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For Our Consideration

The films we didn’t take seriously, until we did.

The Oscars are coming, the Oscars are coming! 

Of the ten films nominated for Best Picture this year, two of them are foreign films (Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest), one is about cultural misappropriation (American Fiction), one is about America’s long history of oppressing and harming the native inhabitants of our land (Killers of the Flower Moon), and one is about the complicated nature of being an immigrant, simultaneously within and outside of two cultures (Past Lives). I think it’s pretty cool to see this kind of diversity in the Best Picture category (even though let’s be real, we all know Oppenheimer is going to win, and I am totally fine with that). 

Last year, RRR became the first Indian film production to win an Oscar, for Best Original Song, and that was a seismic moment - not just for me personally, but for Indian cinema, and honestly, for cinema as a whole. RRR’s win has been in the back of my mind every time I think about my history as a film lover, and when I wrote my Story Screen piece last fall about the fifth anniversary of the film Bohemian Rhapsody (about the British-Indian frontman of the band Queen) all sorts of big thoughts and emotions about Indians in cinema AND Indian cinema, in general, have been rattling around my head. So come with me on a little journey about the politics of identity and representation as seen in film…

When I was in high school and college, I was full-blown obsessed with Bollywood films and also full-blown obsessed with getting my non-Indian friends obsessed with them. This was in part a reaction to having gone to predominantly white schools my whole life and feeling an aggressive need to honor my non-whiteness in communities of well-intentioned liberals who always claimed to me that they "couldn't see color.” (This is what passed for anti-racist discourse in the late 90s/early aughts.) In high school, I formed the Bollywood Club with my best friend Munaf, which was basically a shameless excuse to screen my favorite Bollywood movies after school once a month for anyone interested. (As a result, there is a demographic of white kids from San Francisco who became fans of my favorite Bollywood actor, Shah Rukh Khan.)

In college, I majored in film theory and criticism and decided early on that when the time came, I was going to write my senior thesis on some aspect of the Indian film industry. The stereotypical notion of an Indian film, pretty much since people outside of India (and film scholars) were aware of them, was that they were silly, over-the-top melodramatic musicals featuring overwrought acting and goofy song-and-dance sequences where the hero would chase the heroine across lush fields and around trees, and a well-timed rainfall would drench her red chiffon sari, allowing it to cling to her body suggestively, and the music was old-fashioned, lushly orchestrated, featuring singers trained in the Indian classical vocal tradition. 

In that late 90s/early Aughts period, there was a sea change happening in the Indian film industry, but the world of film scholarship hadn't quite caught up to it. Dil Chahta Hai came out in 2000 and broke ground on two levels, the first being that it portrayed Indian youth culture in Bombay in a realistic, non-movie musical heightened way, the second being that the soundtrack, written by songwriting trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, featured music that felt less like old-time movie musical songs and more like contemporary pop songs that could get Top 40 radio play. Lagaan came out around the same time, tackling a story about Indian villagers in the Victorian era fighting back against their British colonial oppressors, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (it unfortunately lost). Kal Ho Naa Ho was released in 2003, the first big-budget Indian film shot entirely in New York City, depicting the lives of Indian immigrants in America and again featuring music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. 

But the old stereotype remained, and along with it that very outdated scholarship about the Indian film industry. The seminal text that most film scholars referred to when writing about Indian cinema was a book called Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change by K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake, published in 1998. If one wanted to study Indian cinema in an academic setting, there was no way to avoid that book. I cited it in my senior film thesis. That said, Gokulsing and Dissanayake’s overarching position on the purpose of Indian cinema is, in retrospect, reductive, imperialist in nature, and insulting. They claim that Indian cinema is purely about escapism - which, fine, I would argue that in many ways that is the purpose of all cinema, a chance to take a few hours and immerse yourself in another world and stop thinking about your own life. But their point wasn’t just that Indian cinema was escapism in a universal humanistic sense - it was escapism specifically for the rural poor population in India (which is admittedly quite large), and as such the plots of these films were designed to be purposely simplistic: good triumphs over evil, the good guy always wins the heart of the good girl, the bad guys always get their comeuppance, the bad girls are shamed for their shamelessness. Gokulsing and Dissanayake were basically saying that Indian cinema is inherently uncomplicated and easy-breezy fun because it is fundamentally at odds with the reality of the lives of most of India’s hard-living low-income population. These two scholars aren’t the only people who have this grand-sweeping generalized view of the target audience of a typical Indian film; this film-going population is a demographic that acclaimed writer and noted imperialist snob (I’ve met him; he would agree with me) Salman Rushdie referred to as the “teeming masses” in his award-winning novel Midnight’s Children. Former Under-Secretary of the United Nations, international civil servant, renowned writer, notorious large-vocabulary-word wielder-when-speaking-in-public and professional intellectual (also my uncle’s former student; he attended my parents’ wedding reception) Shashi Tharoor referred to this same population as “rural moralists” in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium - positing that the simple fact of their poverty and lack of cosmopolitanism meant that they were inherently conservative-and-simple minded. 

