Rachel Saltz: The Dirty Clean New Bollywood

By Ifeanyi Awachie:

Pierson College and the South Asian Film Society (SAFS) invited Bollywood film critic Rachel Saltz to hold a Master’s Tea this Wednesday, February 15th. A New York Times editor and writer, Saltz got to watch the biggest film industry in the world found a home in New York as the city’s Indian population shot up, Hindi video stores filled the streets, and Times Square aired its first Bollywood films. The films Saltz watched in the 80s—three hour-long movie-musicals with “strange” storytelling and low production value—are the lovable grandfathers to today’s hip, urban sons, flicks that feature sleek cinematography, clear plots, even animation—and much less of Bollywood’s trademark singing and dancing. Soundtracks like that of 2007’s “Om Shanti Om” even satirize traditional Bollywood music.

Rachel Saltz shows off a scene from modern Bollywood hit "Delhi Belly". (Awachie/TYG).

In the age of YouTube and Netflix, anyone in India–like the 15 members of Saltz’s audience did Wednesday–can go online and watch videos from any corner of the world. As a result, today’s Indian movies have a more global perspective than ever before. Contemporary Indian filmmakers aim to tell stories that Bollywood has never told. According to Saltz, traditional Hindi movies took a “masala” approach to filmmaking, weaving everything from tragedy to comedy to action to romance to song and dance into one elaborate plotline. Modern movies are more streamlined—they might focus on two of these themes to tell a much shorter story.

They also might add swearing and sex, two things you would never have seen in Hindi movies 20 years ago. The modern films are also more likely to be shot outside of India. Those shot in the country take place in the big cities—Delhi or Bombay—and show “a more antiseptic version of the India you see if you go.”  To put it simply, these films feel more and more like American films. And as SAFS Event Coordinator Shunori Ramanathan attested, Indian audiences are loving them.

From artsy movies like “Dil Chahta Hai” to gritty political films like “Rang De Basanti,” Bollywood movies are building a legacy of one country’s rich and ever-developing culture. “Movies are alive in India in a way they aren’t here,” Saltz said. Hollywood, take notes.

Ifeanyi Awachie ’14 is a student in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at ifeanyi.awachie@yale.edu.