On Bollywood: An Interview With Abhijat Joshi

By Rich Elias

Rich Elias has reviewed films for twenty years. He currently contributes movie and book reviews to the Columbus Dispatch. He teaches a course on Bollywood film at Ohio Wesleyan University.


Mission Kashmir

The Bollywood film phenomenon continues to grow. A recent Time magazine feature celebrated the growing international popularity of Indian cinema, and Broadway recently mounted Bombay Dreams, showcasing the songs of film composer A.R. Rahman.
South Asia has always had a huge audience for the approximately 800 titles (estimates vary) released each year. As long ago as the silent film era, entrepreneurs would travel to remote villages, set up projectors, and draw crowds eager to see (and later, hear) spectacles that mixed romance with intrigue, veiled social comment with traditional values, stylistic innovation with kitschy musical numbers in an often-confusing blend that has come to be known as "Bollywood," the word collapsing "Bombay" (now Mumbai, the main center of Indian film production) and "Hollywood" (reflecting the world-wide influence of American movies).

Recently I spoke with Abhijat Joshi, who combines careers as an award-winning playwright who now teaches English at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio and as a Bollywood screenwriter. Joshi and other writers collaborated on Mission Kashmir (2000) for director Vidhu Vinod Chopra and has worked on other Chopra projects. Mission Kashmir, set in that long-disputed region in the north of India, anchors its assertion of "Kashmiriyat" (the spirit of the struggle of the Kashmiris) in a family melodrama about a police commander who adopts the young son of terrorists he killed only to have the boy turn against him when he grows up. The movie, as Chopra told one reviewer, " is a labor of love, a response to the agony of Kashmir, a call for sanity and peace and an offering to the spirit of Kashmiriyat."

R.E.: The term "Bollywood" is problematic. It celebrates the emergence of Indian cinema but, in a quasi-colonialist manner, appropriates and categorizes its success by likening it to the California dream factory. "Bollywood," coined from Bombay and Hollywood, seems especially inexact now that the city's name is Mumbai. (Mollywood?) And regional cinemas, always an important force in Indian film, are reacting with recent coinages such as Tollywood (for Telegu films) and Kollywood (for Tamil film). It also separates mainstream Indian films from so-called "art" films. How does the use of this label affect Indian filmmakers?

A.J: The serious filmmakers don't like the term. They think it seems to suggest that
the Bombay film industry is a quasi-glamorous half-brother of Hollywood -- a pale moon shining in a borrowed light. However, as the world is showing increasing curiosity about the genre, some filmmakers find the term useful. It's a phrase that is easy to remember, and connotes slick, glamorous films made with minimum resources. Filmmakers who are seeking international contract like to be known as craftsmen who can make polished films very inexpensively. In this context, the term comes in handy.

R.E.: Screenwriting credits for Indian films often list four or more names. This may be more honest than Hollywood credits, which are often negotiated by the Writer's Guild and may not include uncredited script doctors. What is the process of writing a screenplay. Who contributes what and when? Also, many films, including Mission Kashmir, give a credit for "dialogues." What are "dialogues"?

A.J.: I work exclusively with just one company: Vinod Chopra Productions. In the last ten years, I haven't seen any script taking less than a year to be completed. This is partly because the films are almost an hour longer than average Hollywood films. Usually more than one writer works on a script, and in Vinod Chopra Productions, even the most trivial contribution is always acknowledged. Screenwriters are expected to work very closely with the director for a year or more, and come up with a very detailed structure and scene descriptions. Then a writer who specializes in a particular vernacular is brought in to write the dialogue. In Bombay itself, you can find hundreds of variations of Hindi: the upper-class Hinglish [a combination of Hindi and English], the raw "tapori" language of the streets, the Marathi- Hindi, the Parsi-Hindi, the Gujarati-Hindi etc. The dialogue writer is chosen on the basis of the style and the setting of the film.

I must make it very clear that this attention to detail is found in only a handful of companies. The rest are known to go into production with extremely under-prepared scripts. Sometimes just a few flimsy pages. This is the chief reason for most films being so trashy.

R.E.: The split between Moslems and Hindus continues to fuel conflicts such as in the disputed region of Kashmir, the subject of your film. The director, on an opening title card, dedicates the film to the spirit of Kashmiriyat. This raises the question of how - or whether -- popular film can foster social and political change. Do you think Mission Kashmir makes a statement?

