The Bollywood Dilemma

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Sangeetha Thiyagarajan attempts a positive review of the film ‘Chennai Express’.

Chennai Express was in the news a few months ago. Ironically, for a film that is the highest grossing Bollywood movie, I am yet to read one review/blog/post/tweet in its favour. Not so ironic, you would probably say, since Bollywood is used to churning out tried and tested love stories – a hodgepodge of songs, dance, fights and cliché dialogues while making away with crores at the box office. But then if seemingly ridiculous, plagiarised, dumbed down and cheap movies are making all the moolah, what does that say about us, the ones who contributed at least 0.00001% to their 100 crore bounty?

Let’s first start with Chennai Express. I didn’t like the movie but I thought there were a lot of things about it that have to be appreciated. For one, did you notice that Deepika’s name appears in the credits before SRK’s? Even if that belongs to the superficial ‘ladies first’ class of chivalry, I still think it is a big step forward as she does have more impactful screen time and the credits recognise that. Also, most of the Tamil sequences were in well, Tamil! They could have had everyone speaking the exaggerated Hindi of Deepika to enforce the south Indian-ness but they chose to keep (most of) the dialogues in Tamil. After watching countless movies where the only language that gets to be itself on screen is Punjabi, this was refreshing. Also, all the character artists were popular actors from south Indian cinema and TV.

Now we come to Deepika’s accent. Why the hell was it so over the top? It’s called creating humour through harmless stereotyping for a comedy film. It doesn’t imply that every Tamil person speaks Hindi like that. Personally, I felt she could have worked on it some more so that it sounded loveable and not irritating, maybe like Appu from The Simpsons but I understand and even welcome the fact that other Indian languages are being adopted on screen if only because their language sounds funny. There was also a lot of noise about the costumes –Veshti/mundu instead of lungis and kathakali in Tamil Nadu. I believe this was for aesthetic reasons even if they were factually off. The white of the mundu does look refined in shots and the kathakali was just another ‘bit’ in the songs. So, while the film can be faulted for not doing their research, calling them insensitive to a particular culture is definitely too much. I find the fake white ash on the Tamil people’s foreheads much more irritating. Buy some real vibhoodi! You look ridiculous.

A lot of people had voiced their disappointment with the movie. It almost sounded like SRK had promised them something else in the promos and then did the ol’ switch and bait. But right from the beginning, the film was sold as a commercial love story with no pretences about being realistic or even original. In a lot of ways it was regressive. Have you seen the ‘hero gets beaten to an inch of his life and then comes back to life and beats up the bad guys’ in the last five years? And no! Salman Khan movies don’t count. That poor thing is still stuck in the 90s. But Chennai Express was shamelessly forthcoming about what it was and who it was intended for.

Movies are money making ventures and they use the simple feedback loop mechanism. When such ‘rowdy’ movies make money, it is but logical for others to try to ape the formula. And you and I, the ones hoping for Bollywood to raise its standards are worth less than the 0.00001% that we contributed to them in the first place. Hence, I believe that appreciating the small bits and pieces of progressive thinking in a movie might give the makers the confidence to tell stories which do not glorify stalking and which portray women as more than kamlis and munnis (interchangeable, of course). So do go ahead and criticise those Bollywood movies but maybe not for imagined slights like not respecting a language or using incorrect props but for significant misrepresentations and even then do find something good to say about them.

Gandi baat karli bahut, ab karo nah achchi baat!

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