American film commentator Todd Stadtman runs a blog on cult cinema, evocatively titled Die Danger, Die, Die Kill!. With his deep interest in fringe film cultures around the world, such as Italian horror movies and Blaxploitation (exploitation films featuring African American characters), it was only a matter of time before he was drawn to Indian action movies. Funky Bollywood showcases Stadtman's conclusions about the subset of subcontinental films that most fascinate him: 68 films that demonstrate how the action genre has been interpreted (and mangled) in India.

The selection includes mainly Hindi titles, and works as a rough and highly personal guide to movies from the decade that made Amitabh Bachchan a star and was spilling over with outlandish thrillers about spies, gangsters, smugglers and molls. Each title comes with a kitschy design, stills and screen grabs, a description of the plot and stylistic elements and speculation about the possible influences, from Blaxploitation to kung fu to James Bond.

For instance, here is Stadtman on The Great Gambler, directed by Shakti Samanta in 1979 and starring Bachchan and Zeenat Aman:
The Great Gambler is about as generous a combination of ’70s kitsch and pulp absurdity as Bollywood could offer. Where else will you see Zeenat Aman getting down to KC and the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight, Amitabh Bachchan attempting kung fu in a black satin tuxedo and zebra print tie, or Prem Chopra essaying the role of a medallion sporting disco dude? Then we have RD Burman’s theme song, quoted above, which consists largely of a drunk sounding woman enthusing in fairly uncertain terms about the virtues of our titular card shark. And let’s not forget fight composer Shetty’s eleventh hour appearance, in which he’s dressed as a slaughterhouse attendant and appears to be channelling Plan 9 from Outer Space’s Tor Johnson, during which he and the Big B fight it out in a meat locker filled with gory animal carcasses.”

Stadtman includes such hits as Don, Sholay, Yaadon Ki Baraat and Trishul and such trash troves as Khoon Khoon and Rani Aur Jaani. There are movies that represent second-rung acting jobs for such stars as Dev Anand and Dharmendra, such as Bullet and Azaad respectively. Fans might quibble at the lumping together of Manmohan Desai’s entertainer Amar Akbar Anthony and the B-film Apradh, and the book is really another way of categorising and introducing a specific phase of Hindi cinema to readers.

“What you are looking for is all of the speed, violence and garish style that you have come to depend upon from more travelled avenues of pop cinema that makes it all seem fresh and new again,” Stadtman writes in his introduction. “1970s Bollywood’s combination of the funky and the classical, the gritty and the gaudy, the traditional and the transgressive” result in many “jaw unhinging sights and sounds,” he adds.

Excerpts from an email interview with Stadtman, who lives in San Francisco.

What is an American doing in the world of 1970s Hindi action cinema? Did you interest in other genres such as mondo and Italian horror bring you to this one?
I had a long running curiosity about Bollywood movies fueled by habitual viewing of [the South Asian American television channel] Namaste America, but I did not see an actual Bollywood film until I watched Lagaan, which I think has been statistically proven to be the Bollywood film most seen by white people (I’m pretty sure Dil Se is number two).

Once I had been indoctrinated, it was definitely my interest in cult films that lead me to explore the rough edges of Indian cinema – the older and more violent films, as well as the “B” pictures (I’m a huge fan of Dara Singh). Once on that road, it only took one viewing of Don to get me hooked on ’70s films.

Once hooked, how did you access the films?
It’s actually quite surprising just how large of a selection of vintage Bollywood films Netflix used to have, though I’m not sure if they still do. This made exploring the films of ’70s Bollywood pretty risk free, and I was able to see most of the key films of the period that way. What Netflix didn’t have, I would purchase from (and, before that, Nehaflix). What they didn’t have, I would seek out on the grey market.

Geeta Mera Naam (1973).

The phrase 'funky Bollywood' is an interesting alternative way of describing what we call the masala movie. What convinced you that you needed a different category for these films?
Firstly, I knew that I was writing for a predominately English-speaking audience, who would hear “masala” and think “cook book”. Still, I introduce the reviews section of the book with a definition of masala as it relates to Indian cinema, because I thought it was important to introduce the concept.

Secondly, I wanted to directly contradict the prevailing preconception among the uninitiated of Bollywood movies being light and frothy. I felt that the idea of “funk” was sufficiently urban, ethnic and gritty to accomplish that. I also wanted to refer to the influence that American “Blaxploitation” films had on movies like Don, etc.

