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From stereotypical novelty to respected art form, the world of Asian cinema is becoming the new cultural phenomenon.

Back in the 70’s, Hong Kong Kung Fu films starring Bruce Lee were cult classics. The fight sequences and near impossible moves captured the imaginations of youth around the world. This was the West’s first taste of Asian cinema, and they immediately wanted more. Most notably, the Kung Fu flicks have been associated with the development of break dancing and therefore, Kung Fu has shared a close relationship with hip hop ever since. Like taking part in hip hop culture, in its inception, being a Kung Fu fan was not without its politics. The films provided an almost unprecedented source of adventure stories with non-white heroes, who furthermore often displayed a strong streak of racial and/or nationalistic pride, therefore making them particularly interesting to non-white audiences.

Asian cinema as represented by China has gone from strength to strength.  In 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon exploded onto our screens in a blaze of Oscars glory. Tarantino referenced the Chinese martial arts genre heavily in his highly acclaimed Kill Bill series a few years later, and the success of the film seemed to point to the rising influence and possible ascendancy of the Chinese film industry.

As the films became less cult and more mainstream, many of the stars of Hong Kong, like Jet Li, have gone on to have successful careers in Hollywood. Jackie Chan in particular has enjoyed commercial success and cult status, notably in the Rush Hour series in which he played alongside Chris Tucker. The films have also indelibly marked the landscape of the action film, as North American directors who grew up identifying with martial arts films in their youth embraced the conventions and made them their own. Tarantino’s Kill Bill series and the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix trilogy were heavily influenced by the Kung Fu tradition, as was Robert Rodriguez's Desperado (1995) and its 2003 sequel Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

While this success was great for the handful of Chinese actors who went on to have successful careers in the Hollywood movie industry which started to cash in on the subculture, it was bad news for the Hong Kong film industry, which has been on a downward slump since the 90s, failing to compete with the big budget Hollywood imports that are catching the Chinese youth’s attention. One way of combating this is to collaborate with the mainland China film industry as well as Hollywood. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the highest grossing foreign-language film in American history, is one such collaboration. The success of these collaborative efforts has resulted in a sort of ‘blockbuster mentality’ amongst Chinese film-makers. Previously known for their low budget, art-house and politically critical films, the mainland Chinese directors are pandering to the lucrative international market by making big-budget, visually extravagant epics. Zhang Yimou, director of Hero and more recently Curse of the Golden Flower, the most expensive film ever made in China, had previously made small-town social dramas that were lauded for their visual beauty and subtle political critiques. Now his less politically challenging work has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars for two years running. Such a turn-around has made some Chinese film-makers question the integrity of an industry that sacrifices substance for mainstream Hollywood acceptance. Up-and-coming director Jia Zhangke, who specializes in gritty urban dramas, has described the industry as now being “more about money” with film-makers developing the mentality, “if they do something similar to Hollywood, people here will like it.” Feng Xiagong, another director, disagrees with Mr Jia’s polemic, stating that the Chinese film industry is merely evolving: “Movies have changed from a propaganda tool to an art form, and now to a commercial product. If someone continues to make movies according to the old rules, he’ll have no space to live in today’s market.”

The Bollywood Film industry in India has yet to garner the type of success that Chinese films have, but is facing a similar dilemma in relation to its association with Hollywood. In 2002, Ashutosh Gowariker’s hit film Lagaan became the third Bollywood film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, but failed to secure the award. However, this was not for lack of presence in the popular imagination.  The year of Lagaan’s nomination was also the year the musical Bombay Dreams was a hit in the West End, the band Basement Jaxx featured Bollywood dancers in their video for their hit single ‘Romeo,’ and the BBC used Indian dancers in one of their indents aimed at re-branding the corporation. Madonna was wearing Bindis, and Selfridges was transforming its stores into Bollywood movie sets.

