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Houston Filmmakers and Actors

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The subcontinent stays in the picture: The Eagle Theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of several theaters in the outer boroughs where Bollywood films have unspooled for decades.

November 14, 2004
Bollywood Confidential

Why do I love Bollywood movies? To an Indian, that's like asking why we love our mothers; we don't have a choice. We were born of them. Though Hindu gods are the obsession, even Muslims genuflect before the screen when they see their heroes walk on. It is significant that, except for Satyajit Ray, there isn't much of an internationally known Indian art cinema; the shadow of Bollywood is too long. Bollywood, and its cousins in the South Indian film industry, have beaten Hollywood at its own game: matching success at the box office with equal success in the battle for the hearts and minds of the audience -- conquering their very dream lives. Kitschy, illogical, often defying common sense, these movies have made me who I am. They shape the way I conduct my love affairs or think about religion or treat my elders.

But it's not just Indians who think this way. The Indian film industry has penetrated into vast, and unlikely, areas of the globe; a hit Hindi movie will be dubbed or subtitled in a dozen foreign languages -- French, Mandarin, Malay. In New York, whenever I get a haircut, I'm confident of getting a discount if the hairdresser is from the former Soviet Union. Indian movies became popular there beginning in the 1950's. The Soviets gave us arms; we gave them our kitsch movies in return. Israelis watch them. Palestinians watch them. Indians and Pakistanis watch them. Dominicans and Haitians watch them. Iraqis watch them. Iranians watch them. In a building full of immigrants in Queens, an Uzbek man once cornered me in a dark stairwell. I'd been mugged before, and I thought, Oh, no. As he towered over me, he started singing, "Ichak dana bichak dana, . . . " a Bollywood standard from the 50's.

All these people watch Bollywood movies because the stories they tell are pre-cynical. Bollywood believes in motherhood, patriotism and true love. Hollywood is too ambivalent about family for their tastes. My friend Abdelkader, a Moroccan writer who grew up in the Netherlands, told me why Moroccans watch Hindi movies: "We like that, in the end, everyone bows down and touches the mother's feet."

The standard Western complaint about Bollywood movies is that they're melodramatic, but for those who love them, melodrama in the defense of entertainment is no vice. Take this explanation from a Dominican cabby in New York, who, along with his 14 siblings, grew up watching Hindi movies. He couldn't remember the title of a single one, but he did remember what he liked about them. "They have singing!" he exclaimed.

Every Bollywood film is a musical, with between 5 and 14 songs. No blockbuster special effects, no interplanetary spaceships, no lone American singlehandedly taking on armies of brown people -- just singing, and respect shown to mothers.

My personal history of Bollywood is entwined with my personal history of Bombay (which I refuse to call Mumbai), where I grew up in the 70's. Bollywood lives in the middle of its created dream: Bombay. There is the Bombay of the auteur Raj Kapoor, where migrants struggle to survive on the city's pitiless sidewalks; the Bombay of gangsters and cops, as in the superstar Amitabh Bachchan's "Deewaar" and "Zanjeer"; the Bombay of the striving middle class; the Bombay of yuppies. Bombay is a city whose contrasts are so extreme that only movies that make no claim to represent reality could do justice to it; a city where those confronted by difficult moral choices -- the loss of life or love -- burst into song.

Going to the movies was a family enterprise in Bombay. The women in my parents' household would pack samosas so we wouldn't have to buy them at the concession stand. This small economy would compensate for the expense of paying scalpers outside the cinemas, often the only way of getting tickets for a hit movie. During the slower songs, as much as a quarter of the audience might get up for refreshments. We were allowed to talk back to the screen, to clap and whistle and jeer, to throw coins in praise when we were particularly pleased.

When I moved to New York in 1977 at the age of 14, I walked around the streets of Jackson Heights singing Hindi movie songs with my friends. In a Hindi movie, emotion is communicated through song, because song is more potent than dialogue. When there's overwhelming emotion -- love, hatred, heartbreak -- spoken words don't suffice. They have to be sung, and the singer has to be transported, on the wings of her song, to the Alpine meadows of Switzerland if she's falling in love (the Swiss Alps are a substitute for troubled Kashmir, the Indian honeymoon paradise) or to a temple in a thunderstorm if her mother is about to die.

