Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why do Indian movie actors overact?

Why do Indian movie actors overact?

I ask myself this question hundreds of times and simply can’t find a good answer!
What is even more amazing is the fact that millions of Indians (and other countries citizens too!) appreciate the acting (and costumes, direction, story, script, etc) too and watch these movies, wasting precious time!

My list of reasons for overacting and acceptance by the audience:

I read in an article, that when India gained freedom from the British, there was a lot of poverty and starvation in India among the masses. The Indian movies, with story lines from Mythology, over-the top acting, dozens of songs and dances, provided these starving masses, an escape from their daily misery for three hours. And the tradition of providing fantasy and escaping into this fantasy by the people has continued to this day.

Another reason could be something as simple as, ‘Indian actors, i.e. 99% of them, lack the capacity to act, lack the training, the motivation to better their skills’. The few who do act well in my opinion include Nasseruddin Shan, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi,  late Smitha Patel (I did think Smitha overacted and seemed histrionic in a movie). The guys and gals who do lead roles over-act especially in the main stream cinema. Whether they overact by choice or simply lack the skills to act well, I cannot comment. But it drives me crazy to see the awards going to relatively mediocre or downright bad actors, year after year.

Another reason maybe that the Indian audience, seems to desire or value over-acting as good acting. Indians as I have observed, do not like anything to be subtle or understated. Everything in life has to be over-the-top for them to think of it as good or desirable. The clothes they like are colourful and bright/gaudy, not subtle ; our foods are spicy and rich, not lightly flavoured; we want to have an excess of everything good …be it food, clothes, wealth, whatever. In order to be accepted by the Indian audience, the movie-makers may ask the actors to ham it a bit I think. Before you start saying that I am against Indians, let me tell you I am 100% Indian and this has nothing to do with racism! We Indians are thin skinned, cannot stand criticism and make tall claims about our minimal abilities. 
If the Indian actor is subtle, I think the director thinks that the audience will not ‘get it’; hence maybe the actor is directed to shout instead of talk; the actress is asked to wail profusely instead of sob softly…I think the director thinks, that the audience will be moved only if the actress wails loudly, beating her chest and flapping her arms around; that the audience will remain unmoved if she does not demonstrate how sad she is! That reminds me of the differences in villagers and city folks in some respects. 
If you have visited villages, you may see the same filmy behaviours in the event of death or some dramatic event. I remember when my uncle died, the women, who hardly knew him, came to the room where the corpse was kept and wailed loudly for ages! However the grief was less demonstrated when my aunt in the city expired. The grief expressed was more dignified and restrained, even by those who were truly depressed by the death and even those from the village. But why do city folks (who are more sophisticated) also admire the not-at-all-subtle, over-acting of the Indian actors, is a mystery to me. 
In south India, at least in the Kannada movies, I have observed that many actors have never studied acting. They are in movies through sheer nepotism. Sons of actors, sons of politicians, sons of rich businessmen, become actors, with little or no training. How can one expect them to have any skills at all? Some actors are given lead roles, probably due to the arm-twisting tactics they adopt. As widely gossiped about, many actors are criminals themselves, or related to criminals and get into the movie-business through use of brute force and threats. However there is little or no mention of these facts in magazines and newspapers, perhaps due to fear of reprisals. The obsequious behaviour of journalists (and fans and almost all people who meet film stars) towards these film stars is enough to make anyone puke!

The directors and film producers know many Indians have cinema as the only or main form of entertainment and will see a movie, even if it is badly made. I don’t know about recent times, but when I was a kid, 30 years ago, there was not much other affordable entertainment for the poor, middle class, the rural and even the rich people in smaller towns and villages. Everyone could afford to see a movie however poor and would see movies, at least once a month or more. I know of several ‘movie addicts’ who would see all movies in which a favourite star of theirs had acted, would see the same movie over and over again, would want to see the movie, on the first day at the very first show, and so on. Most people I know were not over-critical and would be happy with a movie, however bad it was so long as it had a few songs, fights, romance and actresses in racy dresses. 99% of Indian movies have all these elements and as Indian audiences are not finicky but easily satisfied, the movie-makers get away with mediocre stuff. I would see a movie a month or two if I was lucky. There was no television of course and not many story books to read. So the only fun activities were the games we played on the roads till it became dark and the film songs on radio and the movie, once a month. I remember sitting for hours in front of my text books, recalling and fantasizing the latest movie I had seen, putting myself in the hero’s role, making changes to the story-line in my head ( I was braver and stronger !). These daydreams gave me endless hours of pleasure no doubt, but also lead to poor scores in my exams!
Now that I have access to better (I mean western i.e. American, British and a few Canadian and other countries) movies and television serials, books, the internet, other hobbies and interests and I find Indian movies a colossal waste of time. I have recently borrowed the DVDs of the movies of the 70s which I enjoyed but now I simply can’t sit through them! They seem so utterly slow and banal, I can’t imagine, how I enjoyed them so much, in those days. Is it that I had no access to better movies and so I enjoyed them? Or did I like them as my taste was the kind which enjoyed overacting and sub-standard movies when I was kid?

