So I got hold of a copy of Asoka that actually had subtitles and it was good…
I’ve never watched any Bollywood cinema before, so this was very much stepping in at the deep end, not really knowing what to expect. A big historical epic did seem quite a safe entry point, but I suspect that only made the musical interludes (the plot stops a couple of times, essentially to run a music video, I was somewhat disconcerted) less expected, as up to the first interlude I was being reminded of big Hollywood historical epics of the 50s and 60s – especially Lawrence of Arabia. (Narratively the film is very much of the traditional ‘heroic fantasy’ type and it had me reminiscing happily about the sword and sorcery/epic adventure stories I used to read in my early teens – there’s even a greek chorus of comedy soldiers for light relief!) However once I’d got used to the interludes and just went with them, they were a rather enjoyable if slightly random aspect to the film. Almost my entire knowledge of Indian history comes from a series of history programs BBC4 ran last year and even I could tell the film-makers were playing it fast and loose with the history, however, this did nothing to undermine the film being rather a fun romp.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of whether countries have a truly ‘national cinema’. Are the quirks, charms and eccentricities borne more from a group of likeminded film-makers or are they shaped by some element or reaction to national character? Perhaps I just watched a lot of European cinema at an impressionable age which inured me to the culture shock of films in other languages, but whenever I’ve watched films from other countries they’ve always felt universally cinematic. However different their visual style or narrative structure they felt somehow familiar. It interests me therefore that it should be Indian cinema that causes me the most profound culture shock. From what I’ve read my slightly baffled reaction is fairly common in Western audiences (making me feel slightly less of a philistine but still one nevertheless). Of course the very ‘difference’ could arguably be said to be part of its strength, after all, other than the all-consuming Hollywood, Bollywood is the largest, most prolific, ‘national’ cinema in the world. That very difference and its audience, makes it less susceptible to being assimilated by Hollywood. Whatever the reason, I’m really looking forward to watching more Bollywood cinema to discover if it was just the slightly detached from the action nature of one of Asoka’s musical numbers in the context of what is essentially a historical epic. Whether the more I watch the more I get used to the style until it seems perfectly normal, or if other Bollywood cinema will seem equally unsettling, eminently enjoyable but a little alien.