Thursday, June 13, 2019

Escapism, Bollywood, and the Shirley Temple Effect
More often than I probably should, I question the value of my art. As an author primarily writing fantasy, who, for example, dwells on what the Norse gods would be doing in the 21st century, I often wrestle with justifying the time, expense, energy, and emotional work I put into my stories. Shouldn't I be directing that effort into something "real"? Something significant and consequential?

The world we live in is not now nor has it ever been easy. Existential dread on a national, generational level ebbs and flows. I think most of us would agree that right now, as a nation, the U.S. is experiencing an especially high level of emotional distress. It's a constant hum in the background of our daily lives and frequently jabs into our collective consciousness with the news of the latest mass shooting or civil rights violation or attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman making us wonder if yet another overseas war is imminent. It's times like these, though, when escapist entertainment proves its relevancy and reveals its unquestionable value.

No matter your age, you're undoubtedly familiar with Shirley Temple (if not, you should rectify that deficiency right now!) Thanks to my grandparents, I grew up on her movies: The Little Princess and Heidi and Bright Eyes. Sure she was talented, and charismatic, and the cutest ball of curls ever. But her appeal can also be attributed to another powerful factor: a national hunger and appetite for escapism, particularly stemming from the troubles of the Great Depression.

"As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right," President Roosevelt declared. "When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

I'd argue the popularity of super-hero films is the U.S.'s current equivalent to Shirley Temple. We're all looking for distraction, and we're all wishing there was someone out there with the power to really change the world, to defeat evil once and for all with their inhuman strength or with a blink of their laser-beam eyes.

My own Twitter bio confesses I'm a super-hero fan, and yet... I've been so dissatisfied lately. No, not everyone's definition of escapist fantasy is the same, but for me I'd argue the current offerings in T.V. and cinema are falling short of distracting me in a satisfying way. I'm not including novels in this complaint because, as a fan of romance, I'd say the genre is having a renaissance. It's more popular than it's ever been. Why? If you don't know the answer, re-read everything I've just written, above. If only Hollywood would understand that many of its consumers are craving, but are probably having a hard time finding, the sort of escapism romance novels are providing. Hollywood still seems to be focused on "gritty realism" and "prestige", and some of us (probably many of us) want something completely opposite of that when we're looking to soothe our fraught and weary souls.

For example, I don't want to watch The Handmaid's Tale seires on Hulu because that stuff is happening in real life RIGHT NOW. I don't want to dwell on it, I want to escape from it! And this is where the Bollywood part of this post comes in.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Bollywood is an amalgamation of "Hollywood" and "Bombay", now called Mumbai, which is the home of India's Hindi-language movie production industry. What does Bollywood have to do with escapism? Oh, believe me, it has EVERYTHING to do with escapism, and  I'm here to tell you about it, starting with a little back story.

About a month-and-a-half ago, I happened upon a tweet posted in response to the hashtag #BeMyLi or "Be My Love Interest." It's an event co-hosted by romance author, Prerna Picket (@prernapicket) in which a theme for that week's posts is chosen and participants post images or .gifs in response. That particular week, the theme was "Be my brown-skinned love interest," and someone posted this .gif without much context other than a name: Ranveer Singh. And my life has not been the same since.

Don't tell me love at first sight isn't a real thing. As soon as I saw that image, I had to know everything about Ranveer Singh. And once I discovered he was a star of Hindi cinema, I had to watch all of his movies. And I did--with a sort of embarrassing amount of obsession. The first movie I watched was Padmaavat because it looked beautiful in its trailers, and it was readily available on Amazon Prime.

Padmaavat scratched an itch I'd been trying to satisfy for the last I-don't-know-how-many years (probably at least since the recent administration took office). It was SPECTACLE. It was PAGEANTRY. It was DANCE and SONG and MELODRAMA. It was ROMANCE. It was all those things in a way American cinema has rarely attempted since the Silver Screen classics of yore. And, oh my, how healing it was for my aching heart. I cried from the relief, the catharsis of it. I was hooked, infatuated, addicted. I probably need an intervention, but if you take these movies from me I'll bite you--I'm not above fighting dirty.
Shah Rukh Khan--Those eyes... Swoon!
I've since moved on to devouring the movies of current legends like Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and the indomitable Shah Rukh Khan--aka King Khan--one of the most prolific actors in Bollywood's history and deserving of every bit of his fame and notoriety. He can do tortured young ingenue, slap stick comic relief, and brooding, sexy romantic hero with equal aplomb and a mischievous sparkle in his eye. If you ever want a list of  movie recommendations, hit me up on Twitter.

Part of me regrets it took me so long to "discover" Hindi cinema, but I'm not sure I would have been as receptive to it as I am now. No, the movies aren't all as delicious as Padmaavat  (some have been DNFers, to be honest). Not all of them are grand displays of romantic exhibitionism, either (horror fans, you really need to watch Tumbbad. You'll thank me for it.). I could write a whole series of blog posts on the things I've researched and studied in the wake of my Bollywood awakening to get a better appreciation for the historical, political, religious, and cultural references permeating these movies, but at their core, the themes of Hindi cinema are universal. They just tend to be presented with a lot more unabashed and unapologetic joy, passion, and romance. India has continuously embraced escapism in a way America generally hasn't (and yes, there are many socio-economic reasons for the popularity of escapism in India, but that's a whole other issue I don't feel qualified to discuss). What a loss for U.S. movie goers--especially in these troubling times--that we have so few English-language cinematic equivalencies.

I don't know about you, but I could use a little more joy, passion, and romance right now. And that's why, when the voice of doubt whispers in my ear, urging me to write with more gravity, more realism, more "importance,"  I'll tell that voice shut-up and go watch another Hindi movie.

No comments:

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs