For those viewers who are new to the world of Indian cinema, it may be startling to you that there is in fact an industry beyond Bollywood (the colloquial word for Hindi film). In fact, the term “Bollywood” – depending on whom you speak with – was coined not by insiders, actors, and filmmakers in India but, some claim, sourced from outside of India. Of course, this theory seems to be challenged if you look across the country and see such monikers as “Tollywood” (Telegu cinema), “Mollywood” (Malayalam cinema), and even “Kollywood” (Tamil cinema) just to round everything out. All of this would be fine if this article was about discerning the differences and relevancies of these different regional cinema offerings in India. Instead, how do Bollywood and Kollywood contribute to defining today’s Indian cinema?
Two films featured at this year’s Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles were Bollywood’s Agent Vinod, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, and Tamil Cinema’s Anima and Persona with Jackie Shroff and Sampath Kumar. Watching both films at IFFLA 2012, I decided to delve into the meanings of these respective cinema and relevance to figure out what is Indian cinema today.
In these two films I found two different approaches to subject matter, equally relevant with its amazing highlights and fatal flaws in terms of entertainment value and structure. In Agent Vinod, I was pleasantly surprised by the professional quality of the presentation and the CHIC “James Bond” essence that the filmmakers captured. All aspects of sleek, modern spy film elements were there, and, ironically, enough done with surprising authenticity. Agent Vinod, actually seemed to follow all the trappings of a modern action adventure film the likes that even Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan would be proud.
In Anima and Persona, a Tamil film of quite a different style and approach is an action film that is decidedly more tough and gritty, weaving a story through the world of underground mafias, undesirables and the glimmer of hope from oppression. In many ways, it is a more gritty and “darker” version of the Slumdog Millionaire fare of movies. In this film, there are heroes who could be villains at every turn. There is not a sense of hope and light except in the harsh reality of whatever you do and make of your life is going to be your escape. A brutally honest film rooted in realism as the thread or glue that holds everything together throughout.
Where these HIGH concept films soar in premise and initial plotline intrigue, they completely lag in one of the most basic and fundamental rules of action cinema that American mainstream filmmakers have understood for many decades now. If you are going to make an action film, make sure it adheres to the 90 to 100 minute principle. Maybe it is an unwritten rule or has just been such a neglected rule because most filmmakers adhere to this rule by principle that most audiences of such films never have a complaint.
However, when a Bollywood or Kollywood film comes along, it seems that breaking this simple, albeit unwritten rule is not only easy, but encouraged to circumvent the borderline 2.5 hour movie watching experience to even three hours.
In Agent Vinod, I was on the edge of my seat and following the story by and large up until Intermission occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with Indian cinema, the Intermission is always a way for the distributors to extend out a film and create a larger experience. However, when dealing with an Action film, coming upon the INTERMISSION was quite surprising as I thought it would be a perfect time to end the film. Consequently, the film went on after intermission nearly an hour and a half later.
With Anima and Persona, a situation in the filmmaking style also came up which served to be confusing rather than auteurist. In chase and battle scenes in this film, I think it was choreographed in such a way where the director decided to use different camera and lighting techniques, which ultimately took away from the continuity in scenes. Then there was the length.
In all fairness, the biggest discrepancy both films possessed, is that they were both well over two hours in duration, with Agent Vinod clocking in at nearly 150 minutes in total running time. Ironically, this would not be such a bad thing if the intermission served as a break to a building story whereby anticipation built up around every turn. The truth of the matter is that sadly, this did not happen, and it painfully labored on when it should not have.
The writing and direction does not need to be lengthy in duration. Another film (also screened at this year’s IFFLA) Delhi Belly clocks in at just around 100 minutes in duration. No songs. No dances. This model can be replicated and is being replicated. Perhaps this is too critical analysis of movies breaking ground in many other ways, however, if we are going to evaluate Indian cinema on the same level as international feature film cinema, then we judge them with the same level of clarity and critique and not default back to our conventional excuses or justifications as to what “missed” or why it did “not quite hit the mark.”
Having said all that, the news is not bad, quite a long way from being bad actually as both films merit their own quality, quirkiness, messages and themes and the storytelling method is quite polished from just a few years back. From this perspective, Bollywood and Kollywood films mean relevance. Gone are the days or complete fantasy by and large, replaced by gritty, edgy stories that have substance behind them. Now that the package is in place, perhaps we have to wait just a little while longer to see editing and polishing help make films fit within a format whereby viewers are left feeling like the experience was just the right amount of time without feeling worn out because of the old formula of duration is still being adhered.