26 March 2008
A Yankee In The Court of Omkara
Fantasies of A Bollywood Love Thief:
Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking
By Stephen Alter
Stephen Alter, the travel, writer, academic (resident-writer at MIT, a Guggenheim and Fulbright scholar) has written an account of Bollywood that is, in stark contrast to its subject, restrained and interested, and surprises the reader with a picture of Bollywood as a place of intense creativity, much more freedom to experiment within the parameters than even Hollywood studios would ever allow, a place where material-centric filmmaking and auteurs can hold sway. And it incidentally reveals how the most inscrutable of industries operates. Alter was an intimate observer to the making of Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara, an intuitive appropriation of the Bard’s Othelo. Talking to Hemant Sareen, Stephen Alter discussed the unique take on Bollywood of someone who holds an American passport but has lived most of his life in India.
Hemant Sareen: Fantasies of A Bollywood Love Thief is a wonderful piece of documentary writing that accepts Bollywood for what it is. The writer’s prejudices and judgements almost hidden till the last paragraph. Was this neutrality hiding amusement or appreciation? What do you really think about Bollywood?
Stephen Alter: I don’t think I was totally neutral. Being a part of, or at least being a close observer of the making of the film, I admit I was totally biased in favour of Omkara.
When it comes to Bollywood, in general, I have always enjoyed Hindi cinema. It’s something I have watched for 25 to 30 years, though I won’t admit that. But its always a mixed bag. While writing this book I watched many films some which were terrible. Then there were some which were terrific. These were the ones that redeem the genre.
HS: There is a suggestion of irony in the way you look at Bollywood, but most of it is in the wider forays you make into Bollywood the interlude interviews with Dev Anand, Shekhar Kapur et al interspersed in the account of the making of Omkara. Was it hard to keep a straight face at times?
SA: I don’t think even the people in the industry keep a straight face. I think there’s always a certain amount of irony [in the making of Bollywood films]. In most parts that’s a healthy thing. I think there are people who take themselves too seriously -- and there are some film makers mostly the ones I didn’t meet, who take take themselves far too seriously, but for the most of the people that I did meet, they understand that entertainment is in large part a business and so you want people to pick up on some of those ironies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you make a bad film. There is a certain amount of tongue in cheek in making a film. Otherwise nobody will make a film like Bunty Aur Bubli or Black. When you make a film like Black then of course you set aside some of the ironies. For my part, I enjoyed a film like Bunty Aur Bubli enormously because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
HS: What kind of cinema did you watch growing up? Did you watch Hollywood or Bollywood?
SA: I watched both, films from America as well as films from Japan and Europe. But I avoided those sorts of comparisons in the book. And this may go back to your first question also. The publishers who first commissioned the book -- Harcourt [in the USA]-- obviously commissioned it for an audience in the United States. An audience there wouldn’t know the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood or Hindi cinema. So I did have to suggest some of those, especially in one particular chapter -- the second chapter -- I had to a certain extent try to make it intelligible to an American audience.
But for myself, obviously, if I was watching Bourne Identity one day and the next day I was watching Dus, you know you approach it with a different kind of mind because. [Not only] the language of the film [Dus], [but] also the visual language is different. And you accept it for what it is. In the book, for instance, I would have never wanted to make a comparison between Bourne Identity and Dus, because it is a pointless exercise. [They are] very, very different films.
HS: Do you think Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara are defining films in Hindi cinema for breaking the mould, the formula, while remaining very much mainstream?
SA: I think they certainly are important films. But to say they are a defining moment you have to wait for 10 years at least. You have to see what happens next. In a sense they are defining, Vishal Bharadwaj is now on the scene as a filmmaker propelled by those [two] films. It would be interesting to see what Vishal does next. It would be interesting to see what effect his films have on other film makers.
HS: Do you think Hindi cinema’s lack of originality could be a big hindrance in it taking the next step in its evolution?
