Bollywood confidential

Despite a massive international market and a huge impact on pop culture, the outrageous musical eye candy of Bollywood remains almost invisible in America.



Lisa Tsering
January 29, 2003 2:00AM (UTC)

How do you take your Bollywood?

Old school, with a plump heroine scampering around a tree to sarangi music? Or millennial -- a sculpted hero in an Armani suit descending from a helicopter, and racing around Sydney or Amsterdam in a convertible? Then there's the latest version, Bollywood lite, as bastardized by American filmmakers (see Daisy von Scherler Mayer's comedy "The Guru," opening Jan. 31) or viewed through post-colonial British eyes, as in Andrew Lloyd Webber and A.R. Rahman's delightful stage show "Bombay Dreams" or the cross-cultural love story "Bollywood Queen," premiering this month at Sundance.

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From Madison Avenue to mainstream film and TV, Bollywood is becoming as ubiquitous as chai, even if few Americans have actually seen an Indian film. To some hardcore fans, its adulteration is as distasteful as green tea mocha chai with soy milk, but others are hailing a new generation of Indian filmmakers who expand the Bollywood formula with exciting results. Yes, the singing and dancing is still there, for the most part. (Thank God!) But films like "Kaante," a straight-faced and marvelously fun musical "Reservoir Dogs" rip-off, and Deepa Mehta's Canadian comedy "Bollywood Hollywood" are attempting to use the archetypal characters and masala formula in a whole new way.

Western directors, too, are turning east. Willard Carroll ("Playing by Heart") has signed Indian superstar "shirtless" Salman Khan for a $10 million musical called "Marigold," opposite an as-yet-unnamed American actress and featuring songs by Truth Hurts and Indian composing team Shankar/Ehsaan/Loy. Gurinder Chadha, director of the British hit "Bend It Like Beckham," recently announced that she has signed screen goddess Aishwarya Rai for a musical version of "Pride and Prejudice."

Even straight Hollywood films like "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" are getting their nerve up to try the musical form in earnest. And a wave of appealing new indies out of India tackle grittier subjects ranging from terrorism to rural water rights to the status of women. In 2003, some of the best new and vintage Indian films are on display at festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto and other venues. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, which wrapped Jan. 20, featured no fewer than 12 important new Indian films, while the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival promises as many as 20 films, including the U.S. premiere of "Bend It Like Beckham" (which opens March 12 in New York and Los Angeles). Along with the wide selection of subtitled DVDs now available, this represents the best-ever opportunity to explore one of world cinema's most intriguing frontiers.

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Last year, the success of "Monsoon Wedding" (which director Mira Nair described as "a Bollywood film on my own terms") and the Academy Award nomination of the gorgeous musical epic "Lagaan" led Bollywood watchers to predict, a bit prematurely, that Indian movies had arrived in America. But for the most part, their fans here have consisted of a tiny cult, and regrettably few self-described film experts really know anything about Bollywood at all.

Why is it that the world's biggest, noisiest and most colorful entertainment phenomenon hasn't yet reached the consciousness of mainstream America?

Most of the people I've asked agree on one thing: marketing. "I think the marketing and distribution has been a little undisciplined and unprofessionally handled," observes Amitabh Bachchan, at 60 still a reigning superstar and the only Indian star to be immortalized at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Bachchan also heads the International Indian Film Academy Awards, a huge, yearly event with revolving international venues. "I wish some of America's discipline and management philosophy would be taken by India," he says. "We are the largest filmmaking country in the world, and the sheer demographics would put our stars as more visible than some of the Hollywood stars."

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Sometimes, too, Indian filmmakers pull some pretty stupendous gaffes. Last year, "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" made over $1 million on only 73 screens in its opening weekend in the United States. It was the biggest ever opening for an Indian movie here, but its producers didn't report the figures to Variety or Exhibitor Relations promptly, losing out on the chance to place the film in the U.S. top 10 and make international news.

Another mainstream Hindi film that's just hit theaters, and stars the sultry Bipasha Basu, has the title "Jism." The word means "body" in Hindi, by the way. Yes, the filmmaker and actors all speak English (but apparently not well enough).

