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Is Bollywood ashamed of India?

By: The Cinema Cynic
In the wake of the unfortunate performance of Rock On 2 at the Box Office, I began re-reading many of the so-called critics reviews of the movie and was astonished to find that one of the areas that these self-proclaimed movie experts mocked was the use of Shillong, the beautiful capital city of Meghalaya as a backdrop. Besides being an absolutely idiotic reason for criticizing a movie, it got me thinking as to what has become a rather irritating trend in Bollywood – the use of foreign, rather than Indian settings.
Is Bollywood ashamed of India? For all its grit, crime, trials and tribulations, India is as beautiful and wonderful place with an allure that captures the heart and, I dare say, soul of anyone who is willing to open themselves up to its charm and look beyond the surface. Mother India has inspired artists, poets, writers, composers of music and singers yet it seems to be unable to inspire Bollywood to rise beyond its mediocre fare and penchant for foreign locales. The legends, folklore, history, mythology and spirit that suffuses so much of the Indian identity is now conspicuous by its absence from Bollywood films as if that branch of Indian cinema is content to pander to NRIs and a minority audience seeking foreign climes.
It is not enough that some of Bollywood ’s actresses think that getting mediocre roles in nonsensical Hollywood production is the epitome of success – their loyal chelas in the media being quick to stroke their enormous egos – but Bollywood produces and directors now deliver more of a view of Paris, London, Corsica, Budapest or even Istanbul rather than Jaipur, Lucknow, Guwahati or Amritsar. Even Delhi and Mumbai only get a decent showing in arthouse cinema while it took a distinctly unconventional, albeit excellent movie like Udta Punjab to give us a good look at that state while the equally unconventional but undoubtedly brilliant Haider gave us a good hard look at Kashmir. Rock On 2 did well to showcase Meghalaya and one wishes more films would be made in the North-East I say nothing about Chennai Express as some of its stereotyping made me distinctly uncomfortable. While most Bollywood films are still set in India, one does not get the visual feast of India’s wonderful scenery.
Bollywood was not always so fond of foreign locales. From its inception, it offered a stylized but nonetheless often stark view of India – rural and urban – from the 1940s to the 1970s. Even the period 1980 to 2001 offered everything from a touching tribute to the Indian railways in The Burning Train to Sunny Deol at probably his best in 2001s Indian. However, it is interesting that from the 1990s onwards, the “aspirational” middle and upper-class films are all set abroad as if the ultimate goal for an Indian is to leave India. There is certainly a place for such films but why is India itself still so unexplored by Bollywood ’s producers and directors? Is not the India-based middle-class with their aspirations, idiosyncrasies and the more mundane aspects of their lives not worthy of more exploration? Is not the beautiful scenery of India not worth being used as a backdrop for stories more often? I suggest the answer to both is a definite yes.
What is much more disturbing is a parochialism that dominates Bollywood casting. From the obscene whitewashed casting of Priyanka Chopra as the Manipur legend Mary Kom (instead of an actress from the North-East) to the equally offensive casting of Deepika Padukone as a Tamil woman in Chennai Express, one wonders if Bollywood appreciates that there are other people in India other than Punjabis and Maharashtrians? It is especially galling as many of the regional cinema industries are producing cinematic gems with excellent actors who can be gainfully employed in Bollywood to enhance its pan-India profile.
Even thematically, outside a few genres and excluding arthouse films, Bollywood films are increasingly operating in a cultural and inspirational vacuum. Is it not time that Bollywood delve more deeply into Indian history, art and mythology for a new generation of films? That being said, its initial foray is this regard – Bajirao Mastani and Mohenjo Daro among the more recent examples – were truly embarrassing in their portrayal of society, people and even the intrigue of their respective time periods. Nonetheless, there is such a wealth of material that a talented producer or director would be spoilt for choice. Perhaps it is a lack of will that is at play?
Commercially, it is not entirely clear that foreign locales do anything to enhance box office takings and certainly do much to increase the cost of a film. The abysmal Tamasha gave us a beautiful view of Corsica and increased the cost of the film exponentially while doing nothing to enhance the quality of an appalling film (and some pretty poor acting from Deepika and Ranbir Kapoor). Perhaps some home-based fun films are the need of the hour, celebrating the beauty of India, the ups and downs of its people and the richness of its culture. India is an experience – a wonderful one for those open of heart and mind – and Bollywood should not be shy of showcasing it to its audience.