Mar 9, 2007

I applaud the Bollywood Lolita

Mass protests have greeted Amitabh Bachchan's latest film, Nishabd, which has been compared to Lolita. But it shows Bollywood can make mainstream films about difficult subjects - and that's a good thing.

Amitabh Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan: the poster-boy of Indian cinema. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Amitabh Bachchan, that icon of Indian cinema, memorably crowned Superstar of the Millennium by BBC News Online, faces a scandal with his latest project. Mass protests in his home town of Allahabad have broken out in response to the actor's controversial movie Nishabd. The film, which has been compared to Lolita, but is a remake of an eponymous Bengali film, centres on a 60-year-old photographer and his infatuation with his daughter's .

To those of us who still consider the actor the erotic poster-boy of Indian cinema, this sensual drama is an exciting prospect. The man who, in his later years, only played fairly interesting roles - a possessed cop, a neglected father abused by his children, and that Bollywood stalwart, a strict patriarch - finally has a chance to do one of the two things he has always done with panache: romance and righteousness.

While his stint in politics was short-lived, Bachchan's screen life is a different story. Famously encountering difficulties entering the industry because of his unconventional looks, the actor became the darling of the Indian public in the 1970s. His angry young man, fighting rather than working within the system, struck a chord with a society racked by unemployment, corruption and poverty. And even though he occasionally died, he always got the girl.

But the outrage over this new role - one that would stretch any actor - says more about the changing face of Bollywood than it does about Bachchan. Carrying anti-Bachchan placards, the protestors are calling for his retirement and a ban on the film. Aspects of today's Indian cinema shamelessly parrot American pop culture (aerobicised girls in R'n'B dance routines, alongside new, alarmingly muscled heroes) so the Allahabad protestors' claim that Nishabd is bringing a corrupt Western sensibility to Indian soil - a claim repeatedly made since India began making movies in the 1930s - is a conveniently forgetful one. The gap between the Indian intelligensia and the populace, between realist and Bollywood cinema, is significant. The former is thoughtful, socially conscious and working with an aesthetic not that far removed from the independent cinema of the west; the latter, loud and a little trashy, offering all-singing, all-dancing potboilers.

But perhaps it is no longer, if it ever was, so clear cut. Nishabd shows it is still possible to make mainstream movies about difficult subjects, despite the intellectual snobbery over Bollywood. This same industry has recently delivered films about pornography, child widows, domestic abuse and Hindu-Muslim riots, featuring the customary high production values, big musical numbers and sleek stars. Maybe it's possible to be loud and still say something.

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