There are few things more ridiculous than an actress in a Bollywood movie going to sleep with make-up intact on her face, yet waking up looking like an ethereal beast that has descended from heaven. The thought alone of hitting the sack with a painted face is enough to give common womenfolk the heebie-jeebies. Even so, not many question this act of opposing the laws of nature, due to the effectiveness of cinematic conditioning that Indian audiences have been subjected to over the years. Between the eras of Zeenat Aman and Deepika Padukone, the unrealities haven’t changed and heroines are still shown with hair that is permanently blow-dried, and cheeks that permanently blush red even in the absence of their lovers.
Appearance matters most is the mantra which Bollywood continuously peddles. A change in someone’s physicality becomes a cause for a pathbreaking turn of events. Be it Anjali who transformed from a tomboy to a bridal woman, or Rohan who changed from a chubby overeater to a lean, leather-rocking hottie, or even both the chashmish Nainas who made the momentous shift from glasses to lenses; all preach the same lesson as those problematic fairness cream ads – “conform to conventional beauty and life will work out.” Unsurprisingly, Karan Johar, Bollywood’s local stereotype-reinforcer has a hand to play in each of the mentioned characters’ so-called chrysalis.
As I consume these movies with unkempt hair and a bulgy paunch in my ordinary bedroom, I can’t help but think of the million such idiocies the Hindi film industry is riddled with. Sure, the very concept of the movie world stems from make-believe fiction, that is primarily meant to entertain, but then marketing these very films as derivations of reality, betrays the hypocrisy this industry thrives upon. Directors from the West like Wes Anderson or Tim Burton for instance, are known for creating films which fall within the ambit of fantasy, visible through distinctive set designs which are purposely unreal (and the audience understands as much). The human dynamics between characters, however, remain as true to reality as possible.
Bollywood, on the other hand, is yet to completely gauge the concept of fantasy films. Save for a few laudable attempts like Koi Mil Gaya… or Mr. India, the word “fantasy” here is a green light for scripts involving ghosts, superheroes, shape-shifters and every other supernatural creature imaginable. South Indian cinema has overtaken Hindi cinema in this, and multiple other aspects, by producing films which are more accessible and believable. Even a larger-than-life film like Baahubali, which is 159 minutes of unadulterated, in-your-face fantasy, generated a furore of adulation from world over, due to its strong scriptwriting, breathtaking cinematography, and engaging storyline. Meanwhile back here in Bollywood, directors are still grappling with unwatchable ideas of video game robots coming to life, and sleazy men pursuing seductive ghosts in the name of fantasy.
One genre that Bollywood fares exceedingly well in, however, is drama/melodrama. Everything is practiced in excess- from comedy, to romance, to action sequences, to weeping – mostly to the extent of appearing boorish. The Parallel Cinema movement that began in the 50s, sought to counter this crass narrative form. Auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal introduced elements of realism, symbolism, and socialism in their films which lent them an authenticity that made people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this form couldn’t cater to public interests and was brushed to the fringes, a trend that still continues. Subtlety is yet under-appreciated in mainstream cinema. The more minimalist and raw emotions have been conveniently relegated to that section of films which are labelled “indie” or “art”. This situation is laughable, where the audience fully comprehends no-brainer commercial productions, but satirises these uncommercial social films as fodder, meant to fuel the highbrow movie-watcher’s ego. But if an Ankur or a Village Rockstars keeps my emotions in sync with my actual self, then call me a pseudo-intellectual all you want.
Bollywood plays big on fate and chance, so much so, that one wonders whether the movie characters are divinely ordained to never run out of good luck. Coincidence is used generously as a device to cover up loopholes and further the plot. Girl meets boy? Coincidence. Someone witnesses a murder? Coincidence. How to choose which road to drive on so it accidentally fits in with the rest of the story? Coincidence. Likewise, there is no paucity of close shaves where the lead actor is somehow always successful, in being conspicuous, when s/he is about to be caught in the act. Surely life isn’t always that merciful. As conspicuous as I’ve been trying to sneak a packet of biscuits from the kitchen, I’ve always been caught.
The biggest trademark idiosyncrasy Bollywood flashes proudly is the dance-song sequence which no movie is complete without. With no warning, the male and female leads break out into an elaborate jig, some sufferable, most insufferable. If it is not a slow, romantic number, they are joined by passers-by on the road, who seem like they all somehow trained at a professional dance academy before casually strolling down the same street. And God forbid if it’s a romantic track! The actors are magically transported to an exotic location somewhere down in Egypt to cuddle in front of the Sphinx.
Romance is the force which makes the earth spin on its axis, it seems. It withstands all. Or at least that is what Bollywood and its songs seem to reinforce. Everything is fair in love and war, especially gender inequality, and objectification of the body. According to film logic, it hardly matters if Rahul (all of them) is an entitled alpha all along in the movie as long as he feeds his beloved a spoonful of something, or sheds a few tears on seeing her in the end. Crying is the extent of his emotional understanding of the opposite sex – a silent misunderstanding – that they are both equals in the relationship. These two virtues, love and crying, are the premise of almost every Bollywood movie there is. Even if it’s a tiny ounce, it is a necessary ingredient added for shagun, no matter the plot. It could be as serious as Ajay Devgn standing astride two airplanes in the sky, shooting bullets at the enemy 12,000 ft. below on the ground. But one can guarantee, that after this hyper-nationalistic war is successfully won, he would be heading home to his wife and kids to read them all bedtime stories like a good family man.
Written by Tanvi Akhauri
Edited by Sukriti Vats
Featured Image edited by Tanvi Akhauri
(A still from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai)