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Past Article

Indian Summer
By Phurba Gyalzen
March 13, 2003 - 6:54 PM PST

Samosas and chai.

Summer's on its way and you're thinking it's time to spice up your life. You're tired of the old greasy popcorn and soda routine at the movie theaters. You're tired of Hollywood and Disney. Enter the world of Bollywood where, for moviegoers, going to the movies is as much as an event as the film itself and where people don't get their munchies before the movie but rather have an opportunity to satiate their hungers and quench their thirsts during the intermissions that divide the typically three-to-four hour-long shows. Popcorn and soda are for the weak and are replaced by stands that sell samosas (spicy curried pastries) and chai (spicy sweet milk tea) and by vendors that toss bottles of orange Fanta across the rows of seats.

There has always been a sense of derision associated with the word "Bollywood," a tag used to describe India's most vibrant and churning film industry. When you think of a Bollywood film, images of men in tight faded jeans and chest-hugging tank tops and women in the most flamboyant dresses dancing on tops of trains and playing peek-a-boo around trees probably come to your mind. Well, you're not too far from the truth and, as I will admit, there is an aroma of cheesiness in almost all of these films. Take for example, the film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) which was recently shown at the Castro Theater as part of the annual San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. When Shah Rukh Khan, the "hero" of the film, appeared wearing a very colorful tight Speedo top, adorning a necklace that hung the word, COOL, the more than 900 viewers couldn't help but burst out laughing.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

As amusing as it was, it is a norm in Indian cinema to attempt to emulate their notion of latest western fashion which apparently seems to be at least 10 years behind. It was a bit of a shock to my system to hear the bantering laughs because having grown up on Indian cinema, I used to think that these "heroes" were actually cool because of their fashion sense. It was nevertheless amusing to watch the film with an audience that was fairly new to Bollywood. I began to appreciate the movie even more as moments that I found sad or romantic in the past suddenly became funny and whimsical.

Anyone who thought the themes of sexual ambiguity set to music in Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001) seemed a bit excessive has clearly been sheltered from the eccentricities of Bollywood. When Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman suddenly break out into a song in Moulin Rouge (2001) or singers and dancers seem to drop out of nowhere and into a scene, you're getting a taste of Bollywood. That's where the comparison ends, though. The sheer richness of the films' masala (a term used to describe a mix of several herbs and spices) style makes Bollywood one of the most unique genres of world cinema and allows the directors plenty of creative leg-room to invoke energy, pleasure and emotional response from as large an audience as possible. While Hong Kong cinema is known for it radical compression, Bollywood films stray off in all directions. The central storylines almost always branch off into a number of subplots of varying relevance. A catch-all heterogeneous structure is always adopted in which several conventions - a love story, a comedic segment, some violent action, the infamous song/dance sequence - are amalgamated to the central braid of interwoven narratives.

To truly appreciate the enormity of Bollywood, its products and its influences, consider its origins, which date back as far as the 1890s, making it as old as Hollywood. Consider its assembly line-like production of more than 800 films a year (about a quarter of the world films), most of whose budgets mirror the cost of my shoe collection. Consider its popularity: more than 20 million frequent the theaters on a daily basis and Bollywood soundtracks dictate the direction of South Asian pop music and culture. Consider the star power of Bollywood's most famous icon, Amitabh Bachan, who has been voted the most popular person in the world, and Bollywood's new heartthrob, Hrithik Roshan, who caused a riot among thousands of students at a movie theater in Nepal - two protestors were shot by the police just because the actor was misquoted as saying he didn't like Nepalese. (For the record, I wasn't at the protest.) And consider this: you're almost always guaranteed to see pudgy lovers in disco shirts dancing around trees. No one can argue that Bollywood has earned its prominent place in world cinema and is something that everyone should experience at least once, like it or not.


Boning up on Bollywood basics isn't difficult by any means. Granted, it used to be that these movies were only available at rare "Qwality Marts," Indian grocery stores, and even there, only in the form of mostly pirated video tapes. But now they are now available on pirated DVDs at those same shops which seem to be springing up as fast as 7-Elevens. I'm just surprised that 7-Eleven doesn't rent videos. Most of the DVDs actually come with subtitles and other extra features that you can view if, after the 3-4 hour-long movie, you're still longing for more. Bollywood films are being shown in theaters outside of India on a more and more frequent basis. Visit Naz8 for a truly Bollywood experience. These theaters have become foci for the many South Asian communities around the world.

Bollywood's popularity continues to balloon and the films have recently even made their way into your local movie theaters. Movies like Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2002), which has captivated the western audience with it amazing soundtrack, Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), which was an Oscar contender, and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (Sometimes Happiness Sometimes Sorrow, 2001), which broke box office records in North America and actually made it to the top ten list for about a week in the US, are just a few examples.

Lucky you, though. As GreenCine members, you have access to a great collection of Bollywood favorites. No pirates here. They were specially hand-picked to represent some of the greatest classics of Bollywood, past and present. The collection is a great foundation to build upon and adding any one of these titles to your queues will be a great way to get into Bollywood. I do have a couple of favorites that I have used to hook some of the most unlikely candidates into becoming Bollywood fanatics. A lot these newbies can actually sing some of the songs in the movies - or at least they think they can.

Here are a few great movies to spice up your life, or at least 3 to 4 hours of it.

Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham

Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (Sometimes Happiness Sometimes Sorrow, 2001). This is a very extravagant family drama which stars Amitabh Bachan and Hrithik Roshan. Long movie, but you won't even realize it, and it has an excellent soundtrack.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998). One of Bollywood's most popular films and one of my personal favorites. Starring a very underrated Shah Rukh Khan, the ever-evolving Kajol and the strep throat-inflicted Rani Mukherjee. Plenty of tight shorts and Speedo action here.


Devdas (2002). An extravagantly beautiful film starring once again the great Shah Rukh Khan with Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit. This is the most expensive Bollywood film to date and an excellent example of the emphasis on music and dance choreography.

Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai (Say That You're in Love, 2000). More Hrithik!!! You'll come across a common Bollywood theme in which love prevails over the sorrows of death. I'm not going to going to give any more away since most Bollywood movies tend to be very predictable as it is.

GreenCine welcomes any recommendation for other movies to add to the collection and hopes that Bollywood's cheesy and whimsical films will keep your spirits lifted even as the world seems to be spinning out of control.

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Samosas and chai.

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Phurba Gyalzen
Born under the shadows of Mt. Everest, Phurba grew up in Nepal and Ireland, watching maybe a few too many Indian films. After years of living and studying in the Midwest, he now resides and works in San Francisco. He promises that he has shed much of the cheesiness that Bollywood has instilled in him.

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