I love Bollywood.
I can hear every Indian reading this moaning with pain.
How could I possibly love these three-hour, saccharine sweet musical cinema extravaganzas that propagate antiquated messages about love, life and loyalty?
Well, I do. What I find fascinating are the archetypical symbols in nearly every film: good/evil, masculine/feminine, spirit/body.
True, the hero is often a poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl. Or a chaste maiden whose nascent sexuality is awakened by the most brutish oaf in the village. It’s the simplicity of the messages that entices me…and also unnerves me.
As a Western woman, I am particularly intrigued by how women are portrayed in Indian cinema.
There are two types of women in classic Bollywood films: the Good Girl and the Bad Girl.
The Good Girl is virtuous, chaste and possesses traditional Indian values. In the end, Good Girl is happily married off to Handsome Hero.
On the other hand, the Bad Girl is outspoken, often smokes and drinks and dances like her hips are on fire. You can be sure that at the end of the film, Bad Girl will either a) die, b) develop cirrhosis of the liver (or some other vampish disease) and die or c) bleed to death in some way, alone and unloved.
Over the last few decades, film critics have drawn the obvious parallel between good/bad and East/West.
But what is it about the Bad Girl?
There is a seductive darkness about her. She’s the outsider. The rabble-rouser. She reminds us of the hidden parts of our animal nature. She’s the thing we love to hate. As depth psychology pioneer Carl Jung taught, whatever we hate is the very thing we have repressed in our own psyches. It’s our shadow.
Within this dualistic symbol of the virtuous woman/whore, we can see the direction that Indian independent cinema—or “Bindiewood,” if you will—is heading. It’s not that crossover films are analogous to the outspoken heroines of Bollywood films in that we love to hate them. In fact, it is the opposite: crossovers have become more and more popular in the past decade. South Asian-American audiences are clamoring for more films that speak to their own dualistic realities as progressive traditionalists, as Eastern Westerners.
Crossover films as entities, therefore, are not looked at with suspicion; it is the subject matter and its honest interpretation of that subject matter (i.e., homosexuality, racism, inter-cultural relations) that is still shunned by conventional Indian cinema.
While “real” topics like terrorism are in fact being addressed in mainstream films such as “Dus,” it is with little more than action-packed flash and panache, not human experiential realism.
So is the Bollywood Good Girl that much better?
Or are her methods simply more socially palatable? Looking at a typical Bollywood love story, for example, you can bet you’ll be treated to the earnest, anguished voice of the hero singing about his love for a woman who has done nothing but shun him. After a few handfuls of the same scenario, you have to think: How much can these poor guys take?
Granted, this could be the result of my debauched Western view of things. My father gave me one piece of advice before I entered the world of men: “Don’t be a tease.” (Actually, that wasn’t the exact word he used. Let’s just say it was a compound word that ended with “tease” and started with something that rhymes with “sock.” You get the picture.)
Yet in countless Hindi films, I’ve seen women in the solitude of their bedchambers, awaiting their suitor, scenting their hair with sandalwood only to then turn coyly from the man’s longing.
I was shocked. Was this not the same caliber of cruelty as kicking a starving dog?
Was the passionate man not acting in his god-given nature, as we women do when we paint our faces and adorn our bodies to be attractive? Would it then imply that a woman agreeing to sex would somehow make her less worthy? Perhaps the Good Girl becomes Bad the moment she embraces not only her lover’s desire but her own—the moment she accepts her own truth. Perhaps the Indian independent film that bares its own truth is fated to suffer as the Bollywood Bad Girl does.
Who is more misleading, then: Good Girl or Bad Girl? East or west? Bollywood or “Bindiewood”? Perhaps no one.
Life will always need balance. With light comes dark.
When I think about the future of Indian filmmaking, I have hope it will eventually emerge from the shadows and take its place as an accepted facet of popular Indian cinema.
Until then, crossovers will have to remain on the fringe, undulating, seducing with their bold honesty, reminding us of who we really are and how we really live—but most importantly, still being seen.
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Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Wikimedia Commons