I’m not name-dropping the personal connection I have to these two learned men just as a #humblebrag.  I bring that up to emphasize that this take on Indian cinema was the prevailing one for many years both on a broad scale, culturally, and on a very intimate scale in my own life. In college, I ran with a crowd of rabble-rousing POCs who were very politically minded, and social justice-oriented, and studied serious topics in their areas of discipline - Economics, Poli Sci, History, and Literature. They all made fun of me for wanting to write a film thesis about Bollywood, because they were operating under that old assumption that these movies are facile and not worthy of critical thought beyond the old Gokulsing/Dissanayake framework. They quasi-accused me of not being political enough, of being entrenched in an identity crisis (I was an ABCD - an “American Born Confused Desi”), and trying to work that out in school. They accused me of being simple-minded and uninterested in high art.

“High Art.” There’s an interesting term, and one I absolutely hate. High Art, is implicitly in opposition to Low Art. High Art means highbrow, substantial, and important. Low Art means lowest-common-denominator, facile, and unimportant. Parallel Cinema - which is the term Indian film scholars use to describe non-commercial films (roughly equivalent to art-house cinema in the West) - as created by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, was High Art. Social criticism and complex themes about injustice and the human condition are embedded in the stories. Often deeply depressing films. Commercial mainstream cinema in India - mostly fluffy, fun, rom-com romps, was Low Art.

I think the entire notion of High Art versus Low Art is bullshit. Art is art. If art is done well, it moves people. It makes them feel something. That’s the point of art. You can like some art and dislike some art, but don’t ever fool yourself into believing that the art you like is somehow morally or intellectually superior to art you don’t care for. 

And this is the trouble with making generalizations about Bollywood films. Gokulsing and Dissanayake, in their ground-breaking text, made the same mistake that many people still make when they talk about Bollywood: they use the term “Bollywood” as a genre, instead of what it actually is, which is an industry. Bollywood is an industry. Just like Hollywood is an industry. That’s where the term Bollywood comes from – some jackass British journalist in the eighties coined the term as a portmanteau of Hollywood (the so-called filmmaking capital of the world) with Bombay (the so-called filmmaking capital of India - now known as Mumbai). What followed, of course, was more portmanteaus for other popular regional cinemas - Tollywood (for Telugu films), Kollywood (for Tamil films, mostly shot in studios in the Kodambakkam neighborhood of Chennai). But the simple fact remains: these are the names of film industries - industries that collectively produce nearly 800 films per year: action films, rom-coms, dramas, thrillers, horror films, political films, slapstick comedies, you name it. So, to write a whole damn book about what constitutes a Bollywood movie - and by extension, all Bollywood movies - is pretty presumptuous and frankly, condescending.

There are plenty of bubble-gum pop-fluff Bollywood films out there – I wrote about a few of them in my thesis – but there are also a lot of arty Bollywood films out there as well. These are films that follow the basic musical film format but are telling stories that are more complex and nuanced than the stereotypical fare. I wrote about some of those movies in my thesis as well. The reason why they get lumped into the mainstream umbrella is because they are in Hindi and have songs. But I would be hard-pressed to compare a weightier film like Parineeta to a pretty conventional rom-com (right down to the When Harry Met Sally allusions) like Hum Tum. You just can’t. Both films were created by the same industry, but you cannot claim that they are similar in any way other than the fact that they are about complicated male-female friendships and they both star Saif Ali Khan. The music is different. The sets are different. One is a period piece. The acting style is different. Parineeta is a very rich, nuanced cultural criticism about class and privilege. Hum Tum is When Harry Met Sally. But they are both Bollywood films.

