In Praise of Bollywood on Netflix

After you’ve watched season three of House of Cards, then what? You’ve already seen most of the big or good movies on Netflix, and watching their other movies is mostly an exercise in “This could have been okay with a rewrite or if the entire cast and crew had decided to make an entirely different movie.” And binge-watching old TV series makes me feel as if I’m not milking Netflix for maximum value.

Let me suggest trying some of Netflix’s selection of Bollywood movies. I’ve recently watched a bunch of these, and at the very least, they’re more compelling than some Nicholas Cage-paying-off-his-debt-to-the-IRS medieval action flick.

The Indian film industry grosses about a quarter of what the US film industry does, in a country where average income is a tenth of US average income. Which is to say, the Indian film industry isn’t just dicking around. Movies are a big deal in India, and their production values are high.

India has four times the population of the US, and out of that huge population, there are some really good-looking performers with awesome hair. In the dance numbers, the stars are blasted with wind machines for maximum hair action. Plots and dialogue can sometimes seem a little elementary, perhaps to appeal to the widest-possible swath of India’s huge population, but the average Indian film on Netflix is no more dumbed-down than the average American film.

Indian films on Netflix are in Hindi, with subtitles. But about a third of the dialogue is in English, switching back and forth from Hindi sometimes several times in a single sentence. It seems as if everyone in India is wildly bilingual. Makes you feel as if you almost understand Hindi (you don’t). The liberal sprinkling of English means you don’t have to pay as much attention to the subtitles as in most foreign movies.

The movies are long. Some run two-and-a-half hours – perfect for multitasking. Many of Netflix’s Indian movies are from Yash Raj Films, India’s largest film production company. Its productions are slick, expensive, and entertaining. Yash Raj films I’ve liked include Daawat-e-Ishq, Mardaani, Bewakoofiyaan, Band Baaja Baaraat, Dhoom 3, Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.

A few observations based on Indian movies –
Walk-through metal detectors in public spaces are common, because of terrorists, I guess.
People ride motorcycles and scooters as regular transportation, rather than as some lifestyle statement, often riding double. (India has nearly 200,000 traffic deaths per year.)
Wealth, poverty and corruption are constantly lurking subtexts.
In Indian cop movies, the police are brutal.
Weddings are a big deal.
The India we sometimes see in American movies – crowded and dirt-poor, with skinny cows wandering everyplace – is not Indian movies’ India, which can be spacious, modern, and educated – a country which could eventually challenge us as a world superpower if we don’t get off our complacent, science-denying butts.

Also – if you haven’t yet watched BoJack Horseman on Netflix, c’mon already – it’s a little slice of dysfunctional Hollywood heaven.