Tollywood goes to Texas
An intriguing new set of film fans abroad, who are neither diaspora nor academics
Frequently shuffling between the top five spots of the Indian iTunes podcast charts is a show called ‘Bollywood is for Lovers’. That a Bollywood-focussed podcast should be among the most-listened-to in India is hardly remarkable. What is, however, is that it’s hosted by two Canadians, neither of whom are of Indian descent or have even stepped foot here.
Erin Fraser and Matt Bowes stumbled onto Hindi movies while at university in Edmonton and have since been dedicated fans. Their bi-weekly podcast, which started in 2015, aims to — in their words — “explore the wonderful world of Hindi Cinema through the lens of two Canadian film fans.”
What these two unlikely Bollywood devotees represent is a wider cultural movement: non-Indians from around the globe are not only discovering Indian cinema but also creating platforms to celebrate, discuss and champion it through blogs, podcasts and YouTube.
In an increasingly interconnected world, global platforms such as Netflix are lowering cultural barriers and encouraging people to seek out and discover new film industries. With Indian films enjoying wider releases abroad, seismic successes such as that of Baahubali 2, and stars like Priyanka Chopra crossing over, many outside the Indian diaspora can’t help but take notice of the world’s largest film industry.
Fraser and Bowes decided to start their podcast because they couldn’t find avenues to discuss Indian cinema in the West. “We wanted to make a show that examined Hindi films with the same rigour that Hollywood films receive,” said Bowes. “It was somewhat surprising to see how little scholarship there is in the West on Bollywood. Nothing like you’d see for other film industries.”
Playing to packed houses
U.K.-based film critic Mike McCahill, who served as The Guardian’s Indian film correspondent in 2015, reviewing Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Punjabi films, agrees that Indian cinema is under-represented in mainstream U.K. publications: “I do think it’s odd that weekly newspaper critics will write at length about some rather more obscure foreign language title that’s playing in 10 screens, when there are Indian films playing to packed houses in multiplexes across the land. I think it is getting better, but someone needs to cover these movies.”
Chicago-based Melanie Greenberg looks to do just that through her YouTube channel, Pardesi, where she reviews the latest releases in Hindi, Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam cinema.
Her love was sparked three years ago when she chanced upon Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on Netflix. She was smitten by Shah Rukh Khan and never looked back.
Her more formal induction into the world of Indian cinema was aided by bloggers Kathy Gibson of accessbollywood.net and Margaret Redlich, who runs dontcallitbollywood.com. Apart from reviewing films, accessbollywood. net maintains an up-to-date list of the Bollywood films available on Netflix and Amazon in the U.S. while dontcallitbollywood.com devotes a page to ‘Starter Kits for Indian Film’ with posts on everything from regional films to top stars and a history of the industry.
Redlich has also written a book Don’t Call It Bollywood – An Introduction to the Hindi Film Universe to tell the uninitiated that Bollywood is about more than “flashy dance sequences and unbelievable plots.”
A screenshot of accessbollywood.net
Others like U.S.-based Josh Hurtado champion Indian cinema as critic and festival programmer for festivals such as Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the U.S. Hurtado’s passion for Indian cinema is palpable when he begins to talk about it with a rich insight that would give most academics a run for their money.
What gave Hurtado a command over the syntax of varying film cultures across India? Living in Dallas, Texas. The city, a multicultural melting pot, sees major Indian releases — from Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and even the smaller Marathi film industry — all with subtitles.
Ironically, it’s easier for Hurtado to see a cross-section of Indian films than it is for someone in Mumbai given the poor distribution of subtitled, non-Bollywood films.
While there is clearly a growing appetite for Indian cinema, one big limitation is the specific grammar of our storytelling in terms of film length, interval point and the use of song and dance. “It’s a huge barrier,” agrees Hurtado, “but it’s more the idea and what people expect. I don’t know why because we eat up things like La La Land and for some reason that’s okay.” Gibson doesn’t see lengthy runtime as a huge problem. “Bollywood movie grammar has changed in the last decade. There aren’t as many masala films that are comedies in the first half, tragedies in the second, which can be jarring if you’re not expecting it.”
What is clear though is that there are many people — neither Indian nor diaspora nor academic — who are big fans of Indian cinema and are pushing it out there.
The writer and cinema junkie sincerely believes that movies can change the world.