That Old Feeling: Bollywood Fever

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It was a delirium, so in retrospect some of the details are hazy, but this I clearly recall: for four months last year I was in the grip of Bollywood fever.

A few times each week I'd go to stores that rent or sell videos of Indian films and take five, maybe ten cassettes home to dupe, collate and sometimes watch. Beginning my siege in near-total ignorance of the genre, I could soon name, if not properly pronounce, the subcontinent's top movie personalities. I ravaged the Internet for helpful sites, bought several published histories on the industry, scoured the half-dozen English-language Indian weeklies published for New Yorkers, pestered friends with Indian-film expertise, went to a Bollywood Awards show on Long Island, wrote a few TIME stories on the subject — I did just about everything short of going to local theaters that show the films. But I had plenty of visual research. In short order I'd amassed some 200 full-length extravaganzas, from the 1935 "Devdas" to the 2002 "Devdas," and including compilation tapes of stars, directors, composers and playback singers (whose function I'll explain shortly).

I'm not the only American of non-Indian descent who's caught the jolly folly of Bollywood. A few other critic types, notably the trend-setting, retrospective-begetting David Chute, have found in Indian-pop cinema some of the same exuberance and craft they earlier detected in Hong Kong movies. At Chutes urging, Turner Classic Movies, the exemplary cable skein specializing in venerable Hollywood fare, is devoting four Thursdays this month to a dozen Bollywood epics. It's a chance for those unfamiliar with the terrain to get their footing — to survey the grand landscape of one of the film world's most productive and accomplished art-industries.

Now Bollywood has eyes to conquer the firangis — Hindi for "foreigners." U.S. viewers may have seen fragments of Bollywood films at their local Indian restaurants, which often have a video playing for atmosphere; I know one gourmand who chooses her Indian restaurants based on the films shown there. American moviegoers know Bollywood secondhand from Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" (the production number with the elephant), "Ghost World" (that goofy disco clip, from the 1965 film "Gumnaam") and the art-house hit Monsoon Wedding (the dance that brings a fractious family together). "Bombay Dreams," the Bollywood-themed West End musical with an irresistible crossover score by top Indian composer A R Rahman, is a hit in London and headed to Broadway.

But can the real thing make it here? Can Americans open up to the real Bollywood? They will if I have anything to do with it. So read on, adepts and neophytes, for one stranger's personal view of Bollywood. It may take a while: this week and next, and maybe a third. I guess the fever hasn't broken yet.


First, most of you are asking: What the heck is Bollywood? The word, which an Indian journalist coined in the 70s to convey the message that Bombay (where Hindi-language films are made) was a rival of Hollywood, refers in the larger sense to Indian pop cinema — the world's most teeming film industry, an exotic, rhapsodic blend of chuckles and tears, song and dance. With nearly 1,000 films a year in more than a dozen languages, Bollywood's output far outstrips Hollywood's.

These aren't your uncle's Satyajit Ray movies — stately pace, unknown actors, Ravi Shankar sitar music. As I wrote in a TIME story last year, Bollywood is a star-driven cosmos: actresses with names like Dimple Kapadia, Preity Zinta and Karisma Kapoor (an important supporting player of the 50s was known as Cuckoo); hunks of every age, from three-decade mega-stalwart Amitabh Bachchan to giga-charmer Shahrukh Khan to the young, elaborately muscled Hrithik Roshan. (All three graced the 2001 blockbuster "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.") Bollywood operates under the vulture eyes of a voracious entertainment press and under the shadow of organized crime. Two years ago, Hrithik's father, director Rakesh Roshan, was shot and severely wounded after he reportedly refused a "request" for his son to appear in an underworld-financed film.

Things are exciting onscreen too — though in these three-hour extravaganzas there's not much violence, no nudity, hardly any kissing. Forced to sublimate, Bollywood taught itself to revel in full-blooded, full-throated drama. "The formula is essentially a family epic," says Indian writer (and Brooklyn resident) Suketu Mehta. "A family that breaks apart and then comes together. It's also the story of Partition." The partition of India and Pakistan, that is — but with vagrant, fragrant hope of union within diversity. A father denounces, then tearfully embraces his son ("Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham"). A group of 19th century peasants battle their Brit overlords in a game of cricket (Lagaan, nominated for a foreign-film Oscar in 2002). A naive media star falls in love with a terrorist (many recent films have used this politically explosive plot device, including "Mission Kashmir," for which Mehta collaborated on the script).

