I have to admit it -- I have yet to watch a Bollywood film. Working as an intern at the Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), I was dropped in the middle of the planning, organizing, importing, communicating, and all sorts of other verbs that go into putting together a huge show of one-of-a-kind historical Bollywood advertising ephemera. When Bollywood Cinema Showcards opened a month after I started, I was perhaps as mesmerized as the guests at our opening reception. Granted, this is not the first time this has happened. I remember the proverb "fed to the wolves" being used a lot to describe a summer job I had a few years ago. But this is the first time I feel like revisiting the basics once I have my footing.
In some ways, this may be better -- watching a Bollywood film after hearing Tejaswini Ganti, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York University and contributor to the Bollywood Cinema Showcards catalogue, rip apart anything I thought I knew about the films at one of the ICC's panels; getting acquainted with the political and historical context of Hindi-language cinema through the exhibition; getting some understanding of the role that mythology, nationalism and censorship play in the composition of these films.
Certainly this is not what I thought Bollywood was when my friend, 12-years-old or so, described being at the movie theatre with her grandmother for four hours. Nor did I pay much attention when Bollywood caught on at my high school for a short time. How that happened I will never know. At the time I suspected it had to do with the adolescent yearning to be worldly and sophisticated. Now I think it may have had to do with how enjoyable the films are as well as how some can appeal to both our childish and adult sensibilities at the same time. I sometimes caught a fuzzy glimpse of a Bollywood film on one of the poor-reception channels we got at home. Usually it was 2 a.m. and it was just colourful enough to keep me from falling asleep (which I would later curse it for doing).
So while the ICC is not exactly my first encounter with Bollywood cinema, it's the first time I've paid serious attention and given it the due it deserves, and I think I'm better off for the perspective I've got now.
Of course, I have to keep in mind that a Bollywood film is more than its context -- it is also a story all its own! Having just finished university and having spent four years in a bit of a post-modern/post-structural cocoon, I find it necessary lately to remind myself to enjoy something for what it claims to be as well as to look for everything else that goes into it. The signature singing and dancing, the drama, the epic! It would be a shame to miss out on the sheer fun of it all.
But I'm glad I have some knowledge that keeps me from dismissing Bollywood as something you have to do with your grandma. Nor can I see it as solely escapist, as some people describe it -- after all the research I've done, I swear I could write a paper on why this isn't the case. Now it's time to test out my theory by sitting on the couch and finally watching some Bollywood action. Or romance. Or epic. Or tragedy. Or comedy...