Why Will Smith’s ‘Bucket List’ Episode Fails India in Many Ways
Will Smith’s latest Will Smith’s Bucket List episode titled ‘Bollywood Dancing’ begins exactly like you’d expect it to — Smith having the time of his life in a ‘tuk-tuk’, a few mandatory colourful shots of people, the streets, and of course, the breathtaking Taj Mahal. Followed by these visuals are the usual buzzwords like “beautiful”, “culture”, and “India”, all in the same sentence. If you’ve grown up in India, this kind of a portrayal of the country through a first world lens is fairly common and after a point, you learn to let it go.
Now, this is the final episode of an online video series that features Will Smith unpacking a new adventure in every episode, with efforts being made to ensure that the show remains diverse. From stand-up comedy to sky diving, Will Smith touches upon many subjects and experiences. Yet, when he finally finds his way to India to discover the enigma that is Bollywood — he fails.
Clearly, from the get-go, the episode is more than just ‘Bollywood Dancing’. In a way, it’s taking a slice of Bollywood and presenting it to the entire world like a whole three-tiered fresh cream cake. Of course, living in India, one is constantly reminded of the fact that no matter how much you try, it’s impossible to do justice to the country’s rich culture and heritage. So, to reduce it to a caricature, to limit it within stereotypical boundaries influenced by the west, is more than just a shortcoming. It’s blatant ignorance.
The Bollywood Experts
To understand the essence of Bollywood, Will Smith decides to meet one of industry’s most experienced filmmaker and producer, Karan Johar and actor, Ranveer Singh. In a very Koffee with Karan-esque setup, the three of them unravel mainstream Bollywood. While both Karan and Ranveer have a prolific portfolio to their merit, one can’t help but notice the lack of inclusivity in the room. Despite the ongoing debate on the existence of glass ceiling, there are no women on this educated panel chosen by Smith.
Moreover, speaking to just Ranveer Singh doesn’t do justice to the variety of films Bollywood churns out every year. In 2018, both Padmaavat and Badhaai Ho performed well. Yet someone like Ayushmann Khurrana or Rajkummar Rao — actors who do a lot of low-budget content-driven Bollywood films — didn’t even find a mention in the episode.
“Bollywood Heroes = Ram”, Really?
During the conversation with Will Smith, Ranveer Singh does get some things right. For example, when he uses the analogy of a thali to explain the composition of a typical Bollywood film peppered with elements from all genres. Or when he explains the “paisa vasool” mentality of the Indian audience. However, at one point, Will Smith asks Ranveer Singh, “How often are films based on religious texts?” to which, Ranveer responds by saying that all Bollywood heroes are inspired from the Hindu God Ram as he’s full of “ideal virtues”.
If anything, this conversation only adds to the misinformed worldview of India as a “Hindu nation”. Moreover, if someone were to objectively look at the films Bollywood produces today — does Ranveer Singh’s explanation even stand true? For example, last year’s most popular film was Andhadhun, see what I mean?
While Hindu religion automatically becomes the foundation for Bollywood films, according to this episode, other religions are not even a part of the dialogue. It’s not until the end of the episode that Will Smith finally acknowledges that India might just be a land of multiple faiths. But visually, his depiction of spirituality fails the 1.32 billion people of India.
A Visit to Haridwar for More of Exotic India
After an amusing imitation of Ranveer Singh’s pelvic thrust dance step in the song Tatad tatad, Will Smith is suddenly struck by a deeply religious epiphany. To understand not just Bollywood but also the “ideals of the Hindu faith”, Smith decides to visit Haridwar. Firstly, Haridwar is where people go to worship the Hindu God Shiva, not Ram (which is what Ranveer Singh mentioned to Smith earlier). Although, that’s soon explained to the viewers.
Here, Will Smith is familiarised with the omnipotent nature of one particular Hindu God and how, without his blessings, one can’t create art. Smith pretty much gets a crash course in Hindu rituals. His voiceover interspersed with unoriginal shots of people participating in religious rites along the banks of River Ganga is not only a skewed portrayal of India’s diversity, but also completely pointless because at no point is the relationship between art and religion truly explained.
Bollywood Dancing, Finally
In a twenty-minute video, there’s only so much Will Smith can do. But there’s also so much more he could have done. He could have spoken to writers from the industry, or even just experienced the backstage chaos of a Bollywood film. He could have introduced the world to a whole different side of Bollywood.
Perhaps the only redeeming bit of the video is Smith finally achieving what he set out to — dancing in a big budget Bollywood movie. Watching him shake a leg with the cast of Student of the Year 2 might be all the joy you need today.