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My Filmi Love Affair

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February 2008
My Filmi Love Affair

By Maria Giovanna

As I sit on the wide marble windowsill in my room in Taj’s Lands End Hotel in Mumbai, my eyes wander down to the palm trees around the pool, half expecting to see a film shooting. After all, my days in Mumbai have been filled with visits to the Yash Raj studios for interviews or to some multiplex or another for screenings. The rest of the time I have been buying stacks of DVDs of movies and books on the Indian film industry to take home to the U.S. Passing Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow, Mannat, every time I drove out to go to a meeting or run an errand, was just the icing on the top of the cake. I marvel at the turns my life has taken in recent years to where I am now one of the legions of fans of Indian films, so much so that I daydream about spotting, even if for only a second, the legendary SRK leisurely strolling around his garden.

To India via Ireland

As a little girl growing up in New York, flying home to Ireland twice every year—once in summer and once during Christmas—was an annual ritual. This would often involve catching an Air India flight to London, from where we would catch a connecting flight to Dublin. From those flights, I remember the sari-clad stewardesses and the “Maharaja“ icon of the airline. Little did I guess at the time that the culture and the country represented by that diminutive Maharaja icon would one day become such an intrinsic part of my life. After all, I had no blood ties to the country and wouldn’t set foot on Indian soil until three decades later.

Thanks to my mother who was a manager at an airline company, I also had the opportunity to travel to places like Mexico, Hong Kong, Argentina and Denmark. I developed a healthy appreciation for differences, but also realized that beneath these exteriors that seemed worlds apart, there was a common thread of basic human values. Sure, each country had its own exotic qualities that could either endear or repel the non-native. I remember being fascinated with the number and diversity of Hindu deities and secretly regretting that there were no animals in our pantheon of saints in Catholicism.

During my undergrad days, and then the daily commute to my first job, I got better acquainted with India as I pored over books like Midnight’s Children, Malgudi Days and The Raj Quartet, a four-volume novel about the final years of the British Raj in India. Having already seen The Jewel in the Crown on TV, these books just served to further flesh out the stories of race and class, and the men and women of India.

Who knew Subhash Ghai, SRK and Govinda would change my life?

Indian literature aside, something happened in 1997 that was a turning point in my life, though it never seemed so at the time. As part of my ongoing interest in India, I had been watching those Saturday morning desi shows that ran on the local cable channels. On one such morning in early August I saw a movie ad on a local cable channel in the middle of an Indian news show. The movie advertised was Subhash Ghai’s Pardes, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Pardes was being screened at a nearby theater, and on the spur of the moment, I decided to go watch it.

Once inside the cinema, I was oblivious to the dingy seats and the occasional puzzled looks from the rest of the (non-firangi) cinema patrons. As I watched, I was smitten with the energetic guy who stammered and blinked a lot. Only later did I come to know that I was only one of the millions who have been smitten by this larger-than-life hero of the Indian film industry, where he is familiar to most just by his initials, SRK.

I was dazzled also by the pretty, color-coordinated outfits with matching accessories that Mahima Chaudhury wore, and I was intrigued at hearing Hindi for the first time. On my drive home that night, I rolled words like “nahin“, “duniya“ and “tasveer“ around in my head.

Truth be told, there was some cartoonish overacting. And I felt somewhat bad for poor Ganga, the character played by Chaudhury. First she seemed to be the prize in a men’s game of kabaddi, then she was attacked by her evil, Westernized fiancé, and as if that were not enough, she had to deal with her own father who doubted her word about her behavior.

But I was hooked by the bold visuals and the catchy songs (like, “I Love My India“ and “Do Dil Mil Rahey Hain“). For the three hours that Pardes ran, I experienced a rush that was probably not unlike that first drag of crack-cocaine. It was so new and felt so good that I just had to have more! I returned and saw Pardes several times, once even dragging along a reluctant Tamil-speaking friend.

