Yale gets dose of Bollywood

Yalies who have never watched Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta run across green fields and burst into melodramatic song on the silver screen will soon get a chance to live the Bollywood experience here at Yale.

The Sudler Fund awarded $1,000 last week to a group of undergraduates led by Serrena Iyer ’12 and Shaswata Narain ’12 to produce their own Bollywood movie, “Bulldogs in Bollywood: Shake it Like Shahrukh!” The award comes at a time of increased interest in Bollywood on campus, students interviewed said. While the Yale in India initiative is going forward at the institutional level, students interested in Indian culture can take an undergraduate seminar on Bollywood, join the South Asian Film Society established last month and attend weekly Bollywood film screenings. In fact, Yale’s collection of 35 mm Bollywood films is the largest in the country.

While many Yalies might never have watched an authentic Bollywood movie, Iyer and Narain said the success of Bollywood-inspired Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire” has sparked interest in Indian cinema in the United States and at Yale.

The project was born from Iyer and Narain’s mutual love of Bollywood. Although they had vaguely talked about filming a Bollywood film last year, Iyer said they were prompted to action after receiving an e-mail from the Sudler Fund, encouraging students to pursue independent artistic endeavors. After submitting their basic plot and a proposal, the producers got the green light from the Sudler Fund to begin production.

The plot of “Bulldogs in Bollywood” will revolve around an Indian Yale student who must choose between his academic aspirations and his desire to become a Bollywood star. The film will keep the conventional melodrama and musical numbers, but the dialogue will be a mix of subtitled Hindi and English.

The students involved with the project have already started recruitment efforts to cast the production. They sent out messages to the members of the film’s Facebook group, to the South Asian Society and other campus organizations calling students for auditions this coming Sunday and Monday.

Bollywood-related events and organizations are also mushrooming elsewhere on the Yale campus.. Snigdha Sur ’12, one of the co-producers of the film and a staff reporter for the News, started the South Asian Film Society this year in order to promote interest in Bollywood and other South Asian film industries, she said.

“I watched a lot of Bollywood movies back home, so it was a huge shock for me to have no outlet to see them here at Yale,” Sur said. “Indian cinema is just as old as Western cinema, and is currently the biggest film industry in the world. It has rejected Western hegemony and is still drawing cultural narrative structure from Sanskrit and other epic traditions.”

The Film Studies and South Asian Studies seminar “Understanding Bollywood” — which attracted more than 100 students during this semester’s shopping period — aims to explore Bollywod films through the lense of larger themes such as postcolonial national identity, pre-modern epic traditions, contemporary popular culture, history, globalization, and the implications of diaspora, said Ashish Chadha, a lecturer in Film Studies and South Asia Studies who teaches the class. Though the class is capped at 25, the weekly 35mm screenings are open to the entire Yale community and attract interested students and faculty to share the experience.

“I think [Bollywood] is a sustainable interest,” Chadha said, “The new films use modern devices to tell traditional stories, and that makes them more approachable. There is a constant evolution, and every age and year has its own Bollywood.”

Chadha, himself a Punjabi filmmaker, will make an appearance in the film as the main character’s father.

Though Chadha stressed that Bollywood has evolved over time, the producers of the film are planning to use famous conventions of the Bollywood genre — “flamboyant music, outlandish dance routines, high melodrama, lavish production values, and an emphasis on stars and spectacle,” Chadha wrote in his course syllabus — for comic and satiric effect.

While watching the film “Veer-Zaara” at an “Understanding Bollywood” screening, Iyer said, she found herself “laughing immensely” when the romantic leads suddenly started running toward each other in a meadow while singing in Hindi. “Bulldogs in Bollywood” will try to emulate this quintessentially Bollywood moment, possibly replacing the meadow with the New Haven Green, the producers said.

But Sur said she has reservations about productions that highlight Bollywood stereotypes.

“Slumdog… has done a good job about raising awareness of another culture, but it still contains stereotypes that are unsustainable.” Sur said. “I think it’s important to make use of the awareness and the interest to dispel the stereotypes.”

Correction: Nov. 23, 2009

An earlier version of this article misidentified Ashish Chadha. He is a Punjabi filmmaker, not Bengali.

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