HOORAY FOR BOLLYWOOD - INDIA
It has been described in so many
different ways. As the oldest eternally-new country in the
world. As the nation that bestowed civilization on Britain.
had to come and get it; then Gandhi kicked her out). As a maternal breast
hanging from the continent of Asia – as ‘Mother India’.
For me, though, India
is a land of beautiful, inspired madness: Edward Lear out of Rudyard Kipling.
It is make-believe posing as reality, or vice versa. It is a sumptuous
mythological theatre where foreign guests are granted a priceless privilege.
We can enter by the stage door and meet the gods and goddesses: those whom
the ticket-buying populace only gaze on from afar, those who dwell at other
times in cloudy posters and paradisal mansions.
ah cinema. Its national industry has no equal in the world. It lures 12
million people daily to movie theatres. It makes 800 films a year, twice Hollywood’s
number. And in a population of a billion, half understands the two main
languages that go into ‘Bollywood’ films – Hindu
and Urdu, compounded in the hybrid lingo known as Hindustani – while other
tongues are served by compass-boxing movies from Bangalore, Hyderabad,
Calcutta (home to the great art cinema of Satyajit
I shall never forget this southern capital’s film festival all those years
ago (harp music, shimmering lap-dissolve) when a defining moment in Indian
cinema history coincided with my visit as a guest and movie critic.
It was the glorious birth of 1970s
Indian art cinema when wonderworks like Shyam Benegal’s ANKUR and Mrinal Sen’s THE ROYAL HUNT were appearing. Beautiful New Cinema
stars like Shabana Azmi
and Smita Patil were
making their bow, actresses so human, even though working out of Bollywood’s Bombay
rather than Ray’s Bengal,
that ordinary fans felt they could almost touch them. Like Ingrid Bergman
they helped to pioneer the no-makeup look, freeing womanhood from the
paint-and-pose syndrome of Hindi commercial actresses. Just
as Ray had done for screen women on the other side of India.
And lo! Ray, the grand old man of
Bengal, was there to bless the new cinema as the Madrasfest
opened. It was almost his last full-dress international public appearance.
Stately in Indian formal garb, gaunt as a tiger, tall and sunburned, this
walking legend, the director of PATHER PANCHALI, THE WORLD OF APU and CHARULATA, shook our
hands at the opening ‘do.’ Unbending in a vast graciousness, he called us
each by our first names as if he had known us forever. Just how living
Ray carved the Indian cinema most
westerners know better than any other, even today. His subtly reverberant
tales of moral conflict and emotional liberation - of the plight of women or
the fight of India’s
underclasses or the pangs and paradoxes of love -
were glowing dramas plugged into the humanist grid of world art cinema.
Today, that world is starting to
catch glimpses of a different Indian film: pop-Bollywood
movies, some of which – DIL SE,
LAGAAN, ASOKA – have been made with extra crossover potential in the hope
that concessions to universal taste (a coherent narrative, musical numbers
actually relevant to the story) might make the madnesses
more manageable to non-Indians.
Before now the easy generalization -
easy but presumptuous – is that Ray and his followers in the 70s-born New
Indian Cinema portrayed the real India while Bollywood’s
mandate then, now and forever is to dispense fable, fantasy and fiction.
But what is the ‘real India’?
To a visitor at least, it sometimes seems unknowable. He can describe it only
by juggling the very hyperboles, contrasts and wacky contradictions that seem
at home in India’s
mass entertainment movies. At that glittering Madras
Festival launch we swirled among greater and lesser auteurs
eager to hype their new films (no such thing as a free launch), while we
clutched glasses of - yes - orange juice and humble mineral water. Very
surreal, but this was Tamil Nadu, a dry state, of
which more anon. At the same time we silently thanked the deities charged
with air travel that we were there at all. Earlier we’d landed in one of India’s
two flagship Jumbos, not long after the other had plunged into the sea off Bombay,
killing all. We read the news as our plane idled on the tarmac during a Delhi
touchdown, newspapers thoughtfully distributed by flight attendants. (On one
of my earlier film festival trips to Iran
airport collapsed, with injury and deaths. Is someone trying to send me a
abundance mingles with abstinence, comedy lies down with tragedy. You come to
the country to be chastened, bewildered, disoriented. The grace of your hosts,
the horror of street poverty. The luxury of your
hotel, the squalor everywhere else. On one side of a busy main street
will be a movie hoarding as high as a minaret featuring beauty-spotted stars
caught in a cataclysm of love, war and fabulous costumery.
