Bollywood FAQs

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Where have I been all these weeks? Forty days ago, in my last column, I self-diagnosed my Bollywood fever — the addiction for Indian popular cinema that smote me a year ago — and promised another column or two in succeeding weeks. Then, like a levitating snake at the climax of a fakir's performance, I disappeared. My army of constant readers e-mailed me to ask whether my next Bollywood column had been lost in cyberspace. Both of you deserve an explanation.

To quell the rumors... Perhaps I was fully occupied with my day job: writing for TIME not-com. (I did have a few assignments for the magazine, but I try not to let ephemera get in the way of my vocation.) Perhaps the fever had again abated, and my Hindiscretion cooled to Hindifference? (Not a chance.) Perhaps I had developed Indian reservations. (No way, and enough with the egregious puns.) Perhaps I thought there was nothing more to say on the subject. (Au contraire: too much.) Perhaps I went on holiday. (Yes, and I try not to let my vacation get in the way of my vocation, either. I took tapes of a dozen Indian films with me, and pored over Bollywood history books in the Massachusetts and upstate New York sun. On the way, I made a convert. I played the CD of A R Rahman's West End show "Bombay Dreams" for my brother-in-law, George Horn, who was so beguiled by the music that he played it even while I wasn't with him. At the end of our trek, I gave him my spare copy of the CD.)

Cramming for a nostalgia column: the idea is preposterous. The memories are supposed to well up and spill through my typing fingers. But sometimes what's an old feeling for others — in the case of Bollywood, a billion others — is new, and news, to me. I can think of three such cinematic revelations in the past 15 years: when the TNT channel, and later TCM, opened the vaults of those sassy antiques, the Warner Bros. films of the early 30s; when I went kung-flooey for Hong Kong movies; and now, with the masala movies of Bombay and sometimes Madras. You see the connections. All three cinemas are marked by vigor, visual ingenuity, signposts to a land so remote and exotic it is measured in decades, or ten time zones. These are territories I can explore for years, yet not exhaust their riches.

As for Indian pop cinema, I've stepped inside and, like Alice, am falling into a weird, magical world. Ask me today to name ten great international filmmakers, and the list would have to include Guru Dutt — the supersensitive actor-producer-director whose "Pyaasa" ("The Thirsty One," 1957) and "Kaagaz Ke Phool" (Paper Flowers," 1959) are rhapsodic expressions of a poet's dreamy isolation. Ask what's the best film I've seen this summer, and I might reply "Awaara" (1951), Raj Kapoor's volcanic parable of righteous paternal mistrust, with one of the all-time sadistic-sexiest beach scenes and a dream sequence that starts in delirium and revs up to delicious. Ask what actress has my heart at the moment, and I'd confess, without guilt or irony, Waheeda Rehman, the whore-muse in "Pyaasa" and Dev Anand's radiant, misunderstood companion in "C.I.D." (1956) and "Guide" (1965).

I traveled the length of Indian cinema — from the 1935 "Devdas" to the latest films — though not the breadth; there's still so much to discover. So where have I been? I've gone Bollywood. And I haven't come back. This is a message from deep inside the fever.

This time, let's address ten Bollywood FAQs. Frequently Asked by me, that is. I don't know the answers to all these questions. Some Hindi-film adepts, including author-screenwriter Suketu Mehta and Internet Movie Database staffer Michel Hafner have offered help. I'd also like to hear from readers. At the end I'll give you some lists to be explored in the next column (soon). You're the experts.

1. I love Bollywood movies, but why are they sooooooooooooo looooong?

I fell into this Bollywood trap, you may recall, when I lightly mocked the Oscar-nominated Indian film "Lagaan" as a four-hour film about cricket. That Aamir Khan blockbuster is longer than most Indian movies, but not much longer. Pictures starring top-guy Shahrukh Khan, supersmashes like "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" and "Mohabbatein," typically have a running time (or lightly sauntering time) of three to 3-1/2 hours. In the 50s — to me, India's Golden Age — the big movies ran between 135 and 180 mins., an hour longer than most American films of that day. And the hits just keep gettin' longer. Are Indians length freaks?

The way I heard it, Indian dramas have always been lengthy. Even a Western version of an Indian myth, Peter Brook's "The Mahabaratha," ran eight hours on stage and nearly 5-1/2 hours when filmed. When Indians go out for an evening's entertainment, by Vishnu, they want an evening's entertainment — in scope as well as in length. They want the full, three-generation saga, the life story, with full-throttle melodrama and comic relief, with fights and beautiful sets and aching, soulful stares. And of course with songs.

2. Why don't the characters kiss on the mouth?

OK, sometimes they do. In the 1933 "Karma," Devika Rani and Himansu Rai shared a long full-mouth kiss, with the woman on top. But these are rare exceptions. The typical Bollywood sex or love scene has, for 70 years, been nothing but a lip-tease: either an urgent hug that one might give Mom or a series of prissy kisses on the face, strategically missing the lips — to quote the title of the latest Mani Rathnam film, "A Peck on the Cheek." (In Rathnam's 1995 "Bombay," Hindi hero Arvind Swamy tells his Muslim beloved Manisha Koirala, "The quicker we marry, the sooner I kiss you.")

The ever-helpful website, which has the answers to many other Indi-movie FAQs, offers this reason for osculatory obfuscation: "Ideas of morality differ widely from group to group. Why include a kiss when you can easily leave it out and avoid the risk of offending customers?" Granted that Indian movies are shown in Muslim countries with stricter social standards, but since a film is often released in different versions at different lengths, why not permit the occasional lip-lock? It is the visual metaphor for passion the world over.

In this year's semi-steamy "Jism" (that's right, American readers, and the word means the same in Hindi), supermodels Bipashu Basu and John Abraham finally smooch up a storm an hour-and-a-quarter into the film. This low-budget bodice-ripper — which is still way tamer than any of U.S. cable's late-night erotic series, or for that matter Mira Nair's 1996 "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" — proved a surprise hit in India. So, of course, other producers will now be inspired to tilt at the censors and go racy. But they'll be fighting a silly, endearing prohibition that has held fairly firm for most of a century.

3. Virtually every Bollywood film is a musical. Why do the characters have to sing and dance?

A few possibilities are suggested. Song and dance are an integral part of Indian dramatic tradition — in Sanskrit, drama and dance are the same word. The first Indian sound film, "Alam Ara," boasted 20 songs, and when it became a hit other producers (all other producers) made musicals too. "Into the new medium came a river of music," write Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy in "Indian Film," their seminal history book, "that had flowed through unbroken millennia of dramatic tradition."

Indian talkies started as musicals and stayed that way. The first songless film, J.B.H. Wadia's "Naujawan," was released in 1937, after some 500 sound films in Hindi and another couple hundred in Tamil, Bengali, Telugu and Marathi. Soon producers discovered another reason to keep singing: the numbers from a movie, and later the soundtrack album, would be released weeks or months in advance, become hits and help sell the movie, as well as contributing crucially to the film's profitability. Today, the river of music is a major revenue stream

Still... big production numbers in every thriller, every romantic melodrama, every socially uplifting tale of the downtrodden? I here except art films, from "Pather Panchali" to "Bandit Queen." Indeed, the major difference in India between popular and "artistic" movies is that one sings, the other doesn't.

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