Hollywood meets Bollywood
CTV News talks to director Deepa Mehta about her fusion film, the appropriately named Bollywood/Hollywood
By ALYSSA SCHWARTZ, CTV News Staff
September 9, 2002
A young millionaire and his chauffeur are sitting in a booth in a tiny restaurant, briefing a beautiful escort on how to behave when she meets his family. The etiquette lesson continues inside wealthy Rahul's limo. Sue, the escort, sits surrounded by a mountain of shopping bags filled with expensive clothes "appropriate" for meeting Rahul's relatives.
'Bollywood/Hollywood' director Deepa Mehta discusses her evolving cinematic identity
It would be a scene right out of Pretty Woman or My Fair Lady, if moments later the cast weren't singing and dancing with all the pomp and flash of Bollywood -- India's popular cinema.
A fusion of both those elements is what writer-director Deepa Mehta tries to capture in her latest feature, the appropriately named Bollywood/Hollywood.
"There's something that Rocky (a character in the film) says which says it all," Mehta says. "He says, 'All this reminds me of a Hollywood film.' … and he goes on to say, "Holly, Bolly, Bolly, Holly, different tree, same wood," and that's what it is. Both genres are very similar, whether you're looking at the 1950s musical or the Rahul character."
Certainly, it's a story you've seen played out on the big screen countless times before. Rahul Seth, played by Bollywood actor Rahul Khanna, is a young Indian man living the good life in so-called Hollywood North -- Toronto. When, because of Indian social conventions, his mother threatens to call of his younger sister's marriage, Rahul bends to his pressure that he find a "nice Indian girl." Since women who share his heritage are simply not his type, Rahul hires an escort (played by Canadian-born model Lisa Ray), a woman he believes to be Hispanic, to play the part of his fiancée before his familial audience. Can you guess what happens next?
Mehta calls the movie "a love song to both conventions," but she says the eastern and western styles of filmmaking are really not a world apart.
"Bollywood and Hollywood are really quite similar. Commercial cinema all over the world is. It's just that Bollywood represents one billion people and Hollywood is the most predominant cinema in the West."
Mehta says both Hollywood and Bollywood have similar themes and subject matters. It's in the telling of those stories, however, where the differences lie.
For example, music and dancing numbers that parallel the major story arc are the key element in any Bollywood picture. Most Bollywood movies have five or six songs, performed at crucial plot points throughout the movie. For the most part, the musical has fallen out of favour in Hollywood. Decades ago, studios churned out big scale sing-along productions such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Oklahoma, with the exception of Moulin Rouge, but the Hollywood musical has been all but silenced in recent years.
In Bollywood, however, the music is still going strong. The movie industry in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, releases about 500 movies a year, and almost all of those feature original music and dance numbers performed in Hindi.
Through satellites television and DVDs, that influence has crept into Indian homes around the world. In Bollywood/Hollywood, the Seth home is decorated like a mansion on a Mumbai movie set and in almost every screen shot inside the home, Bollywood movies play on television in the background.
Mehta says aspects of Canadian culture make the Bollywood influence particularly strong here, and really set the stage for a movie combining eastern and western cultures.
"In Canada what we have is the absolute luxury of having to form our own identity," she says. "You aren't penalized for that. It's not like the States where you have to be an American and that's that. In Canada, you can be a Canadian and yet ... within your cultural reference points, include anything that you want to from your homeland or not."
"They say we're not a melting pot, we're a mixed salad and that's what we are. And what it does is it liberates you, it allows you to be whoever you want to be."
Mehta says those elements made for a "uniquely Canadian" film, fitting since the features opens the Perspective Canada program at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.
One of the major differences between Bollywood and Hollywood, Mehta acknowledges, is that when it comes to romance, the latter tends to ignore familial and ethnic influences. Americans all live the same way and certainly fall in love the same way -- or they do on the big screen, at least. But Mehta says movies like Bollywood/Hollywood, and the small-budget summer hit My Big, Fat Greek Wedding could lead to family elements being incorporated into mainstream movies more often.
"I think that Hollywood, like any industry, really responds to what the numbers are. One day the box office numbers are an enormous amount can make them say, 'Oh my God, we're ignoring this genre.' I think they'll wake up."
One of Mehta's most prominent earlier works, Fire, is a much darker and explosive look at the pressures of traditional Indian family life. Her highly controversial project Water, was shelved after Hindu extremists blocked its filming. They objected to the movie's storyline, which centred on a romance between a widow and a man from a lower caste, set in 1930s India.
Those projects would appear to be as different as Bollywood and Hollywood might seem to be. In this case, too, there are similarities -- again in that theme of finding a middle ground between family or societal pressures and an individuals own desires. The idea of giving it a much lighter tough this time around came to Mehta in the months following the breakdown of Water.
"I wanted to explore other aspects of my character. If you do serious films it doesn't mean, for me at least, that it precludes me from trying to do something else that's different," says the director.
"There's more to me than just being serious. I hope Deepa is a sum of things and not just a one-note character."