Monday, January 19, 2009

Flashback: Fleeting fame in "IndiaWest"

Since the name of Chairman Bruce has re-surfaced, recently, here's a reprise of his last major HG appearence:

An article in the June 23 issue of India West (no link to the complete story, but IW is a good paper well worth picking up at your local Sweets & Spices) quotes yours truly, Chairman Bruce, and several other Old Bolly hands extensively.

India-West, June 23, 2006:

Hard-core Bollywood movie fans are easy to spot - they religiously track down every Shah Rukh Khan release and can rattle off a laundry list of his greatest performances, in order of comic to tragic. Bleary-eyed from marathon DVD-viewing sessions, their fingers callused from abusing the "rewind" button on their remotes, they swap impassioned reviews on the Internet.

One even keeps a list of 100-plus of her favorite movies on her computer, and carries a small printout with her to the video store, because her mind is so boggled by Bollywood that on any given day she honestly can't remember which movies she's seen and liked.

These film fans are different, though, because they're not Indian - they're Americans.

"It's a very different, refreshing perspective," said Patricia Leslie, a dog therapist in Richmond, Calif., explaining why she and her husband, Karl, love Hindi movies so much. "These days, real life is depressing enough, so we appreciate the upbeat endings that most Bollywood movies have, even when they are contrived or involve more willing suspension of disbelief than usual," she told India-West.

Leslie, who brings her typed film list on her frequent visits to Infinity Ventures, a popular video rental shop in Berkeley, Calif., is part of a growing trend - Bollywood fans who aren't Indian but who feel that mainstream Hindi movies are a true artistic treasure, an art form to be appreciated without smirking. Sure, these days lots of goras (a slang term denoting whites, or non-Indians) might have seen something sort of Bollywood-inspired at least once - Gurinder Chadha's Bride & Prejudice, maybe, or Monsoon Wedding, Deepa Mehta's Bollywood Hollywood, Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan, or even the stage musical "Bombay Dreams" - but few have the stamina or desire to take it to the extreme.

Their numbers may be small, but these are passionate fans indeed, says Meredith McGuire, creator of Bollywhat?, a funny, irreverent yet detailed and info-packed Web site for Bollywood newbies and aficionados alike. The site, which attracts up to 200,000 visitors per month, has a glossary of Hindi terms, English translations of songs, and an FAQ section with such burning questions as, "Why don't the characters just kiss already?"

"Bollywood films engage you in a way Hollywood films don't," McGuire told India-West from Chicago, where she is working on her Ph.D. in anthropology. The whole process of seducing the viewer is more drawn out, adding to its appeal, she said. "It starts with the soundtrack," which is released weeks before the film. "You hear the songs, and fantasize the picturizations, wondering what they'll look like. Then, you go to the theater and it's a much more active process of communal engagement; and once you leave the theater, the music and choreography follow you, too," she continued.

"And there are the intertextual references to other films, such as the charade scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. There's an addictive sense of participation with these films that we just don't find with the Hollywood films."

McGuire feels that many American films are imbued with a sense of pessimism or cynicism that for the most part is missing from Hindi films. "The films have family values," she said, with no hint of irony. "There's a sense of wonder - these are like fairy tales for adults."

Like most Americans who are fanatic about Bollywood films, McGuire remembers her very first time. "It was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and I was in Jodhpur. There was no air conditioning in the theater," she laughed. "Shah Rukh Khan came onscreen. I thought, 'Who is this chinless man with a huge beak of a nose?'"

But after a few minutes of the film, McGuire was hooked. "He is a different sort of hero, with real charisma," she said. King Khan ranks as the top star for almost all of the non-Indians polled for this article, and Amitabh Bachchan is a top draw as well.

So, too, do the classic stars of yesterday strike a chord. "Dilip Kumar, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor," lists Therese Hayes of Palm Springs. Hayes, who hosts weekly screenings of Bollywood films in her home, travels the world to seek out new Indian and diaspora films and is a programmer of Indian and Asian films for both the Bangkok and Palm Springs International Film Festivals.

