Going Bollywood

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The house was packed, 12,000 strong, for the fourth annual Bollywood Awards. At the food kiosks in the lobby, patrons lined up for jalebi, aloo vada and samosa chole. Onstage, Indian TV chat maven Ruby Bhatia provided hyperbolic introductions ("His immense talent is about to unfold on this very stage!") to a dozen or so Indian musical acts that whipped the crowd into a cheerful frenzy. And subcontinental film celebrities came by to accept awards in such categories as Best Villain, Best Comic and Most Sensational Female.

Indian pop cinema — that exotic, rhapsodic blend of smiles and tears, song and dance — is the world's most teeming film industry. At nearly 1,000 films a year in 20 languages, its output far outstrips Hollywood's. So no surprise that an awards show honoring Bollywood (meaning Hollywood in Bombay) can fill the seats of a large arena.

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Except that this arena was the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., 7,800 miles from Bombay. Most of the stars had flown through 11 time zones to be at last month's Bollywood Awards (and to pick up checks ranging from $10,000 to $70,000 for their trouble). Their Indo-American fans, many gorgeously duded up in turbans or silk saris, had come to bond with their homeland's most popular art form. "Every South Asian grows up with some kind of connection to Bollywood," notes Indian writer (and Brooklyn resident) Suketu Mehta. "In certain ways, it's what unites us."

In a way, it also unites India and Pakistan. These movies (with a high percentage of Muslim stars and writing talent) are loved in both the rival nations. Bollywood is the rage throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the huge worldwide diaspora of NRIS (nonresident Indians). The NRIS have made it a $100 million industry in the U.S., 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.

Now Bollywood has eyes to conquer the firangis — Hindi for "foreigners." U.S. viewers know Bollywood secondhand from 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 headed to Broadway. But can the real thing make it here? Can Americans open up to the baroque beatitudes of Bollywood cinema?

And you ask, What the heck is Bollywood? Well, it's not your uncle's Satyajit Ray movies — stately pace, unknown actors, Ravi Shankar sitar music. Bollywood is a star-driven cosmos — actresses with names like Dimple Kapadia, Preity Zinta and Karisma Kapoor; hunks of every age, from stalwart Amitabh Bachchan, 59, to giga-charmer Shahrukh Khan, 36, to suave, elaborately muscled Hrithik Roshan, 28 (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 (though not fatally) 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 even any kissing. Forced to sublimate, Bollywood taught itself to revel in full-blooded, full-throated drama. "The formula is essentially a family epic," says 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 this year for an Oscar). 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 delirium that is Bollywood.

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