“Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” Ingmar Bergman, the famous
Swedish film director, beautifully captures the allure of films and how they resound with and influence our emotions. Like millions of people around the world, I too am a fan of this most creative device of entertaining, educating, and affecting people.
When it comes to Hollywood films, my preferences have expanded from mass market romantic comedies and big budget blockbusters to include independent films, international cinema, and socio-political documentaries. I’m a fan of old and new work by Woody Allen. I equally enjoyed Avatar, Titanic, the Harry Potter films, and am admittedly one of the millions of fans of the Twilight movies. At the same time I thoroughly appreciated the artful beauty of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel), Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad), Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar), and numerous lesser known movies. Try as you may, you couldn’t, however, drag me to the newest rendition of the “Fast Five” movies or the like. All this considered, I hope I am at least perceived as someone with decent taste when it comes to films and cinema. That is all until you learn… that since the innocent age of five…I am a devoted fan of Bollywood cinema. There, I said it.
Bollywood films are known around the world for their sensationalized story lines which include elaborate song and dance numbers. When I examine the real reasons underneath my lack of a standard when it comes to Bollywood, it’s important to note a couple of things about these films generally. As articulated by Amit Rai, author of Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, movies and cinema have “historically been looked to as an experience of pleasure, a place where the boundaries of identity and social spaces are dissolved and redrawn.” In India particularly, where the current population is estimated at 1.21 billion, boundaries are drawn by religion, ethnicity, language, socio-economic class, and education level amongst others. Bollywood cinema manages to enrapture people despite these differences because of its mythical quality and ability to appeal to the senses. In fact, the story telling tradition in Indian cinema has been mostly influenced by the country’s two epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. These works mostly feature love, revenge, family-drama and action. So it is not unnatural for Indian movie-goers to find satisfaction in film stories so embedded in tradition.
Beyond India, however, Bollywood provides another, yet similar, appeal. As a female child, and one who is naturally prone to dramatics at that, it wasn’t unusual for me to fall in love with romantic tales of grandeur, with singing and dancing, with happy endings. More than that, it was the tradition of movie-watching in my home at that time. It was the build up and the excitement of picking out and waiting for my male cousin to come home with the newest flick. Of gathering in the family room, of sweet tea and snacks, of my female cousin humming the tunes and my mother agreeing that Amitabh Bachan was in fact the most handsome man in the world, of my father curling his nose in disdain. When we moved from Karachi to Saudi Arabia, I didn’t leave this tradition or these memories behind. My father continued to take me to the local Saudi film store upon successful completion of my workbooks to pick out the newest movie. My excitement was always a mystery, but amusing, to my parents. It was the memories and the warmth that I carried as a child. As we moved from one part of the world to the next, I continued to hold on to that familiarity and it continued to evoke affection despite the intellectual growth that came with age.
As an adolescent, I found new reasons to cling to Bollywood. Bollywood actresses have historically been portrayed as damsels in distress, yet their beauty and innocence so captivating, that the hero cannot help but fall madly in love. Is this the most feminist-friendly portrayal of love? Obviously not, but it is the stuff of fantasies. Living in a far off Middle Eastern country, it was not unseemly for a young Pakistani girl to find comfort in the fantasy of a hero waiting somewhere to “discover” her. Each character was given qualities larger than life and each love story was the greatest one of all. It was a child-like obsession with fairy tales. Aside from the one dimensional characterizations that I (now embarrassingly) identified with, I also loved the musical productions. At weddings, during Eid, at parties, and even on random occasions, we often found ourselves recreating coordinated dances to the most recent songs. Even as I write this it sounds bereft of any redeeming value, but truthfully it was just plain fun. We made fun of the lines that even we couldn’t stomach (“It’s all about loving your parents” and “don’t fall in love, RISE in love”) but we continued to watch the anticipated new flicks, purchasing the song cassettes promptly thereafter. Another era was made of memories and just as quickly we all moved on, moved away, and grew up.
Now as the Bollywood of my own youth fades, bringing thinner, younger, more scantily clad divas to the forefront, I find myself trying to remember what the appeal ever was. I see this as indication that its not just me, but Bollywood has also changed. Watching the movies of my teenage years, I find it troubling that I cannot justify to a non-Bollywood fan why I loved such and such movie or such and such actor. Why DDLJ had all of us in a giddy fit or why KKHH had all of us enthralled for 3.25 hours. All the same, I don’t think we’ll ever not know what someone is referring to when they repeat an oft quoted line from DDLJ or another one of our favorites. What I do remember is the excitement of friendship and of having the license of youth to succumb to the silliness, something I no longer really have, as adulthood has taken a firm hold and I too must leave the Bollywood I once knew behind. Still I try to remain a fan, and often don’t even try to justify it – it’s enough to say, I hope, that it just makes me happy and nostalgic.