x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ignorance is bliss for US director of Bollywood film

Making a documentary on Indian cinema, the producers turned to American filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist, best known for his excellent 2010 documentary The Two Escobars.

It seems odd that when making a documentary about Indian cinema called Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Never Told, the producers would call on the services of a filmmaker who, by his own admission, knows nothing about Bollywood. Yet that's exactly what happened to the American Jeff Zimbalist, best known for his excellent 2010 documentary The Two Escobars.

Indeed, the director who looks and sounds like the Fulham footballer Clint Dempsey, admits: "I had not been a fan of Bollywood!"

Strangely, Zimbalist seemed to be exactly the type of person that the producer Shekhar Kapur was looking for. He needed a filmmaker best known for his proficiency at editing to work alongside the Indian director Raykeysh Omprakash Mehra.

Zimbalist explains: "I had been to India a lot and had worked on a couple of projects in India, but I never worked for a studio or in the Bollywood industry before. But that was why, that was part of the vision, to get an accomplished Indian director and partner him with a director that really didn't know much and then collaborate and improvise."

The natural instinct of the director was to try to learn everything he could about Bollywood, but all of his collaborators were insisting that ignorance was bliss. "Raykeysh said: 'We're intentionally sending you into the cave without a lantern so that you can go into that editing room and your direct experience of these scenes has no baggage and no context, that way you will make choices with what you think the world will respond to, who don't know Bollywood, rather than what's famous or what you have an emotional connection to or a nostalgic connection with'."

And so the film was born. The result is a movie made up of some of the best song and dance numbers seen in Hindi cinema over the years.

The film was finished quickly so it could play at Cannes, where it was first shown on the beach during last year's festival. The Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux wanted more films from India to be present at the festival and so the filmmakers worked around the clock to make the May deadline, a process alien to Zimbalist, who usually works on a film until he feels it's perfect and only then feels ready to show it. The film has changed a lot since its Cannes world premiere.

The version that showed at the Doha Film Festival in October is the latest, as Zimbalist explains. "The Cannes cut was more of an experimental version. It didn't have any interviews until the very end of the film and this version is shorter and it has more context, yet it's still very slim on analysis and I won't call it a traditional documentary."

The team conducted a lot of interviews, but most of these have been pulled from the cinema version and will appear on DVD. Nevertheless, the process of interviewing and chatting to stars was invaluable for the director. "What is interesting to me, and this is very abstract, is that someone like Amitabh Bachchan has been able to travel the world and understand his role in cinema, in a bigger macro, more philosophical perspective, whereas someone like Katrina Kaif who just basically got imported to become a star is very new to it all and is seeing it from the inside out."

What's refreshing and unusual about Zimbalist is he doesn't toe the party line and say the experience has made him fall in love with Bollywood. "I still don't watch Bollywood films from beginning to end," he says. "Because I'm still really uncomfortable with my subconscious expectations to have that three-act structure. The set pieces, the music, the song, the movement, the choreography have stuck with me since working on the project, it's more powerful than even songs from my childhood, so there is something very impressive and fascinating about the cinema.

"But the storytelling, I'm still uncomfortable with the format. I think it'll take a long time to unlearn, deconstruct and recondition myself to be able to watch a masala feature like that."

Although he does admit that of the films he's seen, the "angry young man" period that epitomised Bachchan in the 1970s is his favourite.

Previous to this documentary, Zimbalist had made all of his other major films in Latin America as well as doing some humanitarian documentaries with his brother in India and Africa. All of the films have been made outside America. That's likely to continue into the near future: he has two nascent projects set in Asia and is attached to direct a film on Brazil's favelas.