Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Letter to the Editor...

The following letter-to-the-editor was composed by me and sent to Mr. Phil Contrino of Boxoffice Magazine, the official publication of the National Association of Theater Owners.

It provides an argument for the economic and cultural benefits of increased public exposure to the Hindi film industry in the United States.

Dear Mr. Phil Contrino:

In Frank Capra’s words, Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.” As editor of Boxoffice Magazine, you are very well aware of film’s universal intrigue. In fact, you and your readers are among the world’s elite consumers (and producers) of film. Hollywood is undoubtedly recognized worldwide for its progressive, experimental, absorbing, and timeless works of art; however, film aficionados in the United States are unfortunately unaware of another art form: Bollywood. If Capra termed mathematics, music, and film to be the three universal languages, then Indian films shall be the fourth – for they represent a perfect coalescence between the aesthetic, the auditory, and the sentimental.

The promotion of this style of filmmaking is confined today to the country’s metropolises. These films’ potential audiences, and profits, are thereby inappropriately limited. But with a proper raise in awareness among the cinema elite, acknowledgement of potential profits by cinema owners, and continued interest on the part of consumers – the expansion of Bollywood in localities nationwide would prove conducive to the American moviegoer.

Referred to by the popular portmanteau “Bollywood,” the Indian film industry is not, as the name suggests, a sketchy rip-off of its American counterpart. The Indian films of today no longer represent the three-hour long, melodramatic, jingoistic, escapist masala films of yesteryear. Rather, as Richard Corliss of Time Magazine suggests, these films are “visually intoxicating…pristine…and visual chic.” Having grown up with these films and having witnessed the revolution in the Mumbai-based industry, I am convinced that the American audience is ready for something new, something different.

American moviegoers and critics have praised Mira Nair’s The Namesake, danced to AR Rahman’s Jai Ho, and read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. As Somini Sengupta named the phenomenon in her New York Times article, Americans are inebriated by “the new Indo chic” or even “Indofrenzy.” But in the opinion of any Indophile, this phenomenon is pitifully incomplete without exposure to Indian films. Organizations such as the National Association of Theater Owners must acknowledge this pattern of demand from the American public. According to, “Bollywood films now routinely cross the $1 million boxoffice mark in the United States.” In fact, the 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham had reached No.10 on the U.S. boxoffice charts on its release weekend. As Kabhi Khushi’s marketing chief Vishal Patel questions, “If it is a formula that works for us, then why not cash in on it?”

So the question rests why theater owners do not request the expansion of Bollywood films in localities nationwide so that Americans outside the metropolises may enjoy what Regine Labossiere of The Seattle Times calls “Bollywood’s charms.” The principal reason is simply that Indian films are, evidently, foreign. Therefore, they are neither marketed widely nor given media attention. They belong to an unfamiliar culture; they emanate unfamiliar thoughts. Business Week’s Nandini Lakshman recognizes that “figuring out a way to translate Bollywood for Western audiences isn’t easy.” Nonetheless, this “figuring” can be done and it has been accomplished in past years. For example, East Asian cinema has gained a flourishing mainstream American market since the 2000 release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and it is not uncommon to find a collection of East Asian movies on DVD at one’s local supermarket. In such a manner, I view this year’s Slumdog Millionaire as a gateway into India’s more authentic, homegrown, family-friendly cinema. As Deepa Mehta, director of the 2002 crossover film Bollywood/Hollywood suggests, “The world is becoming a smaller place.” And in the smaller confines of today’s globalized world, the passions of billions of global Bollywood-watchers can no longer be ignored.

But what guarantee is there that Bollywood films have a future on the United States boxoffice charts? Why shouldn’t American theater owners and distributors ignore the world’s largest film industry? To answer these questions, Andrew Hassam of the Australian literary magazine Meanjin cites a report by Hedge Funds Review acknowledging that “overseas [European and North American] territories are big money earners for [Indian] producers and distributors and so many films are now made with an international audience in mind.” Having been born and brought up in the United States, I certainly can verify the transnational appeal of Bollywood films. Furthermore, I have shared my personal collection of Indian films with friends of all backgrounds: young and old, black and white, conservative and liberal. This “globalization of Bollywood,” as Hassam states it, is “a way in which the exotic is absorbed into the mainstream.”Throughout my own experience, I testify that most viewers find something intoxicating within an Indian film whether it be the romance, action, family values, or especially music.

Undoubtedly, any astute discussion of the Indian film industry ignoring music would be blasphemous. And Seattle’s Labossiere deems the “power of music to involve viewers” one of “Bollywood’s charms.” As Hollywood is also aware, musicals have become big business within the past few years. From Disney’s High School Musical phenomenon to successful projects such as Rent and Mamma Mia!, musicals have gained strong followings transcending socioeconomic status, cultural, and age. Now imagine an entire industry catering to an existing market where more than 95% of films feature “colorful costumes, rhythmic music…and stories that celebrate family ties and true romance.”

Furthermore, William Jasper of The New American uncovers a surprising truth: “producing wholesome films is not only morally sound but financially rewarding.” Among film circles, the Indian film industry is infamous for its overtly repressed sexuality. This image has changed; this stereotype is no longer valid. Yet, as a UPI news wire report suggests, “most Bollywood on-screen kisses…are sanitized pecks on the lips.” Consequentially, Roshan Gill, owner of a Bollywood video store, comments that “all cultures can understand the movies because…there are always family values.” In an age when “the more explicit the sex and nudity are in a movie, the worse it does at the box office” – a selection of films in which “morality and tradition are recurring themes” could prove quite profitable to all parties.

On March 24, 2002, the Indian film industry made its first major step into modern America’s sphere of influence with the Oscar nomination of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan for Best Foreign Language Film. Then, more recently, on February 22, 2009, A.R. Rahman became the first Indian national to win an Academy Award for his pulsating soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire. As these two incidents infer, Indian films require the attention they deserve. Moreover, further exposure of Indian films to the American public is profitable – financially and morally. Interestingly, major Hollywood production houses have begun to invest themselves in India; Sony and Warner Brothers have produced Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya and Nikhil Advani’s Chandni Chowk to China, respectively. With American executives taking note of the potential profits within Bollywood, the future for Indian film at local cinemas is bright.

Last winter, I attended a single screening of the newly released Indian film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi starring India’s superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, popularly dubbed “King Khan.” Amidst the blizzard conditions of suburban West Michigan, around one hundred fans had congregated in the theater for this rare opportunity to watch Bollywood on the big screen – only miles from their houses. Waiting intently for the show to start, I could hear at least a dozen languages being spoken around me: English, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Urdu, Arabic, and Vietnamese. The audience was global. They were families. They were laughing. They were crying. They were humming along to the music. They were speaking the fourth universal language – and they embraced it.

Boxoffice Magazine finds itself in an integral position to advance the awareness of Hollywood’s Indian counterpart: your publication extends its influence from filmmakers to film financiers, from movie theaters to moviegoers. I thank you sincerely for taking the time to reflect along with me on the niche for Indian films in the United States. To once again reference the words of Frank Capra, “Don’t follow trends, Start them!”

Respectfully Yours,

Nikhil Nandigam

Saturday, August 8, 2009

An Introduction to "Devdas" - Hindi

The following is a short introduction to my favorite Bollywood film - Devdas (2002). I designed this presentation as part of a Hindi/Urdu summer program for American high school students hosted by the Indiana Studies Program at Indiana University - Bloomington.

Title: "Devdas Meri Nazar Se" --- "Devdas Through My Eyes"
Date: July 2009

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