On a burning-hot afternoon last month, I found myself bawling my guts out in a Times Square movie theater. I was watching “Sultan,” a nearly three-hour-long Bollywood extravaganza that was released in July and is already one of the highest grossing Indian films ever.
I am forever second-guessing my relationship with Bollywood. The films are simultaneously operatic, commercial and jingoistic. I fancy myself a connoisseur of more subtle emotions, and so it’s natural that I recoil from these melodramas that try, as Salman Rushdie once said, “to contain the whole of life.” And yet there I was, swallowed up in the middle of the afternoon by this behemoth of a film — with rollicking dance numbers — about a former Olympic wrestler from a small town trying to make a comeback in the big city as a fighter on TV. Three hours later, I was spat out an overwrought wreck.
When I told a writer friend the whole story, he tried to console me. “How much of your bawling during ‘Sultan’ was just about missing India?” he asked. None, sadly. I had been away only a few weeks. Besides, I bawl at Bollywood films when I’m in India, too. “They affect me,” I wrote back. “I can’t help it!’’
There is something about a big, popular art form that dramatizes a society’s deepest tensions that I find desperately moving. In the West, this is the kind of heavy lifting that was once the preserve of the novel — think of Dickens and Balzac. But in India, Bollywood alone deals with our society’s inner tension, its fault lines and frictions.
Beneath the overlay of song and plot is the vein of something deadly serious. The place to look for this is not in the face of the hero but in the face of the villain. The Bollywood villain is the embodiment of what India believes ails India. Over the years, the cast of villains has included British colonizers with shaved heads and icy blue eyes; decadent feudal landlords; drug kingpins with amber-tinted sunglasses; corrupt politicians in starched white kurtas; and, naturally, terrorists of every stripe. But in a spate of recent films, the villain has taken the form of India’s own inner demons as the country negotiates an anguished transition to global modernity.
In “Sultan,” the villain, if there is one, is the culture of franchises and brands that has brought the outline of a modern society to India over the past 25 years. The eponymous protagonist and his story about a televised mixed martial arts league functions as a parable about a society trying to assimilate an onslaught of foreign influence.
In every area of life, from sporting events to television channels, retail to restaurants, and even think tanks, magazines and publishing houses, modernity arrives in India ready-made. The country is in the process of refashioning itself in the image of the West. This recent spate of Bollywood films capture the violence and humiliation (and rage) that accompanies an old society remaking itself to fit the mold of another.
In “Sultan,” the man who brings the televised martial arts league to India is part of the country’s moneyed English-speaking elite. He uses words like “bro” and “dude,” and he almost definitely went to college in the United States. He’s frustrated with his country’s unwillingness to embrace his league. Early on in the film, his father, who we are to understand is less of a foreigner in his own country, sits him down to give him a lesson. He speaks of the need for India to make the league its own.
“It does have a future, but you don’t see it,” the father says, using the league as a metaphor for the country. “But the future of this league does not lie in the hands of white men.” Then, in speaking of the need for India to imbue modernity with her own essence, the father gives voice to a deeply disturbing emotion, an anger that boils up in societies bombarded by foreign influence. He says: “It is only when an Indian starts pummelling white men into the ground that the seats of that stadium will get crammed full of people.”
Bollywood’s reach extends well beyond India. These melodramas, which are so distasteful to the contemporary European and American palate, play well in Kuala Lumpur and Cairo. This is the cinema of the global South, a fun house mirror image of Hollywood.
In America, one rarely hears about what the transmission of global culture — which is in fact American culture — feels like on the receiving end. But it is not a neutral process. This transmission creates a profound disturbance. It reconfigures a society — its mores, its values, its relationships. It can deal a blow to the morale of a place. The word “confidence” comes up again and again in “Sultan,” and it speaks to the trauma an old society undergoes as it tries to absorb the appeal of a foreign culture, while at the same time trying to remain true to itself and its genius.
What I love about Bollywood is that it is the only popular medium in which I can see these concerns reflected. We live in an age when civilizational anger has been so taken over by Islamic extremism that it has been rendered untouchable. Bollywood films like “Sultan” are a reminder that the rage of feeling culturally encircled is not limited to the Islamic world. Nor is it incomprehensible.
That afternoon, as I wept my heart out on the last day of the brief appearance of “Sultan” in Manhattan, I realized that I was watching something that was commercial cinema for a vast portion of humanity, and yet utterly marginal in this center of Western power where I was watching it.
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