Composer A.R. Rahman.
Many fans of blockbuster franchises have had Dec. 20 marked on their calendars for a long time. This isn't the debut of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It's the Indian release date for Dhoom 3, one of the most anticipated Bollywood films of 2013. You don't need to travel to a big city to see it, either. AMC Star Fitchburg 18 has recognized the growing appeal of big-budget Indian films as of late. It screens at least one nearly every week, right now the superhero adventure Krrish 3 and the action-packed thriller Arrambam.
Star has been booking Bollywood films for more than a year, as the American film industry's conversion to digital projection has made it easier to pursue these titles. Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a musical romance set in London, even landed on the list of the 10 highest-grossing films last fall, for the weekend of its U.S. opening.
Gitesh Pandya, a media consultant for Indian film distributors, says this kind of success has become more common in the past few years, with a dozen or more Bollywood films making the top 20 list for their U.S. opening weekends. With theater chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark tapping into the Bollywood market, some of these movies reach up to 170 American screens, giving viewers an opportunity to get acquainted with another culture's concept of entertainment.
Bollywood films tend to illustrate India's fascination with song-driven storytelling. Bursting with music, action, romance and superstars from across the globe, they have a lot to offer to a wide range of audiences. It's easy, however, to assume that Americans will reject some of the genre's conventions, especially the melodramatic plots and numerous dance sequences. This assumption is so prevalent that Hollywood director Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) was hired to "remix" the 2010 film Kites for Americans. But Madison is proving that Bollywood can be embraced in Middle America.
Of course, Bollywood films aren't completely foreign to Madison audiences. The UW Cinematheque had a very strong Bollywood series in 2010, and other Indian films have played at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Plus, the South Asian community can follow many of the latest Indian releases on DVD.
But having Bollywood films come to local commercial theaters is a unique opportunity to see them on the big screen. Of the 21 foreign-language films that have played in Madison commercial theaters since June 1, more than half have been from India. There were 12 by my count, compared to five subtitled films at Sundance Cinemas in the same period. In one case, Star even scooped the film-festival circuit. Shuddh Desi Romance played here shortly before it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
A Bollywood primer
"Bollywood" is sometimes used when discussing Indian popular cinema in general, but it more accurately refers to the Hindi-language film industry. (The "B" stands for Bombay, the former name of Mumbai, the heart of the Indian film industry.) Several other distinct language-based film industries exist within India as well. Telugu- ("Tollywood") and Tamil-language movies ("Kollywood") also come to American theaters such as Star. Some cinephiles argue that terms like Bollywood and Tollywood suggest that Indian popular cinema is derivative of Hollywood; others say they indicate that these film industries have their own distinct identities.
No matter what you call them, India's film industries are closely intertwined with the country's popular music industry, even more than Hollywood is linked to American record labels. While the lead actors and music are key components of a Bollywood film's success, the actors do not sing, and in some cases will have two different singing voices in the same film. The tradition of the "playback singer" developed in Bollywood, and some playback singers are just as famous as the stars in front of the camera. This makes music credits extremely important to a film's marketing and success. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle provided most of the female singing voices from the 1940s through the 1980s, and one of the top names today is composer A.R. Rahman, who started in the Tamil-language industry and has worked on Academy Award-winning Hollywood films such as 2008's Slumdog Millionaire.
Another difference between American and Indian films involves licenses and warnings from the government. Exhibition licenses don't appear before the opening credits of most American movies, but it is common practice to include shots of them in Bollywood films. It's a similar story with health warnings, which has caused tension between some American directors and the Indian government. The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that Woody Allen canceled the Indian distribution of Blue Jasmine because he refused to comply with the Indian Ministry of Health's mandate that health warnings appear in scenes where characters smoke. I saw these health warnings when Shuddh Desi Romance played at Star this summer. During conversations between a smoker and a non-smoker, the warning would appear with each reverse shot.
Until recently, Bollywood films were also known for not showing kissing. This has been more of a marketing concern than a censorship issue. In the past, Indian audiences reacted negatively to onscreen kissing, and an actress' career could be jeopardized if she locked lips in such a public way. For example, when Richard Gere kissed Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty in front of cameras at an AIDS benefit, protesters in India demanded that her films be banned in some parts of the country.
This convention has started to change, though. I was surprised at the amount of onscreen kissing in Shuddh Desi Romance. Ranveer Singh, the male lead in one of Star's upcoming films, Ram-Leela, has even bragged that his onscreen kiss with costar Deepika Padukone is the best in all of Hindi cinema.
Bollywood films are also known for their running times, which can push three hours. In Indian theaters, there is usually an intermission, but it is unusual for American theaters to have one, even though intermission titles appear on the screen. The songs are the major factor in the length, with many films having five to seven. This isn't always the case, though. I was surprised that Krrish 3 had only three major dance sequences, including one when the supervillainess falls for the superhero. Capping the number of songs and dances seems to be a trend for films being marketed heavily beyond India's borders.
The Indian film industries have also been paying more attention to the NRI (non-resident Indian) market in North America lately, first in Canada and now in the U.S. In Wisconsin, AMC Theaters show Indian films not only at Star in Fitchburg but the Mayfair Mall theater in the Milwaukee area. Ryan Noonan, AMC's public relations director, says Madison audiences can expect about four more Indian titles at Star this year. Most films from Hindi-language studios, which have pursued the North American market the most aggressively, have English subtitles. It is not uncommon, however, for films in South Indian dialects like Tamil and Malayan to play without subtitles, so you may want to do some research about the movie you plan to see.
Getting into the act
So where should you begin if you've never seen a Bollywood film? Just about anywhere. These films are designed to entertain you -- shamelessly so, some might argue.
If you want to try a Bollywood film at home, 1985's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (roughly translated as "The Brave-Hearted Takes the Bride") is a good choice. It played for more than a decade in Indian theaters, and it made its lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a superstar. Dilwale's main themes are common in Bollywood: NRIs' anxiety over losing their Indian identity, and the tension between tradition and modernity. The film has become a touchstone for subsequent Bollywood romances, and references to its theme song have appeared in several recently released films, including Khan's latest film, Chennai Express, which played at Star earlier this year.
To prepare for upcoming blockbusters like Dhoom 3, Dhoom 2 (2006) is ideal. Available for viewing on Netflix, the films in the Dhoom franchise star Abhishek Bachchan, son of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. Dhoom 2 also stars Bachchan's wife, former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, and Hrithik Roshan, an actor so handsome you won't notice he has more than one right thumb.
Roshan is also the star of the Krrish franchise, which has turned into a superhero series since its debut seven years ago. Krrish 3, which just opened at Star, fuses action and suspense with lots of music and dance. You're not likely to find this combination in many American blockbusters. Not yet, anyhow. But if Bollywood keeps growing in the U.S., perhaps Hollywood will absorb some of its best features the way it has with Hong Kong action films.