While the rest of the world gets used to harder times, the boom of Indian cinema appears to go on. Steven Spielberg is being bailed out by an Indian billionaire. Disney is setting up shop in Bollywood. Another movie mogul with a billion dollars to put into the movies talks of exploiting the talent of the “brown race”.
What worries me is not the fusing of art and commerce but the homogenizing spread of Indian cinema. Despite being an old civilisation, India is a young country obsessed with itself. With a billion people and a vastness to explore, Indian movies do not tend to look outside for inspiration.
The result is that Indian films have a distinctive subcontinental flavour about them. Female characters rarely go beyond eye-candy. Heroes are there to be admired not understood. Nobody appears to be able to take their life into their own hands and make decisions that transcend their place in the social hierarchy.
To escape this suffocating Indian landscape, mainstream filmmakers put Hindi-speaking actors in foreign countries. In a tacit admission of their own nation’s shortcomings, Indians abroad can have live-in relationships in Australia (Salaam Namaste), adulterous affairs in New York (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna) and marry who they want in London (Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham).
Even when the ambitious is attempted, the interpretation lacks a punch. Take Shakespeare’s Othello, the black warrior hero who is innocent in love and hence vulnerable to the treachery of his companion-in-arms, which was translated by Bollywood into Omkara. In the Indian version the main character is a “half-caste” political strongman who loses his way in the badlands of north India.
Whereas seventeenth century audiences in England could make sense of the Moor’s existential angst, twenty-first century Indians could not countenance an “untouchable” leader – a true outsider in society - preferring instead to make sure he had Brahmin blood.
Even in the new capitalist-realist genre of movies such as Mumbai Meri Jaan, which are supposed to somehow mirror real life, emotions are thick and creamy. Plots curdle, congealed by a mixture of bad acting and terrible script-writing. If you want a taste of how sour things can turn out sit through a Bollywood blockbuster like Tashaan, which is notable for little else but the stick-thin figure of starlet Kareena Kapoor in a bikini.
Of course there is cinema in India that does some real thinking about society, politics and human purpose. Malayalam films, from Kerala, can be both touching and funny. There’s often an attempt to portray people who are caught up in a web of circumstances that they are struggling to understand. But these are gems in the cinematic slurry.
Those who do produce remarkable films depart – tired perhaps by the provincialism of Indian cinema. Mira Nair, whose Salaam Mumbai is the best movie about the city for years, left India for the west and continues to make good films where characters are explored and audiences allowed to analysis situations in the light of their own experiences.
Western movies for all their faults have shown tremendous staying power, able to reinvent themselves in clever ways. The surge of ironic pop culture race humor – just look at Borat – is a sign of self-confidence. In India there’s an urge to protect the native culture that leaves a whole series of sexual, caste, racial issues untouched by any degree of purpose.
For all the triumphalism in India about its nascent soft superpower onscreen, it is sobering to note that other developing countries have produced films of lasting aesthetic value. Brazil put out the stunning favela violence of City of God. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki produced the wonderful Caramel about forbidden love in Beirut. Ominously the People's Republic of China is once again becoming a major artistic force in world cinema.
Even worse just consider the output of American television to see the gap between what India can offer and what the rest of the world chooses to watch. There’s no matching the psychological dramas and human tangles found in the Wire or Tell Me You Love Me. There’s nothing in Indian comedy that could like The Office transform the everyday into laughing gas. Even the BBC’s rendition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles reminds only of how far Indian scripts have to come.
There’s a lot of talent in India. There’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of technical know-how. But the verdict on the country’s cinema has been in for some time: guilty of producing nationalist ephemera that prefers to explore the Indian condition rather than the human one.