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Outside the ethnic press aimed at Indian immigrants, Bollywood films are rarely advertised or promoted to U.S. audiences. And let's not forget the piracy, death threats and scary Mafia connections (one major star, the Stallone-esque Sanjay Dutt of "Kaante," has even served hard time for stockpiling weapons). The industry's lack of discipline is legendary; it's not unheard of for an Indian film star to turn up hours late for a shoot, or for films to be shot without scripts. Sons, daughters, nieces and remote third cousins of industry players are regularly foisted on the public as "new discoveries" who, thankfully, tend to burn out after a single film.

Despite its flaws, however, Bollywood enjoys a massive international market. It's no exaggeration to say that more than a billion people worldwide would recognize Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan before Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise. High art it ain't -- within India and the Indian diaspora, Bollywood films are looked upon as lowest-common-denominator entertainment for the six-pack crowd. Here in America, oddly enough, it's your culture-vulture microbrew drinkers who are most likely to seek out "Lagaan" or the kitschy "Kaante."

What is a Bollywood movie, anyway? The term gets thrown around and is often misunderstood, so here are the basics.

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The term "Bollywood" is a blend of Bombay and Hollywood. Like the suburbs of Los Angeles that house dozens of studios and locations from San Pedro to Valencia, so too modern, sprawling Bombay (or Mumbai, as it is now called) attracts millions of people from all over India looking for a chance to join the great Indian dream factory.

In studios like the ramshackle Filmistan -- where the trees are full of fruit bats and craft service is likely to consist of a chai-wallah and a big, steaming cauldron of dal -- and Film City (picture Paramount Ranch, with the occasional extra out of "The Mahabharata" zooming by on a motorcycle), musical numbers, wedding scenes, cast-of-thousands historical battles and action pieces are mounted on a staggering scale.

Labor is cheap: In 95-degree weather, armies of makeup artists are kept at the ready for every vigorous dance scene, and I've seen more than one star trailed by machine-gun-toting guards or an assistant whose only job is to carry around a 6-foot-tall electric fan with a very, very long cord.

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Bollywood movies are often called "masala" films because, like the spicy curry mixture the word connotes, they are a blend of many different elements -- romance, action, fights, melodrama and, especially, music. They're typically at least three hours long, but are usually shown with an intermission. Many Indian theaters, even in the U.S., serve up hot samosas and real chai (not the soy milk aberration) at the concession stand, so you can keep up your strength.

Composer Danny Elfman (of "Spider-Man" and countless other films) and his longtime collaborator, director Tim Burton of "Batman" and "Planet of the Apes," are big fans. "The way I describe a Bollywood movie to people here is that it's a whole evening's entertainment," says Elfman by phone from his Malibu studio. "It's an event. Tim has expressed great interest in doing a movie in the Bollywood style, and if he does, I'd love to score it."

Music is the key to a Bollywood movie. Set to rhythms that range from earthy Punjabi folk to techno and even traditional ghazal and classical forms, the songs are gloriously shrill, loud and long, and don't require the listener to know a single word of Hindi to be swept up in the fun. The hero and heroine invariably lip-sync to a "playback" track and change costumes half a dozen times against a background that might be Filmistan, Trafalgar Square or the Swiss Alps.

Every Bollywood star knows how to dance, so every musical number features sexy, or at least acrobatic, displays of bulging muscles and curvaceous hips clad in yards of colorful silks -- or, if you're unlucky, hideous outfits that look like they came from a Tijuana flea market (you take your chances).

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Although sex scenes are taboo in Hindi films, the dancing can be incredibly erotic nevertheless. Bollywood choreographers have become masters at suggesting sensuality with wet saris, thrusting pelvises, jutting (though well-covered) breasts and plenty of tiny kisses everywhere but the mouth -- on the throat, belly button, ankle or palm. In one of the sexiest dance sequences in recent memory, in "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham," Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol swayed in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza. He gently nudged a bangle onto Kajol's wrist and I almost fainted.

To me, the songs and dances are the best part of any Bollywood movie, but in case you're one of those old-fashioned types that needs a story to tie it all together, consider these: Stern father banishes son who refuses to give in to his plans for an arranged marriage; son and his brother (and their respective love interests) finally bring the family together for a teary musical finale (this one is from "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham," or "Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad"). Oh yeah, this is the one where Shah Rukh Khan makes his grand entrance in a helicopter.

Or this plot, from the 2000 hit "Kaho Na Pyar Hai" ("Tell Me You Love Me"): Girl meets sweet-natured, aspiring singer and falls in love. Goons kill singer. To get over her loss, girl takes a trip to Australia, where she meets her lover's exact double -- except that instead of being a wimp like the first guy, he's a gorgeous macho hunk who ends up going back with her to India and taking revenge for the first guy's death.