SA: The problem with cinema -- and I don’t pretend to be a scholar of cinema -- but the one thing I can say about cinema is that it is imitative by nature. Not just Hindi cinema but all the cinemas. The cinematographers are looking at other films and saying, ‘I can do that,’ or ‘I can do that better.’ The scriptwriters are saying, ‘I know that story can be told in a different way.’ And here I am not talking about ‘imitation’ in the ‘rip off’ sense. That is completely dishonest. I mean imitative in the sense of [borrowing] style, story, imagery and indeed being able to take it that one step farther. A film like Maqbool owes a great deal to The Godfather, just as Sarkar does, and as do a score of other films. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, that is anyway plagiarising it. Basically what it is, the film director is taking it [Cappola’s The Godfather] one step farther. The number of people who have tried to copy a Kurosawa’s Roshomon, there is probably one in every language. And yet the successful ones are the ones that are able to pay homage to it and move beyond. That, I think, is the magic of cinema.
And I think this is less so in writing. In fiction writing, you can only be imitative to a point.
HS: Reading your book about a film like Omkara which is an exception rather than the rule, the side effect could be an outsider or someone not clued into Bollywood rushing to watch Omkara or some other Bollywood film, or just tempted to think that Bollywood has become a very progressive industry?
SA: I didn’t write specifically for that reason, but if its a side effect, there is no harm in it. I had one thing in mind [writing this book], that is, there is tendency to dismiss Hindi cinema as being cheap, not worth watching, intellectually inferior. All of those who think themselves intellectually superior use these adjectives [for Bollywood]. I do have an argument with that. There is this judgement being passed on those films that to my mind is a bit unfair because they are expecting the genre to be something other than what it is. For instance, they groan whenever a song comes on. Obviously, there are films that don’t need as many songs as they have. But a song is such an important part of Hindi cinema or even Indian cinema that if you appreciate it for what it is -- which is something that amplifies emotions, builds character, does all those things in the best of situations, not all songs do that -- you [would] watch [the song] as part of the film rather than as something that’s tagged on to the film, which I think is the wrong interpretation. I would argue against those who dismiss Hindi cinema totally, those who think its not worth their time. I think if they watch the right film [they will realise that they were unfairly dismissive of Hindi cinema].
HS: So you think to regard Bollywood in an uncritical, unexamined way is a more valid approach?
SA: There are some modern scholars who try to deconstruct the film and do all kinds of wonderful academic things to it. But most of that is nonsense. I don’t think you can be objective...it’s very difficult to be objective about a film in the sense that I can’t be clinical [writing or talking about films]. When I switch on the DVD [player], I either get hooked or I don’t get hooked. I either enjoy it, laugh, cry, [feel] whatever emotions are there [in the film]. If I was simply there as a surgeon or an academic dissecting or deconstructing [the film], that would be a waste of my time.
HS: Yes, I think the book succeeds in that you have managed to show Bollywood in a new light. Bollywood comes across as self-aware, canny, and a natural product of the broader Indian culture within which it flourishes. You have maintained a very skilfully distance from either lampooning or glorifying the industry that is easy to do both.
SA: I am glad to hear that. People have said that I was more positive about Bollywood then they might have expected. But I have written about the films that I enjoyed rather than about the films that I didn’t enjoy. I suffered while I was doing the research for the book [watching both the above varieties of films]. Vishal Bharadwaj, Madhur Bhandharkar, these are the people whose films I have enjoyed. So I wasn’t being objective.
HS: Do you realise you were in a privileged position with access to a place notoriously beyond reach of the curious?
SA: Oh certainly. I am grateful to a lot of people and particularly to Vishal Bharadwaj who made himself accessible to me in a ay that I couldn’t have asked for someone to be more co-operative.
Even though some of the actors and actresses were a bit shy of journalists, they also knew there is this whole marketing machine that they depend on. And of course, during many of these conversations there were many other journalists present, so, I wasn’t the only person [given access]. But they were all very decent and were ready to give me lot of their time and quite a bit of confidence too.