That Old Feeling: Bollywood Fever

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There's no more colorful introduction to Bollywood than "Devdas." The priciest movie in Indian history (at about $10.6 million), it could also be the most visually intoxicating film ever. The plot, based on a 1917 novel, is good-old family-values propaganda, drenched in luscious masochism: rich boy Devdas (all-world charismatist Shahrukh Khan) leaves home, abandons girl friend (former Miss World Aishwarya Rai), dallies with prostitute (worldly-wise Madhuri Dixit), suffers magnificently. It's played with such commitment that the tritest plot twists seem worth believing — and singing about, in nine nifty production numbers. But the fervid emotion and visual chic are what make the thing sing. Beyond that, "Devdas" is a visual ravishment, with sumptuous sets, fabulous frocks and beautiful people to fill them; it has a grandeur the old Hollywood moguls would have loved.

My devotion to "Devdas" was a minority opinion at Cannes. The pack of international critics is usually a tolerant one; I might say they share some of the "Devdas" hero's self-flaggelating tendencies, since each May they sit obediently through dozens of mopey minimalist movies. (This year's prime example: "The Brown Bunny," the notoriously painful American indie that only a handful of scribes walked out on.) Yet in 2002 they demonstrated a low threshold of pain for a pretty film with pretty people singing of love and loss. Exactly one critic — and by now you've figured out who — was there at the end.

And, so far as I know, exactly one American one critic put "Devdas" on his year-end Ten Best list. I ranked it fourth — though for TIME's International editions, I went further, really too far, and named it the film of the year. Chalk up that wooziness to a resurgence of Bollywood fever, or, to give me a break, a grateful acknowledgment of all the wonders of Indian cinema I'd fallen in love with last year.

But you never heard of "Devdas." That's because no review appeared in the major New York or L.A. newspapers, or in most others, when the film opened last July. Yet "Devdas" was not only the year's biggest Indian hit, it earned more than $5 million in North America. In the U.S., the film played in about 40 theaters that cater to the NRI (non-resident Indian), or desi, community; the gross for a top Bollywood film can exceed that of American art-house hits. Some day the nation's film critics will see it as their duty — I hope, also as their pleasure — to cover this vital, sprawling part of world cinema.



BOLLYWOOD, LONG ISLAND

I returned from Cannes still intoxicated by the idea of Bollywood and needing to know more about it. One TIME colleague, Ratu Kamlani, kindly lent me some cassettes of films from the 80s and 90s; thus I had my second glimpses of Shakhrukh and Aamir Khan and my first of another swoon merchant, Salman Khan. (This 90's trio of top male stars were of course known as the three Khans.) TIME's Alan Abrams, a veritable vacuum cleaner of pop arcana — he knows every Broadway song since Cohan, and had scoured Chinatown video stores for DVDs of obscure Hong Kong films before moving on to India — shared his blooming expertise with me.

One June night Alan and I trekked to the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island, N.Y., 7,800 miles from Bombay, for the 4th annual Bollywood Awards. It was quite a sight, sound and smell. The house was packed, 10-12,000 strong, with fans of Indian movies. At the food kiosks in the lobby, patrons stood in line for jaleba, alu vada and samosa chhole, while pitchmen handed out free samples of Roopak Luv-U's, the "flavoured mouth freshener." On stage, perky hostess Ruby Bhatia (an Alabama-born host of Indian TV chat shows) chirped, "So without much ado, let the Bollywood Awards begin!"

Over the four-hour evening, the many-gowned Bhatia provided suitably hyperbolic introductions — "His immense talent is about to unfold on this very stage!" — to a dozen or so top Indian musical acts that whipped the crowd into a cheerful frenzy. The stars had flown through 11 time zones to be there, and to pick up checks ranging from $10,000 to $70,000 for their trouble (though Shahrukh and Aishwarya, in New York City that week to promote "Devdas," did not show). Salman Khan gave a dancing display of his muscles; I forget if he removed his shirt. Between the numbers, Indian film celebrities appeared to accept awards in such categories as Best Villain, Best Comic and Most Sensational Female.

Their Indo-American fans, many gorgeously duded in turbans or silk saris, had come from across the tri-state area to reestablish their cultural identity and bond with the popular art form of their homeland. To Indians, and to the far-flung millions in the subcontinental diaspora, movies matter: they unite India and Pakistan as surely as politicians separate them. These movies, with a high percentage of Muslim stars and writing talent, are loved in both the rival nations. (Most of the cheapo compilations of Indian stars' Greatest Hits are manufactured, without much regard for legality, in Pakistan; phone numbers for Karachi video stores run in a ribbon across the bottom of the image.) In the U.S., Bollywood is a $100 million industry, from DVD sales and rentals, pay TV, live shows like the Bollywood Awards, and big-screen exhibition; 14 of the 24 largest U.S. urban areas have at least one theater showing Indian movies.

If I wanted to see Bollywood movies, I could have gone to one of these specialty houses. Loew's State Theatre, in the basement of Times Square's Virgin Megastore, shows Indian movies, and it's five short blocks from my office. But one new film a week would not nearly feed the fever. I required total immersion, in current and classic Bollywood.



ADVENTURES IN CURRY HILL

The great concentration of Indian video stores is in Jackson Heights, Queens. To me, though, Queens is a borough for airplanes and baseball games. Call me a snob and a stay-at-home, but I didn't care to travel an hour to get my Bollywood fix. Ratu to the rescue! She gave me the address of Naghma House, an electronics and video store on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan's Murray Hill. The neighborhood has so many Indian shops and restaurants that it's called Curry Hill, and the designation is apt: the scent of that spice drapes the streets. One day I passed two policemen and heard one telling the other that the area had the poorest air quality in the city.

Enter Naghma House, a store about 14 feet wide and 50 feet long, and find desi newspapers in a rack on the right, electronic appliances stretching down the left. Videos and DVDs in the back. The rear side walls were stacked with shelves of videos, but two deep: a thousand or so cassettes in a series of "book case," 10 feet high in perhaps 12-foot wide segments, that could be arduously rolled aside to reveal further stacks of videos on shelves against the wall. The film titles were arranged alphabetically. Another section was devoted to the compilation cassettes: stars ("Comedy Highlights of Amitabh Bachchan"), directors ("Hits from B.R. Chopra") or playback singers ("Lata Mangeshkar Queen of Melody — Sad Songs").

On my first visit I met the proprietor, J.I. Keen, a round, genial middle-aged man whose father, he told me, had shown Indian films at NYU 30 years earlier. Mr. Keen the younger now had to educate me. I knew I wanted Indian films, the seminal ones; I just didn't know what I wanted. Mr. Keen suggested two 1957 works — "Mother India," often called the “Gone With the Wind” of Indian cinema, and “Pyaasa,” Guru Dutt's tale of a questing poet — and the 1951 "Awara," starring and directed by Raj Kapoor. (The three he recommended are showing on TCM this week or next.) I rented those videos and the DVD of "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham." Rental price for the four: $24. The rental price skidded to $4 and then to $2 per video as we got to know each other and he came to trust my bona fides. What's Hindi for mishpocha?

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