There was barely a weekend that went by when I wasn’t back for more of where Pardes came from. The late 1990s were still a time when quite a few Hindi movies were, well, awful (Zor, Ishq, Maharaja)! And while I might have been a new addict, even I could sense that some of these stank. But it didn’t matter. I was so fascinated with the language, music, costumes, and the social mores such as selflessness, devotion to family, and the romantic-but-chaste expression of love, that I couldn’t stay away. And for every bomb of a movie, there were also the high-riding redeemers such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai, and Dil Se.

It was in those days of my newfound romance with Bollywood that I also discovered and fell for the goofy charm of Govinda in a series of his movies, such as Dulhe Raja, Pardesi Babu, and Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan. While the comedy was often heavy slapstick, and the humor might veer toward lowbrow, there was something so appealing about the toothy, smiling actor who was so light on his feet and appeared to dance with such joy and abandon, that I was a repeat customer for Dulhe Raja until its run ended.

Soon after, I treated myself to a show at Nassau Coliseum featuring Govinda, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. While the show itself was a little bit disappointing (as I soon learnt that they only lip-sync and dance to snippets of their famous songs), I do remember being unable to take my eyes off the stage. Somewhere in my house there is a ten-year-old photo of the three stars on stage, all wearing sunglasses, black blazers and white shirts, dancing to the title song of Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan.

Straight from the heart

Dil Se is one movie from that honeymoon period that I return to again and again. The weekend it opened in August ’98, my local cinema was so overwhelmed by the number of people who turned up for the nine o’clock showing that they hastily added an unprecedented midnight show. Guess who bought a ticket? (Hey, I was caught up in the frenzy; how could I go home and come back on Sunday?)

And what didn’t that movie have going for it? SRK was there, again as the loveable, stammering hero, pursuing the enigmatic Manisha Koirala. I was fascinated to know why she snubbed him on that cold, rainy night at the train station. And then the moment that will probably be in the “Top Ten“ of cinematic memories I’ll carry in my head ‘til I die: Malaika Arora, in all her ethnic finery and sinuous beauty, stretching languorously as she reclines atop a moving train. As the train emerges from the darkness of a tunnel, Shah Rukh appears, and the (then) unfamiliar but also unforgettable voice of Sukhwinder Singh takes over?“Chal chainyya chainyya chainyya chainyya.” And I was bewitched! How did so many people dance on top of a train and not fall off? How did Shah Rukh jump, land on one knee and not go rolling off down into a ravine? Who came up with the idea for this whole scene?

Later in the film, in the song “Jiya Jale,“ Shah Rukh adorns the screen shirtless, sporting silver hoop earrings, a heavy silver choker, and a bangle. Forget the famous Om Shanti Om six-pack for “Dard-e-Disco“, I’ll take him as he appeared on that boat in Dil Se any day. This was a movie that set the bar high for all others that I would watch afterward.

“But why?” Trying to rationalize my romance

Back then, some Indian friends at work would remark, “Ugh, Bollywood movies, they’re so tacky and over-the-top! How can you watch them?“ Initially, as images of some of Govinda’s florid costumes would flash through my mind, I’d have a hard time coming up with much more of an explanation than “Oh I just love all the singing and dancing!“ But as I thought about it as the years passed, the reasons dawned on me.

First, escapism. It’s the same reason I read so much fiction: the desire to get away from the routine of everyday life, “to travel without moving an inch“ as Ashoke Ganguli says in The Namesake, quoting his grandfather. Second, I watched and loved a lot of musicals as a child. Some of them, like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof are still my favorites. But it is a genre of film that became increasingly rare in the U.S. Third, the Latino cultural influence. As a teenager, after my grandfather’s death in Dublin, my half-Irish, half-American godparents suggested that we visit them in Mexico, where they had taken an early retirement. It was the start of a long-term fascination with the region.

