White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

White Guy Watches Bollywood: An Introduction

White Guy Watches Bollywood: Seeing "Pathaan" at the Cinemark 18 at Howard Hughes Promenade in Los Angeles
White Guy Watches Bollywood: Seeing “Pathaan” at the Cinemark 18 at Howard Hughes Promenade in Los Angeles.

By nearly anyone’s definition, I’m a highly avid moviegoer. I see around 150-200 movies in theaters over the course of an average year; occasionally, I make it north of 250. This pales in comparison to my totals during college and graduate school, but my 34-year-old body can’t handle more than three theatrical viewings in a row, which used to be somewhat commonplace for me on the weekends. I subscribe to AMC A-List, Regal Unlimited, and MoviePass, because my moviegoing can’t be contained to just one chain or another. I see movies of all budget levels, genres, and languages. But even I have a big, notable blind spot at the multiplex, shared by many other frequent moviegoers: Indian cinema.

Two events last year really convinced me that I needed to be paying a lot more attention to all of the Indian films being released theatrically in the U.S. (and across other formats, but theaters are a good, reasonably contained starting point).

The first event was the smashing success of S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR among American cinephiles. Here was a Tollywood movie that made countless year-end Top 10 lists among critics and fanatical moviegoers alike (mine included), thanks in no small part to the enterprising support of Dylan Marchetti and Variance Films. And yet, a little more than a year after its initial release, RRR already seems like more of a one-off phenomenon than an attention-generator for future Indian cinema among American audiences. Surely, there must be more for us to savor.

Yes, Bollywood’s highly entertaining Pathaan starring Shah Rukh Khan grossed a very notable $17.5M in the U.S. – even slightly higher than the $15.2M brought in by RRR – but this success felt much more concentrated to the Indian diaspora market than that of RRR. In other words, despite the robust overall box office for Pathaan, it seemed to represent a slowing of the “crossover” momentum that RRR created among American audiences, not an acceleration of it. Needless to say, American cinephiles shouldn’t turn their backs so easily on a potential treasure trove of good new movies.

The second event that convinced me I needed to be paying more attention to the full gamut of Indian releases was noticing, one weekend last August, that 8 of 25 screens at a local multiplex were running Indian films, with Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood, and Sandalwood titles all represented. I was interested in how these films were being reviewed and received, so I of course went to IMDb, MRQE, and Rotten Tomatoes and looked them up. I could only find 1 or 2 reviews from non-Indian critics for the most popular titles and none for the less popular ones.

This struck me as a complete embarrassment, given the number of poorly-received, low-budget, direct-to-streaming English-language releases with 50+ reviews available online. Clearly, if a publicist isn’t repping a title to U.S. film journalists and bloggers, it just isn’t covered. Film critics largely turn a blind eye to foreign language releases that are aimed chiefly at diasporic audiences, rather than arthouse audiences – the bulk of which happen to be Indian films. (Yes, I’m well aware of the Chinese titles that are also neglected, but they also largely don’t gross anywhere near as much in the U.S.)

These two experiences, paired with several rewarding outings to recent Indian fare, have convinced me that I need to start reviewing all of the new Indian releases in American cinemas, from the distinct perspective of an American cinephile. There are a huge number of Indian releases each year – several dozen – that are just flat-out ignored by the American film press (and to my knowledge, most all of the Western press) despite bowing on 100+ U.S. multiplex screens. Back in the days of Indian specialty cinemas (remember the NAZ 8 in Artesia?), it felt forgivable to ignore these titles. Now, with new Indian films playing literally one door over from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it seems just plain ignorant.

I’m titling my new blog White Guy Watches Bollywood, in a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment (and reminder) of my limited POV. As an outsider, I’m not going to be able to learn everything there is to learn about decades of Indian cinema in a few months (or years), nor would that be particularly helpful for these purposes. My mission is explicitly not to have an academic understanding of the Indian film industry, nor to ever purport to be an “expert” on current releases. I’m also not aiming to provide a perspective that is in any way competing with that of the Indian press – in India or internationally.

Instead, I’m simply looking to advocate for the latest great Indian releases – across all local languages and industries – that may end up tragically ignored by American movie lovers due to lack of exposure. For too long, the common wisdom has been that, like American comedies, most Indian films don’t “travel” outside their intended audiences. That could be true, but rather than ignoring them, I think it’s time for me to personally challenge the assumption by seeing all of what’s available and judging for myself. How many crossover hits could we potentially be shamefully overlooking each year?

So, whether you’re looking for recommendations of movies that you might not otherwise be aware of, or you simply seek a cursory way to gain awareness of one of the fastest-growing global cinemas there are, I invite you to come along with me for the ride. Or if you’re already a regular consumer of Indian cinema – perhaps living in India or a member of the diaspora yourself – and you’re curious what one random white guy thinks of Indian films (feel free to laugh at my ignorance!), I welcome you too. I look forward to using this outlet as a way of exploring, first and foremost. Stay tuned!

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