And as for heroines? Despite all the hype about Aishwarya Rai being the biggest crossover star of her generation, she has only lukewarm appeal among America's Bollywood fans.

"Kajol, Rani Mukerji and Preity Zinta" are far more interesting to watch, McGuire told India-West. Hayes lists Kajol, Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan as favorite actresses; while Ian Miller, a hardcore Bollywood fan from Oakland, Calif., likes Kareena Kapoor. "I feel Aishwarya Rai is overexposed," he said.

Non-Indian fans usually get their films on DVD from Netflix and local Indian video stores like Berkeley's Infinity Ventures or India Music in West Los Angeles. Blockbuster has started carrying an impressive selection of Hindi films in some, though not all, of its stores, depending on local demand. The company also rents from its Web site, where "Devdas and Fire as well as newer releases like Swades and Paheli" are popular, said Jeff Sieg, a spokesman for Blockbuster.

But viewers agree that watching a movie in a theater is the best way to go. "The Naz 8 Cinemas in Artesia is a glorious resource," said Joseph Nagy, a professor of English at UCLA.

Hindi films seem to be filling a void for these American movie watchers.

"Whatever one may feel about traditional gender roles in India, when a Bollywood film affirms the importance of family and of friendship, it is with a sense of conviction that Hollywood is rarely able to muster," said Victoria Simmons, a scholar and bookseller in Los Angeles. Simmons likes to describe Bollywood films as a cross between a 1950s MGM musical and grand opera.

Leslie Jones, a writer, folklorist and trained bellydancer living in Los Angeles, watches from two to six Bollywood movies per week. "I became addicted to Bollywood literally the day after the 2004 election," she said, remembering that her first film was Hum Apke Hain Koun. "I was so depressed by the results that I could barely think. Watching movies with subtitles forces you to focus on the movie and nothing else ... by the time I was undepressed enough to allow my thoughts to wander, I was so immersed in Bollywood that I couldn't get out. Not that I would want to.

"As a folklorist and mythologist, I also enjoy the implicit and explicit mythological elements in the movies," she added.

Bruce Sterling, an author and journalist living in Belgrade, picks up Bollywood DVDs on his travels, most recently from a kiosk in Serbia. "A flick like Sunny Deol in Hero: Love Story of a Spy really attracts my attention, not because it's good cinema ... but because its social messages are loud, aggressive and easy to deconstruct," said Sterling in an email.

Director Ashutosh Gowariker, whose Oscar-nominated Lagaan (2001) introduced a generation of Americans to Hindi films, agrees that the themes of many Indian films are the attraction. "Lagaan was about how people from many different backgrounds came together to fight an enemy," Gowariker told India-West by phone from Los Angeles on a recent visit. "In today's times, we have so many differences between ourselves, but these movies give a sense of belonging."

To other fans, though, the sheer absurdity of the dishoom mentality and images of grown men and women running around trees is so nutty that they've become instant fans.

An hilarious spoof of a Hindi song is currently making the rounds of the Internet on YouTube and Google Video. Informally titled "Bollywood Comedy," the three-minute sketch is nothing more than a Canadian standup comic pantomiming to a Bollywood song - both the man's and woman's parts.

Comedian Winston Spear, who performs the piece and is bemused that it's become so popular, said he once saw a video of a Bollywood song on TV and was so charmed that he had to put it in his act. Lipsynching to the song "Pyar kiya to nibhana," from Major Saab, Spear swivels his hips, throws out his arms, and cocks his head like a true filmi hero, and acts out the role of the singing heroine with a hand puppet. When he first did it in his act, he said, "I thought, oh my God, I have no idea whether this is funny, or ridiculous or insulting, or what," he told India-West by phone from Toronto.

"After a show, some Indian people came up to me and said they loved it. I have no idea what I'm singing!"

