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How foreign movie heroes differ from Hollywood's

Forget Matt Damon. Filmmakers outside America are more likely to favor moral heroism over physical heroism. Meet India's Salman Khan.

By Peter RainerFilm Critic / February 27, 2011

Indians go to a movie in Mumbai.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/File


Los Angeles

A big reason we love movies is because we love heroes. For most of the world's moviegoers these days, at least those within the reach of Hollywood – which means, for better and for worse, just about everybody – heroism is scaled big and action-oriented, often in 3-D. You can be a darkly brooding Batman, Iron Man, or Spider-Man, you can be an avatar – you can, in other words, be an anti-heroic hero. But the template remains the same: comic-book-driven and larger than life.

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The film industries of Europe and Asia cannot compete with Hollywood's hegemony, so they don't even try. By default, Hollywood has dominated the realm of megacostly, special-effects-laden fantasias. Its 3-D extravaganzas are intended at least as much for the overseas market as for the domestic market.

How you portray heroism is often a function of movie-making economics. Rather than trying to beat Hollywood at its own game, film-makers outside America are more likely to favor moral heroism over physical heroism – for one thing, it's less expensive to produce. Colin Firth's stammering George VI in "The King's Speech" embodies courage against fearful odds and you don't have to wear 3-D glasses to enjoy his triumph.

It's always useful to be reminded that there's more to movies than Hollywood. The parochialism of my assumptions about movie heroism became glaringly obvious to me several years ago when I spent two weeks in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, as part of a government-sponsored cultural-outreach program, during which I lectured to college students about the films of the late, great director Satyajit Ray.

It was my first time in India, which also happens to have the world's largest film industry. Bollywood movies – certainly not the lyrical, home-grown dramas of Ray's realm – account for the overwhelming bulk of that country's film fare. I had always believed that India's vast poverty and illiteracy explained the success of the frankly escapist Bollywood movies, with their sudsy plots and deliriously spangly musical numbers. (I coined the term "Busby Beserkeley" to describe Bollywood musicals, and the phrase stuck.)


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