One thing I can’t get my head around in Bollywood films is all that swapping between Hindi and English. Breaking into English seems to happen for a few reasons: speaking to English people; indicating social class; characters giving it a bit of attitude; for gratuitous dramatic emphasis. The last three apply in the preppy new comedy Student of the Year (SOTY), about the lengths ridiculously chiselled students go to get ahead at the ridiculously chipper St Theresa’s high school, where English is obviously part of the heritage. But one usage in the film stands out: the title.
Having an English title is a sign that a film has aspirations. I’m always amazed that so few Bollywood films translate their titles when they’re distributed abroad — this tiny, simple tweak could do so much to extend their reach beyond Hindi speakers. The studios bother to subtitle their films for export — presumably for second-generation immigrants and curious foreigners — so why not extend the effort to some of the overall marketing as well? SOTY is a typical 21st-century Bollywood blockbuster, its weave from the same garish MTV-borrowed pattern that is part of youth culture everywhere now. The title seems like a good place to advertise that.
But barely any take that first step. A weird resignation has settled that non-Indian audiences aren’t fundamentally interested: in Britain at least, Bollywood films are rarely screened to the mainstream press, so they don’t get reviewed much. Critic Peter Bradshaw informs me that dominant distributor Eros International stopped press screening several years ago because film prints often arrive in Britain almost on the day of release. Of course, the 25 million-strong worldwide Indian diaspora is the priority. Every article I’ve written about Bollywood draws comments on how its cinema is too culturally alien to appeal to anyone else. But that gap will never be bridged in the West. I’m convinced the crossover market is there, with today’s audiences more ethnically mixed. Subtitles aren’t the dealbreaker they once were: 49 such films crossed the £1m mark in Britain in the noughties, where that figure was nine in the 90s.
After all, it’s the big Indian players who have talked in recent years about the way forward for Bollywood: that it needs to turn its attention to the global mainstream, and Hollywood’s stranglehold over it. There have been the occasional mild breakouts, such as 3 Idiots ($72m worldwide) and My Name Is Khan ($42m).
But it strikes me that, just by marketing its regular output more directly, Bollywood could quietly achieve much higher visibility day-by-day. Even with the 150-minute runtime, the irrepressible urge for manufactured song-and-dance, the full pony-show, SOTY still has a basic daffy exuberance that, with a Hollywood-scale marketing budget, can cross cultural boundaries: the Indian Glee, maybe? That kind of marketplace muscle is all Bollywood’s globally streamlined breed is lacking now: last year’s Goa crime thriller Dum Maaro Dum, and this year’s Kahaani were as multiplex-ready as anything from Hollywood.
There’s still the matter of the titles, of course. I can understand why Bollywood is reluctant to translate: it might dilute the impact of its existing marketing and alienate the Hindi-speaking faithful. But, set against the talk of becoming a global operator, that shows the true, half-metamorphosed state of where the Indian industry is now. Perhaps it needs to follow the plot of another recent release, English Vinglish, whose laddoo-making Maharashtra housewife decides, because of the mockery of her family, that it’s time to take English classes. Unfortunately, first impressions do still count.