Bollywood films have become increasingly present in Western culture with the opening of India’s markets, cross-fertilization of techniques and story-telling styles between Indian and Western filmmakers, and the considerable influence of the Indian diaspora. Western audiences are beginning to develop a taste for Indian films, exemplified by the success of Slumdog Millionaire. Despite the critical acclaim garnered by this Danny Boyle picture, it does not pose a threat to the Bollywood filmmaking industry, replete with its own aesthetics, stars, and storylines that are completely self-sustaining and specialized to its South Asian audience. The film, Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told delves into these aspects as well as linking the historical context in which Bollywood films are inextricably linked.
The directors Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra - photo on right - (a pioneer of new cinema in India) and Jeff Zimbalist (an American documentary filmmaker) decided to tell this story in a format that is very Bollywood: an endless reel of music and dance spliced together from movies interspersed with historical footage. This produces an effect reminiscent of the Best Of DVDs that are put on in typical Indian restaurants and stores. This documentary has few of the talking heads, the slow pans of black and white photographs and newspaper clippings, or over-arching narration that we have come to expect from this genre. You might struggle with this, as I did, in the first few minutes of the film before settling into the high-energy tempo that the directors have put together. You might also miss the labels that usually accompany the speakers and the clips. Someone totally new to Bollywood would not recognize the colossal actors such as Raj Kapoor, Sharukh Khan, and Aishwarya Rai or classics such as Devdas, Shree 420, and Lagaan that were picked to represent Bollywood cinema. Only Amitabh Bachchan is explicitly mentioned as one of the more influential actors of his time.
The trajectory of The Greatest Story begins at the birth of India with President Nehru and pacifist Gandhi uniting the many dominions together into a single country, independent of British rule. Bollywood films were a vehicle and reflection of nationalism, romanticizing struggle and village life. Bollywood was there, too, during the bloody partition that split India and Pakistan and the Maharashtra drought. Seeking not only to reflect the very real and everyday strife of citizens, Bollywood became a place where people could escape collectively in movie halls or wherever a sheet could be hung up and projector played. Films were fantastical in the set design, costumes, dance, and music that we have come to associate with this genre.
Films also took their audiences to places they could not go. Scenarios filled with ambition where villagers triumph over forces from the outside; where boy and girl are inevitably able to realize their love even after a complicated and tragic story; movies set in the snowy mountains of Switzerland, the modernity of New York, or the charming canals of Venice. These places were unreachable for the majority of the Indian population.
As much as Bollywood has captured the hearts of South Asia, artists and filmmakers are wrestling to escape its clichéd storylines and archetypal characters. The Bollywood System has benefitted many people but has become its own biggest obstacle to radical change and novelty. At the same time, the public owns Bollywood as much as its producers and financers. Family values, nostalgia of traditions and village life, the joyous spectacle of song and dance are infused with Indian society. Bollywood films themselves have become a constant that binds the multicultural, rapidly urbanising, increasingly middle-class, and more globalized country together.
Bollywood: The Greatest Story Ever Told does indeed sweep up its audience into a colorful, sensual dream and is a good starting point for anyone curious about this body of cinema. But like a tourist, you can view this montage of work as just that – something beautiful to look at, a spectacle. It is the thoughtful viewer who is left with other questions: What will the future of Bollywood cinema hold and will it be able to keep up with the demands of an increasingly middle-class and educated Indian society? Will Bollywood films come to include more serious topics but will it lose its identity in doing so? If it doesn’t conjure up these thoughts, this documentary will at the minimum make you want to go and see some of the larger than life films that flitted too momentarily across the screen.