And in the 1994 smash "Hum Apke Hain Koun?" ("Who Are We to You?"), an unexpected love story takes place during an elaborate Indian wedding, with no fewer than 13 songs thrown in for good measure.

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According to an annually published Indian government study on the entertainment industry, Mumbai produces the bulk of the 1,000-plus films India releases each year. Most of these films are in Hindi, but a sizable number are in Tamil, Telugu and other Indian languages. Nearly all of the mainstream, commercial films are musicals.

The relatively high production values of the Hindi films and the star power of their heroes and heroines have led to Bollywood's domination of Indian entertainment. Although very few of the films are subtitled for the foreign market (at least until the DVD release), their songs and stars prove so irresistible that non-Indian Bollywood movie fans can now be found across the Middle East, Southeast Asia, China, Russia, Japan, Britain and North Africa.

A decade ago, most Bollywood films were of the so-bad-they're-good variety, but production values are going up. "The current movies are pretty slick," observes critic David Chute, of Film Comment magazine and L.A. Weekly. "With a movie like 'Lagaan,' you see it and you get hooked."

This year's slickest Bollywood effort, "Devdas," at $12 million the most expensive movie ever made in India, has been chosen to represent India at the next Academy Awards. Nominations won't be announced until Feb. 11, but Time's Richard Corliss liked its "visual ravishment" so much that he ranked it at No. 4 on his list of the year's Top 10 films.

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"Devdas," which stars Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai as tragic lovers and Madhuri Dixit as a courtesan smitten with Devdas (Khan), opened the Palm Springs International Film Festival's special "Bollywood/Hollywood" program on Jan. 12 with a gala screening attended by Dixit. The film is too melodramatic for my taste -- there is much weeping and drunken throwing of glassware -- but its opulent costumes and passionate performances do serve as an effective introduction to the charms of its stars, especially the voluptuous Dixit.

The Palm Springs fest screened 12 of the most important dramatic feature films to come out of India over the last year, many of which are now available on DVD. Selections included "Chandni Bar," a compelling and realistic look at the dead-end lives of Mumbai's bar girls; "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham," a little bit of balls-out Bollywood eye candy; and "Dil Chahta Hai," which helped launch a new trend of films that convincingly blend song and dance with the lives and issues of urban youth (watch "Lagaan" star Aamir Khan trade in his dhoti for big-city hipster duds!).

One of the year's best films is the debut feature from husband-and-wife activist filmmakers Anwar Jamal and Sehjo Singh. Their film, "Swaraaj: The Little Republic," takes the struggle for water rights by four low-caste women in Rajasthan and turns it into a fable that would inspire anyone who's ever battled bureaucracy. Another film that played Palm Springs after an impressive showing at Toronto last September was "A Tale of a Naughty Girl," Buddhadeb Dasgupta's bittersweet depiction of a bright young girl who seeks an education over the objections of her mother, a prostitute who sees a brighter future in the flesh trade. South Indian auteur Mani Ratnam ("A Peck on the Cheek") was honored, and a few of the best new films in English also got attention, including the powerful "Mr. & Mrs. Iyer" and "Everybody Says I'm Fine!"

Another forward-looking festival with the courage to peek beyond Satyajit Ray is the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. This year's SFIAAFF, to be held March 6 through 16, will highlight cinema of the Indian diaspora and feature screenings of "Bend It Like Beckham"; "Bollywood Bound," a wry documentary on the quest for stardom; "Mutiny," a documentary on the British-Indian bands and DJs who are transforming club music (with DJ Rekha, founder of Basement Bhangra); and two Bollywood classics, 1998's frothy "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" and the Oscar-nominated 1957 classic "Mother India." Another festival in Chicago later in the year will spotlight Bollywood classics of the 1950s and '60s.

Indian film is evolving at an astounding pace, and 2003 might be its best year yet. I'm not promising that commercial breakthrough, and I also can't promise you'll fall in love with Bollywood's squirming starlets, lithe heroes and violin-drenched dance numbers. But if you still thought India was about yoga and sitar music, you'll definitely be surprised.


Lisa Tsering

Lisa Tsering is a correspondent for the Times of India and entertainment editor of India-West.

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