“With songs and heightened emotions, Bollywood’s a bit like 1950s Hollywood never ended”

“With songs and heightened emotions, Bollywood’s a bit like 1950s Hollywood never ended”

Matt Bowes and Erin Fraser, Canadian cinephiles, host a podcast on Bollywood films, discussing film after film, actor after actor, scene after scene with such aplomb and enthusiasm one is transported to the world of India’s famous critics - Khalid Mohamed, Raja Sen and Rajeev Masand.

The bi-weekly podcast, now in its fourth year, called Bollywood is for Lovers, explores the world of Hindi cinema with a long range lens, comparing past and current films of actors, success in international venues, changing themes, cinematography and even comparing Indian films to Western flicks. They cover between four to eight movies a month, and more in their semi-annual wrap-up episodes.

In a recent podcast of the best films of Bollywood in the second half of 2019, Matt and Erin cover several films released between July and December last year. Interestingly, says Erin, there were no releases from Amir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Ranbir Kapoor, and Matt interjects knowingly, “there was one too many from Salman Khan”.

It was a year, says Erin when the younger, more cinematically interested actors of Bollywood showed off their range. “They are constantly on this cusp of building bigger reputations for themselves.” In total they covered 27 films and admitted that they missed some big films like Houseful 4.

Films watched in the comfort of their homes, on flights while travelling, the tension and excitement of waiting for a release, it’s all there in the podcast, which has a record number of followers. Matt talks about Article 15, directed by Anubhav Sinha, featuring Ayushmann Khurrana, which he says he watched on a plane to Montreal. “A very realistic film” which gave him a ‘True Detective Season 1 vibe’ (an American anthology crime drama television series created by Nic Pizzolatto) in terms of the background lighting, scenes of searching in swampy waters, etc. Erin says “the cinematography is fantastic with a lot of night light photography and the way the landscape is captured with the fog coming in.” The hosts go on to talk about Khurrana and how this film is different from his earlier ones and is their favourite Khurrana film.

Then they discuss Photograph, by Ritesh Bhatra who has also made, The Sense of an Ending and The Lunchbox. Bhatra’s film Our Souls At Night featured Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Bhatra is among a rare breed of Indian film makers who has made films for both Amazon and Netflix.

Erin and Matt say in their podcast that the film did very well in the outhouses of North America and that Bhatra, like some other film makers is getting into the parallel cinema distribution stream and not just the usual Bollywood arenas.

Then they talk about Super 30, saying they like it because it is about the right to education. Erin says that while Hrithik Roshan does not really look like the real life character on which the film is based, she is pleased that his charm is back, which had been missing in his recent films like Mohenjodaro and some other unsuccessful films.

Their yearend podcast can be heard here https://radiopublic.com/bollywood-is-for-lovers-6BQnZo

In this interview with CSP, Erin and Matt talk about all that is worth watching in Bollywood.

How did your interest in Bollywood begin?

Both of us have a Bachelors of Arts, mine is in Film Studies and Comparative Literature, while Matt's is in English and History, though he did take many Film Studies classes when he was in university. Our interest in Bollywood began about seven years ago, when Erin saw Lootera and then by the time DHOOM 3 came out we were hooked. While we'd seen some Hindi films in university (Mother India being the big one), seeing what popular Hindi cinema was like was a revelation.

Do you follow Hindi? Have you learnt it?

No, Matt has tried to learn Hindi through some apps, but we have minimal comprehension. We can pick out words here and there, but saying a sentence that isn't also a movie title is very difficult.

With the Oscars round the corner, and since you follow awards closely, what are your thoughts on the awards

To be eligible for the Academy Awards, a film has to be screened in a commercial cinema in Los Angeles County for a week. There used to be a stipulation that is must receive a review in a major paper too, but I don't know if that's still in place. Then they would have had to submit it to the Academy for confirmation that they met the requirements. Many films, close to 350 were deemed eligible this year, including Gully Boy and Photograph.

We don't always get a lot of smaller Hindi films here, neither Laal Kaptaan nor Photograph played here so we had to seek them out on streaming (the National Award winner Heelaro did though). It is important to remember that eligibility and quality are not related. Some of the worst reviewed films of the year are also on the Academy Awards eligible films list, like I said, it just means that they met the requirements and bothered to submit (I remember a couple of years ago a terrible Mohanlal film was on the eligibility list for best original song, which I thought was interesting).

It’s really hard for a film without major studio backing to get anywhere with the Academy Awards, the eligibility requirements might not be much but it takes a lot more to get nominated, smaller films are at a huge disadvantage.

What is the most exciting movie you have watched recently?

The most exciting Hindi films last year for us were Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy and Abhishek Chauney's Sonchiriya, which doesn't appear to have had a big release in India much less in North America. Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu was also an amazing movie.

Apart from the diaspora and academicians is there any audience for Hindi movies?

We think that non-diaspora viewers are slowly coming around to Hindi films, especially as they become easier to access on Netflix AND Amazon Prime. Streaming TV shows like SACRED GAMES are being written up in the New York Times, which could potentially point people towards other movies by the directors and stars. We have a lot of listeners who are like us, non-South Asian Hindi film fans.

How many subscribers does your show have?

Apple doesn’t release subscriber data so we don’t really know how many subscribers we have and listenership fluctuates, but our show is often ranked among the highest film and film review podcasts in places where Hindi films are popular. We just started appearing on the UAE charts, which is exciting.

What are the interesting trends you have observed in Bollywood over the years?

The melding of popular Hindi and parallel cinemas into a middle cinema or "mindies" has been really interesting, resulting in the rise of stars like Ayushmann Khuranna and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The big masala films seem to be on the out and smaller dramedies are taking their place. There have also been a lot of films championing women’s issues, which is great to see, and a rise in sports films.

Which of your shows was the most popular? Does the films popularity depend on the big stars like Salman or Shah Rukh?

To date our most popular episode has been our first one, probably because it's been featured on streaming platforms like Hubhopper and Saavn. After that, our episodes on Shahid Kapoor (timed to Kabir Singh’s release), Katrina Kaif, and "Bollywood on Bollywood" (self-referential films) have seen steady downloads. Our midyear and year-end review episodes are also very popular. Interestingly our episodes featuring the Khans aren't as popular as you'd think, although we don't often feature them exclusively as we usually go by topic.

What is it that you like about Bollywood movies?

One of the things we like best about Bollywood films is that they are reverent and appreciative of their forbears. Once you watch some of the canonical works you start to see references constantly, through song titles, lyrics, dance moves, set design, all kinds of things. We also appreciate how many stories are written for the screen rather than just being adaptations of comics and video games, though they do borrow a lot from other film industries, sometimes rather shamelessly. We enjoy the unique visual language and storytelling structure; films often have a six-act structure instead of a three-act one. Also the songs and heightened emotions, it’s a bit like 1950s Hollywood never ended.

Some Bollywood actors have worked in Hollywood but in minor roles. Do you see a larger role for them?

Priyanka Chopra definitely seems best placed to work extensively in Hollywood, but I would like to see more Deepika Padukone films coming out of XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. Anupam Kher also seems to be doing really well in Hollywood fare, which is fascinating. He, Irrfan Khan, and Anil Kapoor have all done well because of their versatility, and their willingness to take supporting roles rather than lead ones.

India makes thousands of films in different languages. Have watched any regional film?

Matt: We've watched some of the bigger South Indian releases of the past few years, Robot, Baahubali, and Lijo Jose Pellissery’s output. Erin sees a lot of films from all over, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and she’s especially fond of Malayalam films, but Bollywood is our main focus.