Beth Loves Bollywood Interview: Part One

Posted on 15th June 2015

We have a real treat for you on the Chakra blog this week. We've been speaking to the lovely Beth Watkins of Beth Loves Bollywood who has been kind enough to share her Bollywood expertise with us and all of you!

Beth Loves Bollywood

Just over ten years! I watched my first Bollywood film in February of 2005.

Just to start us off: How long have you been learning and writing about Indian cinema?

Why Bollywood? What prompted your interest in it?

When Bride and Prejudice came out, I was so excited to see it (being a lover of almost all Jane Austen adaptations) that I went to the film's website and started poking around. The director had put up a list of Indian film conventions that she was playing with or winking at in the film, and as I read about them I thought "These sound amazing! Why have I never seen any of these movies?" I ran to my local independent video store, which has a truly wonderful international film collection, and grabbed things almost at random. Because it had such happy-looking people on the cover, my first Indian film was Mujhse Dosti Karoge and I was hooked.

What IS Bollywood exactly – does all Indian film come under the Bollywood umbrella? If not, what are the differences?

When people are being specific and/or accurate, "Bollywood" really means popular, mainstream films made in the Hindi language in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Many people, myself included, sometimes use it to mean any Hindi-language film. It definitely does not mean all movies made in India, not even all popular, mainstream ones. There are many different film industries in India in many different languages. The other industries most familiar to most westerners in a big city like London are probably Tamil and Telugu. If you saw Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning composer from that film, A. R. Rahman, got his start in the Tamil industry. Also, fans of world cinema may have often seen films by Satyajit Ray (or Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak), who worked in the state of West Bengal in the Bengali language. That industry is centered in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). There are mainstream, art, and somewhere-in-between films made all over the country.

What characterises Indian cinema for you?

I'll stick to "Bollywood" when answering this and add in the caveat that I would answer differently depending on what era or director or writer you had in mind, but overall: an exuberance and generosity in storytelling and entertainment. There's often a "more is more" spirit in terms of the story and how it's told. That can include the musical numbers that we foreigners sometimes associate with Hindi films; to me it also includes complex plots that incorporate elements we may think of as different genres (romance, action, comedy, etc - which gets referred to as a "masala film", like the word for a mix of spices-balanced and combined in different ways) and multiple themes. And of course because the movies reflect and speak to the cultures they come from, there are all sorts of aesthetic choices that I don't see in my day to day life. "Beautiful colours and textures" is a stereotypical answer to this question, but it's also very true.

How would you say that Indian cinema differs from "Western" cinema?

Speaking in broad stereotypes, the most common difference is the use of musical numbers. There's often a lack of cynicism and sarcasm and instead a fondness for dramatic emotions expressed grandly on a big canvas. I don't mean that all the acting is hammy or melodramatic - but it does feel bigger to me somehow. In some of the kinds of films I prefer, I think there is a choice to disregard "reality" in ways that are much more fun to me than in the ways Hollywood equally frequently does so.

That's it for this week - but stay tuned as we'll have the second instalment of our chat with Beth in next week's post. For now, we suggest you go get your hands on Mujhse Dosti Karoge and let us know what you think!

Beth Watkins is a Bollywood blogger based in Champaign, Illinois. An expert in Bollywood history and lore, as well as contemporary cinema, she has written for, and been featured in, the Wall Street Journal, First Post, The Sunday Guardian, India Abroad, and the Times of India as well as a range of other publications.

Beth Watkins

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