This came up in a conversation with Niki in the comments a week or so ago, the difficulty of when a fantasy is too real, too close to reality, not the hero part of it that I already discussed, but the situations, the life that the heroine is leading. And it made me think, is that why Indian films are so consciously unrealistic in certain ways?
Let’s think about fantasy again. The purpose of fantasy is to let you work out emotions that are happening to you in your real life without needing to directly confront them. That sounds unhealthy, and it can be, but often it is necessary and far healthier than trying without it. Think of it like practice sessions. Before you go out and fight in a real battle, you do obstacle courses and gun drills and all sorts of things that aren’t “real” because you aren’t ready for the real yet, you need a safe place to make mistakes and learn things and then you can go off and try them in the real world.
Often the things you are trying out are emotions. It’s part of growing up, reading sad books or love stories or war stories and trying on grief and love and anger in a safe place, practicing how those feel and how you react to them, and then when they hit for real you are better prepared.
(Being stunned by love for smiley face Shahrukh is a big practice for any time in life I am stunned by emotions)
But, what makes it a fantasy? Well, one big part of it is “escapism”. That it lets you escape to an imaginary world that is different from yours. If it is too similar, then that is no escape at all. Looked at that way, the definition of “Fantasy” expands wildly. For instance, someone might say “I never fantasize, when I am stressed I read non-fiction books about battle tactics from the Civil War.” Well, unless what you are stressed about is being a soldier in the Civil War, you are still escaping to a different place. Giving your brain a rest by thinking about something other than what you are currently dealing with.
(When I search for new Indian film articles on JStore, there is this one ethnographer who talks about, like, micro-economics that always pops up because his name is “Shahrukh Khan”. And I have this fantasy that this is Shahrukh’s fantasy, he escapes the pressures of life as a movie star by writing dry economy papers)
The other part of fantasy is relatability, or being able to put yourself in the story. Which is a hard balance with the “escapism”! This is part of the reason that the love story is such a reliable mode of fantasy. It might be a world that is completely different from yours, like regency England, but it includes people and relationships that are familiar from the present, the domineering mother or the unreliable brother, along with the usual challenges of a couple admitting they are in love with each other. It is a new time and place, but you can imagine yourself in it still, lose yourself in the story instead of standing back and feeling like an outside observer.
To make it a good “practice” session, you need a balance of the two. Real enough that you actually feel things in the way you would in real life, but fake enough that you still feel safe feeling those emotions. And Indian films do that very well.
What this immediately brings to mind for me is the question of how and why Indian films appeal to the audience of people who don’t experience those lives. There are multiple kinds of audiences and multiple films, there are people like me who are not of Indian heritage and live in the west. There is no film world from India that will exactly match my experiences. There are south Asian heritage folks living in the west who have no real connection to the village or lower class life style some films show. And there are people living in India in the villages who have no real connection to the stories of the wealthy Western folks living in New York or London shown in films.
(Is there anyone alive right now who can actually relate to this village life in 1800s India?)
The danger with Indian films for non-Indian audiences is that you start to see the whole world of India as a “practice” place, nothing that happens there “really” matters. You can work out your emotions in this little fantasy place and then never bring them back home to the “real” world of the West. The Eat Pray Love syndrome (sorry, I know the book was good, I mean the movie).
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can speak for what I find in these fantasy worlds. No wait, I can speak for other people! This is related to my Masters’ thesis and I spent a year researching that!
What I found was that there were two kinds of non-Indian people who watched Indian films. Type A are the people who watch it for the “kitsch” factor. They seem to approach the films and people in them, and the other people who watch them, like animals in a zoo. They will joke about how every film has a love story and every film goes on far too long and laugh at how the audiences are so simple-minded, they will actually cheer when the hero appears. These people will tend to say “Oh I love ‘Bollywood’!” and then when you ask them what films they have seen, they will say have no answer. Because they don’t see it as individual films or works of art, they just see it as some sort of massive unnamed conglomerate of overacting and silly songs and brown people with bad taste. Type A is definitely in it for the “escapism”, but not for the relatability. They don’t want the films, or the people in them, to be real. That would ruin their enjoyment.
Type A is far more common, is essentially every other white person in urban/suburban America so far as I can tell. All those people who get a kick out of the “Bollywood” episodes of sitcoms or the “Bollywood” dancers on talent shows. I hate these people (you could probably tell) and they are the reason my blog and book have the names they do. But the nice thing is, Type A is also far less committed. They will claim awareness of and interest in “Bollywood” if you bring it up, but they aren’t going to be hunting down websites or watching movies straight through or really put any effort into it at all. When I was researching my masters, I found this old article from the early 2000s that looked at the first group of these people, the ones who found old VHS tapes and records in thrift stores, the Ghost World types. But at the time the article was written, it wasn’t quite so hard any more, you could order DVDs online and everything had just sort of gone mainstream. My favorite quote from the article was a woman talking about the difference between the two eras, saying “now you have to really like it”. The “kitsch” appeal is gone, now that everything is so much more available.
(In case you don’t know, indie strange hit film Ghost World included a scene with the heroine watching this song and getting obsessed with it. Which has become the primary Indian film connection for many people I talk to in real life. About three times removed from reality and all the cooler for it)
But Type B, those are much more interesting. Those were the ones who actually responded to my survey and interview requests. They were the ones who went past the superficial and connected with the films, connected to the point of hunting down online communities and writing long comments and volunteering to answer surveys and give phone interviews for nice grad students like me.
Let’s go back to the idea of escapism and putting yourself in the story. There is a built in escapism for a non-desi living in the west watching an Indian movie. Everything is different, the language and the family style and even the school uniforms. When you are in the middle of a freezing winter, sitting in your office job with a bunch of people you hardly know, disconnected from your family, and worried about your boyfriend who is afraid of commitment, watching a movie with bright sunny skies, big combined families, and love at first sight is definitely an escape.
Priya Joshi (who I LOVE!!!!!) wrote this amazing article called “Bollylite” that dug into this whole phenomenon. She broke down the various ways that the films which people found popular outside of India were different from the classic films. There is a particular kind of film that lives on superficial emotions rather than digging into complex social conflicts. For instance, K3G is about a rich boy and a poor girl falling in love. But the conflict is superficial, there is no real digging in to class or caste conflict, and the whole complexity of marriage in India. Versus Bobby, which also had a rich boy and a poor girl plot, but a poor girl from a different caste/religious/ethnicity background, and a romance that dealt with youth, rebellion, class, all kinds of concerns. From her argument, “Bollylite” is the escapism, but the real Indian films, the classics that were popular for decades, were reality coated in escapism.
(Fun song, but if you really watch it, and listen to the lyrics, you can see it is also about class and gender and all kinds of interesting things)
What I found in my research was that most of the Type B kind of fans were initially attracted by the escapism but couldn’t help being pulled more and more into the films until the escapism drifted away. Because what really makes the fantasy work is the reality underneath it. You don’t watch the films because the skies in them are sunny, or the families love each other. You watch them because they talk about the ultimate realities of life, making hard choices between family and love, love and duty, community and selfishness, everything.
So, how does this go back to the fantasy? The thing with Indian films is that they are made in such a way that they can be a fantasy for everybody. There is a little bit of escapism and a little bit of relatability for everybody.
Every film has a song, and every film has a romance. That’s all it takes. The song gives you the escape, the thing that you would never see in real life. And the romance gives you the thing that is universal, that we can all use to connect to the film. It’s the perfect fantasy, the perfect escape, and the perfect return to the center of things.
(This movie is so brilliant)