The recent decision by the Film Federation of India to submit Barfi as their entry for Best Foreign Language Film is a surprising one. It's not that Barfi is a poor film, merely that its entry as India’s bid for Oscar success suggests the Federation still hasn’t grasped what western audiences look for in their 'foreign' or 'world' cinema.
This isn’t about Barfi’s generous referencing of other films - a bit of intertextuality is usually the stuff cineastes love. And since Bollywood can’t resist a few juicy steals, it might want to take a few cues from directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers and rebrand its cribbing as deliberate fanboy homage rather than playing dumb then sheepishly defending it as “inspiration”.
So Barfi’s debt to other films isn’t necessarily the issue – it’s loveable in places (as well as bloated, erratic and syrupy – Bollywood’s depiction of disability isn’t quite there yet), but it’s not likely to travel well outside Indian and NRI audiences. Not because of the story, but because even though awareness of its output is greater than ever before, Bollywood still doesn’t understand that its ‘something for everyone’ masala approach is so unique to itself that most outsiders still find it alien and impenetrable, no matter how much the likes of Baz Luhrmann pay tribute.
The failure of the Las Vegas-set Kites which Rush Hour director Brett Ratner redubbed and cut down to a lean 90 minutes for western screens seemed to reflect this. But if Indian filmmakers really want to tap into the American or British marketplace – and clearly they do - they might want to think smaller. They might also like to have a look at what western audiences tend to look for in their international cinema - a viewpoint and entry into a world UK or US films can’t provide.
Iranian director Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation, which won in the Best Foreign Language Film category last year presented a milieu you would never see in London or New York. Similarly, when Deepa Mehta’s Water was nominated for the award in 2005, it was because its view of India was one only Mehta could deliver.
This might lead to an overvaluing of 'foreign-ness' (Slumdog Millionaire’s success was down to its poverty porn as well as its feel-good narrative), but for better or worse, ‘world cinema' exists as an alternative to western film, for what it offers that the output of the US and UK can’t.
Independent cinema, arthouse cinema, parallel cinema, whatever you want to call India’s fringe sector, is what the Indian film industry needs to consider when trying to make inroads to the international market. Multiplex crowds in the UK are not going to give Looper a miss so they can catch Heroine. The audience for arthouse cinema, however, is barely aware of the films south Asia produces outside of the Bollywood factory line. Isn’t it time that titles such as Gangs of Wasseypur, Mr and Mrs Iyer and Kanchivaram were promoted outside of the festival circuit?
In recent years, films from Turkey (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Iran (A Separation) and Thailand (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) have been heaped with praise. It might not garner huge box office receipts but Indian cinema deserves to be part of this world too, if only so there can be recognition that serious Indian filmmaking didn’t die with token favourite Satyajit Ray.
There is nothing wrong with Bollywood being the commercial face of Indian cinema. But if Indian film culture is to be taken seriously and given the respect the industry so desperately craves, it should realise that it’s not likely to come from films like Chandni Chowk to China or other ploys for the western mainstream.
English dialogue, global jet setting and aping Hollywood cool might have an exotic, escapist appeal for Indians at home, but to most westerners, it can’t help but look imitative. Indian cinema needs to sell itself on being Indian in a way that no western director could hope to capture. It needs to tell stories that can only be found in India – those Bollywood is too scared to touch.
In short, it needs to be as very Indian as it can possibly be. Otherwise, that elusive cinemagoer in London or Los Angeles is always going to lie out of reach.