Bollywood Masala Indian Film Festival

January 13th, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Film history is a fascinating thing. Who can say why or how film movements from certain countries or aesthetics attract a following, or how, other than rolling on their own wave of contagious publicity?

What caused Italian cult directors like Leone, Fulci and Argento to forge careers in genres (and so create new genres in themselves) that seemed to have little to do with 1960s and 70s Italy, from the spaghetti western to schlock zombie horror?

Maybe in the future, the Australian film industry of the early 21st century will go down in history as the years we tried to replicate Hollywood and instead fell flat on our face in a pile of asinine, sitcom-style comedies, the odd good drama in between.

And of course, with a billion-strong domestic audience and a film industry that leaves the USA far behind in both the number of practitioners and the volume of output, Indian film is now steamrolling its way across the western world.

Maybe the timing was just right; in a world getting darker and more uncertain, perhaps the violent action film is an endangered species in the hearts of cinemagoers. It’s especially galling watching the (inevitably American) hero cop or soldier after the way America has behaved on the world stage for the past few years.

As a culture and a society in the west, maybe we’re all yearning for more innocent and peaceful entertainment, where the only wars are raged between besotted but forbidden lovers as they strut together in joyously flamboyant dancing numbers full of loaded glances.

And if that sounds like you, you’ll love almost everything about the Bollywood Masala Indian Film Festival.

Most of the appeal can be summed up in two words; delightful kitsch. If your experience of Bollywood movies is The Guru last year and you liked that, you’ll love the experience, colour, sight and sound of Bollywood cinema.

Known mostly for flirtatious musical comedies, the Bollywood movement is a different animal from the slick Hollywood standards. Over the top acting, cheesy dialogue and dubious dubbing are the substance; the style is vast and sweeping production design and of course, the riotous musical numbers.

A lot of Bollywood movies speak volumes about contemporary India. In Kuch Na Kaho, starring Bollywood megastar beauty Aishwarya Rai, the film surges between romantic comedy and romantic drama repeatedly, culminating in a diatribe by heroine Namrata on the standards unfairly imposed upon women in Indian society that are keeping her from her true love.

And if its innocence you’re after, watch with rapture as the meaningful glances and gentle stroking between attractive actors are never consummated — despite a healthy obsession with beauty and desire, public kissing is a strong taboo in Hindu society, and they never lock lips once.

Like an Indian banquet, there’s a splashing of every kid of flavour. 3 Deewarein is a dramatic story of thee men and their fight to survive in prison. Khakee tells the hi-octane story of a trio of police officers transporting a terrorist across India.

But most of the flavouring is sweet; by far the most popular genre is the musical romantic comedy, and — as that’s what most Bollywood films are known for — the festival dishes up some very large helpings.

And we mean large. In the attention deficit English-speaking world, 120 minutes is the unofficial limit but 90 minutes is considered ideal for a feature film before the concentration and the gluteus maximi of the average audience start to give out.

Fitting in all those lavish songs with multiple costume changes and tender touching isn’t easy, and several films in the festival easily crack three hours. By our standards, getting to the end is an exercise in endurance, but they’re so contagious they’re almost spectator sports.

With none of the terminal cynicism our movies are full of, they’re a joy in everything pretty, happy and funny — falling in love, beautiful girls, dashing heroes, snarling villains, signing, dancing and colour.

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