by Greg Kuchmek
A taste for Indian pop music was my entre to the Indian film world. Indian films use the same pop phraseology, without the Western veneer that overlays most musical releases. The Hindi vocals can't disguise the fact that the lyrics are the same cheesy love mush heard on radios everywhere. This romanticized relationship to the musical subjects carried over to my viewing experiencesI related to the films on a conceptual level, without actually knowing what they were about.
I was living in and around Mombasa, Kenya, which has a large Indian population. Catering to this community, there were several theaters that showcased Hindi films. The posters for these films often have pictures of the male and female leads as well as the villain(s), a chorus of dancers, and sometimes a mythical religious figure. The title is written with giant letters, often in the image of stone, and towers over the cast, leaving them in its shadow. With these colorful posters all around me, it was only a matter of time before I was sucked into one of those alluringly dark theaters.
The films I saw there were exactly like the musicthere were completely absurd and random changes throughout the films, which veered from serious drama to comedy, romance, action, religious and musical. The dizzying variety of plot elements disallowed boredom. Although these themes were familiar, the bewildering device of including them all in one narrative (and the occasional use of black face!), might raise some Western eyebrows.
The local scene was full of Indians who had never been to India (Indians established trade routes to East Africa around 900 years ago) and their influence brought a lot of older "classic" Hindi films to the village theater. It was interesting to see how the films had changed over the past 40 years: the older films were more focused; each film stuck to a specific genre from beginning to end. Skipping between all the genres in one film seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. My personal tastes could not afford the dry, monotonous films of India's past; I prefer the more colorful post-1960s through the present musical extravaganzas.
India produces something like 900 films a year. Their attitude toward film differs from Hollywood's; films are generally accepted as "low-brow" entertainment, or B-grade film, if you will. But there is also an art-house sector of the industry. For example, the late Satyajit Ray (THE WORLD OF APU, SONG OF THE ROAD, THE LONELY WIFE, THE MIDDLEMAN ) is known throughout the world for his cinematography and lush, glowing art direction.
Of course, there is much more to Indian cinema than disjunctive, multithreaded narratives. Indian actors provide compelling performances without the Hollywood star system and attendant egos. As distribution improves, Hindi theaters are cropping up in many of America's larger cities. Check one out if you can. </end>