Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The crassness of Bollywood "art"

Some remarks on poor filmmaking techniques in Bollywood

Yesterday, I saw a movie having some good actors and with potentially a great storyline. The movie was "Dhoop" starring Om Puri and Revathi. To make a long story short, the movie was a lesson in bad filmmaking.

Here are some of the obvious things wrong with the movie, and with bad Bollywood movies in general:

Sound-editing in mainstream Indian movies is really inept. The sound of footsteps in almost all Bollywood movies is artificially generated and does not fade in volume as a character goes away. Non-verbal human sounds, e.g. whimpering, sniffing, taking a deep breath are mostly artificially done too, and are too loud to be realistic.

Dialogue delivery is a disaster. It is as if people can't wait to deliver their dialogues. The silent intervals between dialogues are never right. The facial expressions are too facile and crude. Example: The first interaction between Peehu and Professor Kapoor at the college staircase.

Comedy in Bollywood movies depends upon many hackneyed paradigms. Cultural sterotypes (Haryanvi Jaat, Punjabi Sardaar, dwarfish comedians etc.), repetition of the same phrase in different situations (Mogambo Khush Hua), seemingly funny costumes, unrealistic situations, ...

Emotionally, Bollywood movies seem to be ages behind their western counterparts. Be it parent-child relationships, marital or love relationships, friendships, siblings, everything is so badly un-creative and crude that you wonder if the movie was made for kids. Affectively, Indian movies are devolving instead of evolving. The affective themes in older Bollywood movies were stronger and deeper. Examples: Mrs Kapoor's reaction to her son's death, Peehu's response to her suitor, Professor's response to the SHO when asked about proof whether he is his son's father; all are crude emotional hysterics instead of real emotional responses of realistic people.

Too many songs, just to make a music album out of every movie, whether or not the song disturbs the continuity of the movie.

There is hardly any attention to detail. Example: Om Puri in Dhoop is going around in his car in Delhi without wearing a seat belt.

Bad camera techniques. No camera angles which would require even a moderate amount of effort or work. Example: Om Puri receiving a mysterious letter and the camera doesn't even focus on it, because Om Puri's position is too awkward for a good shot.

Convoluted dialogues and rationales. Just to further the story, debates seem to be without any strength. There has been hardly any Bollywood movie in India in which there is an actual debate and discussion about a topic. Example: Why should Om Puri go in for the petrol pump? What a nice debate (sic).

Laughable denouement at the end. So the prime minister intervenes so that Om Puri can get an electricity connection? And Om Puri, instead of recognizing the Prime Minister as the center of the whole system that he is fighting, instead naively appeals to the PM, and ridiculously, the PM suspends 16 officials including a few peons here and there. The ruffian who is ready to rape the mother and the daugther-in-law gets reformed in a second when he sees the framed photo in the couple's home. What a joke the whole thing is.

Let's see how a more realistic or mature version of this movie would have evolved:

"Dhoop" would have been a metaphor for the giver or sustainer of life, turning tormentor.

There are a college teacher and his librarian wife living in a small DDA flat in Delhi (instead of the posh bungalow with servants etc.). The wife is suffering from painful eyes which are always hurting from harsh lighting, especially direct sunlight.

Their son, a reasonably normal man (instead of the chivalrous brave handsome mother-loving hunk) is killed in the Kargil war and is awarded a medal and a "petrol pump connection" (as compensation) is given to his parents.

The parents debate whether to take the allotment or not, alternately missing their son and thinking of money to be made from the pump, to survive them in their old age, now that inflation is so high.

They decide to go in for the pump, but are thwarted at every level by government corruption. The father is at his wits' end and he develops back ache and asthma. He runs from pillar to post to get the sanctions necessary and finally manages, by emotional pleas and sheer persistence. When the father makes statements in the press, he is threatened and beaten by hired thugs. He suffers a fracture. The police frame a case against him for sexually molesting a college student.

He writes to the chief minister's office and gets an appointment. When he visits the Chief Minister's office, he finds him a little hazy. He hands over his file and comes back. The next day, he is arrested for the framed offense but gets bail by efforts of some friends. He gives up the idea of the petrol pump and sells his allocation to a local don. He moves to his ancestral village and starts running a nursery and a small school.

