Life Lessons
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Before “Bollywood” There Was a Movie Genre That Felt All My Own

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Poster from the movie Ram Balram (Photo: Guradian.com)

When I was growing up, Bollywood didn’t exist. At least, that phrase had not yet been officially coined as the moniker for India’s multi-billion dollar movie industry.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any “Bollywood” movies to watch.

Living in Geneva, Switzerland during the 1980s, we watched Hindi movies, as they were known at the time, on a VCR. It wasn’t easy to find the films, of course, and we’d often have to wait for weeks until someone got hold of a latest release. Then, that family would host a weekend viewing at their home where, over sweet, milky tea and hot, savory snacks, a bunch of us would sit together for three hours (the average length of a movie) and lose ourselves in a world far, far away.

It was a world that our parents had left behind, but one that we kids longed to belong to; a place that we wanted, more than anything else, to claim as our own. But aside from our once-every-two-years visit to India, we only felt real familiarity to that world in those movies.

For the three hours that it lasted, an Indian movie could shut out the cold of a winter afternoon and the reality of our immediate surroundings, to which many of us felt we didn’t quite belong. When we went to school on Monday, the movie would often still be with us — bright and almost real as it replayed in our minds.

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Hindi films are epics of star-crossed lovers and seemingly doomed love triangles, where the impossible always becomes possible.

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Hindi movies then — and even now  — are often exaggerated, overly melodramatic and totally predictable. They’re epics of star-crossed lovers and seemingly doomed love triangles, where the impossible always becomes possible. Heroes and heroines can do anything: Play the guitar, jump from the top of burning skyscrapers, fly an airplane, fight a ferocious lion, or fall into a cauldron of burning oil and come out alive. They break into song at any given moment, chase each other around trees, up and down mountains and along beaches, switching locations as swiftly as they switched outfits. Villains are able to perform the most absurd stunts, the execution of which boggles the mind, while heroes — seemingly bashed to a pulp in fight sequences — always get away unscathed, without a scratch on their face.

And yet for an Indian growing up overseas, there was mysterious magic in these films. Clearly, our parents hadn’t fought lions and jumped off burning buildings. But in the subtexts of those epics, there was a sort of esoteric and intangible quality that superseded the ridiculous, and made being an Indian living in a world so far removed from India less uncomfortable. Simplistic and silly though they may have been, those movies provided us with a momentary connection to a place far away at a time when it wasn’t easy to make those kinds of connections.

For some time, at any rate, because things change, as things most often do. One day, the VCR died out and the DVD player came in. “Bollywood” was born and it began to blossom, bloom and boom, bursting out of our homes and out into the rest of the world. In the 1990s, Switzerland became the favored location for the Bollywood film industry, with its pristine lakes and magnificent mountains — the perfect settings for those song-and-dance sequences. The Swiss became used to seeing Bollywood film crews at work and even for Indian people, Bollywood star sightings on the streets of Geneva became somewhat commonplace.

As the years passed, the world flattened out even more. India became India Inc., a kingpin of the global economy, and Bollywood was and still is its greatest ambassador, its constant champion. Suddenly, the whole world seemed to love Bollywood. Countries across the globe vied to become the new favorite location for a movie shoot. Hot clubs from Boston to Bangkok, New York to Nagasaki, blasted Bollywood dance tunes. Housewives in elegant European apartments laughed and wept over La Famille Indienne, the catch-all French translation for one of the biggest Hindi hits in recent times, 2001’s Kabhi Khushi Khabie Gham. When the mega Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan — who was featured on the cover of French Elle— visited Paris, he was mobbed on the Champs Elysees. Bollywood actresses have been and continue to be featured as the faces of L’Oréal and Swiss watch makers Longines and Omega. And today, if I turn on the TV in Switzerland, I’m as likely to catch a Bollywood movie as I am a Hollywood flick.

I think it’s great that we live in such an interconnected world and I love that Bollywood has made an impact on the movie industry. Nevertheless, I do miss those days of illicit viewing, when Bollywood was my secret world, my private pathway to my roots. I miss the old VCR, which still sits in my parents’ basement, along with the clunky VHS cassettes of the hit movies of yore that we used to watch.

Many of those classic movies are now on DVD, of course, and the modern films are often on Youtube or Netflix — all easily accessible by a simple click of a keyboard.  I encourage you to watch one or two, if you haven’t already (see my recommendations below). I, on the other hand, don’t view them very often anymore. They’ve lost that childhood magic, that ability to transport me to a different place and time, and for me, that was “Bollywood’s” true appeal.

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Bollywood Recommendations for the Novice:

The Classics:
1. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
Three brothers, separated in childhood, grow up adopting three different religions, come together to overthrow a notorious villain. Great songs that are still hits today and memorable fight sequences, and total camp, not to mention the theme of religious tolerance, that today’s Indian cinema just doesn’t address.
2. Naseeb (1981)
This is one of those all-time, awesome movies where fate brings together brothers separated at birth (the most common theme of movies from the ’70s and ’80s) against a backdrop of lavish sets, crazy costumes and a brilliant, final song sequence filmed in a revolving restaurant.

The Moderns
1. Zindagi na Milegi Dobara (roughly translates to: You Only Live Once.) (2011)

Three friends embark on a road trip to Spain after one of them gets engaged, learning some vital lessons along the way.

2. Jab Tak Hai Jaan (roughly translates to As Long as I Live) (2012)

A real Bollywood love story in the grand tradition of epic Bollywood love stories, starring Shahrukh Khan.

3. Don (2006)

Shahrukh Khan’s remake of the 1970s classic of the same name that starred the one and only Amitabh Bachchan, India’s greatest movie star ever and next only to God for most of the population  is slick and high-tech, but if you can get your hands on the original — well, it’s a classic.

Filed under: Life Lessons

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Savita Iyer-Ahrestani

Savita Iyer-Ahrestani (www.savitaiyer.net) is a freelance writer based in State College, PA. She is a contributor to Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com and Vogue’s Mumbai, India edition. Her articles have also appeared on CNN.com, Business Week online, Spirituality & Health magazine and Saveur magazine, among others. She’s is the co-author of “Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the Consumer-Led Marketplace” (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2012) and is currently at work on a novel.

2 Comments

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