Friday, February 9, 2018

Bollywood Moments: A highly-selective memoir

Lately I've been falling under the spell of Bollywood to an extent that has caught me completely by surprise. Over the years I thought I knew Indian films, and despite an initial fascination in my early teens, I eventually kept them at arm's length while not dismissing them outright, for to me they were amusing but quaint oddities loaded down with unusual artistic conventions and exotic cultural baggage, particularly with the earlier stuff, prior to what appears to have been an influx of corporate cash and a push to drastically improve production values. Gone are the days when I'd snicker at the unintentional humor in the same way I would (and continue to) with chop socky flicks from Hong Kong.

(A word from my inner grown-up: All filmmaking nations have their share of low budget movies that are laughable for reasons not intended by their creators. When such films originate from outside of the viewer's own society, they can be easy targets for mockery due to whatever is lost or distorted in the cultural translation. Tsk!)

I thought I knew Indian films but I was wrong. Dead wrong! And it is all thanks to one Sanjay Bhansali. But before I get to him, however, let's thread the opening reel through my South Asian film projector...

First encounters

In the autumn of 1985 I became fast friends with Rahul, a boy in my Grade 8 class who had been born in New Delhi but immigrated to Canada at a young enough age that he didn't have any sort of accent my 13-year-old ears could detect despite Hindi being his mother tongue. His father was a real estate agent and his mother worked in a jewellry store. She once told me that she really enjoyed seeing Rahul hanging around me because I didn't teach him bad words or talk dirty about girls. (I simply didn't have the heart to set her straight.)

His dad liked me too, such that he often greeted me in their house with a jovial and heavily-accented "Hello Jim!", followed by an unabashed and fatherly kiss on the cheek. Although my western lizard brain didn't know what to make of it, I nevertheless understood it to be nothing more than a heartfelt sign of affection despite my culture's efforts to train me to find all male-to-male affection suspect. In those years I was too cool to hug and kiss my own dad goodnight.

I also fondly remember the one-sided games of Monopoly Rahul and I would play against his father. (Pro tip: Never play Monopoly against a real estate agent.)

Although I had always known brown kids at school (be it in the classroom or in the schoolyard), this was my first time seeing Indian family culture up close. Also, it was my first brush with exotic spirituality.

On my initial visit to his house, Rahul gave me "the tour", which along the way included explanations of the little details, such as why it is always important to point a carved elephant towards the door. On our way upstairs for the second leg of the tour, I was struck by a smokey but perfume-like aroma permeating the upper part of the house. Following my nose (like Toucan Sam), I veered away from my tour guide and into a small room containing only a white table, upon which a stick of incense burned in front of an upright framed picture of a brown-skinned man with a dark afro and sporting an orange robe. I watched the thin curl drifting upwards from the end of the stick, and then became aware of the light cloud of smoke accumulating just below ceiling. After a moment of mesmerization I gestured towards the picture and asked who it was. This made Rahul perplexed.

"Don't point at him!" he whispered with a tone and urgency that was both a scold and a plea. "It's disrespectful!"

He then proceded to tell me how important the man in the picture was, and added that if the man contacted his parents to request a personal audience, they'd be on the first plane to India, no questions asked.

Over the course of our friendship, I got to know Rahul's family and its sense of hospitality, and as such felt like an honorary family member whenever I stepped through their door. Usually at least once a week I found myself eating dinner with them and, if it fell on the weekend, his parents would settle in for some movies, which I presume were rented from an Indian specialty store.

I was transfixed by any glimpes I had of these films before Rahul would urge me away to somewhere else in the house. For one thing, I recall up to three or four sets of subtitles, none of which were in English or French. I remember the dancing and music, the latter featuring that unique-sounding reverb that was applied to the female singers' voices. As for storylines, anyone's guess was as good as mine, as I never saw enough of them to know what was truly going on. All I knew was that the characters were liable to break into a song and dance routine without any kind of segue. Often a tense moment of high melodrama would be inexplicably punctuated by a joyful and exuberant musical number.

Say what?

There was just a certain je ne sais quois about these films that had me bewildered but fascinated all the same. Perhaps there was something in the visual langauge of Indian filmmaking that was at odds with the cinema to which I had been conditioned. Or maybe it was the generally poor image quality of what was likely a third or fourth generation VHS copy. The snowy resolution and blotchy color balance made it seem to me like these films were desperate transmissions from some distant world, and that the image breakdown was evidence of their arduous and unlikely journey across the cosmos and into a family's TV set.

I remember wishing that Rahul would simply let me hang out in the living room long enough to wrap my head around what his parents were watching. In those days, however, Beverly Hills Cop was more his style, and so perhaps he was either bored or a little embarrassed by these video artifacts of his homeland.

