"Swades": the Bollywood that you never knew existed. Courtesy of www.nexbase.net/photo-gallery/Swades/Swades_11
Going down the Bollywood chute... with David Chute
L.A.’s resident Bollywood expert talks to APA about being an Indian cinema fan living in the U.S. and programming the upcoming Filmi Melody program at the UCLA Film & TV Archive.
It seems almost a given that whenever a major American publication needs a local expert on Bollywood cinema, it turns to freelance critic David Chute, who since the mid '90s has written for Film Comment, The Village Voice, The LA Times, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, covering everything from American indies to Japanese cult films. For nearly 20 years, Chute has been instrumental in raising consciousness of popular Hong Kong film in the states, editing a special section of Film Comment on the cinema in 1988. Later, he served as a publicist on several John Woo pictures. In 2003, he edited the catalog accompanying the UCLA Film & TV Archive’s well-publicized traveling film series Heroic Grace, introducing and contextualizing the Shaw Brothers’s martial arts classics on their first U.S. tour after they were finally released from the Shaw vaults.
In the mid-90s, Chute discovered Bollywood, and did for that cinema what he did for Hong Kong film. In 2002, he edited a special section of Film Comment called “Bollywood Rising” which coincided with a rising interest in Bollywood cinema among film buffs in Europe and America, as well as among western academics. When he’s not contributing to Film Comment and The LA Weekly, Chute programs Indian film-related festivals and programs. From Oct. 21 to Oct. 30, 2005, the UCLA Film & TV Archive will present his series Filmi Melody: Song and Dance in Indian Cinema, co-curated with Cheng-sim Lim. The program includes five films (four new, one classic), and focuses on three of Bollywood’s most charismatic leading men: Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, and Shah Rukh Khan.
APA: How did you first get into Bollywood films?
David Chute: I got into Bollywood really through the music. It was around 1990 and I was already writing about Hong Kong and Chinese movies pretty regularly. I just happened to read about a collection of Indian film songs. It was actually a three-disc set called “Golden Voices of the Silver Screen,” which was written about in the Village Voice. I enjoyed reading about the whole culture of the playback singer, and how that was a music culture in and of itself. For quite a long time, the playback singer was the popular vocalist in India. Mira Nair said that she used to listen to the songs on the radio and in radio request programs, and since she lived in a village, she used to listen to songs on the radio that she wouldn’t see on the screen.
As a result of my interest in the music, I became fascinated by the films, and I tried to find them. At the time, there wasn’t much on VHS. For some reason, they came from the Middle East so they had English and Arabic subtitles, which was odd. What made this all possible really was DVD, because with DVD it’s so easy to put subtitles on things, and it’s not hard to find a machine to play all kinds of films. The DVD market for Bollywood films in the U.S. is huge, and they tend to have English subtitles. They’re made for NRIs in the largest sense, which means from all over the world. There are two official languages in India: Hindi and English, so Indians who have the means to move to Paris, London, or elsewhere can watch these films with the option of English subtitles, which is good for fans. The Indian minority community became big enough in the U.K. -- comparable to the Latino community in the U.S. -- that there are Indian soap operas, Indian pop groups, and of course, Bhangra. There has also been a renaissance in English writing on Indian cinema. It’s a great time to be a fan.
APA: Where do you find films to watch, and how do you get information on the films?
DC: There are books you can get online. Bollywood: the Indian Cinema Story, by Nasreen Munni Kabir, is probably the best book to get. There’s also a “Pocket Essentials” book featuring 50 Indian classics. Living in Los Angeles is great because in Artesia there’s the Naz 8 theater. There’s also a place in Culver City called India Music and Boutique (9443 Venice Blvd). The pirated stuff turns up in grocery stores. Every neighborhood has one. There used to be a very good online rental site called indofilms.com. It was really well run, and it had DVDs in eight different languages, but suddenly it just vanished, perhaps due to the effects of piracy. You can rent some Indian films from Netflix, although the selection isn’t too big. And there is also indiaplaza.com. Bollywhat.com has things like translations of lyrics, filmographies, and various chat rooms. That’s also a sign that there’s interest growing outside of India.
APA: Was it difficult to convince publishers to run stories on Bollywood films, or were they generally very open to such articles?