And in the midst of the starkest plot twists, everyone sings and dances. Virtually all Bollywood films are musicals. For 60 years, they have provided India with most of its hit songs (in effect, the movie industry is the music industry). And not just songs — immense production numbers. Dozens of chorus boys in leather and houris in saris frolic while the stars risk dislocating their shoulders and display '60s-style legwork not seen in the West since the Peppermint Lounge closed. The stars dance, but they don't sing. That's the job of "playback singers," unseen onscreen but famous on CDs. One playback diva, Lata Mangeshkar, has recorded some 50,000 songs in a 60-year career. (Sinatra, you slouch!)

The Bollywood masala — savory cultural stew — restores melodrama to its Greek-tragedy and Italian-opera roots: melody-drama, in which emotions too deep to be spoken must be sung. Imagine Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" dancing around the utility company's lawyers while lip-synching a tune sung by Faith Hill, and you have a hint of the divine madness that is Bollywood.


I have the readers to thank for my obsession. In a piece that was posted the day the 2002 Oscar nominations were announced, I offered this offhand jape: "The usual ignorance attended the selections for Best Foreign-Language Film. Except for ‘Amelie' and ‘No Man's Land,' the foreign pictures that earned most critics' plaudits were absent. In their place we got an Argentine melodrama (‘Son of the Bride'), a Norwegian film about an insane couple (‘Elling') and a four-hour Indian film about cricket (‘Lagaan'). If any of these turns out to be faaaabulous, I promise to apologize in this space."

Within a fortnight, two things happened. I received nearly 100 e-mails, most of the how-dumb-are-you? variety from aggrieved Bollywood fans. (No Argentines or Norwegians wrote in.) And I saw "Lagaan," programmed by renowned Indophile Hannah Fisher as part of the Floating Film Festival, which sailed the Mexican Riviera under the aegis of swami, guru and Maharajah Dusty Cohl.

To catch "Lagaan" with 150 movie sharpies who had never seen a Bollywood picture was to see snickers turn to smiles, and indulgence to rapture. The crowd was with it from the thunderclap — a cue for riotous dancing — in the first torrential rainstorm. They cheered star Aamir Khan and his fellow Indians in their desperate cricket match with the lords of Empire (if the locals win, they get a break on their lagaan, or land tax). They embraced the mix of melodrama and character comedy; they fell into the humid, but urgent rhythms of what, even in a country where the average film runs close to three hours, is a long slog. They bought the trope of music and dance as an expression of life's deepest, most soaring emotions. Had they known the words, they would have sung along. (Hannah had the foresight to bring copies of A R Rahman's sound track, which were avidly snatched up.)

Some of the fondness the FFF audience showed "Lagaan" was surely the surprise that what they thought might be a history lesson proved so enjoyable. I think they also experienced a larger, more salutary shock. They learned that a country best known for spicy food, Internet brainiacs and a fatal family feud with Pakistan also, for Pete's sake, could make enthralling entertainment. Hannah and "Lagaan" pried their eyes open. Their hearts followed.

So, dear pestering readers, I hereby apologize for making light of "Lagaan." And at the risk of seeming to curry favor with those who favor curry, I thank you for opening my eyes and heart to the baroque beatitudes of Bollywood.

DEAF TO "DEVDAS"I confess that "Lagaan" fascinated me without quite winning me over to Bollywood. That conversion came three months later, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Devdas" played the Cannes Film Festival — the first time an Indian musical had been chosen for the official program of the world's largest film bash. When I saw it, I wished "Devdas" had been in the competition for the Palme d'Or; it bested the Festival winner, Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," in verve, visual acuity and the hero's sanctified suffering. Here are some of my comments on "Devdas" in various TIME stories last year:

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