Bend it Like Bollywood

By Nasreen Munni Kabir

girlfriend-stayen-bose.jpgGirlfriend, dir. Satyen Bose 1960

In conversation with Shekhar Kapur

Director of Oscar-nominated film Elizabeth and the controversial Bandit Queen, Shekhar Kapur collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on his latest musical. Bombay Dreams recreates Bollywood on stage with some of the Indian film industry’s finest talents: composer AR Rahman, whose albums have sold more than Britney Spears and Madonna combined, and choreographer Farah Khan, responsible for the dances in nearly all the recent Bollywood blockbusters.

Nasreen Munni Kabir: Can you tell me where the roots of Bollywood come from?

lagaan-ashutosh-gowariker.jpgLagaan Ashutosh dir. by Gowariker, 2001

Sekhar Kapur: You know, convention arises from convention. Hindi film is probably the only film business in the world that has stuck to its original roots. And the original roots some people say lie in Parsee theatre, but I would go back and say it lies in folk theatre. Every year, we celebrate the Ram Lila. The Ram Lila is a nine or ten day telling of the story of Ram combined with the theatrical style of the Nautanki – where you tell a story that everybody knows. The actors are different and because the story is very long, you break up the telling of the serious story with song and dance. There is a village version of the Ram Lila, so there is the local butcher, the local cobbler and the local people – you have no women in the performance – it is always men. The men get up, play the part of the women and then they play out the serious story of the Ram and Sita. And suddenly they will stop and tell local jokes and do a little song and dance routine to keep everyone entertained because it runs for hours. This is what we call the Nautanki style. Nautanki was such a popular folk theatre art form in India that it seeped into cinema and because we as Indians were so steeped in that culture, Indian cinema found that it had its own identity as against the rest of the world cinema.

NMK: Bollywood now seems to be everywhere. Do you think this is a seasonal thing, or that people are really interested in the films? I feel it might just be an interest in Bollywood fashion and glamour.

junglee-subodh-mukherji.jpgJunglee dir. by Subodh Mukherji, 1961

SK: Okay. Let’s talk about cinema for a moment. Hollywood cinema is getting standardized. I’m not making a plug for Bend it like Beckham but I know when I saw the film I saw a simply-told film. Almost raw at the edges. And I just wondered, why am I liking a simply told film like that or Monsoon Wedding? It’s not packaged. There is a sense of packaging that is coming with all Western cinema. Not European cinema but 90% of the films we see have sophisticated packaging. As a kid and even in later years, you go to a village in India and you are served tea in a little clay pot made in that village. You are getting the taste of the clay pot and the earth in it and when you finish your tea, you just throw the little clay pot away. It mingles with the earth again because it comes from that earth. In the West, when you have some tea, you go to a machine, you plug it in, there is a little machine that gives the tea to you and the sugar comes in a little bit of packaging and the milk comes in another little bit of packaging; and you put it together and then at the end of it you see all this packaging. What it’s done is taken away all simplicity – of course it’s more convenient – it’s printed in colours, it’s attractive, everything. I ache for that simplicity of that clay pot in which I drank tea. And so the more you package the more you make it convenient, the more you make it attractive, the more it goes away from its simplicity and its roots. And that’s what’s happening to music and film and theatre in the West. In the East, as against the West, there is an expression of individuality, a constant expression of individuality. The West has always been in its culture an expression of organisation so the music is orchestral. In the East the greatest music comes from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who sang in a totally organic and terribly chaotic way and regaled 20,000 people at a time. So there is this kind of difference and that’s part of the attractiveness of Indian cinema, so it’s not just the clothes.

NMK: That may be right. You have been working in the west and Bombay Dreams is an example of a unique collaboration between Indians and Britons in the musical theatre. Do you think it is the beginning of a new, cultural exchange between Britain and India?

divale-dulhania-le-jayenge-dance-aditya-chopra.jpgDivale Dulhania Le Jayenge Dance dir. by Aditya Chopra,1995

SK: Well it’s not only in Bombay Dreams. Look at the films. There was East is East – there was huge interest in that film. There’s Bend it like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, and there’s huge interest in Lagaan and Devdas. I think that cultural viewpoints are cyclical. We’ve had a situation where Western culture has been dominated by the US, which, since the Second World War, has been the predominately marketed culture over the rest of the world. But that’s a cyclical thing. In between, the black cultures started to make their voice heard. And therefore they seeped into that American culture and suddenly they became quite predominant, but mixing in. Now the Asian cultures are coming up and the Asian cultures have this one advantage of being 80% of the population of the world. Right now it’s not just the Indians, it’s the Chinese. But because the Indian film industry is the largest and most developed film industry in the world, in fact you have more technical crews available in Bombay than the whole of Asia put together. You have more cameramen, you have more actors, you have more production going on than all of Asia put together. It’s twice as large as Hollywood. Because of that, the means by which that culture is expressing itself now is through this very developed system. And so it’s coming into a world, the West, which is now looking for a different culture. And if I was to make a prediction, I would say that in the next ten years, the dominant, marketed culture worldwide is going to come from that part of the world that has the largest home market. You have a home market of two and a half billion people. So, 70-80% of the world is going to express itself very, very strongly. When everybody keeps saying it’s going to be one world now, it’s going to be a global village, the assumption is that it’s going to be the Western media in this global village. But they are wrong, because the moment it becomes a global village the Western media is totally threatened by Asian culture and Asian media. And in the next ten years that is what is going to happen. And what you’re seeing in the UK now is the beginnings of that.

Interview extracts from the documentary Spotlight & Saris: Making Bombay Dreams (Hyphen Films/BBC1).

Nasreen Munni Kabir is a producer/director whose credits include Movie Mahal and How To Make a Bollywood Movie. Her book, Bowled Over by Bollywood, was published in 2001.