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Interview with Meenakshi Shedde (Indian Consultant to Berlin, Locarno, and Dubai Film Festivals; Winner of the National Film Award for Best Film Critic in 1999)

bollywoodQ1: You were saying that Bollywood only makes up a small percentage of the annual films that are produced in India and so people of the Indian community will know that there is also regional cinema, like Bengali cinema and Tollywood. Why do you think that even though Bollywood is beginning to reach a western audiencethere is less interest in and awareness of the regional cinema of India?

I think that is the basic difference between mainstream cinema and arthouse cinema. There is always much more interest in the popular cinemas than art house anywhere in the world. Bollywood is really a metaphor for mainstream cinema but in fact there are many mainstream cinemas in India. There is mainstream Bengali film, mainstream Malayalam and full on trash, worse trash that you get in Hollywood, which exists in all industries. So Bollywood is still only a tiny part but because it has such huge stars that have this appeal worldwide, the audience for it is much wider. One of the reasons that I think Hollywood succeeds worldwide is because it speaks in a very broad brush, which means that, for example, someone in Japan who doesn’t speak English still understands what is going on. In the same way Bollywood also treats things with a very broad brush. So everybody is clear who’s in love with who and who is the villain, and the villain is mostly  her daddy who won’t permit them to get married, so it’s all clear and the happy ending is clear. So you understand it if you’re in Egypt, if you’re inOuagadougou, if you’re in Turkey and even if you don’t understandHindi language you still get it. So this is the reason why it’s popular. Also the very melodramatic story structures which allow the release of emotionhelp you to understand what is going on. In general, when you see a German film Idon’t think you really come out weeping or howling or laughing. You may be moved, of course and you make think it is a fantastic film but there is no catharsis of emotion that Bollywood allows. I have come out of filmsthat I detest violently, films likeKabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. I hated it and what I hated even more was that I was howling at it even though I knew it was really trashy and much manipulatedand I was so angry with myself for howling.When you know it’s trash you have no business to howl,but I did and that only told me how successful the film is. So regardless of how much we put it down and you and I think he’s high art or low art or underground art, somehow it did affect me and so the truth is that Karan Johar is a successful director and no one can take away. So this I saw as a big revelation. Once I was the curator for a film festival in South Korea in Seoul and they had shown Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and they had a special screening in a football field instead of in a cinema hall. Theyshowed the film on a Wednesday evening at about eight or nine in the evening and I counted the audience myself because I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen such a big audience!There were at least 3000-3500people there andIhave never seen such a big audience for any Indian film in India, not even this one. It was very funny to see the film because it had English subtitles and Korea subtitles on the same screen and everyone had come fully prepared for it. They had bought lunchboxes, coke bottles, prams with babies, grandmothers, uncles, cousins, whole joint families had come. And they were all howling and crying and laughing; they were getting a lot of the jokes and I kept asking “why do you like this film so much?”And they said that it’s a very Korean story with two brothers separating and so for them it’s a history of their culture, about the Koreas separatinginto North and South, like India and Pakistan. I hated that film but I had to call Karan Johar and say look, this is what the audience responded to in Korea. I was the only Indian in that whole audience. There were no Indians there, so there was no NRI contingentatall. When a Hindi film is talking to a Korean culture, hats off! I may not admire the film but I respect it deeply because the mark of a good film-maker in any culture is that it works in another culture. That’s successful cinema.

Q2: My next question is about DannyBoyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire. Just comparing the reception that it had in the Western world where it received awards and it was so lauded for really opening people’s eyes about the situation for slum children around Bombay. I got the impression when I read about how it was received in India, that people were a bit embarrassed about it. They didn’t want India to be perceived as a country in which this kind of poverty was so widespread. So do you think it was important that a Westerner brought Indians back to a real social reality or do you think that Indians didn’t want to go to the cinema and see the reality that they see in front of them when they go walking around the streets?

