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Sunday, 21 October 2012 05:16

Rose-Tinted Glasses: A Manifesto for Western Reviewers of Bollywood Film

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Don't impose criteria grounded in Western literary tradition onto a film form that has its origins in oral tradition. Allow for repetition of motifs, archetypal characters, suspension of disbelief, unusual segues and length. Don't allow ample contrivances and abrupt tonal shifts within a film to deter from its main thrust – its emotional integrity. Fine Bollywood films have the power to meld seemingly disparate elements.

Look for internal logic rather than applying Western notions of verisimilitude.

Don't regard Bollywood as a genre. This is misleading because the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai makes films which relate to many different genres or combinations of genres - drama-romance, masala, thriller, police-drama, comedy, science fiction-romance – to name a few. Not all films have songs. 

Don't deride melodrama but understand its potential to move viewers. Be mindful that although often unreal in character, the best Bollywood films have the capacity to engage the emotions of viewers in a paradoxically real way.

Be prepared to assess the 'chemistry' of romantic pairings because belief in the emotive strength of the leading couple is essential to the audience's preparedness to suspend disbelief. Most Bollywood films are romantic.

Don't disregard musical sequences. Be aware of the major composers, lyricists and choreographers and recognise their respective styles. Appreciate the aesthetics inherent in musical numbers and how they function within the narrative.

Immerse yourself in the films of the past because Bollywood films are self referential. Learn to recognise pastiche and parody.

Accept that Bollywood comedy is broad. It is also culturally based and often lost in subtitles.

Criticise outright plagiarism where films are overly derivative but keep in mind the notion that familiar ideas re-interpreted through the lens of a different culture can also be quite refreshing.

Expect to be equally involved in the pre- and post-interval sections of a film. Even when a separate story manifests after interval make sure you consider the effect of the whole.

Don't allow your opinions to be swayed by way of liaison with distributors and festival organisers.

Be aware that many people derive great pleasure from Bollywood films which are totally kitsch, cheesy and over-the-top. Even though a film may rate poorly against one's criteria of worth, it may still – entertain. Entertainment value should also form part of any review since this is commercial rather than arthouse cinema.

Put on your 'rose-tinted glasses' but don't simply hark back to Bollywood films of the past. Accept the shorter, less musical, sometimes grittier films of the present as new directions that require careful analysis.

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Lidia Ostepeev

I am a non-Indian reviewer of Bollywood films. My articles have appeared in Asian Cinema (USA), Metro (an Australian film magazine) and The Big Issue. Many of my film reviews appear on the Planet Bollywood site.

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