Among the films that were up for the Best Picture Oscar this year, none had been as critically acclaimed as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was a foregone conclusion that it would win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and the only question was whether it would get the Big One too. Well, it did not, but it did very creditably, winning four statuettes in all.
I watched cthd the night before the Oscars. And this is what I felt: It's a Hindi film. (Before you chuck the rotten tomatoes, let me say that I love Hindi films. And when I say Hindi films, I mean a particular sensibility, the film could well be in Tamil.) And, other than superb special effects, cthd is not a great Hindi film either: good, not great. No great Hindi film allows its pace to flag between the action sequences with vague philosophical conversations.
But in most aspects, cthd follows the grand Hindi film tradition. Like a cheerful disdain for plot logic. Characters appear at the right place at the right time when they had no way of knowing the address. Jen loses her fight with a desert bandit. But she has been learning the mysterious Wu Dan martial arts from Jade Fox since she was 10. So how come she gets clobbered by a mere bandit? Answer: how else will you get the love story going between the two? When Mu Bai gets a poison dart in his neck, Jen has to get the antidote asap. But instead of flying, walking on water and jumping over houses (all of which she can do at will), she runs. All Hindi film buffs will recognise this convenient amnesia that leads to desired emotional climaxes.
But, judging from the ecstatic US reviews of cthd ("High art meets high spirits in a rapturously romantic epic" (Time); "A waking dream of truly operatic dimensions" (film.com)), one gets the sense that Western critics, who would have villified a Brian de Palma film if such things happened there, think: hey, this is the mystical Orient, this is about guys who are deep into zen and nirvana, it's mystical uber-truths in the meta-real awakened mind...
In fact, it's simply the Asian story-telling tradition which has peaked in Hindi, Tamil and Hong Kong films, where the rules are simple: screw plot details and continuity as long as you can have a string of scenes where people declaim enthusiastically against one another (in Hindi films, this is called "dialaag") or beat one another up. Manmohan Desai once said that his films were fundamentally a collection of "items". In the same way, cthd is a series of stunning action sequences stuck together with makeshift logic.
What cthd has, which Indian films don't, is access to the latest technology (the film's visual effects team is imported from Hollywood). People jumping up four storeys? Hindi film heroes have been doing this for decades, it's just that we don't have the technology (or the money) to make it look so dazzling. And when Lee's characters defy gravity and fight in mid-air, the Western audience (and the westernised Indian) thinks this is some magical high art. But any Hindi film buff can tell that it's no such thing: the director makes his characters fly because he wants to create a grand fantasy for his audience. As Manmohan Desai said: "I tell my scriptwriters: have men on horseback chasing one another on roofs of skyscrapers, who gives a damn how they got there?"
This Western response to Asian directors is not new. John Woo, who spent years making Hong Kong films with flying heroes and inexhaustible revolvers, is currently making them on a bigger and technologically more advanced scale in Hollywood and Western critics constantly call him "the master" etc. (Anyone who has enjoyed Woo's Face/Off with its preposterous Hindi film plot should never utter a word about the implausibility of a Rakesh Roshan film.) In Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur unabashedly made a Hindi film, with crescendos every five minutes, zero regard for facts, and overwrought photography. And Western critics thought it was pushing the envelope of fictive tonalities, or some such thing.
Some years ago, David Lynch's Wild At Heart won the Golden Palm at Cannes. A B-grade Hindi film, its hero and heroine even had a theme song for their love (Elvis' Love Me Tender); the movie ends with Nicholas Cage crawling up to Laura Dern singing this song, and the two going into a tearful clinch. Any Hindi film buff would have laughed David Lynch off the screen (at least Woo and Lee and Kapur can make great Hindi films). And the man gets the Golden Palm!
Imagine Subhash Ghai or Mani Ratnam with the money and technology that the Hollywood system offers. For the Western audiences, deprived of the high melodrama that Hollywood dished out in the 1930s and '40s (Grand Hotel, Gone With The Wind), it'll be like the opening up of a whole new fantastical world! We see the signs everywhere: Time going ga-ga over Iruvar, Aditya Chopra films running to packed houses in New Jersey, and now, the success of Crouching Tiger in the US. And Crouching was not even among the top five grossers last year in Hong Kong.
For the Hong Kong audience, it was just another flying-fighters film. For Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, "Crouching Tiger's blend of the magical, the mythical and the romantic fills a need in us we might not even realise we had." He needs to see Amar Akbar Anthony.
This article appeared on the web as A Hindi Film Wins An Oscar