Growing up in Calgary in the 1970s, some wintry Sunday afternoons we would go to see an Indian movie, usually either in a vacant classroom at the university or at someone’s house.
In those days, we felt like part of an exclusive group, a chosen few who understood the nuances of Rubenesque actresses dancing around trees with their lovers or the unique emotions involved in bursting out into a heart-wrenching song just when the handsome young leading man died.
Today, the Bollywood-style Indian movie has become ubiquitous.
Mobbed: Shah Rukh Khan has fans wherever he goes.
You would expect these movies to be popular among the Indian expat population, but it’s more than that. Beginning during the Cold War, Russia imported and enjoyed Hindi movies, dubbed in Russian. The Russians’ favourite was the late actor Raj Kapoor and his movies.
Last year, the Bollywood Dance Night at my daughter’s international school in New Delhi was attended by Scandinavian women, who not only knew the songs but the steps as well. And when I went to Istanbul over the Christmas holidays and was walking through the Grand Bazaar, one of the shopkeepers saw my husband and shouted out, “Hey, Shah Rukh Khan (SRK)!” SRK may have been the only Indian the shopkeeper knew and he was desperate to sell that carpet, but try telling that to my husband, who now firmly believes that he and SRK are amazingly similar in appearance. Now, Bollywood itself caters to audiences abroad. Most movies have some portion that is filmed outside of India. Switzerland and England were favourite places during the 1970s and 1980s; currently, the US and Australia are more popular locales.
What is it that makes the Bollywood movie so attractive to so many people?
It may be the tuneful songs, with the singable lyrics. It may be the great dancing with a cast of hundreds, reminiscent of the days of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. It may be the lack of explicit sexual content—there may be a lot of breast heaving and thrusting, but heaven forbid kissing. It may be the lack of real violence—most is of the Road Runner and Coyote variety, where the characters keep jumping up despite receiving repeated bops on the head. It may be the easy-to-understand plots, of which some critics say there are only five. Or it may be just the pure fantasy it offers, showing beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes living in grand homes; families maintaining traditions (though they initially dance in miniskirts in the rain, the women always get married in saris with their head coyly covered), all culminating in a happy ending.
So, if you find yourself at home, looking for a happy ending to a cold and blustery day, you may wish to rent a good Bollywood movie and serve it up with hot samosas and mint chutney.
And who knows? You may find yourself dancing around your coffee table, in pursuit of your own Aishwarya or SRK look-alike.
©2008/The New York Times
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