Writer David Chute of Los Angeles said, "The American director Willard Carroll, who has put his money where his heart is in the upcoming Bolly/Holly crossover Marigold [with Salman Khan], calls the secret ingredient 'an affirmative approach to entertainment,' as if Indian moviemakers still believe there is no higher calling than making enormous numbers of people happy. And who could argue that we all benefit whenever the sum total of positive feelings increases?"

Chute, who sees a film a week, has written extensively on Bollywood movies for Film Comment and other outlets, and frequently reviews Hindi films for LA Weekly and OC Weekly.

Chute loves the films, but he is equally pained by some trends he's noticed: "Like many non-Indian fans I am concerned that just as a genuine fan audience is beginning to develop outside the Indian community, the industry is increasingly moving away from the qualities that attracted us to its products in the first place.

"The proliferation of carbon-copy remakes of American films is only the most obvious symptom. Others include the alarming impulse to go songless in order to appear hip and serious, and the sleazy morality of films that try to pander to youth, such as Neal 'N' Nikki (thank God it flopped)," said Chute.

"My selfish hope is that filmmakers there will take more pride in the aspects of their approach that are distinctively Indian, and will waste less of their energy imitating the West," he added.

Joseph Nagy agrees. "I don't like the current trend of overtly imitating American film styles and topics, to the point of obligitarily having an English-language refrain in the song lyrics," he said. "Especially for me as a native, 'American' rap and so on is not exotic."

Victoria Simmons adds: "Bollywood films are often criticized for being (to put it kindly) behind the times, for being silly and unrealistic, for the actors not doing their own singing, and even for not being able to compete technically with other film industries."

Back in the early 1990s, when this reporter started watching Hindi films in theaters, they almost never had subtitles, making it an even more cultish venture than it is today. But with the proliferation of subtitled DVDs and now, subtitled theater prints, Bollywood movies are more accessible than they've ever been.

For non-Indians, they've also become tools for learning Hindi. Most of the non-Indian fans who spoke to India-West have picked up a few Hindi words - usually, variations on pyaar, ishq, mohabbat and other words for love.

"I learned the obvious words: dil, pyaar, shaadi, ek, do teen," said Chute. "I've also been calling people yaar [pal] a lot, though my daughter finally put her foot down and insisted that it was NOT cool to say 'Drop the tension, yaar,' at every opportunity. And she should know."

10 comments:

c said...

your chairman may be a faithful bollywood fan, but he treats our poll positions as America's bollywood critics as if it's a horse race.

c said...

I mean , every one knows i'm the foremost...( thats my version and i'm sticking to it)

Generic said...

"When questioned about Shah Rukh Khan’s recent claim of being the biggest star in the industry, Aamir took an indirect dig at the actor by saying, 'People who are No. 1 don’t state the obvious. For me Amitabh Bachchan is No. 1. Does he ever claim about it? Does Lata Mangeshkar claim about it? Superstars don’t need to say anything about their status.'"

c said...

except..maybe..sometimes...getting their friends to say something they can link on their blog ;)

(present company excepted, of course, hehe)

- the foremost.

Generic said...

In point of fact, of course, it's this guy:

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/corliss/article/0,9565,471885,00.html

c said...

ha.

i could tell you stories.(take my name with corliss)

the foremost.

c said...

If you mean "employee of a large corporation that uses the word bollywood once in a while in his print journalist day job" sure, but by that standard, taran adarsh is friedrich schiller.(how much do they pay the rajeevchandrasekaran types? can't be too much...some 80000 bucks plus expenses?)

c said...

i know who corliss is.

he is the guy responsible for sawariya.hahahaha!

to put it diferently , there are people that consider roger ebert critic.

you are number two, though, i'll give you that much.

c said...

AR has three oscar noms gulzar has one!!!!

Generic said...

http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/2009/01/movie_linkage_5.html#005814