Bollywood vs. the world

This week, the Yale South Asian Film Society’s film festival has brought more than just a bit of Bollywood to New Haven.

The festival seeks to update the perception of Indian cinema and increase awareness of the different cultures of the region. The screenings range from political documentaries and art films to international blockbusters, all aimed to show the different facets of modern South Asian cinema.

Snigdha Sur ’12, a WEEKEND staff writer and the president of the Yale South Asian Film Society, said that this year the festival focused on screening a wide range of films, rather than zooming in on one specific genre.

“There is a reason we are called South Asian Film Festival rather than simply Indian or Bollywood (Film Festival),” she said.

The festival kicked off Monday with a talk in LC 102. Aseem Chhabra, a freelance writer and Bollywood film critic, talked about Bollywood cinema and its perception in the world.

“Most of the time when we talk about Bollywood, colorful costumes and musical numbers come to mind,” he said. He noted that the Indian cinema industry produces approximately 900 films each year, making it the largest film producer in the world. (Hollywood only produces around 300 films in a year.)

But not every film is shown in the Mumbai cinemas. In fact, Bollywood is only a subcategory of a huge industry that includes Tamil, Bengal and South Indian films.

“A lot of people are unhappy with the term Bollywood,” Chhabra said.

The term was coined in the late ’90s, but the history of Indian film stretches back even before the advent of talkies, or films with sound.

Bollywood films are characterized by vibrant costumes, vigorous dance sequences and an amalgamation of romance and melodrama. In 1931, India produced its first sound film made from American junk equipment. “Alam Ara” premiered in Mumbai to crowds that had to be kept in check by police. It became the transformative element in Indian cinema, later leading to the unique form of Bollywood.

From its inception, Mumbai-made films were dominated with musical numbers. “Alam Ara” featured seven songs; a year later, “Indrasabha” would feature 70. While Hollywood has slowly turned away from musical film since the 1960s, Bollywood has clung to the tradition for nearly a century. Even blockbusters, like “Lagaan” (2001), which made it to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, feature as many as eight songs.

These musical numbers often result in a lack of spatial unity: “A film that was shot in India would have songs shot in Switzerland popping up out of nowhere,” Chhabra said.

But Chhabra said that Indian cinema is moving in a new direction. Filmmakers strive for more chronological unity and a greater sense of reality. It is this new type of Indian film that the festival will bring to campus this weekend. “Udaan” (2010), a low-budget film that is nominated at the Cannes Film Festival, will be screened on Saturday. The film marks the first time in eight years that an Indian production has been nominated.

Sur said that the film’s success stems from its “greater depth of character” and ability to “showcase the diversity of the culture in the region.”

“It is ultimately the experiences of life that one can relate to,” she said.“‘Udaan’ is very grounded in reality.”

By securing a nomination at Cannes, “Udaan” has managed a feat that has eluded Indian filmmakers since the nomination of “Lagaan”: it has inadvertently managed to appeal to a global pool beyond its target audience.

The other films being screened this weekend also fall into the this “accidental cross-over” category. “Rang De Basanti,” India’s official entry for the Academy Awards, is the most commercially succesful of the films, but the others have received critical acclaim. The film’s director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra — who also directed another festival selection, “Delhi-6” — will give a talk at the Whitney Humanities Center today at 9:30 p.m. “Tere Bin Laden” (Laden, For You), scheduled for screening this Sunday, is a satirical comedy targeting the United States’ policies in the war on terror and featuring young Pakistani actor Ali Zafar. A documentary about a controversial Pakistani politician, the late Benazir Bhutto, was screened on Tuesday.

Echoing the goal of the festival itself, Sur noted that these are the kind of films that appeal to a global audience. These are films for more than just a cult of South Asians.

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