bollywood and I    

A personal appreciation of Bollywood by Emma Pickett 

Bollywood and I met just when I needed it.

It was 1999 and I was a primary school teacher in London a few weeks away from an OFSTED inspection. My friend Ravi invited me to the NFT to see a new release, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. She had grown up with Indian cinema and assured this was the antidote to stress I needed. I was sceptical. I was not in the mood for subtitles and all I knew of Indian cinema was that it consisted of singing and dancing at ludicrous moments.

The first thing that struck me was the audience. It was overwhelmingly Indian except for pasty me and my equally pasty Canadian friend Sharon who was also along for the ride. The other striking component was the chat. This might have been the NFT but you were not going to get away with shushing someone unwrapping a sweet during the trailers. Conversation was at full volume and several families appeared to be tucking in to a full Tupperware picnic. Ravi explained that Hindi speakers also found the subtitles quite handy as it was not always possible to hear the dialogue.

The film (directed by Karan Johar in 1999) began worryingly. A man was sobbing melodramatically over the death of his lovely young wife. There was a funeral pyre and lots of soft focus and it all compared poorly with the acting seen on American daytime soap opera. Then we flashed back to their college days… and I was hooked. Three hours later, I sailed out sobbing happily. It could be argued that my pre-OFSTED frame of mind would have been similarly touched by a Carry On film but I was incapable of forming coherent sentences and subsequent experience has suggested it was Bollywood that was responsible.

I should declare at this point that when it comes to cinema I am a bit of a pleb. I will choose Along came Polly over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I will do this knowing I am seeing the 'lesser' film. My Back to the Future trilogy on dvd is not hidden behind the early Hitchcocks but displayed proudly. I could pretend it is a reaction to doing film studies at university but that is a lie. Even then I once skipped the second half of D.W Griffith's Intolerance in the lecture theatre to pay and see Christian Slater in Pump up the Volume at the Odeon. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was like a Big Mac, or more appropriately considering its Hindi origins, a plate of dough balls dipped in sugar syrup. No worthy pretensions, just pure pleasure and entertainment.

The film begins with the death of Tina (played by Rani Mukherji) beloved wife of Rahul (played by Shahrukh Khan, the megastar of Indian cinema.) She leaves him a single dad to their daughter Anjali but not before writing a series of letters. Her daughter is to open one on each birthday and the last one on her eighth birthday explains the origin of her name. She is called Anjali after Rahul's best friend at university - a tomboy who beat Rahul at basketball but secretly loved him deeply (played by Kajol - such a star she only has one name). Now it is little Anjali's duty to track her namesake down and ensure she marries her father. When she finds her, old Anjali is a counsellor at a summer camp and the good news is she has swapped her basketball boots for sophisticated saris and make up. The bad news is she is engaged to an honourable chap and marriage is imminent. Anjali, of course, is too decent to dump her fiancé.

The ending may be predictable but by the end of three hours these are characters you care about and Anjali's fiancé steps aside in recognition of true love. All very satisfying and I was even happy about the singing and dancing at improbable moments. Delightfully the Bollywood industry makes no pretence that their stars are actually doing the singing. Films are described as featuring 'the biggest stars of Hindi playback' and voices clearly do not match the speaking nor do actors have similar singing voices from film to film. Stars act, dance and are likeable. Bollywood filmmakers unashamedly steal the flavour of any movie that will add to the pleasure experience. Rahul and Anjali's college is reminiscent of Rydell High and when the three main characters decide to go for an afternoon stroll they dance around the castle featured in Highlander, magically transported to India.

Other films are eerily familiar. Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye (2000, director K Murali Mohan Rao) adopts the ending and key scenes of The Wedding Singer, starring Adam Sandler, wholesale. A new release Hum Tum (2004, director Kunal Kohli), which recently had a run at the Empire Leicester Square, is basically When Harry Met Sally. But this is the Indian version so when the shocking pre-marital sex does occur it devastates both of them and they are racked with guilt for many years before their love brings them back together.

These films present an odd view of Indian life, partly bogus and partly genuine. Poverty does not seem to exist although there may be the odd comic servant. All families are upper middle class and rich, living in expensive apartments with river views and going to private school and summer camp. They may holiday in Goa but also travel to Paris, London, Australia, and America for work and pleasure. They get engaged to NRIs (non-resident Indians) while of course really being in love with the girl from back home. However marriage and family are sacred. They respect their parents and usually their mothers play a significant part in their lives (This is the industry for the middle-aged actress). Even when it has been arranged for them to marry someone who is not their true love, they will not disrespect their parents by running off. It is up to the father, sometimes with a nudge from mum, to realise the truth and explain, while sobbing, that all he wants is his daughter to be happy so of course she can marry the bloke walking away with tears in his eyes.

This is an India where religion is a part of daily life although sometimes mums can be a bit embarrassing with their rituals and prayers at the airport. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Tina wears mini skirts and has just come back from schooling in London. Rahul teases her for losing her Hindu roots so she sings him a traditional religious song (slow motion, wind machine) and then he is really interested.

Back at school I introduced my class to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and I was amazed that it was already familiar to the large portion of Bengali Muslims who understood the Hindi dialogue purely from their experiences of Bollywood at home. A traditional Muslim family can watch a Bollywood film safe in the knowledge there will be no swearing and no flippant sexuality. Main characters often go for the full three hours without even a kiss and hug at the climax. Actresses will keep their clothes on although they will walk/ dance/cry in the rain while wearing a thin sari so we can at least get to see their figures. My class went on to devise a dance performance based on steps from the film's choreography. We went on to do a topic on India and made chapattis and shadow puppets. I don't think a Carry On film would have had such an effect.

I am sure there is a deeper side to Indian cinema which I have yet to experience but I suspect that as long as actors such as Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol and Rani Mukerji are working, I won't. Bollywood is unashamedly pleasurable and a dream for a cinema pleb like me.                                                                  

©Emma Pickett 2004

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai  1998  117 minutes  Director Karan Johar  Writer Karan Johar   Actors Shah Rukh Khan  Kajol  Rani Mukherjee  Score Jatin-Lalit