We watched the movies every chance we got, in the ramshackle Deluxe Cinema in Woodside, at the Bombay Theater on Queens Boulevard. When the first VCR's started arriving in the late 70's, we gathered with other Indian families, watching three three-hour Bollywood movies back to back, with samosas and tears and laughter. Even the car games we played were based around Bollywood. We played Antakshari, in which one person sang a few lines of a Bollywood song, and the next person had to begin another song with the last syllable of the preceding song. We never risked running out, as we carried so many of these songs within us.

Raj Kapoor gave me the perfect exile's song: "Mera Joota Hai Japani." Raj Kapoor sang it -- or rather, lip-synched it -- to the great playback singer Mukesh, in "Shree 420":

My shoes are Japanese
My pants English
On my head a red Russian cap
Still my heart is Indian.

When I am happy, I sing "Deewana hua Badal" ("The Maddened Clouds") from "Kashmir ki Kali," a song about the coming rains, set to the beat of a horse cart trundling across the Vale of Kashmir. When I'm sad, I sing "Bicchad Gaye" ("We Have Parted"). When I'm playful, I yell out "Maalish! Tel Maalish!" ("Massage! Oil Massage!") after the comic head masseur in "Pyaasa." When I want to express friendship, I sing "Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge" ("This Friendship, We'll Never Abandon"), which all boys growing up in India sang to one another, arms draped fraternally around one another's necks.

We Indians carry these songs around with us. They form our vocabulary of love and grief, from country to country. My aunt's family emigrated to Uganda from India a century ago; she now lives in England and has never been to India, but she listens mostly to Hindi movie songs. When I visited her house in Leicester once, I noticed that none of the children under 5 in her extended family spoke English. They spoke Gujarati and film Hindi; in their house, the TV was on almost all the time, with Hindi movies playing back to back on the VCR. The children, two or three generations removed from India, were living in this simulated Indiaworld.

At college at N.Y.U., I was vice president of the Indian students organization, and we organized regular showings of Hindi movies, driving out to Queens Boulevard to get the giant reels from Eros Entertainment. "Amar Prem" and "Pyaasa" were so popular in the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium that we had to show them twice. As the Indian-American girls watched the love stories and wept, they relaxed their defenses. They reached out for the boy from home. And when we were heartbroken, we turned to the dolorous Mohammed Rafi, or the ghazals -- lyric love songs -- sung by Jagjit & Chitra Singh or by Pankaj Udhas. Not film music, exactly, but close enough; the Urdu poetry expressed in extravagant fashion the torments of the heart: "It feels good to cry against these walls. . . . "

My uncle in Chicago, who has worked for 25 years in a home-furnishings factory, became popular in gatherings of Indians in suburban basements. "Give me the name of any song," he would challenge a hundred people after they had their samosas. "Kabhi Kabhie," they might say, and he would sing the song in its entirety. And they all sang with him -- the doctors, the grocers, the engineers, "Kabhi Kabhie," and their faces became soft and rosy in the singing. "You are truly an encyclopedia of old songs!" they would tell him.

At Indian-American weddings, the women of the family choreograph and perform Bollywood song numbers. Many of the Hindu rituals have merged with scenes drawn from such wedding movies as "Hum Aapke Hain Koun" ("What Am I to You"), essentially an extended wedding video with 14 song sequences. When we want to educate our kids in Indian culture, we take them to the temple -- or to the nearest suburban multiplex showing Bollywood movies. This has spawned a wave of Indian-American hopefuls who return to Bombay every year -- or go for the first time, since many of them were born in America -- to try to become stars. But very few succeed; the local producers take their money and laugh at their American accents and their naivete; in desperation, their doctor or software-magnate fathers finance their children's movies, hoping to launch them in Bollywood.

