The B Word

“Bollywood! The nickname for the largest, most spectacular film industry on earth. Every year, India produces three times as many films as Hollywood and sells move than two billion movie tickets.”

From the get go, English telly personality Anita Rani makes clear her priorities for her two-part BBC Two series Bollywood: The World’s Biggest Film Industry – rolling off (in her hyperbolic, Jeremy Clarkson-esque lilt) well-trodden fluff facts on Hindi cinema, imprisoning it as a dazzling, immense “thing” – an abstract concept to be trivialised. Not actual real films that can actually be watched, loved, hated and studied from beginning to end. Not real films, like French films are real films. Not like American films are real films, or Korean films are real films. No, this is BOLLYWOOD we’re talking about. The fact those Indians even have a movie industry is amazing, much less a really, really massive one. Let’s spend a while just getting over that first before we even contemplate actually watching this stuff they make.

Okay, yes, nine seconds onto Episode 1 and I was already judging this programme rather harshly. It got better later on. A bit.

bw1“Johnny Lever! Ermahgerd!!!”

“I’ve been fascinated by Indian cinema since I was a kid”, claims Rani, before a clip is shown of her shouting “I love you!” across the street at Johnny Lever, one of the most annoying comedy actors ever. Her questionable knowledge of Hindi cinema makes her a debatable candidate for covering its films, though admittedly the series’ meagre two-episode series length doesn’t even try to cover its history in any substantial quantity. Instead, there’s the usual gasping at cheap ticket prices, touristy journeys on Mumbai rickshaws, and shots of filthy slums aside sparkling skyscrapers. Rani’s description of India as “exotic” is the icing on this cake of limited, cliched perception. This might not only be a show for people who’ve never heard of Bollywood before, but who’ve never heard of India before.

“No Bollywood film worth its salt would be worth releasing without action!”, Rani tells us half-jokingly. I think half-jokingly. Her listing of ingredients integral to Hindi masala flicks – romance, comedy, song-and-dance – is the same generalisation of Indian cinema, even Bollywood, that has dogged its reputation abroad. With unnamed clip after clip showing the most rotten, or – at best – most average, of modern Hindi popcorn cinema, the uninitiated viewer certainly has no right to imagine Indian films are, or ever were, capable of genuine artistry or indivudualism. Rani: “These song-and-dance numbers might seem like a bit of fun, frivolous escapism”. Yes, YOUR OWN CHOICE OF CLIPS does somehow give that impression, Anita. This could have been a segue into the other side of Bollywood – a selection of moments from the songless and wordless Pushpak (1988, d. Singeetam Srinivasa Rao), the gritty crime thriller Satya (1998, d.  Ram Gopal Varma),  or the atmospheric noir Baazi (d. 1951, Guru Dutt). Instead, Rani quickly wraps up by simply explaining that Indians have always liked to dance.

On the set of the forgettable actioner Raid (2018, d. Raj Kumar Gupta), Rani gawks in gleeful wonder at the woeful fight choreography and seems especially keen to show us one remarkable technique that she’s apparently never heard of before – a stunt dude being pulled by a wire. Needless to say, the cast and crew of these shoots are entirely matter-of-fact in their interviews with Rani, who blurts patronisingly about their feats to no end. “You rebuilt a whole set?!”, she exclaims to one blase production assistant. “When you started out in the films, were there even scripts?” she asks actor Ajay Devgan, who began acting in 1991. Devgan gives a polite reply, despite me begging him to say “No, actually we didn’t even have spotlights back then. Our films all had to be shot in temples by candlelight.”

bw2“And do you have dial-up here yet?”

By extolling their filmmaking skills, particularly the most basic, Rani paradoxically makes Bollywood crews (who are actually as proficient as any in the industry) out to be stone age chumps. The more excitedly she portrays the modernity of their camera equipment or dexterity of their costume seamsters, the more unintentionally and vaguely racist the programme becomes in showing that Indians – imagine that – are very talented indeed at making films. This culminates in Rani’s following revelation on “Bollywood secrets”:

“An item song might be four minutes long, but no one ever has to perform the whole thing at once. The choreographers will break the dance down into short, manageable sequences, which they can film separately. Then it’s just the matter of nailing each individual move, one at a time. Then, some careful editing and a little post-production gloss can hide a multitude of sins. With less than an hour’s training and some Bollywood shortcuts, [I can be turned] into an item girl.”

