Tuesday, September 19

To Give Us New Colors to See

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How La La Land reclaims the much-derided beauty of Bollywood.

Damien Chazelle’s new movie-cum-musical La La Land is a love story for our present moment, one that animates all the romance of a long-lost era, with none of the sap or sugariness. It’s an uncomplicated love story set in 21st-century L.A. The boy-meets-girl arc, which drives much of the action, is straightforward. We aren’t plodding around amidst unnecessary plot distractions. Moreover, La La Land offers us the promise that, rather than falling in love, love can lift us up. This is the film’s power.

But more than that, La La Land helps us understand the heavy, and formulaic use of musicals throughout Bollywood’s history in a new light, or with new colors.

The standards we place on Bollywood films, the pressures we expect those romances to conform to, are unfair. The cinematic model — a relatively uncomplicated love story, up against the thwarting of society’s wishes and often lapsing into another-worldly theatricality — has worked for almost a century (the first Hindi musical Alam Ara debuted in 1931). But I know plenty of people who consistently saw songs in a Bollywood film as chances for a bathroom-break, or even as an invitation to fast forward their VHS tape.

Bollywood is mocked for its farfetched, unrealistic depictions of the world. Films are derided for their saccharine expressions of romance, performances that have no place in today’s linear modes of storytelling. It’s true many films suffer from a lack of editing and follow circuitous storylines, and many rely too heavily on the gushy and the overly sentimental to get us to feel something. But on what grounds has the industry ever been accountable to an expectation that it must portray accurate representations of the world? This demand that we’ve placed on these films entirely realist.

Musical as an art form does some stuff that we can take seriously. That’s why La La Land’s release this month, along with its effectiveness at a craft level, helps us see what’s worth salvaging from Bollywood.

La La Land’s protagonists, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), are nostalgists, but neither drowns in melancholy. Mia dreams of becoming a famous Hollywood actress, and Sebastian is pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz bar. Each character stumbles in the pitfalls of longing for a bygone era — she, for golden cinema’s masterpieces like Casablanca, he, for the time of jazz when Miles Davis reigned — but none of their nostalgia is affected or unbelievable.

As a feeling, nostalgia consistently moves beyond its original meaning of “homesickness” in order to revitalize an idea from the past that has slipped away from us…

Here’s why: Chazelle lets all this wistful-laden content breathe within the form of a musical.

La La Land, like Hollywood’s many musicals that came before it and that it references, features lavish Technicolor scenes and their scores are elevated with the coordination of a full orchestra. These scenes play between the levels of cosmos (moonlit skies and sumptuous backdrops) and underground (shadowy, moody spot-lit bars). I’m not saying that Stone and Gosling’s effervescent love would be implausible any other way, but the musical as a form lends depth and understanding to the unique colors of their love.

Director Mira Nair includes a beautiful couplet in her film Monsoon Wedding (not typically regarded as Bollywood), which is worth quoting here: “Only brave warriors fall off their horses in battle. How can kneeling cowards know what a fall is?”

Stone and Gosling, rising together in a choreographed waltz scene at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory, show us how not to lapse into a fantasy-world or fall in love. For the romances that characterize much of Bollywood’s output, the rising arc of these stories follows an uplifting sweep. Soaring and alluring song-and-dance numbers articulate a burgeoning love, where music heightens the emotions and does what words often fail to do.

Songs have a long history in Indian performance, dating back beyond the heyday of Bollywood. An ancient Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, the Naṭya Shastra, catalogues the forms of dramatic, dance, and musical traditions in India, while also putting forth a theory of aesthetics. It theorizes that all art forms should inspire some combination of rasas, literally “flavors,” in the viewer such that they are not only entertained, but also transported to another reality. Musicals therefore become a mode of not only spectatorship but also of illuminating deeper truths.

Bollywood isn’t only a distraction from daily life, but also a way of living.

Beginning in the 1930s, a long line of South Asian directors looked to Hollywood to learn about craft and technique, and the musical skein still maintains a place in Bollywood today despite the fact that bold, operatic masterpieces like A Star Is Born (1937) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) have fallen out of fashion in the U.S. So what’s worth holding onto in a backward-glance toward a style of storytelling that we’ve since done away with? And why do the romances of Bollywood still hold onto the musical as a mode of storytelling?

