Having spent his decade-long career producing documentaries about, among other subjects, sexual assaults in American prisons, reggae musicians in Brazilian slums and narcocorrupci?n in Colombia, Jeff Zimbalist says he was used to opting for sense rather than sensitivity at work. That was until he got a call from Shekhar Kapur inviting him to participate in a project the Indian director-producer had cooked up with Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux about Bollywood, the all-singing, all-dancing cultural juggernaut which has attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure throughout the years.
'I've been making analytical films... [my brother Michael and I] do most of our research based on a heavy working knowledge of the characters, contexts, countries, histories and politics [of our subject matter], and it's always interwoven in the narrative,' says the 33-year-old director from Massachusetts.
'In this case, they wanted me to turn off the analysis. At first when I got [to Mumbai, Bollywood's base] I wanted people to feed me information, but they said, 'No, you're here to be in a cave with no lantern'.'
From that darkness Zimbalist has emerged, alongside Indian co-director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, with Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, a celebratory primer about the evolution of modern mainstream Indian cinema. It is set to enlighten uninitiated non-Indian audiences about Bollywood's hallmark aesthetics and historical landmarks, with snippets of classics juxtaposed with archive news footage of significant events in Indian history, plus interviews with stars such as the recently deceased Dev Anand, the one-man institution of Amitabh Bachchan, the iconic Aishwarya Rai and the younger Katrina Kaif.
Zimbalist says his aim with the film is to undermine what he sees as a widespread, erroneous perception of Bollywood as being all about over-the-top, formulaic films with no artistic merit. Bollywood directors have been moving with the times, he says. 'Particularly today, they're doing a great job adapting foreign things and creating hybrid films to please international audiences, and you begin to see these films celebrated at Cannes.'
Zimbalist has travelled the world with the documentary, and he attends shows just to watch the audiences. 'They've played differently in different places,' he said after the film's sold-out gala screening at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar last October. 'Obviously, it's more rewarding to see people standing up, dancing, yelling and cheering,' which happened when they saw footage of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, giving his national independence speech. 'But for a serious audience who sit down and try to read the subtext and understand it from a film theorist's perspective, I respect that, as well.'
Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told is screening now