At age 14, I taught myself Spanish with the help of Mexican soap operas on TV in New York. In those telenovelas were present many of the same elements that I would see years later in Hindi movies: the emphasis on the physical beauty of the actors, the great attention to the female leads’ clothes, hair and make-up (lots of lip gloss and heavy black eyeliner), the highly overt emotional content, such as class warfare and family disapproval when a boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks fell in love, restoring family honor, the oppression of the rich over the poor, and occasionally, the addition of a popular song to a romantic scene. Lastly, I grew up watching a lot of MTV when it still showed nothing but music videos.

Though I didn’t realize it initially, in all those movies coming out of Bollywood, I found a perfect mix of that which was new to me (Hindi, Indian music, clothes, cultural references) and that which was beloved and familiar (musical film, the drama and spectacle of telenovelas, and the music videos).

Discovering new facets of my new love

In 2000, the local cinema I frequented handed out a yellow flyer advertising an upcoming film. They didn’t often do this sort of promotion, so I realized it must be something out of the ordinary. It was. The flyer was advertising a movie that was to mark another turning point for me, though again, I never suspected it at the time. There was going to be a special screening of a Tamil movie called Kandukondain Kandukondain.

At that time, I wouldn’t have recognized the sound of the Tamil language if I had bumped into Karunanidhi in the middle of a conversation, but I knew that the Hindi film industry was only one contributor to India’s total celluloid output, so I was very curious to see it. Plus, I recognized Aishwarya Rai and Tabu from the poster and saw that the music was by A. R. Rahman, and I needed no more convincing.

I was blown away by what I saw and heard. The movie is Rajiv Menon’s beautifully-filmed adaptation of the novel by Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, which also formed the basis of Ang Lee’s 1995 movie of the same name., Tabu appears as the older sister, played by Emma Thompson in the English movie, and Aishwarya in the role of the younger sister, performed by Kate Winslet in the Hollywood version. The movie pulled me in quickly with the same visual beauty and electricity that I had experienced in Dil Se. Interestingly, for one of the most arresting song picturizations – “Yenna Solla Pogirai“ -- Ajith pursues Tabu across the Egyptian desert, and like Malaika Arora a couple of years earlier, she too is stunning in a red and black “ethnic“ ensemble with lots of heavy silver jewelry.

And that was the gateway into Tamil movies for me. Though at the time, Tamil movies with English subtitles were hard to come by. But I persisted and watched what I could find with Ajith, whom I recognized as the lead from Kandukondain.

What was interesting for me too was to observe the cultural differences portrayed in these films, versus Hindi movies. I noticed that while in the Hindi movies, most of the heroines would wear Western clothes or salwar kameez, and don a sari only for those wedding scenes that were so prevalent, in Kandukondain Kandukondain, saris seemed to be the norm. The coffee that is streamed back and forth to cool, the different styles of saris, the predominance of jasmine in women’s hair, and a dozen other small things that even I wouldn’t remark on now, were all noted, absorbed and stored away in a mental database of what I realize are broad Tamil cultural generalizations that were nonetheless interesting to me.

Penning a Bollywood script

No, no, I did not write any stories for any film! But how an Irish American New Yorker like me became an insider journalist specializing in Bollywood and other Indian cinema could well be the stuff of a film script. It sounds implausible enough.

Let me tell you how it all happened. Four years after I first started seeing Indian films, in a kind of a dare to myself, I applied to Columbia’s journalism school, and to my astonishment and delight, was accepted. This meant that, in addition to a full-time job, I would spend two years running up to class after work, and doing the reporting for my stories on weekends and whenever else I could wedge it into my day. Though generally sleep-deprived all the time, it was a great opportunity, to have free rein to go out around New York City and approach people to talk to them about their lives, and to come up with story ideas by just allowing my mind to wander and alight on any subject with thoughts of “I wonder why ?“ and “I wonder how ?“

Miraculously for me, one day I spotted an ad looking for a reporter in one of the Indian American papers. I applied, was interviewed, and, again to my amazement, was accepted as a freelancer for the paper. Suddenly I was on a rendezvous with the romance of my life? going to screenings and press conferences, and getting referrals from one publication to another. When my editors weren’t asking me to interview Kal Penn or go to a press event for a new Hindi movie, they were asking me to pitch story ideas to them.

