A National-award winning writer, scholar and filmmaker, Roopa Swaminathan had always wanted to explore the power of Indian cinema and the impact it has made outside of India. Given how much America has leveraged its soft power muscle by way of Hollywood, rap music, basketball and other aspects of its culture – she wondered if India is capable of producing a similar impact with our cultural totems like Bollywood, yoga, Indian curry and so on. Her book Bollywood Boom is an exploration of the Hindi Film Industry’s spectacular success in the 21st century and how the world is feeling the presence of Bollywood like never before.
Over the past few years, there’ve been some amazing, author-backed roles for women, no doubt. But for the most part, the thinking is that they still play a supporting role to the actors. So they have less to lose when they try their luck abroad
She elucidates, “Bollywood has been popular since the 50s in different parts of the world. Since the new millennium, Bollywood had started to make its presence felt in the west as well. But the reason why it seems like Bollywood is now everywhere is because India is everywhere. It’s the first time that our culture, by way of Bollywood, and our politics is making headlines at the same time. So the time was perfect for this book to come out as it allowed me to further explore if India’s rise as a global power (especially soft power) had anything to do with Bollywood. And as the book shows – yes. It plays a significant part.”
“It’s the first time that our culture, by way of Bollywood, and our politics is making headlines at the same time.”
Actresses like Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Tabu, etc. have ventured into Hollywood with a staggering panache and have made a name for themselves. But when it comes to actors barring Irrfan Khan, no one has made an effort to seek International acclaim. At the risk of speaking out of turn, Roopa says that actresses can easily try their luck abroad owing to the secondary roles they still continue to play in Indian films.
“Over the past few years, there’ve been some amazing, author-backed roles for women, no doubt. But for the most part, the thinking is that they still play a supporting role to the actors. So they have less to lose when they try their luck abroad. Or so I think. The leading actors – the Khans, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan – they have so much more to lose if things don’t work out. Remember Kites? No? Neither do I. They also have a very solid fan base that would not take too lightly to their heroes who might have to play a second or third lead. I mean – why should they? They’re very big fishes in a fairly big-sized pond. But I’m reasonably sure that soon, very soon, one of the younger generations of actors, like Ranbir Kapoor or Ranveer Singh will make that transition. I feel like the clock is ticking and it’s a matter of time before one of them does something. This is just a gut feeling of mine!”
For many years, the idea of Indianness has been stereotyped and misappropriated by Hollywood and the west in general. A surge in recent awareness about Indian films has definitely made an effort to change some of it. Roopa feels that the Western audiences are now intrigued by Indian films and even if there is the quintessential bursting into song and dance, there’s an acknowledgement of the different kinds of realistic stories been told. The fact that Indian cinema can showcase a Lunchbox with the same finesse as it can a Bahubali.
On the slightly less positive side, India’s film certification board is currently going above and beyond to not allow any exhibition of sexual or slightly explicit nature (by women), no matter how crucial it might be to the film. Does that affect how the west perceives films made in India?
Roopa adds, “India is well into the 21st century and one would hope that the censor board will join us there. In terms of the west and its opinion on Indian films and censorship – I think many in the west still think Bollywood is more conservative than its Hollywood counterpart. So the censorship over our content is not a big deal for them. What I would be interested to know is if Hollywood even knows how much of their films get censored here in India and what they think about that?”
Two years ago, when I went to study in the UK, my American friend Karla told me that she loved the film Queen and had seen it twice with her mum and sister. Similarly, my Nigerian flatmate had seen 2 Idiots (I had to correct him) and enjoyed it. I ask Roopa if the western world has any kind of reserve when it comes to Indian films – are they pleasantly surprised by the content which gets showcased at film festivals or those which are generally available on streaming websites?
“Priyanka Chopra has done wonders for the image of Bollywood and its cinema. Chopra has never ever apologised for her background as a Bollywood actor and represents India the way it should – with class and swagger.”
“Yes. And no. Look – an American friend who has travelled in India and knows a lot about it told me recently that she was very sad at how an Indian actor – Kunal Nayyar – allows the stereotypes of India to flourish on the biggest sitcom currently on American networks – The Big Bang Theory. She has travelled through most of urban India and cannot fathom the idea that the character Raj, who is from a very affluent Delhi background, can still wear sweater vests (after ten years on the show) in sunny Los Angeles. She has experienced affluent Delhi and knows that Raj in no way represents that world. On the other hand, the same friend thinks Priyanka Chopra kicks ass in Quantico.
With online portals starting to look for more varied content from India our profile will continue to grow. Both Netflix and Amazon have signed up with most of the top stand-up comics from India. Anurag Kashyap is producing India’s first TV show for Netflix. Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies have sold their content bank to Amazon Prime. There are stories about Aamir Khan selling his content bank to Netflix. Maybe our actors no longer need to make that trek to the west because with Netflix and Amazon acquiring so much content from India – Westerners will get to watch India and the Khans and enjoy them as much as we do.”
Roopa admits that back in the day she used to be apologetic of Indian films. She was always worried that people may find our films big, bold, melodramatic and loud. Also as a film professor in Shanghai, she would always, very apologetically, preface a screening of an Indian film with how they should ‘look beyond the melodrama and song and dances and give it a shot.’ But in the past few years, she has changed her outlook on the matter.
She adds, “Each type of cinema fulfils a certain need inside of us. I’ve finally grown up and learned to own our films for what they are. No apologies. And a lot of swagger. I tell them how our industry is thriving despite the onslaught of Hollywood and how in some parts of the world (as my book shows) people prefer Indian cinema to Hollywood. So I don’t tell my students anything other than what genre of movie it is, who the lead actors are and any other work they may have seen them in and that’s it. I let them discover it on their own.”