Trite exaggerations and cliches

on January 11, 2008 with 0 comments » | ,

Been meaning to write up a sequel post to my earlier post about Anupama Chopra’s recent book about the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan. I had read the acknowledgments and the first chapter of the book last weekend but did not get around to putting this together earlier.

No time or inclination to write this as a nice review or essay... just random thoughts cobbled together this Friday afternoon. In any case, judge not a book by its cover nor by just its first chapter! ;) It cannot wait any further as I doubt I am going to go back to the book to read it beyond Chapter 1, despite a lurking nascent interest in knowing more about SRK, his early life, his family, etc. This despite the fact that I do not really think SRK is a good, let alone great, actor. And I do not say this because I'm a big fan of Amitabh Bacchan - esp. his 70s movies. He made some horrible movies in the 80s...but then all of Bollywood churned out the utmost drivel in the 80s. Not to add fuel to the fire of the alleged SRK-AB rivalry - mostly a figment of the media's imagination - but I'd go so far as saying that while SRK is a phenomenon, AB is a legend! If SRK is the Baadshah (King) of Bollywood, AB is the Shahenshah (Emperor). :))

Anyways… back to the book. As I feared and expected, the book is replete with stereotypes and cliches ...but let me start first with some of the things from the 1st chapter that I agreed with or found interesting.

The author writes:

Hindi films present life not as it is but as it should be, which perhaps explains why they travel so well. Non-Indians, in countries as diverse as Peru, Indonesia, Greece, and Ethiopia, can connect with the songs, spectacle, and unbridled optimism. For an estimated annual audience of 3.6 billion worldwide, Hindi cinema is a necessary comfort and a collective expression of hope.

Do not know if that 3.6B number is right – that’s almost 60% of the world’s population! Even with counting each viewing of a movie by a person as a count, even accounting for people in India that see 50+ movies a year, or the few that see the same movie many times, 3.6B seems like a tall order. Anyways…that’s minor nit-picking compared to some of the hogwash that comes later.

Even the "collective expression of hope" terminology, I'll excuse as unintentional hyperbole and give her poetic license because movies are indeed a nice numbing distraction away from the grind of tough life in India for many. I also agree with the "travels well" argument. We met a couple from Riga, Latvia during our recent Costa Rica vacation and even she asked about songs from Hindi movies, the bindi, etc! So, its not just a filmi scene from Kabul Express showing an Afghani identifying India with Bollywood stars or stories of Russians identifying India with Raj Kapoor etc... it’s a reality. Many people around the world know nothing about India but know about Bollywood movies. I think it is the songs and the music and the colorful spectacle that people can identify with. Hard to identify with dark gloomy existential angst movies from Sweden or France unless you are a real movie buff...but a Hindi movie you can perhaps enjoy for half an hour without even sub-titles and without understanding much of what is going on...as many of the time it is all illogical and crazy even to those of us who do understand hindi!

That said, making an extension from some people know about Bollywood movies to making it sound like Bollywood has a great fan-following around the globe strikes of being self-delusional at best or as stretching the truth a bit at worst!

However, the author does reel off some interesting factoids about popularity of Bollywood movies beyond India.

She writes about how in South Korea - where only one Indian movie has been released (a Tamil film Muthu: The Dancing Maharaja, in 1988) - there is a 7000-odd member Bollywood Lovers club who "wear SRK t-shirts and drink coffee from cups with his photograph on them" as they watch Hindi movies. And also other such examples in Nigeria and Lebanon and Germany...the latter having dubbed Hindi DVDs sold with the tag line "Bollywood macht glucklich!" or Bollywood makes you happy!

Though I would counter that by saying that just because some people are in a Bollywood film club, does not mean it is widely popular in that country. At least here in the US, despite all the Bollywood-conquers-Hollywood talk in Indian papers after Oscar nomination for Lagaan and great proceeds from screening Hindi movies in theaters, ignoring the fact that it mainly caters to the immigrant Indian population, I think Hindi movies are not really known to the non-Indian masses. Even with the real movie buffs, there is hardly much of a clamor to see Hindi movies as there is to see some other foreign language films from Europe or even China/Hong Kong. There are a handful of Americans that probably do watch Hindi movies on a regular basis but making a generalization based on a few data points is classic folly and a wild and unsubstantiated exaggeration in this case.

Couple other interesting factoids I gleaned so far that I did not know before

- Bollywood was first used by crime fiction writer HRF Keating in 1976 (per NYT language guru William Safire)

- Most interesting to me is that Anupama Chopra is Vidhu Vinod Chopra's wife and is the sister of Vikram Chandra, author of the recent Bombay-based crime-gangster novel, Sacred Games, a 900+ page monster-mega novel that after a while I was forcing myself to read just to say I completed reading a 900 page novel but I gave up after reading 550 pages or so. The book had received rave reviews and was much awaited event in 2007, especially because of the multi-million dollar advance Vikram Chandra had gotten!

Ok...time now for more trite exaggerations and cliches! :) (Note: I am not quoting word-for-word from the book and have paraphrased most of this in half-sentences as I lacked the patience to transcribe the hackneyed language. It’s a joy to transcribe beautiful sentences from a book to record for latter enjoyment but this makes me balk and is not what I call enjoyable reading.)

Bollywood isn't just a style of filmmaking. It is also a culture and a religion. ..and then she goes on to write about how hindi films dictate dress codes, language, rituals, and aspirations of everyone from a villager in backward Bihar to a Silicon Valley software engineer.

