Bad Bollywood and the Doctorate

Written by  //  July 9, 2012  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  11 Comments

I have often been accused of dragging unsuspecting souls to god-forsaken movie theatres, tucked away in the innards of London or similarly unattractive neighbourhoods in other parts of the country, on gloomy British afternoons, to partake of the delights of the latest Bollywood offering to have secured an international release. The worst, by far, according to my companions was a trek to Reading to watch Buddha Hoga Tera Baap. They felt it was so miserable that even a compensatory Masala Dosa and Ghee Pongal were insufficient to undo the nausea-inducing two hours spent in suspended disbelief watching the inanities of a septuagenarian Amitabh Bachchan who was under the genuine misapprehension that he was 30, and this was Zanjeer. Though there wasn’t a trace of the angry young man on screen, anger’s quota was more than ably made good by the two angry men and one angry woman who blamed me for spoiling their weekend. I, on my part, didn’t realise what the fuss was about. BHTB was comfort movie-watching— leave the brains behind, laugh with the actors (or sometimes at them), travel back home for a few hours to India to the dust, grime and humanity that I know to be mine, and finish off with a little droplet of joy when the compulsory happy ending comes along. Which, in BHTP is not just any odd ending: it’s got Hema Malini, saying: you guessed it- Buddha Hoga Tera Baap!! in her most wonderful Tamil-inflected Hindi that I’ve heard till date. Hear it here (at 1:52:07, though I recommend watching from 1:51:00 to get a better idea) and you’ll understand what bliss at the end of a movie feels like. And if you don’t feel that way, you deserve nothing better than Inception.

Bollywood, more specifically ‘Bad’ Bollywood (I’m going to use ‘Bad’ Bollywood as shorthand for this sort of movie- examples: Mohabbatein, Singham, Golmaal Returns) even more specifically the kind of Bollywood that makes most people whinge, makes me happy. The reason, after a great deal of soul-searching, is attributable to the stark contrast that ‘Bad’ Bollywood offers to the pretentiously cerebral, library-toting, seminar-attending life of a doctoral student that I lead otherwise. At the end of a week of reading and discussing normative objections, second-order concerns, background justifications and necessary but not sufficient conditions, ‘Bad’ Bollywood with its black-and-white characters, simplistic storylines, contrived conflicts, desperate drama, mindless song-and-dance sequences and happy endings, provides the perfect antidote. Together with higher academia, it makes for a wonderful combination: the sublime and the ridiculous, the deep and the flippant, the staggeringly complex and the wonderfully simple (you guess which is which), working together to maintain the cosmic equilibrium in my world.

My love for ‘Bad’ Bollywood shared only by a very select few in my immediate milieu of friends, leads to a larger question: What is the purpose of watching cinema? Film-makers who are considered to be timeless masters of their art, such as Kurosawa, Fellini, Scorcese, Ray, to name but a few, while each distinctive, capture something elemental, something fundamentally human through their story-telling, be it love, humour or tragedy. Common to them all is their ability to connect with their audience, to evoke a groundswell of feeling, that makes their film-making widely considered world-class. By implication, the proper purpose of watching cinema (though I’d like to think it’s the purpose of watching proper cinema) seems to be, at its baseline, the desire to be moved by a story to a range of diverse emotions. But what about movies which simply set out to entertain? That transport one through their inanities to an obviously make-believe world where the good always prevails over evil and the hero wins out? True, they don’t stir any groundswell of emotion nor appeal to anything deep, but surely the purpose of watching cinema can simply be light-hearted entertainment? At least that’s why I go to spend three hours of my life in a darkened theatre: To escape on the wings of the timepass entertainment provided, away from the world I usually live in for the rest of the week.

So, a poor D.Phil. writing week was made good by Mausam on the weekend, an epic love story spanning three decades which was both unintentionally corny and refreshingly naïve; personal hassles were set right by I Hate Luv Storys which demonstrated with perfect conviction as to why one must always have faith in things working out even if a grasp of basic English spellings is beyond us; a month of law library solitude firmly quashed by Action Replayy, a horrendously contrived piece of cinema which only two people in the auditorium didn’t walk out of, and loved to bits. And of course no such list is complete without Sallu Bhai’s Bodyguard with its killer twist in the tale that had me in momentary shock and permanent rapture.