One other memory of Rahul and his family that has stayed with me for over 30 years is of that time his dad gave us a lift to the Bayshore Shopping Centre in his Cadillac Seville. As he waited at a stop sign in front of a ground level entrance, I heard an upset Rahul say something to his dad in Hindi from the front passenger seat, followed by his dad's quiet and reassuring response, telling him in English: "Just ignore it, son. Be the better man." I looked up from my spot in the back seat to see a headbanger standing in the middle of the crosswalk in front of the car, giving us the finger with both hands and very clearly saying "Fuck you!".

At first I felt personally insulted, wondering to myself what we did or what it was about us that made this guy so angry. And then I realized he hadn't even seen me, and that I simply did not factor into the rage being directed at Rahul and his dad.

Although I had been surrounded by white people since birth, this was my first time seeing my own culture through an outsider's pair of eyes.

TV duds and hard-to-get girls

Through the late nineties and early 2000s, the weekend broadcasts Bollywood films on a Toronto-based TV channel comprised my primary exposure to Indian cinema for that time period. There's not much to say here other than that although I tried my hardest to sit through the entirety of a film, sooner or later my attention would be drawn elsewhere, or perhaps because either the ones I saw on TV weren't very good or I simply wasn't acclimatized yet to that style of visual storytelling. Once I got the above-mentioned guilty snickers out of my system, there simply wasn't much there to hold me.

One particularly puzzling scene that has stuck in my mind was from a crime drama, and featured a tense standoff with several guns pointed in all directions, à la the climactic shootout in True Romance. Just when it seemed some jackass was about to break the tension with gunfire, the group of combatants broke into song and dance, with a pretty young girl who suddenly jumped into the frame from out of nowhere and led one of the male leads outside while singing about wanting to honor her grandparents' moral values (or some such) while playing hard-to-get and making her randy young suitor chase her around a tree. And then, once the musical number wrapped up, the girl disappeared and the suitor and the rest of the gunmen resumed their places in the standoff as if no time had passed.

For a brief moment it was intensely amusing, but I lacked the mental bandwith to sustain absorbing such conflicting narrative information for any length of time.


Faana - things are looking up for Bollywood

By 2005 I was living in Toronto, and had heard all about the Woodside Cinemas from a fellow film buff. A theater dedicated to Indian and Tamil films? I couldn't resist, as by this point I was much more open to (and patient about) immersing myself in non-mainstream cultural milieus. I passed on whatever Tamil film was playing due to a lack of subtitles (so perhaps I wasn't feeling that open), and opted instead for Faana.

The movie somewhat stirred a renewed interest in Indian films, but the gathering itself was something to behold. Being the early bird, I was the first one in the theater, and so I found a spot near the back so as not to feel like I was on display as the token white guy. (And as the seats filled up, I would indeed remain the token white guy.) Among the first to arrive after me was a gaggle of young women who appeared to be either in their late teens or early twenties. They passed by me and then turned around and positioned themselves directly in front of me despite the theater still being mostly empty. Being within almost point-blank spitting distance, the polite WASP in me pretended to be interested in the near featureless decor, or in what I could see of the little projector window at the back of the room.

Eventually one of them turned around, looked right at me, and said quietly to the friend beside her, "Like, omigod!", and with that they all got up and found seats on the other side of the room down near the front and I spent the next 15 minutes feeling awkward and small.

Thanks, ladies.

As the start time approached more and more people filed in and I noticed something about the room's demographics, and that is that all age groups were represented, from newborns in baby carriages to the elderly pushing walkers. This seemed truly like a community event. In a way I felt like a stowaway at some large family reunion.

While I found this a little puzzling, particularly given the atomization of western film audiences, it wouldn't be until after the film that it actually made sense.

As for the film itself, a four-hour opus about a blind girl who falls in love (and eventually conceives) with a terrorist, to me it was actually a two-in-one affair, given that it was bifurcated into a lighthearted boy-meets-girl romcom for the first half, and then afterwards a dark and tragic action film as the new bride learns of and comes to terms with just who she ended up marrying. (As if to underscore the difference, the first half, from what I remember, featured ample sunshine and bright colors, whereas the second half was colder, with the bluish tinge commonly associated with man cave fare. In short, it was as if a different diretor and cinematographer had been assigned to each half, such as Amy Heckerling and Tony Scott respectively.)

To be honest, as the first half was wrapping up I was expecting to be going home soon, as all of the plot lines were being neatly tied up and everyone seemed to be dancing into the South Asian sunset. Suddenly, while the male lead is out of town while his wife receives an operation to restore her vision, we learn he is a terrorist. "What kind of ending is this?", I muttered to myself, when suddenly the word "Intermission" appeared on the screen in multiple languages and the house lights came up.

An old Sikh gentleman sitting directly behind me must have noticed consternation beaming out of me like a distress signal, as he tapped me on the shoulder, leaned forward and informed me there was still another two hours to go. As my jaw dropped he laughed. "In India," he said, "audiences expect a movie to last at least four hours. If you showed them a two-hour movie they'd be tearing up the seats!"