It was not until graduate school that I became cynical about Bollywood movies. I too began to think that the plots were weak, melodramatic. At the University of Iowa's student-run movie theater, the Bijou, I could see two movies for five dollars, most of them European. I was introduced to Renoir, Fellini, Fassbinder, De Sica. I became, for many years after that, something of a cinephile. When I returned to New York I haunted the repertory theaters -- the Thalia, Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, and, most of all, the Theater 80 St. Mark's.

The Theater 80 was not a fancy place. It was run by a very old man who owned the prints of all the films he showed, and he showed them over and over again, each film 10 or 20 times a year. This had worn down the prints of the older, more popular films, especially the Bergmans, so that the print skipped, the sound was out of sync for whole scenes and all kinds of dots, flares and blots held wild parties across the screen. Nobody complained. For nowhere else in New York was it possible to see two films for $7, if it was possible to see such films at all: Antonioni, John Ford, Bunuel, Truffaut.

After this wealth of the world's classic art cinema, the Indian movies seemed pointless and absurd to me (except for those of India's own new cinema -- Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and, for a while, Mani Kaul). It was only when I moved with my family to Bombay in 1998 that I began to get a sense of why Bollywood was important -- to the country and to me. There was a surge of national pride as our movies regularly made the list of top 10 box-office hits in the United Kingdom and started appearing in Blockbusters across the United States. It became acceptable -- in some parts, even hip -- to be Indian, which was not the case when I came to America in 1977. And I found that the Bollywood movies were, in the Indian context, progressive. They eliminated barriers between Hindus and Muslims and Christians ("Amar Akbar Anthony"); rich boys fell in love with poor girls ("Bobby"); untouchables were brought into patriotic service ("Lagaan," perhaps the first real crossover hit in the West).

The medium fostered new ways of looking at the caste system. And since Hindus and Muslims have always worked together in the determinedly secular Bombay film industry, new if not entirely accurate ways of looking at others, too. Growing up in Bombay with the movies, I had come to understand Muslims as lovable, Christian girls as flirtatious, Sikhs as loyally martial, Parsis as endearingly cracked. The movies trafficked in broad stereotypes, but they were, for the most part, good-natured stereotypes.

In 1998, I returned to Bombay to write a book on the city. I became involved in the writing of a big-budget movie, "Mission Kashmir," and got to know the industry from the inside. I was valued in Bollywood because I had stories. I would roam among the gangsters and the bar girls and bring their stories back to the moviemakers. The gangsters and bar girls would give me their stories because I would tell them how the movie people lived, what they wore, what they ate, whom they slept with (mostly their wives). In Bombay, where people live in compartmentalized bubbles, I became a messenger between worlds.

On one occasion, I went to meet Praveen Nischol, a film producer. He had heard me give a reading at a salon, and he wanted to talk about scripts I could write with him. "It has to be about something ordinary," he told me. "Onion prices. You and I can wonder why onions are so expensive, and then we discover that there's something more sinister behind it." We discussed the world of the beer bars, Bombay's version of geisha bars, which I'd investigated for my book. His last film, "English Babu, Desi Mem" ("English Gentleman, Local Girl"), had a bar dancer as the heroine and starred the superstar Shahrukh Khan. He had Shahrukh committed to doing one more film for him.

Nischol asked about my book, and I described it to him.

"I want to throw a couple of ideas at you," he said. "Let's make you the central character. An investigative journalist."

"Ah." I nodded.

"But more . . . action-packed."

One would hope so.

I met Shahrukh Khan, too. Like Tom Cruise, Khan can singlehandedly guarantee profit for a movie the day he signs on to it. Khan brings his own kinetic energy to his performances. I once watched him rehearse a scene in the film "Duplicate," in which he had to stab the picture of his enemies with a knife, repeatedly, in great anger. As he knifed at the picture, his face glistening with fake sweat, his eyes bloodshot, a lamp in the background burst into flame. The orange plastic filter over it had caught fire. There was not a single fire extinguisher around, and the workers put the lamp out by stamping on it with their feet. I couldn't help thinking of the great classical singer Tansen, who, in medieval times, caused lamps to light spontaneously with the power of his singing "Raga Deepak," "the Raga of Lamps."