On the other side beggars crawl on sidewalks,
holding out stumps for rupees. A small bundle of clothes is a dead child. An
array of charred tin pots and candle butts is someone’s supper. .
Your gang of Anglo-American chums
soon sorts itself into two groups: the right-wingers who express honest shock
while inwardly trying to reconcile laisser-faire capitalism with
laisser-faire death and suffering; the left-wingers who semaphore their pity
and indignation for ten minutes, then never go near a sidewalk or shanty
settlement again. (Except to take photos).
though, what if anything unites all or nearly all the people?
Rich and poor alike clamor for the
fantasies of the big screen as if the golden rectangle of a movie dream is better,
far better, than a square meal on the table or pavement. Films are blowouts
for the mind. We fest-guests experienced our share of these: mad spectacles
from Bollywood, so daffy in their escapism that
they describe and define, in invisible subtext, the very urgency of the need
they fill. The need of Indian audiences for glitter, for
transcendence, for a mock-celestial afterlife in the here and now.
Basically every Bollywood
film (rendered as dialogue) goes like this: “Lovely peasant girl, I am a prince/playboy/young
millionaire in disguise, and I am struck by your beauty as I stroll by this
“Handsome stranger, would you but know it, I am the daughter of the
richest man in the Punjab and I only look like a peasant because I have
rejected my family and/or am doing a thesis on urban renewal, trying to
interface with the deserving poor.” “Oh beautiful one, I hear a sitar
stealing across the ornamental pond, let us break into song and dance.” “Yes, let’s.” And we are off, warbling and capering away
in a ten-minute musical montage that takes in all India’s
tourist spots, plus a Swiss Alp, plus Sydney Bridge,
plus the Tower of London.
It makes no sense. But then neither
Colorful contrariness is the air the country breathes. For instance, half the
audience leaves a cinema’s auditorium for drinks or ices during the big
musical numbers. This is almost institutional: they’ve already seen those
numbers a dozen times in MTV-style preview clips on telly.
They return for the story, the drama, the dialogue;
and for that untiring miracle, the walking of demigods on terra firma.
In the self-same Madras
Film Festival – in this land where stars are too divine to breathe upon – we
watched the best and latest of the New Cinema films while crouched in the
balcony of a Madras
picture palace the size of the Taj Mahal. At some screenings the unsubtitled
dialogue was translated viva voce by the director, sitting with us. But for
one film, Shyam Benegal’s
THE ACTRESS, the live running translation was provided by the star herself, Smita Patil.
Patil! In our midst! Imagine Julia Roberts sitting
next to you giving a shot-by-shot commentary on ERIN BROCKOVICH. Smita – I call her Smita – was
the darkly damask, delicate-as-a-lily-pad heroine of bold social dramas like
NISHANT. This film was so controversial in its day that director Benegal had to go to Prime Minister Indira
Gandhi to have a nationwide ban revoked. Mrs G
granted the repeal, but only on condition that the plot about a village
uprising was preceded by a caption saying the events depicted happened before
India became independent, even though they didn’t. Benegal
still remembers the hilarity of audiences across the country, deriding the
imposture. In the Subcontinent of Fantasy, even realist films must sometimes
sip from the fountain of make-believe.
another star encounter. I am in a taxi outside my hotel. The
taxi is throbbing to depart for a screening. Who should get in, asking for a
lift, but Shabana Azmi? The
beautiful, opal-skinned, sapphire-eyed diva of ANKUR and Ray’s THE CHESS
PLAYERS squeezed in, having already squeezed into a purple and gold sari
stitched together, I appraised in a glance, from stars and gossamer and
Imagine having your cab shared by,
say, the young Elizabeth Taylor. Shabana – I call her Shabana –
soon became a Bollywood star as well as an art
cinema icon. More recently she became a top politician. Now she rails
beautifully against poverty, injustice and the caste system in India’s
Upper House: ultimate glamour finding a way interface with ultimate
deprivation. I like to think that our 20-minute chat in the taxi had some
small influence on her rise to ideological nirvana. (She calls me Harlan…).
Years later, Azmi
told me one of the secrets of Indian cinema: the mythological substructure
that gives its best films, whether art or entertainment, their rippling
narrative musculature. “Our characters and stories, our notions of good and
evil, are rooted in myth and legend, in the RAMAYANA or the MAHABHARATA….