And so that is why it is flawed to think of the stereotype of the rom-com song-and-dance chasing-the-girl-around-trees wet-red-chiffon-sari model as the benchmark for “mainstream” Indian movies. You cannot use one such film as a representative, a universal stand-in, for some concept of “mainstream.” For one thing, it’s sloppy scholarship – while you can use models and generalizations when talking about, say, statistical data, you just can’t when you’re talking about art. You cannot use a thing to stand in for a concept. That would be as absurd as suggesting that I am a universal representative of transnationalism. For another thing, it’s just sort of gross and imperialistic. It’s anthropology in its worst, most fetishizing definition. It’s looking at a giant industry, a giant body of work, and saying “Yeah, but it’s so meaningless and silly that it can all be summed up in this one film.” It’s just

fundamentally untrue.

At any rate, in the midst of all of this derogatory noise from the preeminent intellectuals who study Indian popular culture, my peers, and my family, I wrote my college film thesis about the intersection of the use of foreign shooting locations in Bollywood films, feminist film theory, and how foreign location allows Indian filmmakers to broach topics that are still considered taboo to talk about openly in Indian society - like homosexuality, marital infidelity, toxic masculinity, divorce. I analyzed, in detail, three extremely commercial, mainstream, big-budget, non-arthouse romantic comedies starring the biggest celebrity actors in the industry at the time - Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Rani Mukherji, Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor - and in the process I was able to demonstrate that yes, even in so-called mainstream “low art” there is an opportunity to present thorny stories about complicated topics in society that, just by virtue of their being peddled to Rushdie’s “teeming masses” could raise awareness and empathy. Yes, even to Tharoor’s “rural moralists.” The films I wrote about were not all simplistic stories about good vanquishing evil, black vs white the way Gokulsing and Dissanayake codified into conventional scholarship about this type of cinema; one of the films I wrote about was literally about two people who have an extra-marital affair, destroy two families in the process, but find a measure of peace with each other that was lacking in their respective toxic marriages. How’s that for the gray area?

I was the first person in the history of my college’s film department to write a senior thesis about non-Western cinema. I got an A. 

And then I stopped following the industry; I think the deep dive it took for me to finish that thesis effectively burned me out. I spent the last 72 hours before my thesis was due frantically transcribing pages upon pages of long-hand writing in four notebooks (yes, I am that old) revising, pulling still images and video clips as supplementary material, revising some more, compiling footnotes, and not sleeping. I subsisted on coffee, Mountain Dew Code Red, cigarettes, dubiously-procured Ritalin from a friendly drug-dealing neighbor (not proud of that but hey, I was 22), and listened to an endless loop of Sanskrit yoga chanting set to music blaring loudly from my computer speakers. I’m pretty sure my housemates thought I had found God.

In the 17 years or so since then, academic scholarship has blown wide open on Indian cinema - so much that I have not been able to keep up with it. I'm not saying this explosion of critical thought is because of me - no one in academia knows who the fuck I am, and I’m totally fine with that. I never had any intention of becoming a professional academic. But something has changed, and scholars are now willing to give these films a level of consideration and celebration that I was once mocked for wanting to do myself. People are paying attention, and people are rejecting that old Gokulsing and Dissanayake model of assessing the value not just of Bollywood films, but of contemporary Indian popular cinema in general. They are looking at them not as High Art or Low Art, but just Art. Art that is worthy of consideration on a global scale.

Which brings me to the Tollywood film RRR winning Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu” at the Oscars last year. My Story Screen colleague Damian did a great writeup of the film on his best of 2022 list so I'll point you in that direction to learn more about the film itself, because I want to focus on what happened at that telecast. Deepika Padukone, one of the biggest Bollywood actors working today, came on stage to introduce the song, which had become a viral sensation globally since the film's release. The cast of the film came out and recreated a version of the dance sequence for the audience. The crowd went wild. 

I was in tears.

Not long after, Kate Hudson and Janelle Monae presented the Oscar for best Original Song to M.M. Keeravani and Chandrabose, the songwriters of “Naatu Naatu.” Keeravani began his speech by saying that he grew up listening to the Carpenters, and now here he was at the Oscars. He then sang the rest of his acceptance speech to the tune of a Carpenters song.


At this point, I was ugly crying.

It wasn't just pride - cultural pride, national pride, whatever you want to call it. (National pride isn't accurate anyway - I was born in the US, I'm American; India is where my parents are from.) It was the first song from an Indian production to be nominated at the Oscars, and it won.

