Other than switching cigarette brands from Marlboro Medium to Special Blend 27 for a richer, smoother smoking experience, my only New Year’s resolution is to forgo clickbait. I will no longer be enticed by HuffPo to find out what Sandra Bullock found out after she Googled herself. I refuse to be shocked by what fashion editors have photoshopped off a celebrity’s body. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to entice readers myself with the deliberately provocative headline.
So I confess: The title of this piece is deliberately misleading. There’s nothing Hollywood should learn from Bollywood.
Very few people outside of India and film trade publications are aware that a film called Dhoom 3 cracked the top ten at the U.S. box office on Christmas week, or it did according to an article by Sujay Kumar in The Daily Beast. I imagine Kumar is a stringer in India because he refers to the U.S. as being ‘there.’ Most Americans would refer to India as being ‘where,’ and that isn’t so much me being deliberately bitchy as it is germane to the point of this article.
In fact Dhoom 3 opened number thirteen, according to Box Office Mojo, and has grossed $60 million worldwide to date — $8 million of it in the U.S. — which is still a considerable feat for a three-hour foreign-language movie that Kumar says makes no sense whatsoever; I haven’t seen it and never will, so I’ll take his word for it. If I have never seen a film from The Fast and The Furious franchise on which the Dhoom series is based, I’m certainly not going to torture myself with the Hindi version.
For those not conversant with my weird career, I began as a screenwriter in Bollywood. I was brought in to write the English version of an epic historical film for one of India’s leading, award-winning directors, someone who didn’t make the usual masala crap from which the likes of Dhoom 3 descends, but who nevertheless made musicals. When I signed the contract in New York and accepted the assignment, I was under the impression that it was going to be exclusively in English, that it would follow Western filmmaking standards, meaning there would be no song and dance and the histrionics would be kept to a minimum. That was but the first of many expectations that were quickly chucked out the window once I got to Mumbai and began the scripting process.
A year after I handed in the first draft and we were on set in the middle of winter in the Himalayas, I turned to the writer of the Hindi version, who was basically translating my script (or so I’d been assured), and said, “Why is she crying in this scene? She’s not meant to be crying. She’s meant to be stalwart, resolute. She’ll fight on.”
He shrugged, “Hindi version. What to do?”
Making a movie that appeals to both Indian and Western audiences is something of a Holy Grail for Indian directors, meaning it will never happen because it doesn’t exist. Never the twain shall meet. But that doesn’t stop them from trying, and it’s always the same formula: shoot the same scenes in two languages, cut them together, one with music, the other without. Should work, right? Nope. Never.
Why it this approach doesn’t work is because shot-by-shot literal translation ignores huge cultural discrepancies in storytelling technique. I’m not going to break down those discrepancies here, but I can show you what does work: Appropriation and re-imagining of certain elements. Indian filmmakers are geniuses at ripping off myriad themes, plot devices, characters, even tunes from blockbuster Hollywood films and repackaging them for consumption by local audiences. As you can see just from the trailer of Dhoom 3, it doesn’t just reference The Fast and The Furious but a bunch of other Western movies, including A Clockwork Orange:
For a little while I capitalized on the heat that was on me as the writer of that Himalayan epic and signed onto a few bilingual projects that schlock Bollywood directors had on their bucket lists — they all had at least one — even though it was pretty clear to me at that point that shooting the same film in two different languages simultaneously was impossible.
One director was a real character who insisted even the English version needed songs; he just couldn’t conceive of a movie devoid of singing. I kept telling him, “The heroine’s little girl has a life-threatening congenital heart defect. There is nothing to sing about.” One day I came in for my script meeting in his office overlooking an open sewer in Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. He worked on at least five films at once, so it was me and four other writers all in a row in front of his desk. After waggling incense around the icons of dozens of deities scattered about the room, he announced that he would prove to me once and for all that even the English version of this film needed songs. It was then that I noticed a foursome of musicians seated on the floor in the corner of the room beclouded by incense smoke made thicker by the soggy monsoon air. The tabla drum struck up a beat, other instruments joined in, and the director dropped to his knees in front of me and sang this passionate song that was meant to move me and all heartless Western firangs like me into liking musical interludes at inappropriate moments. “No,” I said heartlessly at the end. And I was fired.
It’s easy to make fun of Bollywood. It’s not like Indians don’t see the humor in it; they’re laughing right alongside you, although it does hurt them to be teased. Bollywood films are meant to be fun, as are most Hollywood blockbusters. Again, Bollywood has always taken its cues from Hollywood dreck, telling the story in their own way, often nonsensically — ‘illogically’ is a more accurate word. Language and hokey production values aside, the biggest difference is they simply never abandoned the musical, as we did. An Indian hero must be as good a singer and dancer as he is a fighter. In theory, he’s a more rounded character than his Western action-adventure counterpart.
