To give you a reference point as what to expect when you watch your first Bollywood action film, imagine Mission Impossible, with songs. No, not background music, honest hero-stops-to-sing-and-dance-with-the-extras West-end musical songs. Now, add a rambling, almost unending storyline — a will-they-won’t-they epic, often with lengthy out-of-order tangent plots — that lasts at least two and a half hours, explosive pyrotechnic special effects, not forgetting the obligatory wet t-shirt scene. You now have an idea of what to expect, except you still aren’t ready for this much cheese in one serving.
Next, prepare yourself for the most stereotype-dense experience since Indiana Jones, especially the carefully crafted 2D female characters (the excellent performances by the actors* playing the roles make up for the painfully cliched careers and motivations.) You will see all-male engineering classes, motorbike races and COP squads, fathers who want their sons to be engineers and their daughters to be medical doctors, and so on.
Finally, and this is the payoff, you will see unique, untranslatable stories which, because of their cheese, audacity and honesty transport you onto a plane of existence unexplored by Western cinema. My case study for this last assertion, and a film everyone should see before they die, is My name is Khan (2010).
If a British (and perhaps even American) studio were to make a film about an autistic pacifist muslim living in San Francisco, who has a good go at walking up to George W Bush and telling him “Mr. President, my name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist,” the film would be spent almost exclusively in a gritty Guantanamo Bay prison cell, and would have one of two tragic endings; death, or deportation to Pakistan. In any case, it would be highly political, and highly emotionally bruising.
The Bollywood version of this film, in contrast, is best compared to something like a Disney remake of that dark British flick. Wonderfully rich, believable and thoroughly stereotypical characters litter this power-parable of the fight between tolerance and prejudice, including the unfathomably improbable happy ending. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the film isn’t emotionally gut-wrenching and moving though — there wasn’t a dry eye in our house by the end — and Khan manages to still be political and emotive, while additionally being uplifting (something gritty realist films rarely manage). Incidentally, the same emotive punch can even be found in other more comedy-centric titles like the 3 idiots.
In conclusion, Bollywood is awesome! In spite of the cheese, the stereotypes and the far-fetched plots, it is still a gripping, entertaining and powerful genre, with the guts to go where Western productions daren’t. If you haven’t got around to watching some yet, I suggest you get a move on.
* yes, ‘actors,’ even when they’re female.