Monday, June 18, 2007
Don't mention the "B" word!
It’s a big day for Bollywood – or “The Indian Film Industry” to use its proper name and thereby avoid annoying the stars. It’s the launch of the keenly-awaited Bollywood (sorry, but it’s difficult not to) blockbuster-to-be, “Jhoom Baraba Jhoom” starring some of the top names in Bol…er, The Indian Film Industry: the legendary Amitabh Bachan, Abishek Bachchan (son of the legendary Amitabh – a good way of making progress in The Indian Film Industry), Lara Dutta (the former Miss Universe – a sure-fire way to enter The Indian Film Industry), Preity Zinta and a quick appearance from the legendary Shah Rukh Khan (if you want to start a fight among the most tranquil members of Mumbai society simply ask whether Bachchan or Khan is the more legendary of the two legends).
I’m privileged to be among the first people to see such a prestigious film on its premiere in the movie capital of India. Once inside the The Sun City Cinema I discover it’s indistinguishable from any modern establishment in the west end of London, furnished with comfortable seats sporting cup-holders ready to accommodate a litre cup of cola and excellent quality sound. Only the snacks on offer suggest we’re not at The Ritzy in Brixton. Popcorn is here in abundance but instead of the ubiquitous hot dog the most popular alternative is a little packet of samosas – infinitely more stimulating on the palate in my view. But when the film starts I’m instantly transported back to London as the main plot of the movie is acted out at Waterloo railway station. The narrative is in Hindi with the occasional English expression tantalizingly thrown in. A three minute dialogue might suddenly feature an outburst of “Oh my Gaaaawd! I thought I would die!” Then before my hopes are raised too much it’s straight back to Hindi. This concentrates the mind on the body language, the expressions, the intonation – in fact the acting itself and I think I managed to follow most of the plot. Every now and then my limited comprehension is blown out of the water by an incomprehensible song and dance sequence. But oh, what a song and what a dance!
It might begin in unpromising circumstances on the forecourt of Waterloo station but will soon cut to the Tower of London, The London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and a virtual A-Z of London tourist hotspots in the company of 80 freaks dancing in unison to an east-meets-west masala of dhol drums and breakbeats – with a catchy hook that only the deaf or dead could ignore. Dialogue resumes for another 10 minutes then, taking the cue from an actor staring wistfully into the middle distance, we’re whisked off to Paris for another spectacular number. You’d think a 100-strong line-dance troup giving it their all under the Eiffel Tower would make a director pretty satisfied wouldn’t you? But repeating the same feat under the Arc De Triomphe, at the Sacre Couer, Notre Dame Cathedral and on the banks of the Seine would surely be - sorry but there’s no other word for it – insane. Or at best showing off. Amazing! This beats the Kids from Fame breakdancing on a couple of cars in New York hands down. I haven't yet seen a scene set in India but somehow that doesn't seem to matter.
The lingering afterburn of the chilli from my samosa is continuing to stimulate my tongue, the roof of my mouth and anything I touched since with my hand but just when I think the on-screen stimulation can get no greater I encounter one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. There in front of me, at this Mumbai movie-house, is the street next to mine back home in south London. The heroine (played by Preity Zinta), it seems, is living in Streatham and I have unknowingly passed her house on a daily basis for the past four years without any indication – although there was the kerfuffle one week when the side street was shut off by a film crew but the word on the street was that that was a Keira Knightley film.... A rather dim light bulb switches on in the back of my brain. I nudge my companion and try to express my incredulity – but it’s too late, the bhangra beats have begun and we’re off into another throbbing dance number featuring the inimitable Mr Bachchan confirming his legendary status, this time as a kind of Jethro-Tull-meets-Jimmy-Page character sporting a twin-neck guitar, jeans tucked into boots and ostrich feathers in his hat as he bursts into song and leads the Kids From Fame in yet another jig. Try to imagine Clint Eastwood or Robert De Niro doing that. No, on second thoughts, don't try it.
Then a peculiar thing happens: half of the audience stages a walkout! Has some part of Amitabh “the Big B” Bachchan’s routine offended his adoring fans? No, it’s just a couple of minutes fom the interval and this is the advance guard setting off in pursuit of popcorn and packets of samosas. The interval! I’m old enough to remember that ancient feature of British cinemas. I recently had a nostalgic hankering for an interval during a screening of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the plot failed to distract me from the customary consequences of two pints of cider and a bottle of water.
Sadly, seat 23M was left unattended during the second half of "Jhoom Barabar Joom" as we had to move on to another shoot. I heard a review on CNN’s Indian partner CNN-IBN next day saying that the film was a big disappointment due to its fragmented and senseless plot – but that merely serves to show that it's possible to enjoy a film even if you’ve lost the plot – that’s another thing my Mumbai movie experience had in common with Pirates of the Caribbean.
The second half of the day offers the prospect of a very different cinematic experience. So we set off from the suburbs into the centre of the city. Two hours later our driver has beeped his horn 1,357 times and the speedometer is still failing to reach 7 miles per hour.
While I’m taking for granted the air-conditioning of our little van outside the local inhabitants are relishing the relatively cooler weather brought by the monsoon – just days earlier the mercury was tipping a scorching 37 degrees Celsius. On reaching our destination I failed to relish the relatively cooler climate of a mere 32 degrees with what seemed like 200% humidity. Humidity breeds humility as I discovered when my freshly laundered shirt dissolved into a limp dishcloth and the once-crisply-attired CNN producer trickled into the venerable Edward Theatre – one of the oldest and last remaining single-screen cinemas in Mumbai. In past times the venue had hosted rallying calls by Mahatma Gandhi, urging passive resistance to the aggression of my imperial ancestors. As recently as 90 years ago it had become a cinema, playing first silent movies then talkies and now stood as a bastion of defiance to the wave of multiplexes sweeping over the city’s cinematic landscape. This is where some of the poorest labourers and migrant workers come to watch their films. There’s no AC here but instead an astonishingly beautiful array of fans from the ceilings above the third floor balcony down to the giant fans placed above the old orchestra pit, projecting a convincing jet of warm air over the first three rows of hard-backed wooden seats. The audience arrives, led by a man who turned up on a lateral bike pedalled by his hands. He scoots into the cinema on two hands and one leg and hauls himself into the best seat in the house in the middle of the front row. He’s followed by a steady stream of singles and families; girls in grubby but colourful saris giggling and nudging, running down the minutes until show time. Others simply collapse into the seats and fall asleep, weary from the strains of the day’s labour.
The assistant manager Sanjay Rasawa has been here since the week of his birth. The cinema has been in the family for three generations and he was brought up in a little room behind the screen. He played here, he watched films daily and now he’s assisting the manager, his father, who has held the job for fifty years.
He says: “The people who come here are very poor. They earn daily and they spend daily. They don’t think about the future. They never see the future. They can’t get rest outside. They can’t sleep on the road so they come here and enjoy the movie. A good movie teaches something and it keeps the mind fresh.”
The gigantic ancient projector whirrs into life and the lights dim in a ceremony which has been continued for almost a century. For the multiplex crowd The Indian Film Industry is changing – there are shorter films, fewer intervals and more sophisticated plots. For the crowd at the Edward Theatre their hope is to dream – a three hour movie which takes them far away from their daily lives and into the realms of fantasy. A song and a dance in the true Bollywood style.
-- From Neil Curry, Senior International Features Producer
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