Bollywood Invasion

I don’t know exactly when I went over to the other side. But at some point after I returned from India in February 2003, it was no longer painful for me to listen to a Bollywood song. These days, I am an unfortunate victim of periodic invasions of Bollywood tunes that slip unconsciously into my mind. Yes, we humans can get used to anything.

OK, I’m not so far gone that I can tell you what movie the songs are from, unless the title of the song is also the title of the movie (Saathiya, Kal Ho Naa Ho, etc.). Nor can I tell you who wrote the song (most likely A R Rahman), or sings it (if it is a female voice, it is probably Asha Bhosle). And I don’t read Stardust (like Mark does) to keep up with the latest antics of Bollywood stars. But I’m getting scared. I’m sure that watching Bollywood movies falls into the category of one of those things that makes you more stupid the more you participate. And listening to the soundtrack album – forget about it.

It started out as a cultural study: if we were going to survive 5 months in India, we’d better learn about Bollywood movies and cricket. (As one acquaintance we met in Kolkata told us: “If you ever feel that you are being threatened, just mention Amitabh Bachan or Sachin Tendulkar.”) In mid-September, 2002, Mark and I arrived in North India and jumped right in to the food and popular culture. We got our first lessons in food, Bollywood and cricket from Rakesh, the driver who spent two weeks with us in Rajasthan.

We saw “Devdas”, the most expensive Bollywood movie made to date, at the most famous movie theatre in India – the Raj Mandir in Jaipur – an art deco fantasy that would fit right in on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. A sumptuous visual feast, “Devdas” was the “easy” stuff. Shah Rukh Khan cried too much, but who cared – his costumes were too beautiful. (Mark spent the next few weeks asking any one he could where to get a dhoti like the one Shah Rukh Khan wore in “Devdas”.) Then it got progressively worse. We saw Shakhti in Old Delhi, Saathiya in Pune, and Kaante (a remake of Quentin Tarrintino’s Reservoir Dogs, with singing and dancing!) in Bombay.

After we got home, friends started recommending their favorite movies, which we proceeded to watch on DVD, with subtitles. By then, it was too late. The camp was actually entertaining, and the melodrama actually drew tears. Friends were dedicating songs (Kabhi to Nazar Milao) to Mark at amateur house concerts.

If you grew up on this stuff, you’re excused. As Suketu Mehta writes in Bollywood Confidential: “Why do I love Bollywood movies? To an Indian, that’s like asking why we love our mothers; we don’t have a choice.”

Those of you who’d like to have a clue when your friends are taking about Bollywood movies (and you don’t speak Hindi or Urdu), here’s the trick – watch a couple without subtitles first. If you were to watch a subtitled movie cold, without having been inoculated, you will want to kill yourself about a third of the way through the three plus hour experience. The dialogue is inane, the plot twists make no sense, and the songs are pure camp. Why does it take a whole hour to get to the point of desperation? It takes that long to realize: this is not a joke. (Although these days, there is too much self-reflective spoofing…)

Or, make new friends.

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