Madstone Theater, the new Cary multiplex, is in the midst of a wildly successful run of an Indian film called Devdas. The Triangle's South Asian community has been turning out in droves to see this swank melodrama about two lovers who are thwarted by social prejudice, and now is a wonderful opportunity for the rest of us to sample a radically different moviegoing experience.
Devdas is part and parcel of the Indian national cinema, known as Bollywood (the "B" stands for Bombay), which cranks out upward of a thousand movies a year. The movies are characterized by deliberately artificial mises-en-scene, rapturous song and dance production numbers and long running times (Devdas is three hours long and the recently departed Lagaan nearly broke the four-hour barrier).
Despite the seemingly straightlaced conventions of the Bollywood cinema, there is ample room for variation. Whereas Devdas was a deliberately artificial film that recalled the MGM glory days of the 1930s, the lush exoticism of Josef von Sternberg and the flamboyant showmanship of Busby Berkeley, Lagaan was something akin to an Italian neo-realist film--a stirring, Gandhian tale of the struggle between Indian peasants and their British overlords. But, this being a Bollywood film, the fiercely nationalist politics of Lagaan are frequently interrupted by elaborate production numbers.
The artifice of the Indian cinema used to be par for the course in Hollywood, but it has largely gone the way of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. We used to accept artifice in movies and we used to enjoy, without irony, the lush romanticism and the overheated imagery that are the staples of Bollywood. For better or worse, we've learned to distrust those images and to associate them with television commercials and music videos. But Bollywood offers a way out, a way of seeing movies once again as pure spectacle, without the need to pretend that it is real. --David Fellerath