In keeping with a time-honoured tradition in Hindi cinema, Pyaar Impossible is a love story that can find expression only in The Foreign. On the campus of the fictional and strangely named Ankert University, a nerd (Uday Chopra) falls in love with the college heart-throb (Priyanka Chopra). The activities that Chopra’s Alisha character engages in, from walking down a corridor in stringy tops and short skirts to fronting a band, cannot presumably take place anywhere in India. Many of us have had our hearts stolen and broken in college, but on the screen, Indian educational institutions are best suited for laments about institutional corruption and violent student politics. To stage a successful romance, you simply have to migrate to a place where you can mouth Hindi songs amid well-fed and relaxed-looking white people.
Movies such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Main Hoon Na created a template for the college as a peppermint-coloured set, but the colleges are recognizably fictional. What’s funnier is when Hindi movies relocate lock, stock and barrel to cities such as London and New York, and manage to find the Bollywoodian side of these cities—spaces that the local residents will have trouble recognizing themselves. Bollywood’s predilection with spectacle has gone global with a vengeance. Whole films are now set in foreign cities without providing even a whiff of what life in those places is actually like. How South African was last year’s Race? It could have been shot in Amby Valley in Lonavala for all we care.
What we’re seeing in the movies is a result of a meeting of minds between gloss-obsessed film-makers and revenue-chasing governments. The tourism boards that invite Bollywood film-makers to shoot in their countries are hardly likely to throw in tours of their local versions of Mumbai’s Dharavi or Kolkata’s Sonagachi. It’s a sweet deal that only a truly independent-minded producer will subvert: Let us shoot at your monuments for a discount and we will ignore your shanties. There are many worlds in between the extremes of comfort and blight, but if local film-makers don’t want to step into the middle-class boroughs in their own backyards, they can hardly be expected to do so abroad.
Fantasy world: Pyaar Impossible has an un-Indian backdrop.
Despite its much-vaunted recent turn towards more realistic stories and characters, Bollywood is still mostly about creating fantasy zones within which romance is nurtured and morality is tested. Giving a story local colour and flavour requires conviction, hard work and research.
Several Hindi film-makers privately sneered at Danny Boyle’s depiction of the slums and streets of Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s one of the few movies in recent times to accurately capture the city’s febrile rhythms. The years our film-makers have spent in studios and on artificially created sets have closed off knowledge of what the real world looks like. We go to New York and hang around Times Square, just like we have reduced all of Mumbai to Marine Drive and all of Delhi to India Gate.
Shyam Benegal’s Welcome to Sajjanpur beautifully captures Bollywood’s ambivalence towards venturing into the so-called real India. The whole movie is shot on an identifiable set and the “happy ending” is revealed to be a fiction behind which lies harshness and brutality. In Bollywood’s defence, most Hindi filmgoers don’t seem to be interested in realism either. Movies such as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Kaminey may be exciting because they are identifiably set in Delhi and Mumbai, but the box-office successes last year included Love Aaj Kal, which criss-crosses the globe in its pursuit of pretty locations, and Blue, which plays out in the most gorgeous part of the Bahamas.
For films that make the city a character in the plot, tune your television set to World Movies.
Nandini Ramnath is the managing editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at email@example.com