"…[T]o lump [Indian movies]…together in one term—the popular “Bollywood”—is to use a misnomer…"

patilAshok Patil, Indian Filmmaker, Hollywood Filmmaker… American Filmmaker
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic

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“I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.” – James Joyce

patilIn Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this passage is among the most famous: “The cat will mew and [the] dog [will] have his day.” Like a lot of famous quotations, such as the “shoulders of giants” quote whose origin I trace in this issue’s Letter from the Editor, this quote has multiple authors who have refined and elaborated upon it both before and after Hamlet was published approximately 450 years ago. Its current form reads as follows: “Every dog will have its day.” So what does this quote mean?

In the story that is human existence, which starts and stops, and starts and stops again, in a seemingly endless cycle, like “the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand” in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” most cultures will take turns being dominant, playing the leader or a leader. Who’s on top today will be on the bottom tomorrow—or at least not on top—and vice versa, and we can provide historical evidence that points to the veracity of this idea: the empires of Greece, Persia, Rome, Britain…and the United States? When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in December of 1776 as the first ambassador from the United States, few people in France—then the dominant European power, next to Britain—knew that the United States existed. Today…well, today is a different story, isn’t it?

Like the United States in 1776, Indian cinema was a relatively unknown and unheralded phenomenon—at least to many Western audiences—until fairly recently. The 2008 Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from the 2005 novel Q & A by Indian author Vikas Swarup, put Indian cinema on everyman’s map. Of course, this fact is ironic—because Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film, but a British film, set in Mumbai, about an Indian youth. However, the film made Western audiences aware of Indian cinema; its history spans more than 100 years—almost as long as Hollywood’s—and today India produces more films per year than any other country: between 700 to 800. And these 700-800 films produced every year have so many different and complex historical, cultural and regional influences that to lump them all together in one term—the popular “Bollywood”—is to use a misnomer—just as “Hollywood,” as a description of American cinema, seems like a misnomer, because many American films seem to have very little in common in terms of genre, theme, aims, and execution.

During my videotaped interview with Ashok Patil, an up-and-coming young filmmaker from India, I discussed my own ignorance about Indian cinema—and the ignorance of Westerners in general. I queried him: Aren’t “we”—Hollywood, American cinema—numero uno in the world: the most dominant influence in cinema? He joked (the Hamlet line) “[e]very dog will have its day.” But then he quickly emended (improved) and amended (enriched) this idea. Yes, American cinema was and is a dominant influence in world cinema—for this reason, Patil himself pursued his education in film in the United States—but he questions: What was/is American cinema?

American cinema was/is always international cinema, with a galaxy of foreign stars, directors, screenwriters, and other artists contributing their influence to American moviemaking…and therefore, to Americana, American culture. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock are among the many “foreign” film artists of yesterday. Among today’s many “foreign” film artists (racial barriers are being knocked down as the U.S. becomes a more progressive society), we have Salma Hayak, Djimon Hounsou, and M. Night Shyamalan.

But yes…there is a distinctly American flavor in American cinema. But what are the origins of this distinctly American flavor? Didn’t most of us—except for native Americans—come from someplace else at sometime, or have an ancestor or ancestors who did? Take Patil himself as an example. He’s a filmmaker from India, educated in the United States, whose permanent residence is now in California, not India, and he expects that his next film will be an adaptation of his third and most recent film, the celebrated 9 to 12; the all-Indian cast of this film set in Bangalore might become…a Hollywood film set in the United States starring…let’s see…we think Will Smith could take the lead—and sing the theme song in the beginning; instead of singing about Bangalore, a land of holiness and horror, Will can sing about…yes (why not?), Los Angeles, a land of holiness and horror.

The plot of 9-12, which Patil wrote, directed, and has a cameo in, is like the plot of Slumdog Millionaire, in that it has a storyline that could take place in any country in the world: poor youth wins big money on game show. Rags to riches. In 9-12, there is this familiar—but always intriguing—storyline: the good guy becomes a bad guy for a good reason; a devoted son agrees to work for the underworld in order to earn the money for the operation his mother needs to save her life. Does the end justify the means? Even with its all-Indian cast, set in Bangalore, this universal theme of 9-12 quickly made me perceive it not as an “Indian” movie—but simply as a good movie: indeed…made with a shoestring budget, 9-12 is an incredibly well-made film in every way: script, direction, cinematography, acting, and theme.

So…what is Indian cinema—if an Indian-made movie like 9-12 is so universal in its appeal? And what is American cinema? For that matter, what is French, Italian, Argentinean, Russian, Chinese cinema…? Can we define all the different kinds of cinema that exist? Well, we can and certainly do try. Yes, an American movie has a certain “feel,” like an Indian movie does…but just as Hollywood undoubtedly influenced Indian cinema, so has Hollywood been influenced by the films (the cultures!) of other countries. (We might even contend—as many have—that film is responsible for making America and the world more socially progressive.)

Ruminating about this topic makes me think of the celebrated Igbo writer Chinua Achebe. Achebe has been criticized for writing in English, not in his native language. His partial answer to this criticism is that just as the British colonized his native Nigeria, so, too, is he colonizing the British language by writing in English. Patil is a man from India, educated in the United States, who lives in California and makes films. Therefore (why not?), I claim him for us—Hollywood, Americans, in all our glorious diversity. And he can claim Hollywood for India. Clearly, Patil—an Indian filmmaker educated in the United States—is busily engaged in the process of colonizing Hollywood—and vice versa, of course! But then the world of cinema has always been in the business of colonization. And we have come to understand…as Achebe has reminded us (and others have reminded us), that one entity cannot colonize another entity without that other entity colonizing it in turn. (Italy colonized Ethiopia and Eritrea; today, Ethiopians and Eritreans live in Italy and some are marrying Italians, producing offspring.) Hollywood may have started the ball rolling by being an early leader in filmmaking, and through its films, colonizing the world, but the world, in turn, is also colonizing Hollywood. Of course.

Following are video clips of my interview with Ashok Patil, Indian Filmmaker, Hollywood Filmmaker, and (yes!)…American filmmaker. Included with the interview clips is a trailer of Ashok Patil’s third and most recent film: the suspenseful and spectacular 9-12. For biographical information about Ashok Patil, do what people all over the world do when they want to find out about somebody: Google him!

"9 to 12" Movie Trailer

In the city of Bangalore, India, a poor taxi driver takes up a job with the underworld to transport something from one point of the city to another within three hours (between 9 to 12 PM) to earn 6,000 dollars for his dying mother’s surgery. What happens on the journey?

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