India / Southeast Asia

Bollywood and Hollywood: Seeing Movies through Indian Eyes

I’m pretty sure it’s a sin and I’m fairly embarrassed to admit it, but before I came to India I had never seen a Bollywood movie. The closest I’d come is the final dance number in Slumdog Millionaire and somehow I don’t really think that qualifies.

chennai-express_13570983881So when our program planned an outing for us to see Chennai Express in theaters I was thrilled. After a morning of orientation, our group of twenty or so set out in rickshaws to the movie theater for our showing at 2:00.

The movieplex itself is more like a mall than an American movie theater. The lower level has book stores, clothing shops and stands and the middle level is packed with different kinds of Indian fast foods to eat before your movie. The screens are on the upper level and after a quick bite to eat that’s where we headed.

The theater had even given us each assigned seats so we didn’t have to argue over how far to sit from the screen. Suddenly the lights lowered and the movie began. No previews, no goofy commercials, nothing. Just the title credits.

The movie was everything I had hoped it would be: cheesy, full of music, dance, romance, adventure and comedy. Even though we didn’t understand much of the Hindi we were able to follow the plot fairly easily.

The whole movie was about two and a half hours, complete with an intermission to refresh your snacks and run to the bathroom. And, of course, it ended with a fabulous Bollywood dance number.

We’ve been singing the title song ever since and we might even get to learn one of the Bollywood dances from the movie in our dance class starting next week.

~

We're-The-Millers-PosterA couple of days ago we went back to the same theater to see an American movie, We’re the Millers. Based on commercials we had seen before we left, it looked like one of those classic stupid-funny movies. Not a lot to focus on. Not a lot of depth. Just some good laughs and maybe an inappropriate joke or two. And after three weeks in India, seeing a stupid-funny American movie was just what the doctor ordered.

The movie met all our expectations and more. And after the showing we agreed that part of why it was so good had to do with the context that we saw it in rather than the movie just being good in-and-of-itself.

Because, let me tell you, seeing an American movie in India is absolutely fascinating!

On the one hand, it was just comforting to see actors we recognized, speaking a language we understood, and doing things that we’ve been socialized to think are funny in America. It was refreshing to see women dressed in tank tops and to hear people talk about periods (which for some reason are biological functions everyone here pretends don’t exist).

On the other hand, I sometimes felt like I was seeing it through the eyes of the Indians in the theater rather than my own. And that gave me an entirely different perspective.

My first thought was, Dear God, no wonder they think Americans are easy.

After two scenes in a strip club and a very confusing moment with Jennifer Anniston and Emma Roberts both kissing the young male actor, I was praying that the audience wasn’t reading too much into it. We’ve been told again and again that stereotypical Indian perceptions of Americans generally come from popular culture–specifically movies. Just as our perceptions of people we haven’t actually met come from similar outlets.

Please don’t do anything else to give American girls a bad reputation, I silently wished as the movie continued.

I know if all of my opinions about America were based on that movie, I would think Americans were easy, sex-maniacs who do a lot of drugs.

And if all of that wasn’t shocking enough to watch through Indian eyes in an Indian movie theater, I noticed that many of the jokes that I found funny, no one else was laughing at. Like a few goofy tampon references or jokes about virginity.

Literally every time a tampon was mentioned the theater went silent. It was like someone had been shot.

Since I’ve been here I’ve noticed a kind of stigma attached to periods (at least in Pune). Even though all girls have it (I am confident in that fact), it is taboo to talk about and many of our host families addressed it only on our first day of moving in, never to be spoken of again–some have even given special instructions for disposing of the evidence.

I guess that’s probably the reason they didn’t think some of the jokes were so funny, but I can’t say I completely understand the stigma yet.

Period stigmas aside, we’re planning to make many trips back to the theater over the next three months, trying to alternate between Bollywood and Hollywood movies to get a sense of both.