First of all I think art is art and art is not supposed to be PR. I think it is the most ridiculous thing in the world to think that a film should only show the nice and happy sides of country. I think the arguments against Slumdog Millionaire in India were incredibly stupid and naive. They’re valid because people were out in the streets jumping around, but personally I think that is worse than naive.But I have to say that there was a very, very intense love/hate relationship with that film in India.I said to people who objected to it “you don’t have a problem with the poverty; you have a problem with someone showing it.”It’s ridiculous. If you’re so embarrassed you should be embarrassed that people are so poor that they can’t feed their children. Why the hell should you then be upset that somebody is showing that? You don’t have a problem with seeing it yourself. So that’s incredibly hypocritical for me. But it’s a very old argument. We once had this actress called Nargis Dutt who was a great actress in her time. She had the same argumentand because she was an actress she had power in the film industry.She wanted to suppress this certain films, saying they put out images of poverty in India to the West and that was very bad.  So the argument goes back years, it is an age oldquestion and is valid in all times. There will always be people who feel like that, even from the film industry. Personally, I didn’t think it was a great film. I think there is great craftsmanship in the film and I think very highly of Danny Boyle and it’s clear that he has talent but I didn’t think it was a fantastic film. I have no problems showing the poverty or the gutters or the slums, you can show what you like about India. My problemis that I thought it was veryrepetitive. Every question is answered by some incident in the boy’s life and thewholething becomes predictable and there’s not one change from beginning to end. For such a gifted director,I would have expected more.Art is always a choice. It’s Danny Boyle’s choice to film the book; he could have thrown it away and written his own story. If he chose itthat means he thought it was interesting to film. There are no laws that say if you choose to film a book you have to do it exactly like that. It can be based on a book but you can do some radically different things with it. They are two different art forms. You can make a painting from a book or you can make a musical, you can convert it into any other art form but there is not law controlling what that art from should be like. This is only Danny’s creation. The buck can’t be passed anywhere, the buck stops at his door. It was his choice; he could have chucked the book and writtena fiction film out of his head. If he chooses to film the book then it’s his decision to stick to what the book says.

Q4. You also said that one of the reasons why the Indian domestic market for cinema is so strong is because you like what you produce and there’s less interest for Hollywood in India than pretty much anywhere else in the world.I was curious about the kind of Hollywood films that are well received. Are they ones which have similar themes to Bollywood running through them? I was thinking of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, when she made a film with a very Hollywood but also Bollywood spin on Pride and Prejudice and I don’t know how it was received in India, whether it was even watched at all? Even British films like East is East and Bend It Like Beckham, were they only watched by Indian people who had a connection to British society or was there a general interest in India for how Indians were living in Britain? 

If you’re talking about the Hollywood films; the ones that did work and that the Indian public liked, it’s the usualbroad brush rubbish. For example, the film Anaconda was very successful. I was interviewing the managing director of Colombia Tri-Star which produced it and I asked him “does it count for anything because we don’t watch Hollywood films and the market is so tiny, does it mean anything to you at all?”He said that they were very surprised that one of the films that did really well in Indiawas Anaconda. Then we realised that it had nothing to do with Hollywood but really because Indians like snakes! A lot of Indian culture is very traditional and it doesn’t go away just because you’re wearing jeans and a t-shirt because people’s brains can be in the last century. People are very closely connected with traditional cultures and a lot of traditional cultures really respect and worship snakes. Many normal people who pick up a briefcase and go to work in an investment bank go to pray at thesnake temple at the weekend. If they don’t have children they’ll go and pray to the snake goddess because snakes are also a metaphor for fertility. There are very mythic associations with snakes. You see it in many countries, not just India. They are worshipped because they are associated with the earthand with fertility and creativity.InIndiawehave a long tradition of films about snakes and they’re very popular. Things which are mythical also find expression in mainstream Bollywood film because they’re connecting with something that’spopular to begin with and it’sregurgitating the same ideas.

I think when Americanstry to do Indian things they really don’t get it and they don’t succeed.Not Slumdog Millionaire and not a whole lot of other stuff. But I think that a film like Bend It Like Beckham is a glorious film and it had quite a decent run. I adore it to bits; it’s not a Hollywood film to me at all. Firstly, it’s British, not American and secondly it doesn’t fall into the traditional mould of a Hollywood film.I like it precisely because it breaks all the rules. It breaks every rule about film-making and I think it was the first time in decades that I ever remember seeing a heroine who is so completely ordinary looking. She could be like you or me or anyone in the streetand that’s why we adore her so much. It’s also because she doesn’t do the things that women are supposed to do, such as get married. We’ve all struggled with our mothers at some point, when they bring us men to approve. So the film is dealing with things that we’ve all experienced and have struggled with.

Interview conducted by Moushumi Bhadra & Deepa Sury, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy


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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013


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