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The universal appeal of Bollywood

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Via Manish Vij, came across this interview of Vikram Chandra, who has been in news lately with the release of his book, Sacred Games. When asked about the awareness of Bollwyood in the US, he had this to say:

Ten years back, the interest would be limited to only people from Africa and Middle East or the erstwhile Soviet Republic.

But now, even the American student is aware of Aishwarya. I remember going out for a family dinner at an Italian restaurant in Detroit.

The Italian waiter overheard our conversation on Hindi cinema and asked me, “Do you know Amitabh Bachchan?”

Apparently, he had watched Deewar in his village!

This echoes one of my own recent experience. Last winter we were dining at a bistro in the Georgetown area of Washington DC when our French waiter with a very dude-like attitude asked if we were from India and if we watched Bollywood movies. When we replied in affirmative – he asked if we had seen ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ (he pronounced it Kay-bi Kushi Kay-bi Gum). Apparently he had, not just once but five-six times and had been totally blown away. ‘It made me cry’ – he said. And he had fallen in love with Kajol. By this time, I admit I was chortling – but this guy was honestly serious.

Given that the last time (by my perception) Indian films conquered French hearts was with the celluloid poetry of Satyajit Ray, I was a bit taken aback at the thought of a someone, anyone, getting emotional over this overtly melodramatic, hyperbolic kitsch!

But as Chandra explains, it could be possible:

The audience of Hindi films in the West are constantly being pulled by two different kinds of reactions.

They have been taught to cultivate a distaste for the supposed escapism of Hindi cinema. Some find it kitschy and yet also connect to it in certain ways.

I have come across so many westerners who weep buckets after watching our films. For many, the concept of the psychological realism being the only realistic way of representing realism is so false and cucooned. Perhaps, one can’t ignore the subterranean presence of Hindi films these days.

To each his own I guess.

However, before the west ‘discovered’ it, Bollywood movies have always been popular in African and south-east Asian countries. More than twenty years ago when I was in Indonesia for a while, the Amitabh-Rakhee starrer ‘Kabhi Kabhie’ was a big hit out there. You couldn’t step into a restaurant, even in the remotest town of the country, without being recognized as Indians (if not anything else, my mom’s saree would give it away) and being greeted with exclamations of ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ !


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 22, 2006 at 11:07 am

4 Responses

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  1. Well, from what I have read, Mr Bachchan has always been convinced of the universal appeal all the time and not just “Kabhi Kabhie”. That is why he does not approve of the word bollywood because he believes it rubs the Indian film industry of its uniqueness.

    I have read how the Japense freak out on the Indian songs and consider them stress busters.

    Raj kapoor used to be very famous in Russia.

    Mr Bachchan has auniversal appeal- Egypt, South Aftrica, UK, USA and even Afghanisthan and Pakistan.

    I also came across a romanian who sang hindi movie songs and said they were popular in her country.

    Even with all the nonsense and melodrama associated with them, what would India be without its film industry? Films and cricket appeal to most indians whether or not they have a universal appeal.


    August 22, 2006 at 11:41 am

  2. Imagine what would have happened if Hindi, as a language, exported only half as well as English does. I remember reading a research paper some time ago which did a global survey and concluded that Bollywood has a lot more crossover potential than Hollywood has or ever had. It is Hollywood’s extremely sophisticated marketing and distribution prowess that helps them to convert their somewhat limited appeal into huge revenues. Personally speaking, Bollywood is too over-the-top, conventional and predictable and it rarely works for me, but it does appeal to a huge cross-section of people and probably has not realized anywhere close to its revenue potential.


    August 22, 2006 at 9:20 pm

  3. kabhi kabhi is a movie that will never cease to appeal to people, of all generations.


    August 23, 2006 at 12:26 am

  4. @Hiren: like I said – Hindi films have had a wide appeal over the years – but seems like recently, it is grabbing the attention of a new type of western audience.

    @dipanjan: speaking from my experience, there would be one big impediment to the spread of Hindi – the necessity of adjusting your verb with the subject gender – in all my years of speaking Hindi never figured that out. 🙂

    @Bonatellis: personally, I think Kabhi Kabhi – the film is okay. The music, of course is amazing. But I can understand its appeal.


    August 23, 2006 at 9:04 am

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