Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Dream of Bollywood

For a hormone-raging country pumpkin, the oversized hand-painted pictures of voluptuous women in midriff- baring saris staring down from movie billboards were all it took.

That was my introduction to Bollywood song-and-dance films – in Woodlands, at the southernmost corner of Singapore, across from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. This was also where I got my first taste of the real Indian curry, roti prata, teh tarik or pulled tea, laksa and many other unique Singapore Indian dishes, as well as the beginning of my discovery of, and love for, world music.


The 90s Screen Siren Madhuri Dixit with Rishi Kapoor 
in Prem Granth (1996)

Laksa is one type of food that one must try before dying. It's a Peranakan's creation, unique to Singapore and Malaysia. One of laksa's variations, the curry coconut soup, is served with rau răm or Vietnamese coriander, also locally known as daun kesum, which until then I thought only the Vienamese ate this sharp-tasting herb.
Though not knowing a word of Hindi, the music, the dancing and, of course, the midriff-baring saris were intoxicating for a country pumpkin from then-isolated Viet Nam. The ridiculous dancing – quite often in the rain, in the water or on the beach that invariably ends with the hero trying to kiss the girl but misses her lips because she manages to get away by loosening her sari. Talk about anticlimax!
One more memorable element about these films is that somehow many of them find the stars frolicking on Edelweiss and buttercup flower-covered Swiss Alps. It’s like Gene Kelly’s "Singin' In the Rain" Don Lockwood had married Julie Andrews’ "The Sound of Music" Maria von Trapp and made a movie called “Dancing on the Alps.”

My love affair with Bollywood ended when I left for America in 1981, or so I had thought. I had all but forgotten about it until I got cable TV some years later. There I was, getting up late on one Saturday morning after a night working at a nightclub in San Francisco – Namaste America!, “the number 1 South Asian Television Network in America.”
Juhi Chawla with Anil Kapoor
in an only-in-Bollywood dance routine (Andaz, 1994)
It’s a cable program, from New York, that beams into almost every South Asian’s household in America. It features a HUGE dose of Bollywood’s news and gossip, interspersed with commercials for local Indian American businesses, and, of course, song-and-dance Hindi music films.
To those who are not South Asians or do not know Hindi, the often-ridiculous dance routines and convoluted story-line, as well as the seemingly-bad acting, it’s not like watching French cinema or chopsocky kung fu movies – they don’t really grow on you. But the music. I love the music from these films.
In the East Bay area of the San Francisco Bay, especially in the cities of Fremont and Berkeley, there are many “sari palaces” that sell both films and soundtracks. There are also numerous outlets online, both free and for purchase, where one can get one’s Bollywood-fix taken care of. There are now even real movie houses that show first-run hits.
However, I was recently surprised to find out that the award-winning Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based string quartet, which is better known for contemporary classical music, has recorded an album of Bollywood’s classics featuring the incomparable Asha Bhosle. The album, called You've stolen my heart - Songs From R D Burman's Bollywood, also earned Bhosle a Grammy nomination, a first for an Indian national.
This is a must-have album for not only Hindi film music’s aficionados, but also those who are into world music or just plain curious. The Rough Guide has also put out a number of Bollywood compilations, including one featuring just Asha Bhosle.

Dum Maro Dum -- The Kronos Quarter Featuring Bhosle 
(Footage from the 1971 film,Hare Rama Hare Krishna)

Bollywood’s song-and-dance films are pure kitsch entertainment, but often with a great soundtrack, not to mention the hipnotically gorgeous stars – both female and male. So if you can overlook the convoluted story-line, or the lack thereof, and the fantastically ridiculous choreography, welcome to Bollywood.