The highlight of last year had to be a call I got asking me to cover the press conference for the theatrical release of Mani Ratnam’s Guru in the U.S. Even as I stood there in awe of the prospect of interviewing the maker of Dil Se, the phone conversation got even more climactic as I learnt that Ratnam would be accompanied by the stars of the movie, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai! Boley to (!) that was quite a celluloid moment for me as it sunk in that in less than 24 hours I would be in the same room with these three heavyweights of filmdom.

My heart lurched and wobbled as I picked up my name badge and press kit the next day. The rest of the evening was a beautiful blur not only for me personally, but also for fans of Bachchan and Rai, as it was that night that the pair finally announced their engagement after weeks of buzz about it.

Happily ever after

What’s a good storyline without a dramatic detour? As if work, school, and moonlighting as an Indian film journalist were not enough to fill the days, I fell in love with someone who lived in New Jersey, and was soon also juggling weekend trips to meet him. He was not as big a fan of Indian movies as I was, and so we compromised (OK, I compromised) and agreed to see only one Hindi movie a month. Between school and him, the flow of movies I watched went to a trickle from a stream.

Soon after receiving my master’s, the relationship ended. Now free and unencumbered, I returned to my true love with a vengeance, catching up on the films I had missed during the ‘only-one-per-month’ rationing. When I wasn’t at the cinema screening the Indian films, I was curled up on my sofa at home, falling in love all over again with the music, the dancing and all the rest of it, wondering how I could have been so foolish to stay away.

I came to a realization as I barreled through Lakshya and Veer-Zaara and Dhoom: I was missing out on all the great older films. Deciding to correct this, I also thought it might be fun to blog about the process of seeing these classics (and not-so-classics). I knew several bloggers, read quite a few blogs and realized that it could be an opportunity to communicate with other people who loved Hindi movies. So I came up with a name for my site—Filmiholic—and registered the domain, and off I went.

Meanwhile the steady stream of Indian films was building up to a torrent. It was a fun exercise and, while I had a hard time steering myself toward anything without Amitabh Bachchan, in between Deewar, Zanjeer and Amar, Akbar, Anthony, I did manage to also see movies like Kaagaz ke Phool, Bombay and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.

2007 was the ten-year anniversary of my introduction to Hindi movies and I’m still a fan. I still get a thrill in a theater the moment the lights go down, like the Pavlovian response a smoker has when he unfurls the little strip of cellophane around a new pack of cigarettes. The lovely thing about this romantic addiction of mine is that I know between all the new releases and all the ones from years gone by, there’ll never be a shortage of my drug of choice. It’s been an amazing ride so far, and I’m looking forward to all the years between now and my silver jubilee, and then the golden one!

SIDEBAR

Some of My Favorites

Amar, Akbar, Anthony: A huge suspension of disbelief is required to buy the premise of the story, but once you drink the Koolaid, you’ll get such a kick out of the ‘70s fashions, and you won’t be unable to dislodge the very catchy “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves“ from your mind for the rest of the evening, but it’s such an upbeat tale, you won’t regret it.

Bluffmaster:   A fun jaunt all over Mumbai, great filmi references and a twist on the story, and Nana Patekar appears to have a ball in a supporting role.

Bunty aur Babli: As light as a sorbet, this film, with its exuberance, color and overall happiness, is a perfect ‘road’ movie to watch on a gloomy day.

Company: The perfect telling of this realistic tale of the lives of two bhais in the Mumbai underworld contains the subtly confident performance of Manisha Koirala, holding her own against Ajay Devgan and Vivek Oberoi.

