Today, Hindi Cinema is one of the biggest growing sectors of the Indian economy. Experts project the industry to reach a net worth of a whooping 28 billion USD by the year 2015. Those statistics are pretty impressive, right? But where is all that growth coming from? We all know that India, along with China, is the home of the greatest economic boom in recent times, due to governmental decisions and practices. However, it is unassailable that the content of the entertainment, specifically film, has also vastly improved.
As a first-generation Indian American, I have grown up with the influence of not only Indian culture, food and language, but entertainment. The entertainment has served as a gateway back to my roots and country. We all remember the 1980s and '90s, when every movie had the NRI son, Raj or Prem, who wooed the cultured village girl, while singing in the fields to Jatin-Lalit or Anu Malik's tunes. We all loved it then (and even today), but it doesn't always translate to "quality" cinema in today's world. Don't get me wrong, I love movies like, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya, but too many of any one thing gets repetitive. Today, Hindi cinema is churning out movies on every topic and can feed the audience's every appetite. I love that about today's cinema. I love being able to choose from relatively risque films, like Ragini MMS or action-packed masala movies, like Dabangg, while still watching an Indian movie. I am loving almost everything about Hindi films these days, despite the unrelenting negative criticism by critics. Nevertheless, I wish today's directors and producers would re-examine...WOMAN!
Now, let's role back to the "golden era". I don't think that any world cinema, now or ever, can compete with the Indian films of the 1950s and '60s. Raj Kapoor (look at the background folks), known for beautifully depicting his actresses on-screen, gave some of the greatest films. He produced, directed and acted in films that took on every topic: romance, society, tragedy and more. In movies, like Sangam and Shree 420, Raj illustrated the realities of relationships and life, while showing woman with real, raw emotions. In his 1964 film, Sangam, actress Vyjantimala plays a woman who marries Raj, despite being in love with his childhood friend, played by Rajendra Kumar. However, she soon realizes her commitment to Raj and fully devotes herself to their marriage. Rajendra returns as the third wheel in the marriage, much to Vyjantimala's indignation. She leaves no stone unturned in threatening Rajendra and hiding her past secrets. Her high voltage scenes from that movie give me goosebumps to this day. Vyjantimala's dialogues, feelings and thoughts overshadowed those of Raj's and Rajendra's characters, by a long shot. Raj Kapoor, also known as the "Showman", was one of the first filmmakers to actually mold female characters. However, the business of cinema is unassailably one of the most risky businesses. In 1970, his most ambitious project, Mera Naam Joker, miserably failed at the box office. His financial state to fell to such a point, that he not only mortgaged his famous RK studios, but even, his wife's jewelery. That year, the "Showman" decided to slightly change his film style and made one of my favorite films, Bobby, which launched not only his son, Rishi Kapoor, but also, Dimple Kapadia, the heroine whose character the film was named after. The name of the film was not the only difference from his past movies, but more importantly the clothing of the young, juvenile teen, Bobby. She dressed provocatively in short dresses and shirts above her midriff, while her dance numbers were equally seductive (watch clip below). Nonetheless, she had feelings and a personality, which the title of the film only cements.
Today, there are a few films with strong female characters, yet in quantity and quality, they have only half of the depth that older films had. Directors like Anees Bazmee, Rohit Shetty and even Farah Khan, cast woman more as commodities than real people. An ideal example was of Farah Khan's recent film, Tees Maar Khan, which was heavily publicized for starring two of India's biggest stars, Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar. For weeks, Katrina's "sexy and sensuous" item number, named "Sheila Ki Jawani" played on Indian television and radios, non-stop. In the song, Katrina danced in skimpy clothing around men, while taunting "I know you want it, but you're never gonna get it". Item numbers are no new phenomenon in the Indian film industry and "Sheila Ki Jawani" went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year. However, Katrina's highly publicized song and name barely translated to substance in the film. Overall, Katrina had at most five lines. She would randomly pop out in front of the camera and say something like "ooohhh my make up", while nonsensically smiling and pulling down her dress in classic Marilyn Monroe style. This is one of India's "biggest actresses", who is paid to do one thing, called acting. So, why is she not doing that and solely inserted to say meaningless phrases and dance in a sexually provocative manner. Nonetheless, there is the rare No one Killed Jessica, which portrays two strong, fierce women who fight against corrupt individuals. The problem is that there are not enough of these female-centric movies.
This leads me to my last thought. Not only has the depiction of woman changed from the past, but the woman themselves have too. Currently, the top actresses of India are Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif. Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor are undoubtedly talented actresses. Kareena proved her talent back in 2007 with Jab We Met, while Priyanka Chopra proved herself with Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion. Meanwhile, Katrina has still yet to prove anything. Katrina Kaif is NOT a good actress. Yes, she is beautiful and cute, but since when are physical characteristics more important than the actual skill of acting? The worst part is, her less than limited proficiency for the Hindi language, which more and more actresses are having these days. After more than half a decade in the industry, Katrina has learned to speak better than before but it is still not great, let alone good. The problem: Katrina is only the beginning of the trend. Recently, in Rockstar, a new female actress, named Nargis Fakhri was launched. Her acting was not wonderful, but I don't think it was horrible either. However, for an A-lister film, directed by Imtiaz Ali and starring Ranbir Kapoor, the acting was way below the mark. For me, the acting was not even the weakest link of her performance, but her inability to speak Hindi. Being a non-Indian and having no connection to Bollywood, whatsoever, her voice had to be dubbed. I wrote a review on the film a couple of weeks ago, but just recently nailed what threw me off from the film -her fake voice. Having someone else dub for an actress depletes much of the emotional connect because as a viewer, you can tell that the voice cannot fit the character. But the question is...why let such a situation even arise? There are probably tons of other girls, who actually know the language, who could do the part just as well. There are probably tons of other girls, who actually know what Bollywood is. The situation with "bad" actresses is horrid. There was a time, even in the 90s, that actresses were cast because of their talent, rather than looks. Earlier this week, an Indian-American porn star named Sunny Leone also came to India, to take part in the popular reality show Bigg Boss. She is a porn star and who really cares, she can do what she wants. Afterall, Bigg Boss is so popular because of controversial contestants, like her (by Indian standards). What surprised me was how she got an offer to be in the popular Murder series, within a week of coming to India. Is that fair? At least models, like Fakhri and Kaif, have something in common with the profession of acting. What will someone like Sunny Leone know about acting, all she has done is have SEX!
I love Bollywood and always will. It has progressed so much and still is. I think the connect that I feel for Indian cinema can NEVER be reproduced by another film industry. However, the depth of female characters and the choice of the actresses portraying them desperately needs to regress. The question is why...why has this change come about? I have some thoughts about that too...but I'll save that for another day!