Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Funky Bollywood--The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema

If someone had told me three years ago that I would fall in lust for Bollywood films, I would have heartily laughed it off. Likewise, I would have scoffed at the thought of Bollywood B films from 40 + years ago getting stuck under my skin. Given that I know a fair few cinephiles who won't give Indian films the time of day, I'll make a wild generalization and say that we Western film buffs react this way because we have no idea what we're missing.

Unfortunately, if you pick up the average cast-off Bollywood tome at your local Half-Price, you'll probably walk away unenlightened. Mother India, Pyaasa, and rain-drenched saris will fit too easily into already established inner dialogue. And perusing a Great Important Film list will only sour the that negative conversation further. Poverty? Visible sighs? Lists of "unreadable" and "unrecognizable" names? Long-winded explanations of subaltern subtext? NO KISSING? No thanks.

What some of us really need is not just a Top 100 or a Bollywood 101, but a Bollywood Genre 101. A hook, not a net to capture all us non-conformists and connoisseurs ... ok, ok, snobs. Something to lure us in with the strange and unusual and yet oddly nostalgic. Something that promises easy excitement and popcorn potential. Something evenly patterned but generous with the thrills to keep us ADD stimulation seekers in one place even minus browsing capabilities. Like that weird movie marathon you find on television when your Wi-Fi isn't working.

Luckily, Todd Stadtman, of Die Danger Die Die Kill and Teleport City, has produced just such a "Gateway Drug" (as he puts it) for my favorite genre of all, Bombay's addicting '70s urban action cinema. Ok, yes, he omits most of the '70s mustachoied dacoit dramas, the melodramas, the family socials, the HM comedies, etc. But the book is all the better for it. If you're not ready to bite, let me sweeten the pot. (This is a masala-heavy cinema blog, so I reserve the right to mix my metaphors as much as I like.)

"Funky Bollywood" is divided into four main sections: 

  • A "Starcast" introduction laid out like a cast and crew spread in one of those magazines you can buy for $20 but just read at Barnes and Noble instead. It's fun and snappy and outlines both the reaches of each star's power, and the unique niche they filled in the '70s industry. For those of you who might be wondering, BOTH Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan are included in the seven featured "Heroes." And although Todd omits some of my favorites (like Rakhee), he does include Zeenat Aman and the Telugu star Jyothi Laxmi, so you can see that this isn't any old best actress list from the Times of India. Here you'll also find profiles of playback singers (Kishore Kumar), screenwriters (Salim-Javed), composers (Kalyanji-Anandji), supporting players (Pran), directors (Prakash Mehra), and those hardworking professional villains (Jeevan). 
  • A succession of movie reviews, guided by both Todd's personal sensibilities and his abiding commitment to give spectacular failures a seat at the table, too. (If nothing else, the rest of the films look better in comparison ...)
  • An "interval" gallery (YESSSSS)--with all the photos and posters you could want (even though the rest of the book is well stocked with visuals)
  • And finally, the second half of film reviews. Includes spotlights on two genres within the action genre: spy films, and westerns. 

Also, like a good masala film, Todd provides a snappy prologue and epilogue to bookend the action, and a set of symbols/key to help you keep track of the Bombay storytelling tropes (doubles, bromance, etc.) in each of the films.

On a more personal level, I have two comments: 

1. Seeing an ode to my favorite era of Bollywood (and some near unknown films to boot) in lively print and color does my heart good.

2. I don't have to content myself with looking at the pictures, because I actually enjoy reading the minutia of Todd's commentary. Now that I wrote that, it sounds far more condescending than I intended. But we've all sat through the dry academic tomes about Bollywood (or at least, we've tried). A lot of them serve as better reference books than commuter train reading. But while Funky Bollywood is a deceptively educational book for the beginner, and certainly a refresher of familiar territory for the long-time fan, it aims to entertain first. Here, it's worth quoting Todd's breakdown of KSR Doss' cult "revenge" film, Rani Mera Naam:

"Is it trashy? Stupid? Gaudy? Lurid? Indeed it is. But, also, like its heroine, it commits these crimes in pursuit of a worthy goal."

Anything this book lacks in SERIOUS COMMENTARY (meh), it makes up for in wit and aesthetics, and in its not-so-secret goal of filmi evangelism. Also, you might find a new favorite among Todd's motley selection of urban thrillers. I'm going off to make some lists (OK, YouTube playlists) right now.

"Funky Bollywood" seems to be everywhere in San Francisco, but you can get yours on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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