Deewar: Amitabh hits his stride as an actor, and dares to appear shirtless in bed enjoying a post-coital cigarette with Parveen Babi.

Kaagaz ke Phool: Guru Dutt’s direction and acting, S.D. Burman’s music and Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics, and the black and white magic of V.K. Murthy's cinematography; I wouldn’t change a thing.   

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: After we drool (or recoil) at the displays of wealth, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that rich and beautiful families are dysfunctional too. The spectacular, big production numbers cemented KJo’s reputation as a showman, for anyone who might have thought that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was a fluke.

Kabul Express: Simple story told against the bereft Afghan countryside. You gotta give them credit for actually going there to film it.

Kannathil Muthamittal: (Have to include at least one Mani Ratnam Tamil movie on this list!)   I loved his portrayal of middle class life in Chennai, Madhavan in a mature role, the stunning picturizations, and the talented young P.S. Keerthana, who admirably avoids the diabetes-inducing performances so common in child actors.

Omkara: The perfect union of an unlikely pair: popular Hindi cinema and a 400-year-old play by William Shakespeare.

Partner: A return of the Govinda of old, manic jhatkas and all. It was good to see him back, with a hit, in all his fleet-footed glory.

SIDEBAR

RECOMMENDED READING:

BOOKS & BLOGS

Books:

100 Bollywood Films, a BFI Screen Guide by Rachel Dwyer, 2005, British Film Institute.   Written by the noted film scholar, Rachel Dwyer, this guide is great for newbies who want some ideas for what to watch first, and terrific fodder for film fans to argue over what was included and what was omitted.

Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema by Johan Manschot and Marijke de Vos, 2005, KIT publishers.   Pop sensibilities in a visually packed layout of pictures and text about the industry.

Bollywood, a Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema by Tejaswini Ganti, 2004, Routledge.   Intelligent but accessible primer that covers the business, who’s who in the industry, important films of Hindi cinema (since independence), and a timeline of important events in the history of Indian cinema.

Bollywood Dreams by Jonathan Torgovnik, 2004, Phaidon.   Beautiful coffee table book of photojournalism on both the Hindi and Tamil film industries.

Bollywood Popular Indian Cinema by Lalit Mohan Joshi, 2002, Dakini Books.   Worthy tome of articles by insiders such as Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Madhu Jain, and Dolly Thakore, replete with accompanying photographs.

Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, 1999, Fitzroy Dearborn.   Just as the title says, an overstuffed suitcase of timelines, history and year-by-year film details for releases from the dawn of the Indian film industry, up to 1995. Don’t drop this book on your toes.

Helen, The Life and Times of an H-Bomb by Jerry Pinto, 2006, Penguin Books India.   A fun paperback account of the life and career of the item girl par excellence, plus a close examination of her films, by the well known Bombay native and commentator.

King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, Anupama Chopra, 2007, Grand Central Books.   Not just an interesting read on how the man from Delhi became King Khan, film journalist Chopra’s book also contains an ongoing escorted tour through the Hindi film biz from the 1940s to the present.

Blogs:

Bollywhat: http://www.bollywhat.com/

An amazing website that contains a group of discussion forums, song lyrics, a beginner’s guide to Bollywood and more.

Bollywood Fugly: http://bollywoodfugly.blogspot.com/

A hilarious blog (full disclosure, it was founded by a friend) that looks at the many fashion ups and downs in mainstream Indian movies through the years.

Now Running: http://www.nowrunning.com/

A handy one-stop site to see at a glance where the latest Indian films are showing in your state.

Passion for Cinema: http://passionforcinema.com/

A group blog with Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Santosh Sivan and many other filmmakers.

Times of London: Bollywood: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/bollywood/

Interesting to see a British newspaper devoting so much space to the subject.

Shameless self-promotion: You can also check out Filmiholic (http://filmiholic.com ), where I ruminate online about Indian films. Once there you’ll also find many more links to other filmi websites on my blogroll.

# # #


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