The documentary Beyond Bollywood provides a brief look at the lives of people who help make the film industry run. Pooja is a backup dancer who aspires to more. Harry is a white Australian who is not quite sure why he’s in film. Premji leads a workers’ union and fights for their rights. And Ojas is a veteran make-up artist.
The doc is not comprehensive, and feels like a “week in the life of.” Still, these are rarely heard voices, and a reminder of how much Bollywood (and any film industry) (and any industry) relies on the labor of marginalized people.
Pooja has been dancing for her entire life, although apparently doesn’t have any formal training. She idolizes Madhuri Dixit. Her dancing supports her family, and in turn, her family supports her. She gushes about her supportive boyfriend, but he comments how she is too skinny now, and how he wishes she didn’t wear such skimpy clothes, and because of his caste, he won’t marry her. Well, most of us dated not-so-good people in our early 20s.
Despite her skill, she is passed over for a lead position for a foreigner, a white woman. Pooja explains foreign women are in demand because they will wear skimpy clothing. (One of Ojas’s scenes shows a “modern Indian woman” played by a Brazilian.) Later, we watch her film an item number. The director keeps telling her not to cover her body. Between takes, a man applies something (lotion? oil? glue?) to her breasts. The potential for exploitation is obvious.
Harry explains that he originally came to Mumbai to visit, but was invited to be in a movie on his first day. White actors are needed as extras for scenes set in Switzerland, and of course he is often cast as an evil British man. At first, he is excited and talks about wanting to become a star, but by the end of the documentary, he is heading home to Australia. Of course, he has a choice that the other people in the doc do not. Still, I’ve always wondered about white actors in Bollywood movies, and now I know more about how and why they are cast.
Premji is concerned about workers’ rights, and that they are paid fairly. In contrast, his son complains about their poverty, and how they would be better of if his father took bribes. Premiji is passionate and sincere, and the film closes with a fiery speech he gives to production staff members. They were all men, as were most of the people in the doc.
Ojas has been in the industry for many years. People refer to Ojas with both male and female pronouns, and it’s not clear from the doc whether Ojas is nonbinary or transgender. Ojas’s facebook page uses “he,” so I will use that. He is proud of his work, and the wealth it has brought him. He is funny and loves to joke with his clients, and plays up both his work and his clients’ natural beauty. He has a supportive home life, with loving parents and sister. He explains that the oldest son has a lot of responsibility, and he has tried to fulfill that.
The doc doesn’t really focus on the struggles Ojas has faced, especially with his unconventional appearance. The arts, of course, have long provided a refuge for unconventional people. As the doc closes, though, Ojas reflects that now it is easier for gay people, how they can be, are, and have been out. Obviously the last 20 years have been difficult for Ojas. Still, it is thanks to his determination that other gay artists, actors, and people can be true to themselves.
Going in to a documentary like this, you assume it’s going to be “it’s not all glitz and glamor, here’s the seedy underbelly of the film industry.” So yes, this documentary is that to an extent. It doesn’t end with Pooja or Harry finding stardom, or Premji achieving a huge win for workers. But at the same time, it’s a reminder of the hard work that goes in to any activity. A person doesn’t suddenly become a star, they must work their way up. And even if they are well-established, they must keep working hard.
While the doc doesn’t go into details about feminism, LGBT rights, workers’ rights, or colonialism, all of those issues are on display. We can see the difficulties women and LGBT people face, how difficult it is to change the system. The push and pull of Western culture. How these struggles play out for normal families. And while the “follow your dreams” message is inspirational, seeing the love and support of the various families was the best part of the documentary.