But for the most part, as I met the movie people firsthand, they seemed smaller than life. They did their accounts, walked their children to school and worried about their digestion. They worked too hard when away on location to have the multiple affairs that movie magazines like "Stardust" reported in every issue. They spoke English well and Hindi badly. (The great secret of Hindi films is that most of the scripts are written in English; an Urdu dialogue writer usually has to be found to translate the dialogue and give it punch. As the writer Ashis Nandy points out, English has been around in India for 200 years; Hindi for 100 years.) I saw them in their homes, I saw them on the sets. I didn't like the sets. Most of the time, on a movie set, people wait. For a writer, it's like watching grass grow. Shahrukh Khan plays video games in his trailer; the others talk endlessly on their cellphones.

After I returned to America, I met up with some of Bollywood's stars again. A couple of weeks after 9/11, 16 of India's biggest stars got on an American airliner; 4 other passengers got off in fear. Anil Kapoor was reading a copy of Time with Osama bin Laden's picture on the cover; his manager advised him to fold the magazine so that the portrait wouldn't be visible. Aamir Khan reached for an orange and a passenger flinched. They were telling me these stories in the locker room of the Trenton hockey arena, one stop on their road show. They were going to tour 20 cities in 40 days, putting on a vaudeville act for their fans, immigrants from all the countries that love Bollywood. A song, followed by a comedy routine, followed by a re-enacted dramatic sequence from a hit film.

In the hockey arena, Aishwarya Rai, the world's second most beautiful woman according to Roger Ebert, was making herself up in the mirror of a bathroom in the basement, which doubled as her dressing room. We talked into the mirror; she talked to my reflection, I spoke to hers. Then she went onstage and I walked toward the backstage. A chorus girl with a purple ostrich-feather headdress, waiting on the steps for her turn on stage, had the hiccups. With each hiccup, her feathers quivered violently. Then the show began, and I was sitting right below the stage, with the photographers. Aishwarya came out clutching a red pillow embroidered with the words "I love you" and lifted it above her head. Then she saw me and tossed it lightly to me. I held it for half a second; then I heard the mighty, maddened roar. Thousands of screaming fans wanted that pillow, and hands were thrusting out behind me. Without a second thought, I tossed it over my back.

When we lived in Bombay, my son Gautama, then 4, sang "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" and "Chal Mera Ghoda," in addition to "Barbie Girl" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." He was gathering his sources of pleasure from East and West. He was building his own vocabulary of Hindi film music. When he was in New York and missed Bombay, he sang "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" -- which is loosely based on Archie Comics -- on the sidewalks of the Big Apple. An Indian boy in America, singing a Hindi song from an Indian movie imitation of an American comic book: the Ping-Pong game of kitsch. Along with the Bhagavad-Gita and Thoreau, this, too, has wings.

When we came back from Bombay in 2000, we enrolled Gautama at St. Ann's, a private school in Brooklyn. We were apprehensive about the school; it seemed to be full of rich white kids. How would it take our striving brown ones, with their accents, their utter lack of knowledge of American pop culture?

One parent was making a documentary film of Gautama's first-grade class. The interviewer asked various questions of the children: What's your favorite color? What's your favorite storybook? When he came to Gautama, he asked him, "What's your favorite movie?" "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai," my immigrant son said immediately. The name was flashed in subtitles, below Gautama's smiling face. None of his friends or their parents had any idea what he was talking about. But the elite school got used to it; the next year, for Gautama's second-grade play, his teacher mounted a Bollywood version of "The Ramayana," and my parents had tears in their eyes as they watched 17 mostly white, rich, private-school kids, dressed in sari scraps, dancing to the irresistible beats of songs from the movie "Lagaan" in a school in Brooklyn. Gautama was the golden deer, but Yoni was the wise sage, and Sarah and Sofia were the 10-headed demon Ravana, and Henry was Princess Sita. They were all doing dance moves that were a combination of the classical Bharat Natyam and the decidedly unclassical ones from Bollywood. The 13th-floor dance studio had become a Bombay movie theater. And the immense power of pop culture, the global appeal of Bollywood, had made the unfamiliar . . . family.

Suketu Mehta is the author of ''Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.''


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