Nostalgia, that’s why.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It’s always a claim, sometimes even a cry, to recuperate and articulates a loss we didn’t know we felt about our world today. As a feeling, nostalgia consistently moves beyond its original meaning of “homesickness” in order to revitalize an idea from the past that has slipped away from us or that humanity has destroyed. Nostalgia’s use in popular culture (“Those were the days”), even in political rhetoric (“Make America great again”), activates a backward glance in order to bring a shred of the past forward, in order to tinge the colors with which we see our present.

The melancholic makes for a good nostalgist, but often a bad narrator. This is why so many Bollywood are laughable beyond enjoyment. In Chazelle, however, we have a treatment of the golden age of Hollywood cinema, doubled with the heydey of an exuberant jazz movement, that successfully brings forward all the beautiful wistfulness of longing and melancholy.

Nostalgia is also a rejection of the present. That means the aesthetic forms nostalgia suffuses, like musicals or Hindi cinema, can be political. Sebastian’s ambition to preserve “pure jazz” refuses to acknowledge how fading art forms have to evolve and adapt to fit new eras and live on in new futures. He knows that jazz is “dying on the vine, and the world says let it die, it had its time.” But Sebastian doesn’t have an answer when his friend confronts him on this age-old paradox: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

That makes musicals a queer form — and even Hindi romances, to an extent. As aesthetic forms, they suggest, not only a dream-like state but also a hypothetical utopia. They open, as the theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes, to a horizon of possibility. Musicals afford a space in which we can become something else. In our uncertain times, the musical queers what we think we know about our lives. Longing offers us the opportunity to think about the potential for change. Since our present moment isn’t enough, our future can be better, more vivid, more bearable.

Bollywood isn’t only a distraction from daily life, but also a way of living. Do South Asians, or even diaspora audiences, want to be confronted with the harsh conditions of everyday life — rampant corruption, inescapable poverty, or crushing patriarchal structures? Media in the form of musical becomes another mode of engagement and a means through which they can perhaps fantasize but more hopefully, rise up and grow within a narrative. Notice how I didn’t say they “lose themselves” in a movie, because this idea is worth leaving behind, critically speaking.

Sebastian plays a refrain of fewer than ten notes in the film with twinkling piano keys. This tune appears at critical moments in the story, such that the use of words would be unnecessary. With each time the refrain plays in La La Land — or in a Karan Johar film — our minds are attuned to the film’s deeper mood. Each time we hear those notes, it sounds the same, and also shifts our perception of the narrative ever so slightly as conflict unfolds and emotions deepen.

This is sort of how Bollywood’s romances work. They obey a particular formula and follow a prescription for decades-long success, but with each of, say, director Yash Chopra’s treatments, the recipe takes on a new flavor. Ragas work this way, too — each of them respects a unique structural logic, but musicians improvise the details such that audiences are always surprised, yet never deceived.

Madness that’s not destructive, but that instead activates our creative energies, is at the heart of the nostalgia that La La Land seeks to recuperate. Stone delivers a heart-rending performance during the audition that will jumpstart her career as an actress, a dedication to all the madmen and the dreamers:

A bit of madness is key / to give us new color to see

Who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us

So bring on the rebels / The roles from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools who dream / Crazy, as they may seem

Satyajit Ray’s protagonist in Jalsaghar (1958), a landlord longing for a past steeped in classical music, Guru Dutt’s role as a forgotten director in Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), and even Ranbir Kapoor’s character in last year’s film Tamasha, who aspires to become a storyteller, all suggest the potential in madness and melancholy. The musical form lends itself beautifully to expressing these characters’ struggles and anxieties, since our own lexicons for understanding madness are often lacking.

But this is also the transcendent quality of musicals that directors strive to achieve when they design these films — a sort-of Janus-faced looking that takes us out of the present and suspends us in a la la land. Aesthetic purity, romantic innocence, and “gutsy and purposeful” authenticity almost seem gone from us, forever. As Karanjeet Kaur notes, they don’t make movies like La La Land anymore — or even “love like this anymore.” But by letting the magic of musicals lift us up, we discover the pleasure, just for a moment, of letting go.

At end, however, the central importance of songs in Bollywood films is waning. I think of today’s item numbers in the way that romantic classics from ’90s films used to linger in my childhood memory. Those songs’ iconic role is fading. All that visual and emotional excess is getting trimmed off, left forgotten on the cutting-room floor, or never shot at all. Om Shanti Om (2007), Farah Khan’s over-the-top parody of Bollywood romance, strived to recuperate all that superfluity. We can only wonder whether South Asian directors today possess the technical deftness and aesthetic vision to reanimate a golden age of Bollywood cinema, as Chazelle has done with La La Land — without any of the inconvenient and annoying sentimentality.

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