By MARC MOHAN
Most American moviegoers don’t think about Indian films very often, but when they do they generally think of two things. One is the stereotypical Bollywood picture, brightly colored and costumed, full of lilting, hypnotic songs and graceful, precise choreography, and generally at least three hours long. The second is pretty much the opposite of those joyously artificial confections: the films of legendary director Satyajit Ray, which are often in black-and-white, full of poetic naturalism, and concerned with the lives of ordinary people in real-world situations.
Those are, though, just two points on a cinematic spectrum that runs the gamut—significant genres in what is the world’s most prolific national film industry, but still just a sampling. Imagining that you understand Indian cinema having seen nothing but the Apu trilogy and “Monsoon Wedding” is like thinking every American film was directed by either Vincente Minnelli or John Cassavetes. That’s where the current series at Portland’s Northwest Film Center, “From Bombay to Bollywood: Fifty Years of Indian Cinema,” comes in handy.This ten-title survey, unspooling between January 9 and March 12 (with a break during February’s Portland International Film Festival), provides a fantastic opportunity to sample the variety that exists within a film culture that’s as idiosyncratic as it is inimitable. (Though some, including directors like Wes Anderson, Baz Luhrmann and Danny Boyle, have tried to replicate its charms.)
Under British rule, Indian cinema didn’t make much of an international splash, even though movies had been produced in the country since 1913. But following independence (and bloody partition) in 1947, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to begin establishing their own identity, combining the unavoidable influence of Hollywood with traditional forms of storytelling to create something truly distinctive.
The earliest film in the Film Center’s series is 1951’s “Awaara.” Director-producer-star Raj Kapoor seems to have been inspired by fellow triple-threat Orson Welles, not only in the flashback structure he uses but in the deep-focus and low-angle visuals he employs. The movie is an argument for social mobility at a time when India’s caste system was even more potent than it is today. And, like most of the films in this series it has more than enough narrative incident to hold your interest over its lengthy running time.
That said, neither “Awaara” nor the other two 1950s films being shown, “Pyaasa” and “Mother India,” both from 1957, are what you’d call crowd-pleasers. They’re certainly worth seeing, but fun isn’t the top item on the agenda of either. “Pyaasa” was made by another multi-hyphenate filmmaker, actor-director-producer Guru Dutt. He’d had a string of commercial successes but wanted to stretch himself artistically, so he made and starred in a film about a poet who is rejected by publishers because he refuses to pen trite romances. “Pyaasa” was a hit, but Dutt’s follow-up bombed at the box office, and the filmmaker died in 1964 at the age of 39 from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. He had attempted suicide twice before.
“Mother India” is one of three Indian films (all of them part of this series) to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s a Technicolor nationalist epic, the story of India’s rise told through the lens of one woman’s life story. The one-named star, Nargis, also played Raj Kapoor’s love interest in “Awaara,” and she turns in a Scarlett O’Hara-level depiction of female determination here in a performance that spans decades in her character’s life.
The first film in the retrospective without any musical numbers is Satyajit Ray’s 1965 masterpiece “Charulata.” Ray is best-known, of course, for the Apu trilogy: “Pather Panchali” (1955), “Aprajito” (1956), and “The Story of Apu” (1959). All three have recently been released in a Blu-ray boxed set from The Criterion Collection, featuring the restored versions that played last year at Cinema 21 in Portland as well as a host of bonus features. Ray was the most famous participant in the movement known as Parallel Cinema, which strove for greater realism and social conscience in Indian films. “Charulata” was his personal favorite among his films, and tells the story of a woman in 19th-century India torn between her newspaper editor husband, his cousin, and her own burgeoning creative impulses. (It’s also available as a Criterion Blu-ray, but go see it on the big screen.)
Once the series, which proceeds in loosely chronological order, reaches the 1970s, the films start to resemble more closely the popular image of Bollywood’s output. 1975’s “Sholay,” a so-called ‘masala film’ that blends multiple genres, was a huge hit, and remains popular enough that it was re-released in its home country in 2014—converted to 3-D. The 1995 romantic comedy “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (which translates as “The Big-Hearted Takes the Bride”) played at one Mumbai theater for over twenty years on its original release. And 2002’s “Devdas” is pretty much the pinnacle of Bollywoodishness. It’s also just about the most blissful three hours you can imagine spending in a theater.
Of the more recent titles, only Mira Nair’s 1988 debut feature “Salaam Bombay!” carries the torch of Ray and the Parallel Cinema movement. This gritty story of Mumbai street kids was Oscar-nominated, and served as a springboard for its director, whose impressive career has taken her back and forth between America (“Mississippi Masala,” “Vanity Fair,” “Amelia”) and India (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”). She’s one of the few filmmakers who’ve made that journey. Shekhar Kapoor made “Bandit Queen” in India before directing Cate Blanchett (twice) as Queen Elizabeth I. And Ismail Merchant left a permanent mark on film history as the producing half of the Merchant-Ivory team. But Indian filmmakers haven’t been tempted to test Hollywood’s waters the way their colleagues from Europe or East Asia have.
Or perhaps they just haven’t been invited. If so, that’s something of a shame. Critics, and plenty of audience members, complain that they don’t make them like they used to. Movies don’t offer the sense of escape, of artifice, of sheer luxuriance in colors and stories and sounds, anymore. More often than not, though, the films in this series do just that. And perhaps none does it as well as the final title, 2001’s “Lagaan.” It’s a four-hour film set in the late 19th-century about a cricket match. And, of course, it’s a musical. That makes it, I suppose, a hard sell. But circle Saturday, March 12, on your calendar and trust me. It’s monumentally fun. (And, technically, it’s only three hours and forty-five minutes long.)
“From Bombay to Bollywood: Fifty Years of Indian Cinema” runs Saturdays and Sundays from January 9 through February 7, then continues on March 6 and March 12, at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Check www.nwfilm.org for a full schedule.