Bollywood recently celebrated its 100th year. Indian, Pakistani and Tamil has been close to my heart for a few years now: in 2012 I backpacked around India; some of my favourite people are Pakistani; and I spent a long and joyous time researching my (hopefully) upcoming novel Cycles of Udaipur. I’ve watched enough Bollywood films in the last few years to catch up with three decades of world cinema.
As the single most distinctive form of cinema, Bollywood is often a love-or-hate thing for British audiences. I live in Sheffield, one of the north’s most cosmopolitan cities, so our mainstream and indie cinemas draw in big crowds for their frequent showing of Asian films. I’m usually one of the very few white faces in such crowds, but I rarely feel such a buzz or sense of camaraderie than at those viewings.
So what can writers learn from Bollywood cinema?
If there’s one thing to define the “genre”, besides the spontaneous song-and-dance numbers and spangly productions, it is the emotional power that such films project. I know people who avoid Bollywood purely because each film is such an emotional rollercoaster. If I cry during a “filmi”, it’s probably because I’m watching Jodha Akbar (2008) or Ram-Leela (2013), or films like the lesser-known Raincoat (2004), each of which has a powerful emotional core that beats most dramatic films of the west hands down.
Jodha Akbar is a historical epic centering around the marriage of a Muslim conqueror and his Hindu lover. It is a story of love that transcends all barriers, much like the crux of Ram-Leela, a modern-day Hindustani Romeo and Juliet. Literature of course is no stranger to the themes of love, which has been explored in all its facets for thousands of years. But too many English-language novels neglect to dig deep enough into this fundamental emotion, shying away for fear of being too flowery in terms of prose. Is this a flaw of Western literature, or is it the right balance for our comparatively reserved culture?
There is a reason that so many Bollywood films are musicals; the emotions at play are far too powerful to be contained. This is a statement that is arguably laughable, but there is a lot to learn from the unashamedly ebullient nature of desi films. British literature at its best is a cultural caricature: restrained, emotionally suffocated, bleak and dour. D.H.Lawrence, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer and John le Carré make a fortune of the misery of their characters, with only a rare few – unsurprisingly operating in the fringes of genre fiction – allow their natural brightness to shine through: the likes of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Ruth Rendell.
I hopefully need not return to what I think of contemporary “romantic” fiction, all of which operates on the largely worthless scale between erotica and chick-lit.
The blandness of English literature could well do with a counteracting injection of Bollywood-style passion, not just of the tear-jerking variety, of which we have become quite adept, but also encapsulating the wealth of untapped positive emotions would bring colour to those drab bookshop shelves.