Bollywood violence is not escapist fare in South Africa

Jan 17, 2006 Fakir Hassen

Johannesburg, Jan 18 (IANS) South Africans are alarmed about the increasing violence in Bollywood films screened here. But Bollywood sleaze seems to go down well with them.

Amitabh Bachchan starrer "Family", which released over the weekend, was criticised by the South African media and commentators for its gruesome scenes, one in particular being where the stitches on a convalescing man are visibly ripped open, post operation.

"The greater concern about violence here is because South Africans have to live with violence such as murder, rape and hijackings in their daily lives, while acceptability is more in India because of the fairly safe environment they live in, causing them to see the police brutality and other violence in films as escapist entertainment," said Bashan Govindarajalu, product manager for Bollywood films at the country's largest cinema chain, Ster-Kinekor.

Ster-Kinekor started a Bollywood circuit about four years ago.

Gone are the days when the audience laughed at fight scenes where the hero could be seen throwing his punches and fake blood was obviously used. Today, trends have changed with new directors and producers, many trained in the West, use stuntmen and computer-generated scenes for a realistic effect of blood and gore.

"The violence in Bollywood films most certainly impacts the box office. Over two- thirds of the audience who vouch for family-oriented films such as 'Baghban' or 'Kal Ho Naa Ho' will shy away from films that have anything more than a PG (parental guidance) rating from the South African Film and Publications Board (FPB).

"Even the presence of a popular actor like Salman Khan in the film 'Garv' could not save it at the box office after it got a classification of 16 because of the violence in it," Govindarajalu added.

Mark Harris, Bollywood product manager at the second largest cinema group, Numetro, which in recent months has screened a new Bollywood movie almost every weekend, concurred.

"A superb production like 'Sarkar', featuring screen legend Amitabh Bachhan as a godfather, delivered ordinary returns because audiences shunned it after it was rated as 16 for the violence in it."

According to him, while trends in Indian cinema were changing, South African audiences were becoming more discerning as their awareness increased around these changes.

"They now make more enquiries before buying their tickets, because of their children."

Interestingly, the sleaze factor in Bollywood evokes the opposite response from South Africans.

In India, youth who earlier flocked to cinemas to catch mainstream actresses like Mallika Sherawat are now rejecting such films. The most recent examples are "Neal 'n' Nikki" and "Jawani Deewani", which flopped at the box office in India.

But "Neal 'n' Nikki" did "fantastically well" in South Africa, where it got a PG rating from the FPB, said Harris.

"Perhaps this greater acceptability is due to the more cosmopolitan influence on South African audiences and their exposure to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles," he said.

A.B. Moosa, director of CineCentre at the Suncoast in Durban, which has probably been attracting the greatest number of Bollywood fans in South Africa since its opening three years ago, said he was concerned that the wrong message could be going out to the youth.

"This is in terms of the richness of the Indian cultural heritage and its value systems in particular, but one also has to acknowledge the fact that the focus of Indian cinema has changed in the global environment," Moosa told IANS.

All films are classified by a panel of at least three members in either Johannesburg or Durban before being screened, with the languages of Indian films not considered a barrier because of English subtitles.

Jean Westmore, senior officer at the FPB, said that assessors used exactly the same criteria in classifying Bollywood films that they used for Hollywood or any other product.

"If any member of the public feels that the rating for any film, all of which appear on our website, is inadequate, they are free to contact us at any time to review the classification," Westmore said, inviting people to look at the FPB website at

In the end, though, cinema bosses here say that it boils down to the rights of freedom of speech enshrined in the South African constitution. The obligation of the FPB is to ensure that films are classified to protect children adequately, but no adults can be denied the right of choice to see it.

As Moosa said: "The public has a right to decide what they want to see or not see, irrespective of whether it is Bollywood or Hollywood films. Ultimately, the choice is theirs but, as cinema owners, we have to ensure that we screen films that cater for all tastes."

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