Here's what happens to most people a few seconds after they find out that I am, despite a name more commonly associated with white girls, a brown guy from Bombay: they smile, nod mysteriously for reasons known only to them (and for which I secretly blame Apu from The Simpsons), then say, "Land of Bollywood, eh?"
I have lost count of the number of times this has happened, everywhere from offices in Toronto to bars in Berlin. It's as if the only things a country of 1.3 billion has contributed to the world are diarrhea-inducing spicy food, socially awkward engineers for Silicon Valley and films that involve men and women in loud clothes gyrating around trees.
I don't love Bollywood. I don't like it either. In fact, I confess to hating it for as long as I can remember. It's the equivalent of assuming all Canadians love maple syrup simply because it's always found wherever the country's flag flutters somewhere. I don't expect every Canadian I meet to harbor a secret fondness for that sticky syrup, so why must I automatically be looked upon as a fan of what is possibly one of the most puerile film industries on Earth?
Not all Indians I know love Bollywood either, for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that anyone with half a brain will admit that most movies coming out of our huge Hindi film industry are unwatchable. It doesn't matter if you're sober or on the verge of passing out, a lot of it just seems like something beaten out of a can that expired in the 1980s.
The men look like hirsute butchers, the women exist only to suggestively thrust their pelvises at half-hour intervals and what passes for a plot is often less interesting than anything a five-year-old child can create if given enough sugar. Here, in no particular order, are some more personal reasons for the visceral hate this cinema has always inspired in me.
It's bad. Really, really bad
Consider, if you will, the plot of one of the most successful Bollywood films of the decade. Titled Bajrangi Bhaijaan, or Brother Bajrangi, it features one of the biggest Indian stars, Salman Khan.
The film tracks his efforts to reunite a mute six-year-old Pakistani girl with her parents, from whom she has been separated and forced to live in India. Among the narrative devices that routinely compel fans of Khan to break into applause are the following: the girl is named after a Pakistani cricketer; she falls off a cliff and is saved by a tree; she evades police and border patrols with Khan's help; she eventually finds her mother with the help of a YouTube video.
I don't even want to mention the rampant misogyny, casual acknowledgment of India's inhuman caste system, noise masquerading as a soundtrack or bad jokes strewed liberally across like uncooked broccoli on a pizza pie. Please, for the love of all that is good and life-giving about art, does this sound like a film worth watching?
It does not represent us
India isn't just a land of Hindi-speaking people whose idea of a hearty meal is half a kilogram of butter mixed with half a kilogram of cottage cheese. There are other kinds of Indians too.
For example, we have 22 official languagesand over 700 unofficial ones; you can walk into any of our apartment complexes and find 25 kinds of cuisines being prepared for lunch; and — please read this twice, if necessary — more than 1,000 movies are produced in India annually, of which only an average of 300 come from Bollywood. How and why are the rest of us forced to accept a substandard film industry as representative of who we are?
There really is better cinema in India
No, really. Do yourselves a favour and take a look at cinema made in other languages. Discover Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak's work in Bengali if you haven't already. Ask about Mani Ratnam's Tamil movies or Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films in Malayalam. Look at what bright young filmmakers are doing for Marathi cinema. They all come with subtitles these days, so there really is no reason why you shouldn't take the plunge.
Few of these films get the audiences they deserve because so much attention and publicity is swallowed by the Bollywood behemoth, but the internet can easily be used to shine a light into these dimly-lit corners.
Did I mention how bad it is?
Bollywood could do better if it wanted to. It could create compelling characters instead of stereotypes, encourage original writing instead of funding remakes of poor Hollywood romcoms or draw attention to serious problems that Indians deal with on an hourly basis.
Its efforts to do any of these things in the 100 years of its existence can only be described as tokenism. This is probably why nothing that ever comes out of the largest movie industry on Earth is ever considered worthy of an Academy Award or any other global award for cinema. It's also why Hindi filmmakers and stars simply hand over hundreds of awards to each other at cheesy events where the humour is crass and the dancing is worse.
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I have resigned myself to nodding along when asked about Bollywood. It's exhausting to interrupt an enthusiastic new acquaintance and bring out a list of why it's incorrect to assume all Indians love Bollywood. After a point, I suspect most of my countrymen nod too, if only to avoid a long discussion. A number of them probably even take pride in the notion that it's so obviously bad, it must be good. I refuse to toe that line.
Non-Indians should stop painting all Indians with the same brush. Not all of us obsess over cricket, eat curry all day and prance around trees to woo the people we love. And we don't all love Bollywood.
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