Thursday, April 30, 2015

book review: Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema: A Selective Guide

What I have to say about pal, colleague, and collaborator Todd Stadtman's new book on my favorite era of Hindi films is not going to be news to anyone: IT IS GREAT AND YOU SHOULD BUY AND READ IT IMMEDIATELY AND THEN KEEP IT HANDY TO REFER BACK TO WHEN (RE-)WATCHING THESE AMAZING MOVIES! It is, in fact, SUPERWOW,
the highest masala compliment I know how to give. Any book that puts Feroz Khan right up front and center with Amitabh Bachchan is a book for me.

I was about to say "The greatest strength of Funky Bollywood is all its glorious context," but on second thought, maybe the very best out of many superb features is that it is so respectful. As you'll know if you've read his blog, Todd has affection but also thoughtful appreciation for the subjects he's covering—and I think we all know that this combination isn't as prevalent in film writing as it ought to be. He also truly observes his subjects, and there is equitable distribution of amazement and critique.

Back to the role of context. The descriptions and analysis of films and cast/crew build on each other to form the big picture, but because Todd knows so much about other world cinema traditions and has done his research on the contemporary Indian context(s), he adds even more understanding by relating the films both intra- and internationally and to movies and music elsewhere. For the "I need/want a gateway drug" reader, expectations of what Hindi films may be like are addressed and, rather than being dismissed, which can turn people off, used as bridges into the themes and styles etc that actually do exist. Todd never judges the reader for making an assumption or not knowing more about the Hindi film world; instead, he says "That influence/idea/method can be seen sometimes, as in X, but more often you'll see Y Z—and ain't Y Z just the coolest?"

Funky Bollywood is as informative and critical-thinking-based as any academic monograph or collection but a lot more fun. It has mouth-watering pictures that can speak for themselves and also illustrate whatever beautiful lunacy is being discussed. Funky Bollywood proves how much fun you can have while thinking about pop cinema. The "Oh just leave your brain at home" approach to anything is ridiculous, as though thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. Even for someone at least 90% familiar with all the facts mentioned in the book (sometimes due to having talked about a particular film with Todd before or read his blog post about it), there is a ton to consider and learn, again due to the connections Todd draws and the way the entries interrelate.

[Ignore the following paragraph if I am mis-remembering and these critiques are unfounded.] One problem: right away from the title, there's a bit of muddling between "Bollywood" and "Indian cinema," which most people vested in the subjects hate and which I'm surprised to find in a work by this author. Maybe those word choices came from the editor/publisher who didn't know any better? "Bollywood" is a problematic and entrenched enough word on its own—even when I try not to, I find myself using it*—but to instantly slip in "Indian cinema" in the same breath, as though the two are interchangeable, is a bad idea. Unfortunately, it's also a very useful word, especially in a project aimed at non-experts, and I certainly understand the temptation to use it frequently. But it's also an easy word to use precisely, and doing so can subtly accomplish a lot of that education. If there is a mention anywhere that "the term 'Bollywood' specifically refers to popular cinema made in Mumbai/Bombay in Hindi, the most widely-spoken language in India after English, concentrated in the north" or some such, I missed it. Once Todd gets to the introduction of Jyothi Laxmi and K. S. R. Doss in his sections on heroines and directors, it becomes clear that Telugu films are not quite the same as the rest of the ones he's covering, but I don't think that's enough explanation in a book that wants to be a gateway drug for people unfamiliar with Indian movies. Are such readers even going to know what exactly Hindi is and how it functions in Indian culture (or, even less likely, Telugu)? I also noticed a few—a very few—errors, like calling Sunny Deol an "aspiring action hero." That ship sailed decades ago.

But: bygones. This book is respectful, clever, thoughtful, and enthusiastic. It is well-considered, well-informed, and good-natured. Funky Bollywood is so good that I'd like to see, and can easily imagine, a whole series of books with this exact format and comparable enthusiasm and knowledge covering other eras and regions and genres of Indian film, especially ones overlooked because we assume that we understand them or that they're not notably worth thinking about. Maybe 1,000-odd words on the general context of the time and place the films are from, the industry they come from, the audiences they're for; profiles of significant creative players and cast (important clarification: not gossipy trivia but actually meaningful analysis of each person's contributions to/role in the body of work being discussed); a list of movies that's not so long as to be overwhelming but long enough that even seasoned vets are likely to find things they want to try or re-consider in a new light; and discussions of some tighter sub-genres or other thematic groupings. It somehow manages to be both specialist in topic and very open and inviting in approach, sort of like a personalized, personable encyclopedia. It's the perfect blend of writer and subject; it's true that both of those things are very much to my established liking, but I can't imagine anyone interested in global pop cinema not enjoying the bejeezus out of this book. It's a resource whose time was long overdue, and all of us who care about this subject, which is probably all of you reading this post, should be grateful that Todd is the expert who had the brilliant idea to tackle it in this way.
* I know. For years I've been mulling over whether to change the name of this blog and if so to what.


pavan said...

Dear Beth.... check out kannada movies of Late visionary Shankar Nag... very talented director n actor who achieved too much in little time he lived. But go for only those he directed.