I know that quite a few actors are not paid at all or are grossly underpaid. I know of at least 6 people, who were ready to act for free in movies or television series. I know of two guys who were borderline mentally ill, so great was their desire to act in movies. They were ready to do anything to get into movies, were ready to act without payment if they got a role and wasted years and years of their lives, trying to get into movies. So, I do know that many directors and producers have these insane men and women begging them for roles and I am sure they are hired, simply as they are cheap or free. The directors I am sure are not too worried about their lack of skills, as these men come free.
This could be another reason for poor acting in Indian movies.

Another reason I can think as to why, we Indians liking this brand of overacting is that it may be having a cathartic effect on us. We get to see these exaggerated stories and acting and it feels good to weep and suffer the agony (albeit vicariously!) of the hero or heroine. I remember my grandmother who loved the melodrama and the extreme sufferings of the heroines and say how she suffered in the same way at the hands of her in-laws family, her enemies and so on. 

I also think that since we are so used to seeing this stuff, since childhood, we are sort of brain-washed into appreciating this type of over-the-top acting and exaggerated story-lines. But once again, what amazes me today is the fact that today’s generation have seen better movies, acting and TV serials from the west, with more realistic acting …yet they seem to enjoy and appreciate and value the Indian actor’s sub-standard acting. I am referring to intelligent, educated, cinema-literate people…by cinema literate I mean that they have seen good movies from the west. When I comment about the over-acting, these friends vehemently deny any over-acting and jump on me. How can they miss the exaggerated expressions on the actor’s faces, the slow and over-emphatic dialogue delivery, the repetitions (three times) of some actions and words…
I do not know how to argue with these blind fans. Some of the movies my friends have forced me to see as they are ‘good with great, superb, fantastic acting’ are Lagan, My name is Khan and others.
The situation is not going to get better unless the Indian movies improve or the fans become more discerning. Yet, the reality today seems to be that of Indian movies gaining popularity all over the world! I have friends from the Caribbean, from Egypt and other Gulf countries, from USA & Canada, who adore Indian movies! While I cringe with embarrassment about my country’s movies, these people tell me how much they enjoy Indian movies. The guy from Egypt told me how he sits in a theatre and watches 2-3 movies in one day! The friends from Caribbean know a lot more about Indian movie stars than I do! They do admit that the acting is over the top but don’t seem to mind it.

I still have not figured out the answers to this mystery…why do people appreciate Indian movies with their unreal stories, over the top acting and bizarre costumes.
Is it that the actor genuinely does not know he is overacting and thinks he is acting well?
Is it that the actor knows, but will not admit to others i.e. in public?
Is it that the fans have the type of taste which finds this type of acting “good”?
Is it that the fans are blind?
Is it that the fans know that the acting, etc is bad but will not admit, due to sheer ?stubbornness, pride, some kind of a misguided  patriotism or sense of loyalty?

Or am I crazy and the truth is that acting in Indian movies is actually good???

Maybe Sudhir Kakar, the famous psychoanalyst from India should be asked to give his analysis. I do know he has written a book about Indian movies or at least devoted some of his writing to Indian movies. But I wonder if anyone has the balls to write the truth about Indian movies and acting in India. When I read the newspaper articles about the review of new movies released, I see that, for the regional films at least like Kannada, Telugu, etc, no one dares to openly criticise the acting of the lead stars even if it is mediocre but write gushing odes to their acting abilities. As I mentioned before, Indians are thin-skinned and cannot tolerate criticism. I do not know if this applies to all of us or only a few. I do know that when someone published a book about Shivaji (The Maratha chieftan)in UK, there were violent protests in Bombay; when a journalist criticised a Kannada actor, he was attacked physically. Whether criticism of the film star makes the fans go berserk and violent or if the violence is part of a ‘campaign’ by the film stars or their associates or by politicians, one never knows. 

What I do know is that, in India, you need balls to criticise the rich and the famous
……if you have the balls and speak up, your balls get cut off…
….then you don’t have any balls left, so to speak…
….so in order to keep your balls intact, you don’t speak up …
…but if you don’t speak up, then it indicates you do not have the balls (even if, technically speaking, you do have them!)

Right now, in my 40s, I have reached a stage, where I have become so finicky that I find most Holly Wood movies too are  unreal, the acting crass and hardly one movie a year, is worth seeing. The stories seem pretty repetitive, predictable and the acting is not spontaneous, is quite repetitive. There seem to be very few (you can count them on the fingers of one hand) actors who are truly versatile. Most actors seem to do the same type of acting in all the movies or have the same personality types. Is it that, when one experiences something good like a movie, somehow the threshold changes and one wants the next one to be even better and then it reaches a stage when it is impossible to deliver what satisfies?


Anonymous said...

Did you ever consider why the so-called "underacting" has become a norm of good acting in the west? It has its historical roots in the advent of modernity and the church (which disliked drama in any form in the middle ages). There is nothing like one standard of acting. Indian actors overact for western and westernized Indians. Why is that worse than the western form of acting? Its just another form to be enjoyed. Look at the japanese films of yore - even the Kurusawa ones and you will find evidence of so called over-acting.

Indian Curry said...

Response to the November 22nd, 2011 comment:
yep. yep. yep.

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