Bully for Bollywood

With 'Lagaan,' the Indian Movie Industry Is Poised to Cross Over

Lo! Across rainless acres parched by drought swaggers Captain Russell, a Machiavellian British fop, to the ascot born, with his Freddie Mercury overbite and muttonchops. "You tea drinkers!" a native hisses, for this is colonial India, 1893. The Captain smirks, then challenges the townsfolk to cricket. If the English win, land tax is tripled. If the villagers win, the tithe is erased. Now farmer Bhuvan, righteous dreamboat of the populists, rises up to defy his oppressor. Now wistful Elizabeth twirls her parasol, while plucky maiden Gauri simpers and pouts. Cut to a glittery song-and-dance extravaganza, all kaleidoscopic, choreographed confection. Viva Bollywood, Bombay's Hindi movie cosmos, the biggest film industry in the world! Viva Lagaan!

India's first Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film since Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! in 1989, Lagaan (opening May 10) transcends the generic pageantry of Bollywood's masala moviemaking. Scripted in Hinglish (half-Hindi, half-English), the movie runs an epic three hours 45 minutes, but cannily leavens stock plots of caste discrimination and political tyranny with six frothy musical numbers and a love triangle that recalls the sugary Sweet Valley High novellas. Lagaanwas written and directed by former model Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by swoon-inducing megastar Aamir Khan, who also plays Bhuvan. A $5 million-plus price tag makes it the costliest Bollywood production of all time. It became India's top-grossing movie last year, clearing $15 million in ticket sales. With Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann declaring it "David Lean meets Busby Berkeley," Lagaancould be the film that hoists Bollywood from the cult fringes of American pop culture toward a wider acceptance by the Western mainstream.

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Bollywood topples porn as "Pretentious Film-Snob Reference of the Month." GQ had sanctioned Bollywood even earlier, with a splashy profile of Indian It Boy Hrithik Roshan, whose cleft chin and skimpy tank tops have made him "the most famous person you have never heard of, one of the biggest movie stars in the world." Later this month, the Cannes Film Festival screens its first Bollywood film—the period romance Devdas.

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On the set of Dil Ke Aas Paas at the Filmalia studio in Bombay
photo: Jonathan Torgovnik

Hollywood, another industry oiled by dalliances with Next Big Things, seems similarly infatuated, judging from a recent barrage of smoochy homages to Bollywood. Last year's splendid indie gem Ghost World opened with goth temptress Thora Birch's earnest gyrations to the obscure, kooky 1965 musical Gumnaam. A remix of the Hindi-movie hit song "Chamma Chamma" accompanied Moulin Rouge's "Sad Diamonds" sequence. Mira Nair also paid tribute in this spring's Monsoon Wedding with sweetly cornball courtship scenes unspooled to Bollywood serenades from the '70s and '80s. This summer, ringmaster of theatrical excess Andrew Lloyd Webber will premiere Bombay Dreams on the London stage. The musical was inspired by Hindi film songs Weber heard at a Bollywood awards ceremony at Nassau Coliseum two years ago. Shekhar Kapur, Indian director of the luminous, Oscar-nominated biopic Elizabeth, is co-producing. And come fall, in The Guru, blond beauty queen Heather Graham is rumored to lead a Bollywood-inspired dance ensemble in a dream sequence scored to "You're the One That I Want" from Grease.

With its vaudevillian panoramas and abiding zest for heavy mascara, can Bollywood sustain its emerging communion with the American entertainment industry? "We're not going to see Bollywood on MTV, but it's definitely penetrating," says DJ Rekha, who launched Basement Bhangra night at S.O.B.'s and is founder of the Bollywood Disco party that debuts May 15 at Opaline. "It's being accessed now by people who've never accessed it before, in dance music. I think we're going to see more films that reference it in the same ways that the Hong Kong films influenced filmmakers."

"It does break a lot of rules, but Lagaanwas always intended for the mainstream Indian audience," says producer-star Khan. He admits, however, that the filmmakers scattered winking allusions to Western music and literature throughout the movie. "But we're not limited to an influence that is purely Indian. That's the emotional key."

The studio lots called Film City in Bombay, or Mumbai as is now proper to say, are a synthetic carnival, where on a budget of a mere $300 million (less than the combined production costs of Titanic and Waterworld), more than 800 masala movies, almost all musicals, get made each year. Barely any reach American theaters (the Loews State Theatre in midtown screens a different Bollywood feature each week), but a good number are exported straight to video stores in neighborhoods with established South Asian communities, like Jackson Heights in Queens, or any of the 50 or so movie houses across the country that exclusively screen Bollywood films. India makes more movies than any other nation and nearly doubles the 500 films Hollywood churns out annually. Films run a minimum of three hours to give moviegoers who subsist at or below poverty level maximum value for their money. Intermissions are routine. Ten million Indians go to the movies every day. Globally, Bollywood boasts annual grosses of $3.5 billion. Export revenues are predicted to jump an additional 120 percent by 2006.

Masala, by definition, is a scorching amalgam of fiery cooking spices, and on the lots of Film City, that translates into soap opera, calculated mayhem, and recurring narratives lifted from the Hindu mythologies of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here Salman, Aishwarya, Shah Rukh, and Kareena—preening royals of frippery—overcome the exaggerated plots, tight jeans, and hide-and-seek behind trees that drive Bollywood productions. Class conflict, redemption, and reversal of fortune are eternal themes. Kissing is not forbidden; it just hardly ever happens. Sex is taboo, but implied through soft-focus "wet sari" fantasies and rapturous frolics across meadows. Song-and-dance is still the thing: melodically raw ghazals, the techno pulses of bhangra, and the fizzy, fevered hullabaloo dances.

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A movie theater in Madras
photo: Jonathan Torgovnik

Bollywood's hallmark exuberance may be paling, however, says Lee Server, author of Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo, with a shift toward films that are more self-consciously restrained and polished. "Those movies used to be the most phantasmagoric chorus numbers, where they'd really put everything and the kitchen sink into it," Server says. "Now they look identical to a J.Lo video. A growing sophistication has come there, an Americanization."

Indeed, Film City seems to be interpreting a whole new breed of Bollywood films through the gauze of Western consciousness. There is Kaante—a Reservoir Dogs-type heist caper starring Amitabh "Big B" Bachchan, the Godfather of Indian cinema—which has the distinction of being the first Bollywood film to be shot entirely in the United States with an American crew. And in Mitr, My Friend, co-director Revathy, a veteran Bollywood actress, challenges the masala formula by examining the struggles of an Indian American family living in California through English-only dialogue and a 97-minute duration.

But lengthy running times remain the norm, and may prove an obstacle for wider distribution. "People used to be willing to pay money and sit in a theater all day," says New York-based film producer Tanya Selvaratnam, whose feature On-Line premiered at Sundance this year. "Now Western culture moves a lot faster, and people are not used to it." The melodrama that saturates Hindi movie productions is a further hindrance, according to Server. "I don't think it's as easy a mix as the Hong Kong genre," he says. "The gaudiness is not going to really sift into modern-day Hollywood, which tends to remain fairly naturalistic."

Still, Selvaratnam says there is no replacing the escapist gloss of a Film City drama. "There's great satisfaction in Bollywood movies because people don't cry and scream and go to their rooms. They cry and scream and dance."

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