There are many Indias, many Indian realities... and Bollywood binds them all together..."a global glue, binding together Indians across gender, geography, religion, and age"... and in todays global word, "Bollywood is no longer the shabby, slightly embarrassing country cousin that the parents insist on bringing home. hindi films are trendy. so is India"

And SRK is the face of a glittering new India. a modern day god. posters alongside those of religious deities.. shrines erected in his name. Bigger than Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt combined. a colossus that has straddled Bollywood for over 15 years. ..middle-class Muslim boy from Delhi becomes so big that when he flicks away cigarette butts, people pick them up as souvenirs…. About how a muslim superstar in a hindu majority country and his life reflects the fundamental paradoxes of a post-liberalization nation attempting to thrive in a globalized world. His story provides a ringside view into the forces shaping indian culture today.

Aah yes... I was expecting her to write about that - the Muslim star in a Hindu majority bit. Viewed in isolation, it is not a lie but linking it to being a phenomenon of "post-liberalization nation" is sheer BS & hokum.... something a Westerner reading this may lap up, without knowing that Muslims have been part and parcel of the Bollywood scene for decades and decades -- almost from the very beginning in 1930s ...from big mega-producers like K. Asif...to super-stars like Dilip Kumar to Waheeda Rehman to today's superstars like Aamir, Salman, etc. So, its not like Shahrukh or a Muslim star in Hindu India is an oddity. That he is Muslim and still loved and raved about in "Hindu India" fits some misguided stereotype that some Westerners may have.. but it is sheer irresponsible for an Indian to further propagate such claptrap.

(In my previous post about the book I had noted that Amit Varma has been recently blogging about such nonsense from even Indian authors like Shashi Tharoor - see Of Pithy Generalities and Tired Perceptions, The Conviction of Banality and Xerox Machines and Democracy?. Also, a more recent post post about Tharoor’s comment about how great it is that despite drinking Coke, India has not been 'Coca-colonized'!!!)

Reminds me of an outrageous article by an Australian in the last few weeks about how caste plays a role in Indian cricket team selection - because apparently there are a majority (7-8) Brahmins in the team today!

Some day in the past, when Raja-Maharajahs played cricket for India, yes – there may have been a bias against people of a certain caste or background then! Today... I don’t think so! Like Harsha Bhogle, I would not even know who in the team is Brahman and who is not - though the writer seems to imply that this is hypocrisy on the part of Bhogle!

But toss the question into still water and you might not hear a splash. Harsha Bhogle, the erudite Indian commentator heard on ABC radio and ESPN, was astounded to be asked about the role of caste in Indian cricket. "I don't think that anyone in the Indian team would even be aware that X is from one caste and Z from another," he said, adding he had no idea what proportion of India's population were Brahmin. "I did not not even know that, it hasn't crossed my mind at all."

If the team has a lot more "Brahmins"...and not enough people of the "SC/ST caste", it is because people from under-privileged backgrounds have fewer chances in life in general and lack the resources definitely to make it through the highly competitive and expensive system of sports coaching and training. So there are fewer SC/ST people in the team not because of some inherent (by that I mean genetic) lack of talent in them (eugenics ideologues stay away!) or caste/race based discrimination against them!

But no... the article goes on to quote some ignoramus of a Dalit desi called Siriyavan Anand, whose brilliant mind could think up nonsense such as:

"infer that cricket is a game that best suits Brahmanical tastes and bodies, and that there has been a preponderance of Brahman cricket players at the national level".

Anand's argument that cricket is an idle and indolent game - at least when played by higher-caste Indians - is readily accepted by commentators and even Australian crowds, who know next to nothing of caste in India.

“Why do their fielders not chase the ball to the boundary? Why do Indian batsmen rarely run for singles, apparently preferring to hit the ball to the fence or amble through for two runs in no obvious haste?" Anand wrote. "Having too many Brahmans means that you play the game a little too softly, and mostly for yourself."

The man rated India's best fieldsman, Eknath Solkar, is not a Brahmin, nor is Vinod Kambli, a precociously talented batsmen from a "lower" caste, who burst on the scene with Tendulkar when the pair made a world record partnership of 664 as schoolboys. He played the last of his 17 Tests in 1995, despite an average of 54.20 and a highest score of 227.

WTF! Kambli did not have a career like Tendulkars because he had some drinking problems and lmostly because he ost his form! Whether his upbringing had anything to do with it is for sociologists to analyze...but dropping him from the team was because of a lack of form - a merit-based decision, which Aussies pride themselves on inculcating in their system.

When grilled on the subject, even Cricinfo's Siddhartha Vaidyanathan comes up with some BS!!

Siddhartha can see caste as a possible explanation for the Brahmin dominance, particularly in batting. "Traditionally, cricket has been an elitist sport, and in terms of the physique and what you need as a batsman, it's more skill, wrist and angles than what you need as a fast bowler or fielder," he says. "That probably explains it in a way. If you look at the body structure of the higher castes, you would find they aren't as athletic as they are deft."

Salil Tripathi tried to set the record straight in an article in Cricinfo by pointing out that this fact of 7-8 out of 12-14 cricketers being Brahmins is merely a result of circumstances and not by design, while at the same time pointing out that those who live in glass houses should not really throw stones. (He throws some muck back at the Aussies own record vis-a-vis recruiting people with black or aboriginal backgrounds. Again, I do not think this is by design but as in the Indian case, it is likely a sociological reason of fewer resources and privileges enjoyed by this ground of people, who were definitely collectively discriminated against and mistreated in the past.)

Anyways… I’ve probably lost most of you by now and have drifted far away from the original topic of Bollywood and SRK-mania…so I’ll stop now.

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