Bowled over by Bollywood

Riyad Wadia  

Standing before an audience of 1,000 Berliners last Thursday at the magnificent stage of the city's premier theatre, Volksbuhne, I had the pleasure of screening snippets of songs from Bollywood's golden years, the '50s and '60s. I was the co-presenter at a unique event titled `Schalger Am Ende Des Ganges' which roughly translates as `Popular Music at the End of the Corridor'. This event is part of a series of audio-visual lecture presentations created by one of Berlin's most popular radio and television personalities Jurgen Kuttner. Dr Kuttner is a cultural raconteur who started his career in the former East Germany. With the dismantling of the infamous Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany Dr Kuttner found himself becoming the voice of the youth of the former East, a youth charged by the prospects of a better future but culturally defranchised by years of communistic propaganda and economic strife. Last year Dr Kuttner accompanied film-maker Dorothee Wenner to Bombay and I had the pleasure of introducing him to the rich and assimilated images of Bollywood. On viewing these images he was struck by the close similarity between Bollywood and GDR cinema. On further discussion we came to see how both GDR and India had much in common. Both chose a socialistic path in nation building and cultural reconstruction -- Bollywood through the forces of a quasi-free market economy and democratic construct and GDR through the state-imposed restrictions of communism etc.

All this cultural babble between us led Dr Kuttner to invite me to Berlin last week to present this cultural comparison to his audience. I had half expected a small show with some academic types in the audience. Imagine my surprise then to find that the event (actually two events, as we repeated the same program on two nights) was mainly attended by a much younger crowd, very mixed and very vocal. As I showed clips from films like Mother India, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Jigri Dost, Tasveer and Saaz Aur Sanam, the audience watched spellbound and laughed and clapped at and appreciated the music just as they would have in India. Dr Kuttner alternated the Bollywood clips with selected snippets from GDR television and cinema of the same period and the amazing similarities and cultural affinities between both cultures was underlined in no uncertain terms. At the end of the show a well-known Berlin critic came up to me and commented how for years he had scoffed at Bollywood cinema as being pure escapist fare. However he now saw that even the most trivialised images in these movies were saturated with cultural significance, images that bespoke an international language of human emotions.

Bollywood is on the brink of becoming an internationally viable cinematic genre capable of attracting a large world audience not just made up of diasporic South Asians but also audiences of other cultures. Bollywood music has already entered the mainstream of cultural life in major world capitals like London, New York, Paris and Berlinwhere every street corner boasts an Indian eatery or convenience store and every second taxi cab is manned by a migrant from the subcontinent. Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar may not be known by name to most of this new audience but their dulcet voices are instantly recognisable as popular DJs no longer shy away from spinning a Bollywood remix side by side with the latest Donna Summer or Pet Shop Boys groove. As I took a taxicab to the Volksbuhne theatre the night of my performance I thought I was dreaming. On the radio I heard a German voice introduce a song. I distinctly heard the voice say, "Bappee Lahree und Sweeta Shaytee." And then followed the song `You are My Chicken Fry'! I looked over the seat at my German taxi driver, a burly man with a handlebar moustache. As he listened to the song his forefinger was tap, tap, tapping the steering wheel! Made me realise that the time was ripe for our Bollywood producers to look to the world market with serious intent. So too our stodgy Ministry for Informationand Broadcasting. Years of projecting Satyajit Ray and Mrinalda Sen as the face of Indian Cinema have brought nothing of cultural significance let alone economic satisfaction in the world market for the Indian film industry. Who knows, the day may not be far off when a Karan Johar or an Aditya Chopra might be serious contenders for an Oscar nomination? When Bollywood directors need not succumb to having to excuse the kind of popular films they make when they talk to the so-called "intelligentsia"? When Bollywood films with subtitles are as eagerly looked forward to as say the latest film by a Pedro Almodovar or a Wayne Wang? Why, perhaps our newly elected government should set up a special task force called "Project B" to see how in the next 10 years our song-dance-action films can make such an impact on world culture and markets so as to rename the legendary sign on the Los Angeles hills from "Hollywood" to "Bollywood"!

Not big enough

Back in New York over the weekend I was intrigued to find thatour beloved Mahatma's name was plastered all over the walls of the city. While the `naked fakir' may make it to the cover of Time magazine as the Man of the Century (thanks in large part to the several email campaigns urging Indians to visit the magazine's website and vote for the great man over other contenders for this dubious honour), the current advertisement campaign for Equinox Gymnasiums reads: "Gandhi was a man of great vision. Too bad he didn't work on his triceps." Hmmm. Methinks, I'll join another gym this season.

Riyad Wadia, avant garde film-maker, is back in New York.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.
Wednesday, October 13, 1999