That Old Feeling: Bollywood Fever

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

Most days, Mr. Keen was managing other parts of his entrepreneurial empire, and I was in the gentle, firm hands of Magan Shrestha. a slim graduate student with an Aishwarya-lovely wife. Magan (hymkes with lagaan) got used to seeing me cart my satchel into the store, take out the videos I needed to return and consult my portable references: "The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema," an invaluable source of biographies and filmographies; and printouts of Internet Movie Database lists of actors' and directors' films. Magan was helpful and patient, even when I rushed in a minute before closing, even when I provoked his distressed smile by mangling the pronunciation of the simplest Indian names. He also took interest in the TIME articles I wrote on Indian films. I think he hoped he would be mentioned in a future story. Sorry, Magan, but this is it.

Across the street from Naghma is Video Palace, a walk-up video store and spice shop. (You needn't buy any spices; just walking into one of these shops unclogs your sinuses.) There the very accommodating staff rents videos for $2 — and sells them for $3! On, a "Devdas" DVD costs $60; at Video Palace the video dupe can be had at a 95% discount. With very little prodding the gentleman behind the counter took my requests for films to be duped. That's how I finally nabbed Shantaram's 1955 "Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje." And because Video Palace also stocks some Tamil films, I am now the proud possessor of every Mani Rathnam film from his 1987 Mafia classic "Nayakan" to last year's "A Peck on the Cheek," which I was able to purchase and savor before it played at the Toronto Film Festival. Ah, the joys of collecting!

There were hurdles to jump; clearing the thicket of my ignorance wouldn't be an adventure without some challenges. The quality of the prints is often murky, with films in eighth-generation dupes. The cassettes often have commercials breaking up the film every hour or so (every 20 minutes in a few tapes I saw), and often a ribbon of phone numbers for Karachi or Dubai or New Jersey video stores run in a ribbon across the bottom of the image. And about half of the videos I rented didn't have subtitles. That's not fair; some have Egyptian subtitles. That made me pay stricter attention to the movies' visual style — and to the plot synopses of the films on two excellent websites, and Planet

Part of my Bollywood obsession can be explained as collectomania: to own is as important as to know. And I did not watch all of every video I duped. But as any collector can attest, fascination with a new field of research grows exponentially. A good film piques many curiosities. The amazing "Mother India," for instance, got me chasing down other films directed by Mehboob Khan, other starring roles for its leading actress, the great Nargis. Alan Abrams recommended the works of director V. Shantaram, a folklorist of the most picturesque stripe. Raj Kapoor was essential: a star-director, as popular in the Soviet Union as he was in India, who looked like the later Ronald Colman and patterned many of his screen roles on Chaplin's Tramp character. I amassed most of the films of Shahrukh, my favorite of the modern actors, and Rahman, the composer whose irresistible tunes set the pulse of some of the finest Indian films, including most of Mani Rathnam's.


Rahman's "Bombay Dreams," which I'll discuss in detail next week (or the week after), has a libretto by Meera Syal. She's the author and actress who, after her Brit-com "Goodness Gracious Me" became a cross-cultural hit, uttered the notorious dictum, "Brown is the new black" — meaning that, in pop culture, all things Anglo-Indian were suddenly as hip as all things African-American had been.

That set me wondering (and, please, pardon the metaphorical crudity): In American cult culture, could brown be the new yellow? Specifically, could Bollywood films win over the trend-setters in video stores and on the Internet who for years had championed Hong Kong films? The two national cinemas have so much in common. They developed in regions long administered by the British but with their unique national twists. They are extreme forms of popular movies; they stretch, to the limit and beyond, narrative strategies developed in Hollywood. Like Hollywood films, they rely on a star system. Again as in Hollywood, these are commercial products, financed not by the state but by investors who expect a return on investment. Often, in both cinemas, those capitalists are gangsters. And often, the movies they finance are terrific.

Now here's why Bollywood will not be the new Hong Kong. Because the average Indian film is nearly twice as long as the average Hong Kong film. Because Bollywood films imitate an unfashionable genre (the romantic melodrama) while Hong Kong movies imitate and apotheosize the American action film. Because Bollywood films are usually about reconciling family tensions — their deepest connections are domestically vertical rather than horizontal — whereas Hong Kong and contemporary Hollywood movies are about friends, enemies and lovers; the heroes in these might as well be orphans. Because Bollywood is essentially a feminine genre, while Hong Kong is macho; and guys rule! And because, in Bollywood movies, people sing and dance like they mean it; and nothing can turn off a young male like a sentiment put to music. To young American trend-setters, Bollywood brown is the new white ... bread.

But, as we'll discuss further next week, that's a cramped, myopic view of a faaaaaaaabulous cinema — one that deserves an intelligent viewer's loyalty, fealty. Fever.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next