Monday, April 14, 2008


Mumbai’s the home of Bollywood – the “B” of Bombay, plus Hollywood, you can work it out for yourself, if you try, although I suppose that should make it Mollywood, these days. Somewhere between 800 and 900 films are produced here, annually, each on a budget of less than half a million dollars. The average cost of making a film in the USA is fourteen million dollars. I can’t see where the other thirteen and a half million goes, to be frank – how much does Meg Ryan cost, for example?
In the early days, at the beginning of the twentieth century, acting was not considered a reputable profession, hereabouts, forcing one Indian director to employ a young man, to play the female lead in his film, “A Salunke.”. A bit like Shakespeare’s day, then. It’d have the film censors down the Labour Exchange, if everyone had to keep a decent shirt on his or her back.

Nowadays, people flock to Mumbai, as they do to Hollywood, in the hope of making it big in the movies. And, it has to be said, in a city, where more than half of the population live in squalor, in slum housing, the Bollywood stars have it made, if their walled mansions in Bandra and Juhu are anything to go by. Monu points them out, all the time, “Is famous actor house. Bollywood star.” – although we never see anyone coming in or out, wiggling their hips and eyebrows, so it could well be the YMCA, for all I know.

U Me Aur Hum’s out this week. You, Me and Us. We’ve been crooning along to it, in the car, me and Monu, for weeks. Pre-launch marketing, I feel like I know it already. The stars are real-life husband and wife, Ajay Devgan and Kajol, whose history’s a fairytale in itself. The film’s about a couple coping with Alzheimer’s, so you’ll be needing the Kleenex as well as the popcorn. Monu steals a march on me, and sees it on his day off, “Madame, I see film. Nice, nice film, very sad, all all people weeping.” I contemplate explaining “chick flick” to him, but don’t think either of us is up to it.
Bollywood’s as formulaic as its transatlantic cousin, except ‘genre’ doesn’t particularly come into it, here on the sub-continent. They don’t do ‘horror’ or ‘romance’ or ‘action,’ it’s more a cocktail of everything, in order not to exclude any specific audience. Hence the label ‘masala films.’

By way of Bollywood baptism, we watch Awarapan, starring Emraan Hashmi, who is fairly scenic, so we barely need the subtitles. It’s your kind of film, I just know. It has to be, because it has everything - thwarted romance, broken hearts, car chases, gunfights, despotic underworld chiefs, slavery, prostitution – it just needs a couple of pirates and a bit with a dog... I can quite understand that the main character, Shivam, should turn to life in the underworld, when his Muslim girlfriend’s father takes a pot shot at him, to avoid the shame of his daughter marrying out. Shivam ducks – why wouldn’t you? – so Dad contrives to kill the girl instead, then shoots himself as well. You can see already, that things aren’t going in a great direction. Years on, Shivam’s evil boss, Malik, has a slave/prostitute girlfriend abducted from Pakistan, and, when he discovers she’s plotting her escape, he asks Shivam to kill her. Shivam struggles with his Inner Self, and, I’m just thinking, he’s going to get the girl, after all, to rekindle his dead heart, when he does the Bollywood equivalent of throwing himself on his sword – ie massive shoot-out at the pier, stage littered with corpses. Kidnapped prostitute heads off to freedom on ferry. Meanwhile dead girlfriend (see above, keep up...) makes an ethereal appearance, now joined by ethereal Shivam, getting his just rewards in heaven. So, no belly-laughs, then. But still, I can buy all that, even without taxing the corsets. As one whose hold on reality is only ever tenuous at best – for instance, I’m quite prepared to believe that Shrek really happened - I can do the willing suspension of belief with practised ease. What I don’t get, is the need for musical interludes. Perhaps the subtlety’s lost in translation, but where’s the link between the sad life of a captive sex worker, and a ra-ra disco number, singing and dancing on top of a bus? It leaves me wondering if I’ve been asleep for thirty crucial minutes. (Not unknown on sofas in and around Rempstone, I have to say...)
According to the Bollywood Mission Statement, no cinema-goer should think a single rupee of his ticket-money wasted, hence tendency to throw genres into the blender, to please one and all. There are huge multi-screen cinemas, here, even super-plush ones, offering reclining leather sofas-for-two, with gloved butlers waiting on. The small-small-housing estates, though, have small-small-cinemas, to match. They peep between the lock-up shops, their frontage no bigger than your garden shed. You won’t need your glasses, because you’ll be within arm’s reach of the screen – well, tv set, really - in a select company of maybe a dozen others. Your ticket’ll cost you ten or fifteen rupees. It’ll be worth every paise.