A.J.: It would be a pity if a potent medium like cinema, with its massive reach, fails to make an important statement in a country with innumerable problems of terrible magnitude. Mission Kashmir is an anguished outcry against violence. Mission Kashmir is neither anti-Hindu nor anti-Muslim. It blames fanatical forces on both the sides for turning a paradise like Kashmir into a hell.

R.E.: Many Bollywood films mix genres and formulas, usually in a highly melodramatic way. Mission Kashmir is part action film, part revenge drama, part family tragedy, part love story. Why do such mixtures dominate Bollywood films?

A.J.: The story-telling tradition of India has been hugely influenced by the country's two great epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. These sublime works have love, revenge, family-drama and action in abundance. It is only natural for the cinema that comes out from this story-telling tradition to include all these elements.

R.E.: Song and dance routines have been an important part of Indian film since its earliest days. In many movies, they seem thrown in. You'll see an action scene cut directly to a silly love song. How important is music in Bollywood film? Also, in more recent films, writers and directors seem to be making an effort to integrate songs into the action (much as Broadway musicals began to do in the 1950's!). Do screenwriters have any say in which songs get in and where?

A.J.: A good director works closely with screenwriters to determine where the songs should be placed. A lot of effort is made to find smooth transitions into songs. But in inferior films this care is not taken and the result is shoddy at best and downright stupid the rest of the times.
Music has always been very important for Bollywood. This is largely due to the historical coincidence that in the early days of Bollywood, some really great composers, lyric writers and singers were at the peak of their powers. The genius of these individuals was chiefly responsible for making music a very important part of films. It is common for an average Indian to know thousands of tunes and opening lines of Bollywood lyrics. Now, Bollywood can't boast of even a fraction of the talent it had once available at its service. The cupboard is especially bare when it comes to lyric writers. But the songs are here to stay. The audience has become used to the formula and its going to be difficult to change this.

R.E.: "Art" films have a long tradition in Indian cinema. Yet they have been marginalized by the movie going public and occasionally even by public officials. Nargis, the popular film actress of the 1950s who became a member of the Indian Parliament, once criticized the films of Satyajit Ray for showing India in a bad light. One way of framing the difference between many popular films and the Indian art tradition is to say that the art tradition refuses to sentimentalize problems that popular movie address and resolve in an often romantic, unrealistic way. Would you agree?

A.J. I do agree. Satyajit Ray's films are lyrical, but unsentimental. They are also calm and reflective, as opposed to a lot of high-strung, hysterical popular format films with their simplistic solutions. However, the best directors in the popular format films have handled social problems with commendable maturity. The films of V. Shantaram are a good example of this. [Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram, Hindi and Marathi director producer actor, active 1921 to 1986. - R.E. note.]

R.E.: The Bollywood "star system" seems pretty powerful, with a handful of name actors appearing in almost every movie (well, at least the ones I get to see!). Mission Kashmir stars Sanjay Dutt, for example. For several decades Amitabh Bachchan seemed to have more influence over the film he was in than the writers or directors. Ditto Shahrukh Khan today. It was reported on the web a year ago that another picture you wrote for Chopra would team Bachchan and Dustin Hoffman! But that didn't happen. What happened?

A.J.: The guy on the web seems to have mixed up the facts. We have been working on a Hindi film for Mr. Bachchan for a long time. It is called Yagna and that script will be completed in the summer. Dustin Hoffman had shown a lot of interest in an English language film that we are about to complete now. The search for actors for that film is still on. These are two completely different films. Both will be made -- one in Hindi and the other in English.

R.E.: You are a playwright, a fiction writer, a professor - and a Bollywood screenwriter. How frustrating is it to combine these different endeavors?

A.J.: My fiction writing has certainly suffered. I haven't done anything significant in the last two years in fiction. But my playwriting doesn't seem to get seriously affected. I write very few screenplays (four in ten years) so that doesn't hinder my playwriting. I usually write a play alongside a screenplay, and keep both of them going for a long time. My teaching is informed by my practical experience as a writer. Teaching and writing complement each other.

                                                                  © THE FILM JOURNAL 2004