DC: The first time I did it was for Film Comment, and that was in the early '90s. The reason I did it for them was because I went to the Toronto Film Festival where they had a series programmed by a guy interested in various genres. I’d never had a chance to see them on the big screen with subtitles. This was a big deal at the time and was quite an eye-opener. It was the beginning of a trend of younger filmmakers boosting the level of cinema: lenses, cutting, and so on. It was an important period to start getting into Indian cinema. There were a few Laserdiscs at the time but not many. I was just kind of keeping an eye on things, and then DVD started, and as soon as that became possible, I became an indofilms subscriber, and it was only a matter of time before I wrote more. And there were people writing on Bollywood in England. There was something in the air there.
APA: Was it a problem not knowing any India languages?
DC: That was certainly what prevented me in the beginning. I know there are people who can sit through a film without subtitles, just as there are critics who can watch films on pan ‘n' scan. My conscience couldn’t let me write on a film that way. That’s another reason why DVD is a better format for study.
APA: Was it a problem not knowing the culture?
DC: Not so much, and one of the reasons why can be explained by screenwriter/lyricist Javed Akhtar who talks about Bollywood as another country in and of itself. It’s not India. It has some things in common with the parts of India, but it’s not the same. It has its own culture and customs. I think this is why they’re easier to understand if you’re not from India. They’re kind of self-contained. As you watch the films, they fill you in about their culture, which is Bollywood culture. Of course that isn’t exactly true about all popular films, and it certainly changes. One of the films that we’re showing, Swades, isn’t strictly a “Bollywood” film because it refers to the real world by looking at the state of India now, and also looking at earlier movies and looking at the state of India then. You’ll suddenly see Mother India for example. The movie tells you what you need to know about its characters, and either you accept them or you don’t.
APA: How did you choose these three actors to focus on for the Indian Cinema series?
DC: Our motive was to give people a variety of perspectives. It’s a question of what are the best films released roughly in the last two years that would work for this audience. We wanted to show a classic, an older film (Amar Akbar Anthony). And we had a friend who was friends with the Kamal Haasan people and wanted to know if we’d be interested in showing his films, and I said yes because he was one of the stars that got me into Bollywood in the first place. Shah Rukh Khan is arguably the only star now who has the star power that Amitabh Bachchan had years ago. Kamal Haasan, even though he’s a Tamil, has equal stature.
APA: Is there any connection between this series and the Amitabh Bachchan series held by the Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre earlier this year?
DC: No. I was a little disappointed that the Bachchan series didn’t travel more. I think we got some help from somebody at the Lincoln Center who got in touch with Amitabh Bachchan, who owns the rights to all of his films.
APA: What are some obstacles to programming a Bollywood series that you wouldn’t face with other kinds of films? For example, did you have to deal with agents not used to renting to westerners?
DC: The position we’re in now is not unlike the situation with programming Hong Kong films several years ago. Among the people who have to be convinced are the distributors and producers of the movies. You’re dealing with people who have never done this before, or who don’t understand how this will help their films in the long run. They would ask for a thousand dollars, and you’d have to tell them you’re a university. They have to be educated also, and told, and made to see that there’s a potential audience outside of the usual channels.
APA: What do you see as your goal in programming this series? And what stereotypes held by Americans regarding Bollywood films would you like to dispel?
DC: Musicals are not a flourishing genre in the west right now. Most have the idea that you can’t use music as anything but an interlude. However, they can be an integral part of the storytelling in the film. There are entire genres of film songs in Bollywood films. One of the great traditions is the “separated lovers duet” featuring lovers who are singing the same song even though they’re far apart. Sometimes they’re used in the same way a montage sequence would be used in the U.S., which would be to condense time. It’s interesting to see how music changes. We’re going through a period I call a neo-traditional movement where directors are kind of fed up with how songs were done in the '80s and early '90s where every musical sequence would have to be a large dance number. Years ago, Raj Kapoor could do a song just leaning on a windowsill with noirish lighting. In this new movement -- and Lagaan is an example -- you could have numbers where people sing while sitting down.
When you do that, the lyrics of the songs become the focus, and the songs become necessarily a narrative element rather than a spectacle. That seems to be a trend that’s starting to rise. As for these movies making a case to the American audience, that’s it: here are some films showing you five different ways music can be used in film.
Some of David Chute’s writings on Bollywood can be found on his website:
For links to some of the resources mentioned, check out Chute’s very useful guide to finding and learning about Indian cinema, originally published in Film Comment (May-June 2002):
Date Posted: 10/20/2005