From Shammi Kapoor’s carefree dances to woo his beloved, to Yash Chopra’s song-and-dance sequences in sylvan Swiss surroundings to Karan Johar’s plush English palaces reverberating with Bhangra music, ‘Bad’ Bollywood has held itself out as a launchpad to neverland. It has been unabashedly and unashamedly escapist, trading the miseries and complexities of quotidian existences for the agonies and ecstasies of its make-believe world. In this age of globalising cinema, as ‘Bad’ Bollywood competes with meaningful Bollywood, commercial Hollywood and art house world-cinema, its space unfortunately seems to be shrinking. Which makes me worry deeply about my doctorate and whether and how it will ever end. But before such thoughts can go too far, wafts in the words,

‘Zor ka jhatka hai zoro se laga,

Shaadi ban gayi umar quaid ki saza

Yeh hai udaasi jaan ki pyaasi

Shaadi se achha tum le lo phaansi

Shaadi ke mandap se tu khud ko bhaga.’

And the world’s a happy place once again.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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11 Comments on "Bad Bollywood and the Doctorate"

  1. aandthirtyeights July 10, 2012 at 3:00 am ·

    You know, people who usually make this “Films must entertain” argument tend to think that an Ingmar Bergman movie simply cannot entertain. And so, there’s movies for “emotions” and there’s movies for “entertainment”.

    I watch all the regular “deep, meaningful” stuff and the “lighthearted entertainment” stuff. (My social life is often threatened both when I drag my friends to seminal works of art such as “Velayudham” where Vijay, being a milkman in a village, fights Tamil-speaking international terrorists from Afghanistan, or when I force them to watch a “slow and pissing-off” movie a second time) I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “brainless” entertainment. If BHTB worked outside its genre and tried to be realist, it wouldn’t be half as much fun. If “When Harry Met Sally” tried to probe the human condition, it would be frighteningly dour. If the Ramsay Brothers believed in understatement, they wouldn’t be the Ramsay Brothers. It’s when you leave your brains out that you don’t see the magic of “brainless” films.

  2. Arvind July 10, 2012 at 3:54 am ·

    hey arghya, i would have never have thought i’d live to see the day when you end an article with a quote from action replayy. i enjoyed it very much as well and can’t wait to watch bol bachchan.

  3. neha July 10, 2012 at 6:16 am ·

    Loved it, Arghya! Too many of us don’t watch Bad Bollywood cause it’s not the done thing, or we chastise ourselves for our ‘guilty pleasures’. Why should there be guilt in watching movies that are escapist or dumb or silly or entertaining? I don’t believe in watching movies that are ‘so bad that they are good’ just because people say so (the 100 crore grossers!!), but there is a thrill of just watching things and discovering what is silly, or naive, or awful- for ourselves. Let there be movie-watching sovereignty.

    And, I have two words: ‘Jaani Dushman’.

  4. Lekha July 10, 2012 at 7:19 am ·

    Okay, you had me till you implied that When Harry Met Sally does not probe the human condition. Few films have so elegantly bared that essentially male fear that chicks might be faking it. I’ve seen the light go out of many many eyes after watching that movie.

    Arghya: Does “Buddha” in the title refer to Gautama Buddha, Founder of Buddhism or to Hindi Word for Old Man?

  5. rahul kumar July 10, 2012 at 9:35 am ·

    Arghya going by your piece, if you haven’t seen Rowdy Rathore you are missing out on something!

    I agree with your view, if people enjoy the mindless stuff they should go all out for it. But when the film makers and the actors involved in making Bad Bollywood come out and say that the script and story are important, then that is problematic.

  6. Arghya July 10, 2012 at 11:18 pm ·

    Mami, I agree with what you have to say except the last statement. I think the magic of brainless films is felt rather than thought through, at least for me. If I’m thinking, I’m spotting loopholes, poor characterisations, logical flaws etc. Which makes BHTB a terrible, god-awful movie!

  7. Arghya July 10, 2012 at 11:19 pm ·

    Ha Ha Lekha, non Hindi speakers of the world unite! I think it’s Buddha as in old man; somehow that suits the context more don’t you think?

  8. Arghya July 10, 2012 at 11:19 pm ·

    I can’t wait to go back to India and catch Bol Bachchan as well! Drop me a line when you’re in wet and windy England next, we’ll check out what’s on offer!

  9. Arghya July 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm ·

    Ha ha ha, I hope ‘Jaani Dushman’ is not meant with any seriousness! Apologies for not replying to several things earlier; agree with your sentiments whole-heartedly!!

  10. Arghya July 10, 2012 at 11:22 pm ·

    I haven’t seen Rowdy Rathore! I heard it flopped badly which makes it instantly attractive- I hope I can catch it on the flight back..

    You’re absolutely right- I hate stuff like Aarakshan which are at heart terrible movies but they pretend to be all social awareness raising and serious which irks me greatly! Garv se kaho ke hum mindless hai!

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