the time it came from.
What are the major themes presented?
Some of the themes treated include films made before and after Independence, with many films made before 1947 looking back romantically on a time before British rule, which are clearly expressions of the desire for self-rule. Movies of the ‘50s look at the growth of the cities, which often symbolise immorality and corruption compared with the nobility of rural and village life. The films of the 1970s show some of the frustration at the slow economic and social advancement of the post Gandhi and Nehru years, with anger being directed at corruption rife in the cities. All these themes and more are reflected in the posters made to advertise the films.
According to the exhibtion timeline, the very first film was screened in Bombay by the Lumiere Brother's on their way to Australia- what was this film and was it a catalyst for the Bollywood industry?
On July 7, 1896, six silent short films were shown in Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. A Demolition, Arrival of a Train, Entry of Cinematographe, Ladies & Soldiers on Wheels, Leaving the Factory and The Sea Bath. They were advertised by text based ads in newspapers.
Independent film in India is also burgeoning, I'm thinking of queer cinema we have seen emerging from India during the last decade. Even without the big Bollywood budgets, do you think that Independent film is making an impact on mainstream Bollywood filmmaking?
The structure of the industry in India is complex and extremely fluid. There used to be an old style Hollywood studio system which disintegrated in the 1950s. Production companies since then come and go, often making just one film before disappearing forever. Funding is critical of course and it is a struggle to get a film made there. While independent cinema exists in India, only a handful of independent filmmakers have really made a telling impact on the industry. Amir Khan is one person who is making a strong impact, as he retains a high degree of creative control over all aspects of his films from writing to post-production. This is very rare in mainstream cinema in India.
Exhibition Season finished
9 March- 20 May 2007
National Gallery of Victoria
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