Dreaming of Bombay through the movies

Guest column

Whether they’re making art films or masala films solidly in the mainstream, the people in the movie industry are all the same: big dreamers. In India, their dreams have to be bigger than everybody else’s. In India they’re making collective dreams; when they go to sleep at night they have to dream for a billion people.

The Indian entertainment industry at the beginning of the 21st century is worth $3.5 billion, a minor part of the global $300 billion entertainment industry. But it is the world’s biggest movie industry when it comes to production and viewership.

The 1,000 feature films and 40,000 hours of TV programming and 5,000 music titles that the country produces are exported to seventy countries. Every day, 14 million Indians see a movie in one of 13,000 theaters; worldwide, a billion more people a year buy tickets to Indian movies than to Hollywood ones. Television is galloping in; the country has 60 million homes with TV, of which 28 million are cabled.

“There are more television channels available in Mumbai than in most U.S. cities,” Bill Clinton noted on a trip to the city in 1999.

India is one of the few territories in which Hollywood has been unable to make more than a dent: Hollywood films make up barely 5% of the country’s market. Resourceful saboteurs, the Hindi moviemakers.

When every other country’s cinema had fallen before Hollywood, India met Hollywood the Hindu way. It welcomed it, swallowed it whole, and regurgitated it. What went in blended with everything that had existed before and came back out with 10 new heads.

Hindi film directors detest the term Bollywood: They point out that the film industry in Bombay is older than the one in Hollywood, because American filmmaking started out on the East Coast before moving to California in the early 20th century.

The Lumiere brothers brought their cinematographe to Bombay in 1896, only a few months after the wondrous invention debuted in Paris. A Maharashtrian named Bhatvadekar started making short films on wrestling matches and circus monkeys in Bombay in 1897.

Through the movies, Indians have been living in Bombay all their lives, even those who have never actually been there. The wide sweep of Marine Drive, the beach at Juhu, the gateway to the West that is Andheri airport – all these are instantly recognizable in Kanpur and Kerala.

And Bombay is mythic in a way that Los Angeles is not, because Hollywood has the budgets to create entire cities on its studio lots; the Indian film industry has to rely on existing streets, beaches, tall buildings.

Most commercial Hindi films are musicals, with anywhere from five to 15 song sequences. Western moviemakers abandoned musicals when they abandoned the movies themselves, in favor of television. Musicals demand sweep, scale; they do not fit on a pinched 19-inch screen.

There was another unreasonable demand that reviewers and audiences imposed on Hollywood musicals: that the song fit the plot. Hindi movies face no such fascist guidelines.

The suspension of disbelief in India is prompt and generous, beginning before the audience enters the theater itself. Disbelief is easy to suspend in a land where belief is so rampant and vigorous.

And not just in India; audiences in the Middle East, Russia, and Central Asia are also pre-cynical. They still believe in motherhood, patriotism and true love. Hollywood and the West have moved on. So the Russian families in my apartment building in Jackson Heights, New York, sang the same Raj Kapoor songs that we Indians did.

“They are clean movies,” an Egyptian taxi driver in New York once explained to me. “You can see them with your family. You’re not embarrassed by them.”

Before coming to India this time, I have watched an average of one Hindi film a year. The plots can’t hold me past the beginning. Increasingly, the overseas market demands plotless musicals: movies with a dozen elaborate song sequences and minimal conflict, such as “Hum aapke hain kaun,” a film that is essentially an extended wedding video with 14 songs.

The movies replaced the ancient traditions of Hindu weddings in my extended family in England and America. The costumes, the sets, and many of the ceremonies are taken from the movies the community watches every night on VCR. The bride and the bridesmaids now dance, not to the parting lament songs of the village but to sprightly Bollywood numbers.

The diaspora wants to see an urban, affluent, glossy India, the India they imagine they grew up in and wish they could live in now. They want love stories with minimal conflict, even between rivals.

Back home, the movies play on the newest insecurity of the children of the Indian middle class. Their parents won’t arrange a marriage for them, as parents have for generations. Now everybody is expected to find love by themselves, in college, at work. Women are expected to know how to flirt, to play games. The movies show them how.

Overseas Indians want a film they can take their kids to on a Saturday afternoon, to show them an example of “Indian values.” The wedding — and — romance extravaganzas fit the bill. Violence doesn’t work for them.

So another class of filmmakers makes movies just for the interior of the country, filled with more violence, more earthy sex and more goddesses, following the B-movie trail. The Hindi movies can unify Bihar and Delhi, even Bihar and Karachi, but not, in the end, Bihar and London.

I grew up in a Bombay before television, and my dreams were bigger than the dreams of children growing up in the city today because they were played out on a vast screen, hundreds of times bigger. The movies game me the raw material for my fantasy life, in which I rescued the girl I loved from villains and saved her from dishonor in the nick of time.

When I moved to America I would watch Hindi movies for nostalgia’s sake; it was the cheapest round-trip ticket home, four bucks at the Eagle Cinema in Jackson Heights. Then, in college and beyond, I stopped, finding them increasingly absurd and pointless.

Coming back to Bombay this time, I realized I would have to undergo a crash course in Hindi films if I want to talk intelligently to the people who make them. It was not something I looked forward to.

One day in the summer of 1998 I found myself in distant Arunachal Pradesh, which even Indians need a permit to enter. There, a woman at a teashop on the highway told me about the sacred geography of the area.

“And here, near the water tank in this village, the shooting for ‘Koyla’ happened. Shah Rukh Khan was here.”

This is where the new myths come from. The old tribal gods have been replaced by the Bombay gods. This most isolated country on earth knows the Bombay movie stars, their food habits, and who they’re romancing, as if they were neighbors.

Mehta, an O’Henry-award-winning fiction writer, wrote the screenplay for “Mission Kashmir,” a Bollywood movie which was released in 2000. This is an excerpt from “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found,” which will be published Sept. 21 by Alfred Knopf.

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