Next on the list? A Desi Romance movie! Bring on the dancing…

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6 thoughts on “Bollywood and Hollywood: Seeing Movies through Indian Eyes

  1. I love Bollywood movies! I’ve never seen one in India (its on my list) but it was especially interesting to see your perspective on Hollywood movies through “Indian eyes.” Even though I have never been to India, I totally get it -and how they would have that perspective of us western women as ‘easy.’
    Also, the period thing is interesting…I guess I’m just so used to it not being a big deal.
    Thanks for the post and happy movie watching!
    Ps. watch “Three Idiots” -its just about the best Bollywood movie you’ll ever see

    • That’s what I’ve heard!! I really do need to put “Three Idiots” high on my priority list. Thanks for reminding me of that one!

      I definitely wouldn’t have thought of the whole period thing either. We really don’t think about it at all in the states, it’s just very easy to talk about it and isn’t really very taboo at all.

      I completely approve of seeing a Bollywood movie in India being on your bucketlist =)

  2. Pingback: Miss America | The Penniless Traveler

  3. “My first thought was, Dear God, no wonder they think Americans are easy. After two scenes in a strip club and a very confusing moment with Jennifer Anniston and Emma Roberts both kissing the young male actor, I was praying that the audience wasn’t reading too much into it. ”

    Speaking as an Indian male viewer who simply adored the Millers, are you taking us Indians as immature and stupid. You don’t think we have our own minds FFS we know it’s just a movie with a purpose to entertain.

    I liked this one so much I had to see it three times on the big screen including the LAST show. I was like I won’t ever get to see “We’re the Millers” on the big screen again so I bunked office and it was PACKED and I don’t think I saw a single foreigner; this road trip comedy went down that well. I just wish more American movies like the Millers release in the multiplexes. Most Indians have never heard of get to watch the classic American comedies/thriller and off-the-beat gems like “Harold and Kumar – White Castle”, “Green Street Elite”. What are you doing, Hollywood? It’s a big country and the world’s largest movie market and we love the biggest cultural export of America: movies.

    • I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the movie! It certainly was a funny one.

      I really didn’t mean to suggest that Indian movie watchers or Indians in general blindly accept pop culture references about America…I was just trying to express how embarrassed I was at the “America” that was being portrayed in that movie. (Just as I’m sure you might be put off by some portrayals of Indians in Hollywood movies).

      I know that there are quite a lot of factors that go into how we perceive other cultures and it’s certainly not as simple as how different people are portrayed in movies. I appreciate you pointing that out because I do want to be very clear that I wasn’t intending to insult anyone.

      And I hope that the movieplexes get their hands on some more American movies! I definitely wish we had more of an opportunity to see Bollywood movies in American theaters so I agree with you there.

      • I must say I’m partial to stoner comedies but the remarkable deal about the Millers is that despite several references to drug dealing, it’s a very clean cut movie suitable for family audiences. One would think that if you were transporting “two metric tonnes of weed” in an RV, it wouldn’t take long for one or more characters to get HIGH and start doing freaky stuff like throwing objects around, shitting in their pants etc. all predictable but kudos to the film-makers for steering the plot in a completely different direction and keeping the screenplay fresh and full of surprises.

        And that “fake incest” scene; wow it was mind-blowing stuff, it really sent everyone, young and old – rolling in the aisles. Brilliantly conceptualized and executed, I can’t forget the look of that redhead girl walking in on the Miller family trying to enjoy their private time, heh heh. LOL I don’t think anyone took that as a summation of American family values, it was such a flawlessly executed original idea.

        All characters in the Millers were superb in their respective roles including Ed Helms playing David’s boss and that tattooed kid called Scottie P. “you know what I’m sayin’?” But I think the real showstopper has to be English actor Will Poulter playing Kenny. He makes those vulnerable expressions with his eyes that can turn even predictable scenes like that spider bite one into a hilarious, spontaneous laugh riot.

        It really takes a lot of imagination and chutzpah to have original ideas like these. Nowadays, most movies including both Hollywood and Bollywood are “watch it once and forget it forever” type…substandard fare with CGI effects and predictable cheesy lines that fail to make you laugh. Only once in a while you come across a movie that can be described as a “cult classic”. The Millers score much beyond that, should be called “super cult classic” or something.

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