Hollywood and Bollywood Offer Equal Doses of Realism and Escapism


Bollywood’s elder statesman, actor Amitabh Bachchan, and his daughter-in-law, actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who has had some crossover success in the West, are the two Indian movie stars most frequently interviewed by foreign media, and condescending Western reporters often ask them why Bollywood doesn’t make “serious” or “realistic” films, to which they tiredly reply that Bollywood is “escapist cinema.” I can’t blame them for giving reporters the answer they want to hear. The Bachchans are probably trying to be polite and diplomatic because they’d love to gain new fans in the West. Or maybe they’re just sick of explaining what appears to be a baffling concept to Western critics: entertainment is supposed to be entertaining.

But Bollywood films aren’t all fun and frivolity. What could be more serious and grounded in the reality of most people’s lives than finding love and making relationships work? Or how about struggling to resolve domestic problems and religious differences that tear families and communities apart? The clash between tradition and modernity is another favorite Bollywood theme, as is the experience of Indian emigrants. Indians are fiercely proud of their culture and they want to protect their values-just as American values are important to us-and films are vehicles for asserting the meaning of those values and exploring their relevance.

So the claim that Hollywood is realistic because it focuses on the marginalized and degenerate and that Bollywood is not because it focuses on different social realities doesn’t make any sense. And realistic or not, on a basic level, all entertainment is escapist-otherwise, what would be the point?

If the movie, The Wrestler, for example, is realistic, then I’ll have to take Hollywood’s word for it because I don’t know any washed-up professional wrestlers, and I have no idea if Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of a narcissistic drug addict in Rachel Getting Married is spot-on because I don’t hang out with anyone like that. And yet, I watch these films and enjoy them-but not because of their realism. Rather, they’re a departure from my normal, ordinary existence. And likewise, the reason I love Indian films is because they’re so different from my American life.

In August 2003, Time magazine reporter (and Bollywood fan) Richard Corliss wrote: “Movies give audiences what they don’t have. In the U.S., an economically comfortable nation, films often deal with life on the edge: danger and deprivation are glamorous to those who have everything. The same, upside down, applies in India: it’s a poor country, so the movie image is of the middle, upper-middle and fabulously-rich classes.” I understand the latter-why would poor people want to watch movies about social injustices they experience every day? But the former, while clearly true, is unsettling to me. Finding deprivation glamorous-and fancying ourselves hip and enlightened for it-says what to the deprived?

Indians weren’t wild about the film Slumdog Millionaire, partly because they were offended by the portrayal of poverty (protesters outside Mumbai theaters carried signs that read: “Poverty Porn” and “I am not a slumdog”), but also because they found the story so unrealistic-preposterous even. Perhaps Indians are more acquainted with the reality that such stories simply do not happen in real life. Obviously, Americans felt otherwise (myself included-I loved it) because it was a fairy tale of determination and destiny triumphing over impossible odds (America’s cultural myth), set in a nightmarish world of poverty (we love cinematic grittiness)-and it made our hearts soar. Hmm, an emotional fantasy based on cherished cultural values and told through accepted film conventions-kind of sounds like the same criticism leveled at Bollywood movies.

Source by Jennifer Hopfinger

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