Stereotypes & Exonerations

Random song stylings
This is a stereotype that shouldn’t exist for Bollywood, since nearly all the songs are fully integrated into plot and character. Watching even a small sample of the films will show how music is specifically tailored to each film and used in a different way each time. For example, in the Hollywood musical, characters are often ridiculed by viewers for unnaturally bursting into song. While the same appears to be true in Bollywood (and, to be honest, is sometimes the case), the songs are usually incorporated much more meaningfully. For a few examples, see my reviews of Sholay, Mother India, Pakeezah, and Shree 420.  I describe several of the songs on the Shree 420 review page, but I’ll explain one here. In a scene early in the movie, the main female character is teaching her children a lesson by singing to them. She actually does seem to be teaching them something, and the children respond as they would if she were speaking (as opposed to something such as “Do, a Deer,” which is a great song nonetheless). This scene could easily have been only talking and acting, but the song makes it memorable and adds to the humor—the male lead keeps interrupting. A key fact in making this song integral is opening up on her teaching and having her go directly into the song—rather than have dialogue as a segue. There are many, many more examples.

 

Lack of artsy character-delving
This is perhaps the hardest thing to get used to as a Western audience (and especially for me as a writer). My writing self gravitates to the novel-scope of the plots, but when so many opportunities for psychological exploration are missed, it starts to wear on me. Emotions are easily discerned and traced. You just have to take it as it is. I wouldn’t want Bollywood to have become soul-plumbing if it meant it would have become like the rest of the world’s film industries.

Silly sound effects
The most notable sound effect is when guys punch each other; the sound is that of a cheap synthesizer gunshot. Other sound effects might be as simple as a glass setting down on a table; this is almost always too loud and not natural. The reason for this is explained in my Short History; for most of the history of Bollywood, synchronous sound wasn’t possible, so most/all sound had to be overlaid.

Explained in Brief History:

  • Lip-synching/Playback
  • Results of censorship: no kissing, overdramatic acting
  • Stars are megastars—there is no comparison in Hollywood or in our popular music

Smaller characteristics explained by aesthetics

As I state often, many of what we think are stereotypical methods are actually just part of the particular Bollywood aesthetic. These are a few of them:

Kaleidoscope Faces
Because of dizziness or love or whatever, someone sees the face of a person kaleidoscoping around in front of them.

Abrupt Scene Changes
There is no logic for the lack of transitions, although the director Manmohan Desai can be claimed as largely culpable for the stereotype most people have of Bollywood films (silliness, abrupt transitions, songs out of nowhere). Perhaps it is another thing that should be attributed to genre, our expectations in theater, and our belief that the Western aesthetic is the universal one, which is not true. It should be noted that very abrupt, jarring transitions are regarded as sloppy film making by Indian audiences. Films that are of a higher quality, such as Sholay and Mother India , won’t have the smooth fade-ins and -outs Hollywood viewers have been trained to need, but they also won’t be inexplicable or confusing. Once you watch a few Bollywoods, you realize Hollywood movies just make it too easy for us by belaboring transitions. These transitions are rather abrupt, but they didn’t seem abnormally so except for a few. After I had watched a few movies, in fact, I didn’t notice them at all.

Sped-up Motion
I can’t come up with any logic for this one. Most of the sped-up motion comes during fight scenes.

Fighting
There’s not really any logic for this except that it’s an aesthetic. Bollywood fights scenes are rather fun to watch. They are all choreographed extensively (at least they look like they are), and there is no attempt to make them realistic, which is one reason I can’t watch most Hollywood fight scenes. The fights scenes are almost like dance scenes.

Scope of a novel rather than short story
This is one of the most exciting aspects of Bollywood movies. The story comes to you with heft and width; you get a full meal.

Flashbacks

Cinematography

Frontality of scenes
Other aspects of Bollywood films that viewers may at first cringe at are the unrealistic nature of the scenes or plots and the lack of smooth transitions between scenes. Hindi cinema is “very comfortable with the artifice that it is”—they don’t try to hide it (Ganti 141). Art films, which are an entirely different industry, attempt realism. Part of this artifice comes from the aesthetic of frontality that was in Indian art made for British clients in the 19th century; the clients preferred art that was highly stylized, colorful, and with characters out front and obviously performing actions (Ganti 143). Another part of the artifice comes from the days before playback became prevalent. Sound and image had to be shot on the same film strip, so musicians had to be hidden somewhere in the scene. This required many song item numbers to take place in the forest, even if the scene hadn’t just been in the forest, because the musicians were hidden by trees and bushes. The style had already been established by the time playback came to prominence, so many songs still happen, inexplicably, in wooded locales or in entirely fantasy sets.

Stereotypical/Stock characters
Of the movies I have watched so far, which number roughly 30, I have not encountered many stock characters. I think these characters show up in the less well-made Bollywoods and in the last 30 or so years. The one I think Americans think of is the stock character of the mom who is always crabbing about something. The ones I’m aware of and that, frankly, get on my nerves, are the naïve, happy younger brother/best friend/servant. Instead of being endearingly lighthearted, this character grates on my nerves as aggressively and purposely callow. Examples of this character would be the best friend in Maine Pyar Kiya and HAHK (played by the same actor), the younger brother in Parinda, and the husband in Kabhi Kabhie. I don’t feel that this is a valid criticism, since every commercial film industry has its own stock characters.

Still have more questions? Bollywhat.com answers some of them in a much more fun tone than I did. Note that their purpose is to inform the general inquirer, so their list of recommended movies is not library-specific.

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