Lastly, I knew that a lot of people outside of India have been introduced to these films by way of their music, via compilations CDs like Bombay Connection and Bollywood Funk. I wanted to make that connection.

Saazish (1975).

Some of the titles are B-grade films, others are hits (Don, Sholay and so on) featuring the top stars and directors of the day. Some are family dramas (Yaadon Ki Baraat) and some are comedies (Bombay to Goa). How did you make your selection?
I am perfectly fine with my selection process being called idiosyncratic. Though, to be honest, a lot of it boils down to availability. For instance, I would have included a lot more Telugu films had I been able to find them. As is, I had to make do with choppy, un-subtitled versions of most of those movies, and I think the reviews suffered a little because of that.

Another factor was that I wanted to provide the reader with a substantial number of reviews. The number I ended up with was 70, which was really my bare minimum. I had started out with a list of over a hundred films, but, as I went along, some of those proved to be unavailable in subtitled versions or to not fit in with the concept. Had more of those made the cut, I might have passed over a film like Bombay to Goa (even though I think it provides a good example of the kind of roles Amitabh had pre-Zanjeer).

Then, of course, there is the matter of personal preference. While I would argue that Yaadon Ki Baraat is an action movie, the real reason it’s in the book is because it’s one of my favorite films. I’d also say that, while not all of the films in the book are action films in the purest sense, all of them are examples of how the aesthetic of the action film infected mainstream Hindi cinema during the ’70s.

For example, a film might have only one fight scene, but it’s pretty certain that, had that movie been made in the ’60s, that fight scene would not have included people trying to spin kick one another as if they were Bruce Lee.

Some Indian readers might disagree with the inclusion of certain popular titles.
I’ve been made aware of that. And if people want to register those views in a friendly manner ‒ which, so far, everyone has ‒ I’m very interested in hearing them. I do want to say, though, that I feel I’ve been very clear about the fact that this book was written from an outsider’s point of view, which may be of value to some and others not. I certainly have no illusions that it is the last word on the subject. If someone from South Asia, who has really lived with these films, were to write a book about them, believe me, I would be the first in line to buy it. Talking with people who have grown up watching these movies and following these personalities has shown me that no amount of scholarship can replace that kind of knowledge.

Rani aur Jaani (1973).

As an American, what did you make of these films when you first saw them?
Having long ago tired of Hollywood’s smug self reference, I loved their lack of irony and sincere desire to entertain their audience. They have a generosity of spirit that really draws you in as a viewer.

I will admit that, initially, I had problems with the lengths of the movies, and would usually watch them in two sittings ‒though now I watch them in one go or not at all.

How did you pick up on the specific cultural references contained in these movies?
Let me give this example: After watching a few Indian movies, it’s impossible not to pick up on something like the custom of touching someone’s feet as having deep cultural significance, even if you don’t know what that significance is. All that remains is for you to look it up, which I generally do.

You don’t need to watch a lot of these films to see that a lot of families are being busted up and that selective amnesia is epidemic. It’s funny to me, because my mother did research on attachment theory as a graduate student, and I think it would be really interesting to do a study on these kids in these movies who get separated from their parents at the age of 10 and then can’t recognize them fifteen years later.

Did you also play a role in the book’s design?
The book was designed by my old friend Andrew Nahem, who did a fantastic job. My proudest contribution to the design is that it was my idea to include the key symbols denoting the various tropes (Lost and Found, Doubles, etc.) that can be found in the films.

Also, when Andrew presented me with a cover design that was very austere and tasteful--it was lovely, really--I asked him for something more garish and chaotic. He immediately came up with the cover as it currently is.

Does the book have an Indian publisher yet?
Not yet, but we are working on it. There seems to be a feeling that a book about Bollywood films written by an American would be too much of a risk. One publisher in Southern India joked that if he published a book purporting to be about Indian action cinema that didn’t feature a major chapter on Rajnikanth, his offices would be burned down by an angry mob.

Anyway, finding an Indian publisher is still a priority for FAB Press and myself.

Are there any Indian films you watch over and over again?
Oh, yes. Of the movies covered in the book, Geeta Mera Naam, Rani aur Jaani, Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Qurbani, Bombay 405 Miles and Don are all favorites. Another ’70s film that I’m a huge fan of is Dharam Veer, but there was no place for that in the book.

Oh, and I also love Taal, Main Hoon Na and Dil Se.

Todd Stadtman.