This makes even modern dramas or conventional romances and adventure films
seem a little bigger than life. And it gives universality to a culture made
up of all these different languages and religions we have: Hindu, Muslim,
Buddhist, Christian. When audiences see them on screen they all recognize the
great stories of Indian legend”.
Back in Madras the greatest of
off-screen meetings was about to happen: a true interface between life and
legend, a cameo, you could say, of India’s ability to blend the divine and
the quotidian, the picayune with the epiphanic.
Picture a star-scattered night in the
grounds of a luxury hotel on the sea coast south of Madras.
The outdoor buffet tables groan with viands, dainties and fabulous fruit. (Plus orange juice and mineral water). No one has touched
the spread yet, in respect for the coming visit of the guest of honor. He is
Tamil Nadu governor and former film superstar – no,
megastar – make that hyperstar – M.G. Ramachandran. MGR was so famous in his life that he had a
temple dedicated to him. Later, when he died, a million people attended his
funeral. It was not enough to call him a god. He was a religion, a scripture,
a whole cosmic system of awe and worship.
Now picture me and my compatriot
guests huddled around dear old Ken Whatsisname, the
then director of the London
Film Festival, who was covertly titrating vodka into our orange juices. We
were all there except for the Guardian film critic who had been caught by a
roving spotlight gobbling a chicken leg at the forbidden buffet table.
We were in the midst of raising our
illegal glasses to our throats when a noise and motion like the parting of
the Red Sea
happened just to the north of us. It was MGR. The demigod
himself. Plus retinue. Plus
machinegun-armed bodyguards. Plus formal robe, dark
glasses and one of those imposing gray Persian-lamb hats worn only by SIPs (Seriously Important Panjandrums).
He advanced through the crowd, a man
on a momentous but unhurried mission. Happily the mission was not to arrest
us but to greet the western contingent tout entier,
which he did with grace, dignity and the wellknown
Indian bow with raised palms pressed together. None of us – since we were all
in shock – remembers what he said. Or whether he said
anything. He merely shed divine radiance all around. And he seemed to
notice no wrongdoing, though there were rumors later that the chicken-eating
Guardian critic had been detained and forced to attend an Indian ‘cultural programme’: one of those evenings of classical song,
dance and sitar-playing that resourceful visitors such as myself avoid by
pleading prior engagements or climbing over a wall.
It is inscribed on my heart and mind for ever. And how good to see that Bollywood cinema is itself starting
to climb over a wall as intimated – the wall around Indian popular culture –
and to make itself known and shown in the west.
The recent roar accorded ASOKA at the
Film Festival, followed by its commercial opening in Britain,
proves my point. A 3rd Dynasty BC
warrior prince who kills thousands in glorious color with song and dance, who
loves a foreign princess, and who then converts to Buddhism to unite an
empire in peace and goodness: that is the stuff to give the world.
Can such films truly, plurally, cross over from them to us? It is happening in
as it has already happened in other lands and landmasses. (In Russia,
and elsewhere Bollywood pictures have had a
following for decades). Early in 2001 a handful of mainstream British cinemas
played host to the 4-hour historical epic LAGAAN. A superhit
this tells of a group of peasant villagers who rise up against the British in
a 19th century province and clobber them with their own most vicious weapon –
cricket! The exciting climactic game occupies the movie’s entire second half,
a belief-defying two hours. In and around the biffing of leather balls with
willow bats we enjoy, with scarcely a
squeak of protest or twinge of aesthetic discomfort, the songs, the
dances, the googoo-eyed love scenes.
Even before LAGAAN there was DIL SE,
a gaudy adventure-romance which romped into the UK
box office top ten, featuring a now-famous musical number atop a moving
train. Andrew Lloyd Webber saw the sequence and signed the film’s composer
for his next show, opening in 2002, called BOMBAY
Not since the Beatles jet-setted to the Subcontinent, to stock up on mysticism and Ravi
Shankar music, has the Empire shown such interest
in the ex-protectorate. And when Britain
leads, can the rest of the Occident be far behind?
India’s screen showmanship cannot,
must not, languish in purdah.
Shah Rukh Khan, the top actor in present-day Bollywood, plays the title role in ASOKA and was the star
of DIL SE. Khan – I call him Shah Rukh – has become
known as the Indian Tom Cruise. Handsome, boyish, wealthy and the top prey
for gossip-hunters in Bombay
fanzines, he once told me:
“Harlan, Indian cinema is just like India
itself. For the rest of the world, enough can often be too much. For Indians
– so deprived and yet always so dreaming – ‘too much’ is never even enough.”
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR
CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.