Getting lost in the woods

Getting lost in the woods


Photo-illustration: KarthikWhen Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscars, a colleague remarked, “It is a Bollywood film.” He quickly clarified — “I mean, it is a British-made film but with all the ingredients of Bollywood.” 

We were expected to understand what Bollywood meant. Did it mean films made in Mumbai, in which case are Marathi films Bollywood too? Or is it the pulpy formulaic content that makes it Bollywood? So, where does that leave Hindi cinema? 

Thanks to “Bollywood” and the Oxford English Dictionary, the “Mumbai/Hindi film industry” in popular usage has been lost for ever. Mumbai doesn’t exist; Hindi films don’t exist, only Bollywood does. The virus is spreading. Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam cinema are similarly slipping into lexiconic oblivion.

If ‘Bollywood’ was seen by semantic apologists as an aberration, a one-off formulation, an indulgence, time has proved it is not. Indian cinema is in the throes of a wood-fixation. Today, we have Tollywood, Kollywood and hold your breath, Sandalwood. If Tollywood is claimed both by the Telugu and Bengali film industries, Kollywood is Tamil filmdom and Sandalwood, the Kannada film industry.

Recently, when Hindi filmstar Deepika Padukone was asked by a cine reporter in Bangalore what she thought of “Sandalwood”, she asked puzzled, “What’s that?”
If it were just an innocent issue of terminology, it would probably be tolerable. But, it is not. Clearly, Bollywood in its very formulation is a clone of Hollywood and seeks to perpetuate a discourse that at its core presents the West as an aspirational model.

Orientalists have for long been able to appreciate local achievements or glory only by linking them with points of reference abroad. For instance, Kashmir was called the “Switzerland of India”; Dev Anand, India’s Richard Burton; Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India and more recently A R Rahman, the ‘Mozart of Madras’. No wonder then the Mount Everest of success and the mother of all dreams of most Indian filmmakers is to win the Oscars, at the sanctum sanctorum of Hollywood.

Bollywood brings with it associations, connotations and links with a certain kind of pulp cinema that Hollywood is known for. It poaches on cinematic territory that is atypical and in one sweep swallows the narrative of Hindi cinema and its unique history, development and denouement. Thanks to Bollywood’s immediate identification with Hollywood, many abroad equate Hindi-Mumbai centric Bollywood with all of Indian cinema, having no knowledge of the variety, depth and independent standing of films in other Indian languages.

When linked to the larger political context Bollywood acquires a Trojan horse-like dimension. It facilitates the smooth entry of Hollywood subversively into India’s cinematic space and discourse. And along with it the worldview, politics, values and concerns of Hollywood and by extension of the US state. 

Over the years, India has gravitated much closer to the US’s political, military and economic orbit. Now, post-Slumdog, Bollywood is the flavour of the US film establishment.   Even if one gives up Bollywood as a lost cause, with its entry into mainstream lingo and etched into the Oxford English dictionary, there is still time left to resist the mindless spawning of other ‘woods’ in Indian cinema.

Bollywood, already the source of resentment among filmmakers in other Indian languages for its attempt to project itself as the sole representative of Indian cinema, is doing exactly what Hollywood did to popular Hindi cinema. Not content at representing or misrepresenting itself as a pan-Indian industry, it now seeks to spawn clones that will make it more acceptable. The result: Tollywood, Kollywood, Sandalwood etc. 

Strangely, the threat to pluralistic cinematic identity posed by Bollywood has slipped through the network of linguistic and cultural activists. That it is largely a non-issue is the real danger. Usage in the popular media of terms like Kannada cinema, Tamil cinema or Telugu cinema have all but disappeared from news stories and reviews on films and in gossip columns. It is always either this ‘wood’ or that ‘wood’.

In a world already dominated by US-centric economy, militarism and politics, to have independent, feisty cinemas queuing up to sound like ‘Hollywood’ is indeed a tragedy. If there are no attempts to yank Indian languages cinema out of the ‘woods’ and reclaim their lost space and identity the tragedy is bound to unravel as farce.

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