A few years later, he visits the pump allocated to his son and finds it in the midst of an adulteration scam (kerosene mixed with petrol). The day is very hot, the sun is shining almost right into his eyes. He buys a liter of petrol from the pump named after his son, a pack of sleeping pills, quietly goes to his earlier home (which is now in a decrepit condition, pending a court case), takes the pills, drinks the adulterated petrol and dozes off to death. A cloud obstructs the sun for a couple of seconds, and vanishes.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The newsworthiness of tragedy

It is a small single column news item in yesterday's paper: "66 people were killed in a bomb blast in Iraq."

Contrast it with another news item in Google news this morning: "Four killed, two injured in German seaplane crash."

All of us know that a plane crash killing 20 people in the west is much bigger news than a train accident in Chhateessgarh killing 200 in India.


There is no conspiracy behind it, it is a phenonmenon which can be rationally explained. Why is it that the death of a westerner is more newsworthy than the death of a third-world citizen? Why is it that a plane crash is a bigger accident than a train accident? Why is it that a protest involving 20 people in Capitol Hill gets covered by the worldwide media and a protest involving thousands in a third world country remains unnoticed?

Firstly, news is reported on the strength of its un-commonness and unacceptability. If train accidents, bomb blasts and rapes happen routinely in a third-world country, another of them is no earth-shattering piece of news. It is just routine, and will be covered accordingly. On the other hand, a plane crash in a western country is shocking and unaccpetable. Statistically, it is a rarer occurance. And socially, it is totally unanticipated and unacceptable. The sense of accountability and responsbility is much stronger in the west than in the third world. Citizens don't routinely protest in the western nations, and when they do, it is big news. Contrast this with public protests in a country like India, every city has at least a dozen protests and processions every day. People will lose interest in something which is common.

Secondly, news is an item of consumption. By and large, newspapers and TV channels are vehicles of advertising and marketing supported by the illusion of providing useful information to its readers. The kind of readership and audience decides which news is likely to spur their interest. Report too many news items regarding the poor people or the disenfrenchised, or the quick breeders, and your newspaper and TV channel risk being ignored in favour of another which is more entertaining.

Thirdly, investigation, in depth, of an incident is easily possible only where there is efficient technological and institutional infrastructure to support free and detailed investigation and enquiry. Most news items regarding a tragedy in the west are accompanied with enough details to sustain the interest of a reader. On the other hand, a train accident in Indonesia is just going to be reported in brief because it is going to be extremely difficult to get information about its causes, effects, implications, government response to it, names and details about the victims, etc. On the other hand, vast information is going to be easily available about an incident or the victims in a western society, because the institutions which provide such information are efficiently and professionally run. There are vested interests in suppressing details about an accident or loss of life in an immature society. As such, the "continued coverage" of an incident in the west is much easier and provides much food in terms of new information than in the third world.

Fourthly, individuation makes a tragedy tangible. A literate society which allows its citizens to pursue their interests and creatively contribute to the world around them, would place a higher value on human life than a society which only views people as economical units to be exploited. The accidental death of an IIT professor in India would command national headlines because of the uniqueness of that individual. The motif of uniqueness is much more prevalent in the west than in the east. In media, movies and newspapers, people in the third world are nameless, part of a herd, as good or bad as any of their counterparts. It is not considered a tragedy if a hundred men die who did nothing in their lives but live a traditional, conformant existence. On the other hand, in the west, since the social aspect of life is inferior to the the pursuit of individual goals, an accident has more unique and individual features attached to it. Each accident is, as it were, different, because there were unique individuals in those accidents. The uniqueness is sellable in the media to the multitudes, because of the vicarious nature of the audience. People want to know personal details about the victims, but such personal details will only be meaningful or interesting if the victims were not part of the herd, if they had a tatto on their forearms, if they were part of the local baseball club, if they were to be married soon. These are consumable details. Such details are juicy. The personal lives of such people are richer and more detailed than those of their counterparts in the third world.

Fifthly, the economic impact of an incident is directly proprotional to the resources spent upon its investigation, to its newsworthiness and to the width of its appeal. People who die in a plane crash are near the top of the economic heap. Poeple who die in a second class compartment in a train are near the bottom. The impact of a tragedy which occurs at the top of the heap is wider. The death of a rich owner of an enterprise affects thousands of his employees, the death of a labourer affects only his immediate colleagues and his family. A tragedy is as newsworthy as the people it concerns are influential.