Bollywood, here we come.
Alter (Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant, 2004, etc.) follows the production of a single film—Omkara, an adaptation of Othello—from its initial story meetings to its completion, providing an insightful (if insufficiently critical) look at the workings of the Indian filmmaking industry, popularly known as “Bollywood.” That sobriquet indicates the profound influence Hollywood has had on India’s popular entertainment, but the most interesting aspects of Alter’s narrative are the cultural and social influences unique to the subcontinent, such as the tradition of employing poets as screenwriters. In stark contrast to the Hollywood one-sentence pitch, “narrations,” often lasting for hours, are delivered by the producers and directors to potential investors and actors. Bollywood produces some 900 films a year—vastly more than its western counterpart—but the great majority fail at the box office, and the pool of viable stars is much smaller, making the competition for proven box-office commodities particularly fierce. Much of the story of Omkara’s production feels familiar, as the complications, compromises and ego battles that plague any attempt to make a movie have been fodder for the American infotainment complex for quite some time. Alter gamely tries to keep things fresh with digressive descriptions of various directors, actors and poets not associated with Omkara, but his unfailing reverence for these men ultimately proves monotonous. He does provide a wealth of detail about the locations and customs that inform the hyper-dramatic Bollywood aesthetic (Alter was raised in India), and he is particularly good at conveying the importance of music and dance to the medium. Best of all is his analysis of how Indian filmmakers combine the classics of Western literature (Shakespeare is grist for many of the basic plots) and Indian folk traditions to create the uniquely vibrant and tirelessly crowd-pleasing thrust of the typical Bollywood epic; laughter, tears, titillation, suspense and transporting music and choreography are demanded by the audience every time out. Sometimes, when the stars align, they get it.
Breezy and informative, but it could have used more spice.