Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

A Bollywood Labor Day Weekend

Although my first exposure to Indian cinema were the art house films of the great Satyajit Ray I have to confess a deep and growing affection for the more mainstream (that's mainstream in India not the U.S.) Bollywood films. Bollywood films are often an explosion of color, sound and impossibly gorgeous people. When I spoke with Goldspirit's Vijay Mahtani back in 2005, he explained Bollywood like this: "The term Bollywood is taken from Hollywood and the city of Bombay [which is now called Mumbai] which equates to L.A., henace Bombay plus Hollywood equals Bollywood. So what is a Bollywood film? Its usually a melodrama with several musical numbers, it runs the full gamut of emotions, it has a bad guy, a good guy, a hero a heroine, and basically you sit down for two and a half to three hours with an intermission and have a good time. Thats pretty much it."

There are some Indian filmmakers and actors who are renouncing the word and pointing out that it originated as a derogatory term coined by the Western media to belittle Bombay's attempts to make Hollywood style films. I can understand their point of view but I also think there's nothing like taking ownership of an insult and turning it around. I mean one of the appealing things about Bollywood films is that they don't seem to care what anyone thinks, they're going to do their own thing and do it well. Their unabashed ability to embrace genre conventions and take them to new heights makes them enjoyable. Bollywood films also have a star system much like the old MGM studio films and stars have huge drawing power. "Thats exactly what it is," said Mahtani, "Its the feel of Clark Gable and all the stars of yesteryear, and the big studios that signed people on contract and made these big productions. Bollywood films are big productions."

Ram Gopal Varma's Ki Aag (Adlabs)

And that's what's so appealing. They are bigger than life and they pull you into their melodramatic stories and send you out of the theater bouncing to a Bollywood beat.

Shalini Mahtani, Vijay's brother, added, "The typical Bollywood film is made for the masses in India where life is basic and gritty and the average manual laborer who pays a few rupees to go and see a film doesnt want to know about the realities of life. So the films are way out there. A Bollywood film is not just a film, its an experience. Its like when people go to India, either they love it or they hate it, and if they hate it they just turn tail and leave. But if they love it they keep coming back. They are so different from mainstream American films that they are sort of a whole thing unto themselves."

Since I have embraced Bollywood films, I'm pretty much game to sample whatever comes my way--which means sometimes I get burned. But for the most part what I've seen has provided great fun and sometimes even great art. What I'm most excited about in this upcoming weekend of films is the latest film from Ram Gopal Varma, a man described as a kind of Indian Roger Corman for the way he has made a successful career as something of an outsider and often giving new directors their first shot at making a film. He runs a company known as "The Factory," and produces about as many films as he directs.

Grady Hendrix of the New York Asian Film Festival related this story about Varma: "Varma famously said early in his career that 'everything a director needs to know can be learned in 24 hours, everything else they have inside.' He believes in giving first timers a chance and hes worked with more first timers than any other producer."

Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan in Ki Aag (Adlabs)

Ki Aag is Varma's most recent film and it's a remake of the 1975 film Sholay . In fact, thats one of the cool things about Goldspirit. Theyre not digging up old movies or waiting for U.S. distributors to pick up these Bollywood titles; they are opening these films close to the time they are opening in India because the local South Asian community doesnt like to wait for hot Bollywood titles to get cold.

As a director, Varma won me over with his gangster epic Company . In that film there was a scene that summed Varma. In the scene, a gangster stands on the periphery of a movie set where a typical Bollywood film is being shot. Then a gun fight breaks out and chaos ensues. That's Varma. Creating a major distraction and mayhem on the periphery of the Bollywood industry.

"Varma's always an outsider looking in," Hendrix said, "hes originally not from Bollywood and was treated like an outsider by Bollywood but his films are phenomenally successful. Varma is rougher and tougher and leaner and meaner than anyone inside Bollywood. Hes regarded as outsider; they go to his movies but hes not part of the family and in India not being part of a family is one of the worst things you can be."

But Varma's films are some of the best to come out of India, delivering gangster epics on scale with The Godfather and Goodfellas. And he rejects what is often a moralistic simplicity in the typical Bollywood film by showing us a world where the line between heroes and villains is blurred.

Author Lalitha Gopalan described him to me as someone who has "created his own fiefdom of the action genre. Youre not going to go to his films to find out how wonderful parents are and how we should respect tradition, but what you will find is the best of action film available globally--gangster films called Mumbai noir. He was an innovator and the violence he puts on the screen is quite mesmerizing. He makes the kind of cinema you what to watch."

So check out Varma's Ki Aag in which cops hire two guys to get revenge on a bad guy played with particular gusto by longtime Indian star Amitabh Bachchan. Or try the uplifting sports drama about a girl's hockey team coached to triumph by Shahrukh Khan's down on his luck male player in Chak de India or the Indian take on three men and a baby in Heyy Babyy.

Ticket information available at .

JUST ADDED: Check out Grady Hendrix's blog about Ki Aag .

Companion viewing: The Company, Sholay, Devdas, The Apu Trilogy, Shiva -----

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.