Early last year, I met an Indian filmmaker. I’m a big fan of his work, and he seemed quite surprised to find an American girl who had seen his movies. During a conversation he mentioned the song “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” from the film Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. “Hmm,” I said, “that’s from Howrah Bridge, not Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.” His jaw dropped and he stared at me, astonished.
People always want to know: “Why?” What would make an American girl (not of Indian descent) like Hindi movies so much that she’s watched hundreds of them in the span of a few years?
I don’t actually remember the first Hindi film that I saw, although it was probably on my first flight to India. I think for some reason that it was a film with Salman Khan. In any case, that first trip to India got me hooked on India itself. Like a magpie, I love bright, shiny things…and India is nothing if not bright and shiny!
I revelled in the colorful clothes, the jewelry, the gorgeous architecture and breathtaking scenery, and most of all the open warmth of the people I met. Yes, there was terrible poverty—but I was also fascinated by the way such beauty and such ugliness could coexist side by side. Here in America, we segregate ourselves from what we don’t want to see or acknowledge. There’s really no escaping it in India, and I admire that.
When I got home, I bought some Hindi films at random. One of them was Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha starring Kajol and Ajay Devgan. I quickly realized that it was copied directly from one of my favorite Hollywood movies, French Kiss—but I liked it even better! Thrown into the mix were an Indian wedding, outlandish outfits, Michael Jackson impersonators, gangsters, and the biggest plus of all—Ajay and Kajol. I loved them. I wanted to be friends with them. Everything I had loved about India was right there onscreen in front of me. I went back online to shop for more.
I had no real basis for choosing movies, didn’t know any of the plot lines or actors, or music, or anything. I began blindly ordering best sellers and more films starring Ajay or Kajol. One of these was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I was completely charmed by Shah Rukh Khan. Before long I had every SRK movie, most of Ajay Devgan’s films, most of Kajol’s films and from there had discovered Sanjay Dutt, Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee.
What kept me watching was the heartfelt emotion. I liked that men could cry openly, I liked how resilient and strong the women were (even if it annoyed me a little that they were always required to sacrifice). I felt drained at the end of each one (but in a good way, like when your favorite team wins a big match). I had never really been a big movie buff, didn’t have movie star “crushes,” although I saw films regularly like most people do. This was different. It was addictive. I had to have MORE.
My obsession led me to the internet, where I discovered the whole huge world of “Bollywood.” I found out that many of these stars I’d been watching were related to stars from the past. By now they felt like family to ME! I began to order movies from the 60′s and 70′s so that I could see Sunil Dutt, Sharmila Tagore, Tanuja. I discovered Dharmendra, Hema Malini, and Shammi Kapoor (I really fell head over heels for Shammi—as everyone who knows anything about me knows—and would still fall at his feet were I lucky enough to meet him).
I also fell in love with the music. It was so lyrical, so poetic (at least when the songs were subtitled) and so full of feeling. I started developing favorites among the music directors: Shankar-Jaikishan, Roshan, Ravi…and soon I knew when it was Rafi singing, or Mukesh, or Asha. I got some “Best of…” cds. Then I bought movies just because I loved the songs from them so much. And realized—hey, that’s why they release the music from a film earlier than the film itself in India!
As I returned to India for more visits and saw more and more movies, infatuation waned; real love and affection took its place. The stories were steeped in Indian culture and traditions: I learned what Holi is, and Karva Chauth. Some plots were outlandish, but I didn’t care. I loved how black or white everything was—just like me! I’ve always been a person who sees things in one extreme or the other. I love things or I hate them. There’s no middle ground. Hindi cinema seemed especially written for my sensibilities.
I also became more critical. I discovered some movies that I didn’t like much, mostly because they condoned the subjugation of women or perpetrated stereotypes.
But for the most part I felt I was discovering a whole new world, a world I increasingly felt at home in. I began to understand references inside films to other films, and to feel like part of a big happy movie-crazy family.
And there are some really great movies. Guru Dutt’s beautifully lit films are like Rembrandt paintings. Sunil Dutt—even early in his career—made lovely thoughtful films which celebrated women and condemned the double standards they lived under. Vijay Anand’s thrillers enthralled me with their convoluted plots, fabulous go-go outfits and psychedelic sets. I learned how the post-Independence era’s optimism and hope was reflected in Raj Kapoor’s cinema, how the movies of the 1960′s provided escapist fare for an increasingly disillusioned public, how Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man” symbolized the bitterness of India’s youth towards an increasingly corrupt and uncaring bureacracy in the 1970′s.
I guess what it really comes down to is that my initial attraction to the overwrought drama and glamour has evolved into a deep and abiding love for the heart, the spirit, and the optimism that Hindi films contain. I am grateful for what they have taught me about the country and people they represent. I admire the long, rich history of India’s cinema: the countless beautiful songs, the stories they tell, the actors, actresses, directors and musicians who have become so familiar.
Like many, I am excited by advances made in Hindi filmmaking these days. It’s nice to see special effects that are *WOW* and cinematography that blows you away. I think experimentation is great. But I hope Hindi movies don’t lose what makes them uniquely “Indian”: the passion for life, the sheer exuberance, the songs and dancing. It’s magic.
[See also: my defense of Hindi cinema to those (westerners and Indians) who are ignorant and dismissive of "Bollywood".]