The problem is there are few equivalents of Oscar-bait and indie films made in India to balance out the dreck. I was lucky enough to be brought to India by a filmmaker who had exquisite taste and who tried his best to make non-dreck, to work with Western sensibilities. As a result, he never made a feature film after that Himalayan epic ground to halt owing to budget problems and political upheaval on location.
Only one Indian filmmaker out of thousands has ever made films that consistently crossed over to the West and were reasonably successful: Satyajit Ray. With one or two exceptions, his films had no musical numbers, and lacked the frivolity that generally laces Indian movies. A pair of women, Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, also make the occasional break-out non-musical film set in India in Hindi, but they are not at Ray’s level.
It’s not for a lack of talent or vision — I’ve met plenty of it there. The world’s largest film industry in terms of output should export more films made to Western standards, but they can’t. The Bollywood clans — the system is controlled by a few families — are a lot like the Hollywood studios that way: They won’t take the risk. And why should they? If it works, don’t fix it. Are they wrong? Not in the least.
Look at how our own prestige awards movies are doing a the box office. Even though Spike Jonze’s Her was made for “less than $25 million,” according to Forbes (there is no official studio number available), it has made $3 million so far, a far cry from the $75 million it would have to make to break even. Even the more commercial The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has made only $30 million to date, less than Dhoom 3 — with a $90-million budget, it will have to make three times that to break even, and it won’t.
If Americans can’t stand losing money, imagine how Indians feel about it. It’s far better to lose money on a formulaic piece of junk — at least you died sane, not pagal crazy with a serious film with no song and dance.
This lesson took a while to learn — I am nothing if not pagal crazy. Once India sank her seductive hooks into me, I was determined to bite back by single-handedly changing the way Indians watched movies. At the very least, I thought, they should be watching more quality serious fare like Satyajit Ray’s work. They would love it because we in the West love it. But I was ignoring the reality: the average American, our “lowest common denominator,” as one Hollywood producer once called him, doesn’t share my taste in films and never will. He likes The Fast and the Furious. Why should the average Indian be any different?
It wasn’t until the Hollywood studios began to take an interest in Bollywood in the late 90s that I finally got it. They didn’t go in to reinvent the wheel as I had. They gave Bollywood filmmakers more money to do what they do best, to make their dreck with better production values, to improve theaters so they could charge more money for admission. That is how west was meant to meet east, at the midway point, not by one becoming the other. I’m not sure if those investments paid off for the Hollywood studios that went into India, but these are long-term schemes subject to the same creative accounting Hollywood is legendary for, and when that creative accounting is applied to India… I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth. (I believe India’s investment in Hollywood, the approximately $365 million the Ambani’s Reliance put into DreamWorks, has not yielded good returns.)
Westerners who laugh at Indian films are aware of their existence to begin with and have tastes similar to mine. The average Joe in America has no clue where India is, much less that they have such a prolific film industry. He never even saw Slumdog Millionaire. None of his favorite films are ever nominated for Oscars even if they are the highest grossers, an equation that makes little sense to the resolutely capitalist that he is — his only measure of success is monetary.
So why shouldn’t Hollywood blockbusters be more like Bollywood films and give Average Joe American more of what he’s hankering for? Why should the soundtrack sit in the background? Why shouldn’t they dish out the outrageous, often-illogical, ‘high-concept’ action adventure along with big, sexy musical numbers? I’ll bet Tom Cruise would give Dhoom 3 star Aamir Khan a run for his money as he shimmies and shakes to profess his desire for Scarlett Johansson or Emily Blunt in between his death-defying capers.
It’s a fun idea, even a logical one, but it will never happen. It’s no accident that the musical film in the West died at the guillotine of the sexual revolution. We are no longer sexually repressed in the West, we don’t need the mating dances of West Side Story or Fred and Ginger — we take off our clothes and get right to it on the screen in front of millions. Hollywood’s idea of being coy and taking it slowly is the rom com, in which the hero and heroine are forced apart by circumstances they will eventually surmount, as impossible as that may seem in the beginning.
The only thing Hollywood should learn from Dhoom 3 is that it is doing the right thing by supporting the status quo and making Bollywood dreck better rather than changing it. As successful as that film is — and it is already the biggest hit in Indian film history — Bollywood films will never cross over to the West.
Bollywood crap and Hollywood dreck will always be equal to someone like me. I’m not laughing at Bollywood, I actually take it seriously as a business model and admire that it stands its ground against American cultural hegemony, unlike most of the world. Sure, they do it by appropriating entire sequences for Hollywood hits, but the average Indian cinemagoer is none the wiser. As far as Average Joe Indian is concerned, Dhoom 3 is like nothing he’s ever seen before, and it was made exclusively for him by people like, to hell with the firangi and his superior ways. Jai Hind!
But am I entirely dismissive of the Bollywood musical? If I’m honest, almost twenty-five years later I can still hum the tune and sing a stanza or two of the main song from the Hindi version of that Himalayan epic I wrote. I have to admit, it was rather catchy.