Years ago, I read an article by Rachel Dwyer – a western academic and champion of Bollywood – asking the scoffing audience in India or elsewhere to compare Bollywood films to modern day musicals. After all, they are both replete with music, dancing, action, high emotions, spectacle and melodrama. Only when we saw Hindi films through the lens of musicals, she argued, would we really appreciate the true value of Bollywood’s offerings. Unfortunately, never having seen a musical, I was rather hampered from taking her advice then.
So once in London, I decided to fill this lacuna in my cultural education, and Sid and I started logging in the musicals: Phantom of the Opera (high emotions and great, great music); We Will Rock You (terrible, terrible, terrible); Thirty-nine Steps (Comical with great light and shadow effects); Billy (fabulous dancing and social commentary); and finally Enron (intelligent, incisive, and contemporary), which we caught last week.
I still have a hard time appreciating most Bollywood films.
To begin with, most musicals tend to maximise the audience experience by putting the stage to new and clever use; whether it is through silhouettes, clever lighting, puppets, or clever platforms that seem to appear and disappear at will. It works because we know the limitations of a single stage, and hence can appreciate it when someone puts it to particularly innovative use.
Bollywood films on the other hand rarely experiment with the tools of their trade – the camera, the editing machinery, the studio space – to give us new experiences.
Even when it comes to storytelling, watching Enron made me think why should incorporating music, dance and high emotions require sacrificing complexity at all. The musical is based on the rise and fall of the energy company Enron: one of the biggest corporate scams ever perpetrated. It is hardly a subject that renders itself to music and dancing. And yet, the musical manages to tell the story with ease, style and heavy doses of black comedy. After all, the idea of a musical or a film is to put a story forward – draw certain characters, delve into their psyche, recreate the mood and atmosphere of the environment in which they existed, and explain what they did. And in case of Enron, the music and dancing heightens our experience of the characters and their motivations, the headiness of the rollick’ 90s, and that curious mixing of testosterone and greed that fuelled the whole episode. And it does so without sacrificing the complexity of the financial shenanigans that lead to Enron’s downfall.
You see, my quibble with Bollywood has nothing to do with singing, dancing and high emotions. It is that that most films do not use them cleverly enough to accentuate the story-telling. And that they almost never use the tools of their medium to create a new visual experience – unless you consider a 100 dancers behind Shah Rukh Khan a spectacle.