This process – insultingly named “Bollywood shortcuts” – of: breaking a scene up into shots, shooting them one by one, editing them together and finally colour grading…

…IS THE ENTIRE PROCESS OF ALL FILMMAKING EVERYWHERE.

To suggest these are cheap tricks that allow Bollywood performers to dance without looking like unskilled morons is disparaging to just about everyone who makes films. Focusing on the truly admirable talents that make Indian dance scenes so uniquely riveting would have been lovely – the unmatched energy of Laxmi Chhaya’s whiplash movements in “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” (Gumnaam, 1965), the almost inhuman bendiness of Prabhu Deva’s limbs in “Mastana” (Raasaiyya, 1995), the outstanding symbiosis of beat-driven editing/tilted camera positioning and swaying choreography in Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai’s “Dola Re Dola” (Devdas, 2002). But, alas, none of these examples or their like are cited.

Things slowly improve somewhat in Episode 2 as Rani ceases her phoney fawning to call Bollywood out on some of its own bullshit: Western female dancers roped in to perform some of the sleazier dance moves, the obsession with skin-whitening products, the still-present casting couch (Weinstein is mentioned in connection too, pleasingly). But misinformation, half-truths and lazy journalism still abound elsewhere.

“We have just managed to get on the set of Padmaavat. It’s being directed by one of the greatest living Indian film directors.”

The director in question is Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is so great that Rani doesn’t tell us his name or cite any examples of why he has supposedly attained this reputation. Denying us this information again strips him and his films of an actual existence. He is just a thing, like Bollywood – an abstract concept. Where are the clips that show us his authorship, his penchant for melodrama, his lush, extravagant sets, his occasionally problematic portrayal of women as sacrificial lambs? This show is about as deep as a Death Valley lake.

“When I was a kid, Bollywood was famously prudish. There was no kissing on screen and the raciest it got was a woman in a wet sari.”

While rare, kissing has been glimpsed in Indian cinema since the 1930s. When Rani was 18, the 1996 film Raja Hindustani – the third-highest grossing Indian film of the decade – boasted a fifty-second long smooch. As for wet saris being as racy as it got, Rani must not be familiar with Zeenat Aman’s work in the 70s.

All India Bakchod is a YouTube channel of comedians and they’re doing something that’s really radical for India. It’s never been done before. They’re taking a look at the film industry in a sarcastic, irreverent and frankly very rude fashion.”

I was delighted to see All India Bakchod‘s hilarious “‘Cos I Have Vagina” sketch featured in this programme, but Rani again misses out on years of satirical films Indian cinema has poked fun at itself with throughout the decades. Miss Malini (1947, d. Kothamangalam Subbu) ridiculed social climbers in the theatre, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983, d. Kundan Shah) sent up India’s news media along with bureaucracy and Luck By Chance (2009, d. Zoya Akhtar) viciously satirised Bollywood superstar ego and nepotism. Omitting all this rich history only serves to, again, portray India and its film industry as only having just escaped prehistoric times.

The final episode thankfully improves significantly in the latter half hour when Rani meets director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who discusses the genuinely interesting story of the making of his forthcoming drama Mere Pyaare Prime Minister. Lamenting the lack of toilet facilities in Mumbai’s poorest areas, Mehra recruited a cast and crew of genuine slum dwellers (many of whom possess charisma not far off that of Bollywood’s studio stars) to shoot his story on the subject in and around their homes. Mehra’s quiet sincerity seems genuine and silences Rani’s loud, excessive enthusiasm for the first time. Says Mehra: “There are 1.3 billion people in India. There are 1.3 billion stories to be told.” Mehra seems far more aware that these millions are not a concept, but real individuals. A pity that Anita Rani mostly failed to convey this in her documentary.