While many in the Indian and Western press reported this as a sign of Bollywood’s increasing influence on the world movie industry, the birth of a strong, global brand on par with the big boy Hollywood, the reality was an industry in deep financial trouble in its home country, mobilizing the hype factor to try and woo more lucrative foreign markets. Many recent big budget flops in India have gone on to become hits in the UK and abroad. These foreign markets are also important due to the weakness of the Indian Rupee. While cinemas in the UK can charge up to 15 pounds a ticket for a top producer’s film, the same film in an up-market city in India would rarely sell for more than 2. Despite the fact that the Hindi film industry as we know it is actually 11 years older than Hollywood, producing twice as many films per year with 4 billion more viewers than its American counterpart, it is completely swamped in terms of its financial success. Bollywood’s whole revenue for 2006 was only half of what Walt Disney, a single Hollywood studio, made in the same year. Unlike its older sister, Hollywood has perfected the tried and tested franchise formula, where much of its revenue comes from other sources such as magazines, DVD sales and TV networks. Unlike Hollywood, a recognised industry that can attract finance from banks, Bollywood was only recognized as an industry by the government in 1998, so had, until very recently relied on liquid cash from property traders, jewelry, and the Mumbai underworld. Even the name Bollywood suggests that the industry is a poor relation to Hollywood, and has for this reason been dismissed by the most respected figures in the industry including Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachan.

Where the politics of the underdog attracted non-white audiences in urban locations to Kung Fu films in the 70’s and 80’s, Bollywood’s lack of obvious politics put it to the service of a very different cause. Having banned Hollywood films, the Soviet Union government instead showed Bollywood films primarily due to their portrayal of strong family values and lack of political messages. This, along with the melodramatic storylines, colorful costume changes, and exotically beautiful actors has continued to make it an appealing form of escapist entertainment in many unexpected locations. Indians traveling abroad to countries like Egypt or Russia are often surprised to be greeted with shouts of “Amitabh Bachan” and lines from the latest Bollywood soundtracks.  For this reason, many Indians in the diaspora and at home seem to think Bollywood is a key tool in cultural diplomacy. Many educated young Indians would disagree. While the music, fashion and dance in the films is undeniably attractive to some, most young people are still consistently drawn to the higher production values and more believable characterization of Hollywood films.

The success of Bollywood abroad is empowering for an earlier generation, who boarded planes to England thinking that they would never have rice and daal or chapattis ever again. They have grown up on these films, and can relate to their values much more readily than the generations following them. Well-educated, liberal young Indians at home and abroad are not adequately represented in these films, and neither, for that matter, are the poverty-stricken farmers and illiterate children. In 1999, the respected British Sociologist and Cultural theorist, Professor Stuart Hall, gave a presentation on how black and minority ethnic groups in Britain were re-defining their identities. These groups were living in a space where “traditions co-exist with the emergence of new, hybrid and crossover cultural forms”; furthermore, they are “in touch with their differences, without being saturated by tradition; they are actively involved with every aspect of life around them, without the illusion of assimilation.” His description of this new ‘hybrid’ identity is illuminating in the context of the cultural relevance of generic characterization in Bollywood film, which is only just (and very carefully) starting to realistically tackle issues such as infidelity and divorce, and still finds it difficult to portray sex scenes.

The notion that by being exposed to Bollywood, different communities will understand and respect Indian culture more cannot hope to be a reality if the world and people that the films portray is not a true reflection of that culture or its people. More damagingly, the aggressive marketing of Bollywood’s formulaic and conservative films overshadows regional and art house cinema in India, which addresses social issues that could be powerful tools of advocacy on the very real problems and successes of India. They would also advocate for an intelligent, political, creative Indian population that reflected India’s rich cultural heritage.

Stereotyping cannot be blamed completely on the Bollywood film industry. The idea of it being a tool of cultural diplomacy is one that is imposed and not one that it actively seeks. However, as Bollywood attempts to be taken seriously on the international stage as a serious contender to Hollywood’s film industry, the stereotypes of Indians as exotic, dancing, apolitical, and culturally anachronistic beings threaten to become a stereotype that Bollywood perpetuates and people take for granted. Recent crossover films like Bride and Prejudice’s tagline “Hollywood meets Bollywood . . . and it’s a perfect match” have been a great success with mainstream audiences; however they continue to be considerably below par in quality to their Hollywood counterparts. It is therefore hard to take them and the Indian characters in them very seriously. As commentators predict that India and China will be key leaders in Asia’s substantial economic growth in the next 20 years, the reality is that the populations of both countries should be taking themselves and their images very seriously. This means recognizing the value of their cultural products as an asset and not a compromise. As interest in both countries grows, their respective film industries could, at their best, be powerful tools of cultural diplomacy, or at their worst, nothing more than a modern day minstrel show.

1st October 2007
The rise of Asian Cinema
By Jemma Desai