It was a validation, for me, for everything I had believed back in my young adulthood - for my dogged determination to prove that Indian cinema was worthy of being considered good filmmaking using the standard of what is art meant to do rather than what the Western canon deems worthy of taking seriously. It was retribution to all of those assholes in college who made fun of me for my Bollywood obsession, to my family who sneered at my love of Bollywood films and complained to my dad about why I wouldn't focus my studies on the art-house Parallel Cinema oeuvre of my Bengali compatriot Satyajit Ray, to the whole goddamn world who looked at my interest in Indian cinema and wrote it off as the manifestation of an identity crisis or an extended excuse to moon over Shah Rukh Khan under the guise of academic thought.

Should India care that the American Motion Picture Academy finally sat up and paid attention? I mean, that's debatable too. While Hollywood films dominate the globe, so do Indian films due to the diaspora. We Indians are everywhere. Shah Rukh Khan is the most recognized man in the world (the conventional wisdom is that if Tom Cruise and Shah Rukh Khan were walking through Heathrow Airport at the same time, Khan would be getting mobbed for autographs far more than Cruise). India has been doing its own thang cinematically for decades, and it shouldn't take recognition from America to legitimize it. It was already legit. It was legit from the get-go.

But here’s how this all feels for me. For me, an elder Millennial who grew up in a time where for decades the only Indian person on TV was Apu on The Simpsons.  For me, someone who nearly gave up on my dream of being an artist because I simply didn't think it was possible for someone who looked like me and had a name like mine to achieve any measure of success, recognition, or attention. For me, someone who loved Indian cinema because it allowed me to see - before the rise of brown-skinned actors like Hasan Minaj, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Priyanka Chopra (our crossover Bollywood star!), Dev Patel, Padma Lakshmi, Hari Konabolu becoming famous - people who looked like me on screen. For me, a child of Indian immigrants, who had to wait till I was in my thirties before Hollywood made a whole goddamn movie about Queen and reminded the world that their frontman Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) was also the child of Indian immigrants. For me, an American-born woman of Indian origin who went to college specifically to study film, and more specifically to study Indian film - yes, it was a big deal to see an Indian production be celebrated and honored by the American film industry.

Last October I went back to my high school for my 20th high school reunion, where I saw for the first time in two decades many of those white kids who I dragged into the Music Room one Friday a month with Munaf to watch my favorite Bollywood movies. They may not remember how important that was to me, but I do. I returned to the place where I tried, in a small way, to get American people to take Indian filmmaking seriously, to give it consideration and appreciation, to look at a long-maligned form of Low Art and interpret it as capital-A Art. And I returned in a year when the whole world had finally taken notice of what the Indian film industry could achieve. I don't presume to think that my tenure as president of the Urban School of San Francisco Bollywood Club and my achievement as the first film student in the history of the Vassar College Film Department to write a senior thesis about non-Western cinema had anything to do with the Tollywood film RRR winning at the Oscars. But I made a good faith effort for many years to move the needle on this issue, and even if at the end of the day it has nothing to do with me, I am proud not just of RRR, but to be a person who saw the potential for this to happen, and who understood the importance - the NEED - for this to happen.

Watch RRR. Watch everything. Watch Sholay, and Amar Akbar Anthony, and Main Khiladi Tu Anari, and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and Dil Se, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Kabhi Khushi Kahbhi Gham, and Dil Chahta Hai, and Lagaan, and Kal Ho Naa Ho, and Parineeta, and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, and The Dirty Picture, and Don (the remake is better than the original don't @ me), and Om Shanti Om, and Dil Dhadkne Do, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Death in the Ganj. Sir. Monsoon Wedding. Mr and Mrs Iyer. 36 Chowringhee Lane. Sairat. Watch all of the other movies that are out there, that keep getting made, too many for me to count or keep up with. Action films, historical epics, period pieces, biopics, romantic comedies, domestic dramas, political satire, slapstick goofball comedies, thrillers, children’s films - in any genre you can think of, you will find several great Indian-language films. Watch. Them. All.  Do it, because these are good films. Not good Indian films. Good films, period. Do it because they are worthy of your consideration. Do it so that the next time an Indian film is recognized at the Oscars, I won't sit there and ugly cry, because it will no longer be unprecedented. It will be normal.


Reeya Banerjee

Staff Writer

Reeya is a musician and writer based in Chattanooga, TN, by way of NY's Hudson Valley. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022 and her follow-up album, "This Place," will be released in spring 2024. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Better Call Saul reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.