The movie itself was fantastic, even if the stark dichotemy created by the first and second half was jarring to the point of distraction, and served to keep me from suspending my disbelief. Also, the production values were light years ahead of what I'd experienced at Rahul's house or on TV. The film would have played well with most any North American audience had its two halves been screen separately from one another, even given whatever other Bollywood idiosyncracies were contained therein.

In any case, upon reflecting on the film's dual romcom/action nature, the film's structure made total sense in light of the generation-spanning makeup of the audience. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the first half was intended to be particularly kid-friendly, while the second half was for the parents and grandparents once the younger set had dozed off or were ferried back home.

This approach to film structure was alien but illuminating and, particularly when it comes to ticket sales, a stroke of genius. In this manner, the film could be most things to most people, but without one extreme diluting nor compromising the other.

Padmaavat - a grand reawakening

While Faana certainly did stir up my interest in Bollywood, it was too wierdly structured for my liking. And given that the next film I saw at the Woodside was okay but forgettable (all I remember of it was a soldier firing a gatlin gun), I was interested in seeing more Indian films if not actively searching them out.

That all changed about two weeks ago when I went on a movie date to see Padmaavat, a large canvas opus by director Sanjay Bhansali. An historical romance and war film, unlike Faana this movie presents the romance/action extremes so that one extreme heightens (rather than compromises) the other despite co-existing simultaneously rather than being segregated into halves.

This isn't a review, and so I won't go into much detail about the plot other than to say it features a tragic love triangle between a Rajput king, his titular queen, and a Muslim sultan obsessed with seeing her beauty for himself. Also, the film was extremely controversial while it was still in production, entangled as the story is in domestic Indian politics, an area in which I don't even pretend to have a reliable working knowledge. Therefore, I'll leave it to you to read up on the fuss and draw your own conclusions.

I will say, however, that in my estimation the generally lukewarm reviews it has received seem to be unfairly colored by the above-mentioned politics. It would appear that Bhansali could have cured cancer by making this film and his critics on both sides of the Hindu/Rajput and Muslim divide would have said "What took him so long?".

Despite claims that the film drags on and on, at just under three hours I found it to be an engrossing thrill ride with top-notch production values that could easily go head-to-head with anything out of Hollywood. It had me in constant amazement and begging for the director to lay on the Bollywood as thick as possible. (In addition to the requisite dance numbers, the characters spend much of their time either speaking in parables or phrasing their thoughts almost as poetry.)

The ending, in which the maidens of the Rajput fortress march headlong into a gigantic flaming woodpile rather than risk being defiled by the sultan and his men, is devastating and difficult to watch, especially given the close-up shot a maiden holding her distended pregnant belly as she strides towards martyrdom. While this was extremely challenging to my Christian sensibilities surrounding life and death issues, I think there's value in being confronted with (and thus being made to think about and process) cultural practices that are outside the norm. (The film begins with a series of disclaimers, one of which states that the filmmakers do not endorse the practice of jauhar, or group self-immolation. Nevertheless, by depicting the practice as the "heroic" last act by the film's titular character, by default the filmmakers are indeed glorifying it, disclaimers notwithstanding.)

There was not a single moment of unintentional yuks nor any sense of quaintness - my date and I were so completely swept up into this world that the experience left us stunned and speechless as the end credits rolled. Our brains were lit up in ways that would take hours of conversation to unpack. I'm not sure if a North American or European film has ever done that to me, which is a polite way of saying that no such film ever has, period.

And now, in the wake of Padmaavat, I am left craving more! In the past few weeks I have been checking out more Bollywood flicks from the library, starting with Bhansali's previous film, Bajirao Mastani, which may blur your recollection of Padmaavat if viewed too soon afterward, as they are very much the same type of movie and feature some of the same cast. (It is as good as or even better than its successor, but with a less morally-challenging ending.)

For now I have three films in the "on deck" circle for this weekend, including an historical epic (Chaar Sahibzaade: Rise of Banda Singh Bahudur), an underworld crime flick (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai: Dobaara!), and Bangistan, a comedy I chose due to the irresistably dangerous tag line ("Two aspiring terrorists. One identical plan. No damn clue!") as my own way of laughing in the face of "war on terror" paranoia.


After getting the idea for this piece I hunkered down and followed the rough outline as jotted down in my notebook. With the section describing a friendship from more than 30 years ago, I found myself unexpectedly touched by certain memories and the process of reliving the emotions associated with them, even if there was a bittersweet element.

And even though my original intent was to hew as close as possible to talking about the films themselves, I soon realized that I was tapping into so much more, as by chronicling very selective stops on this cinephile's journey, at least a few points along the way were inseperable from my personal life.

As an addendum to the experience in the car with Rahul and his dad, I should say that even though I quickly realized that the racism on display was not being directed at me, and despite the racist in question not even knowing I existed, the gnawing in my gut and the redness in my face while writing about it was evidence enough that those profane and unwarranted taunts still sting like a personal insult all these decades later, as a sin against one is a sin against all, regardless of whether the one in question is a stranger or a close personal friend.

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