December 8, 2000

Affectionately Bollywood
Salil Tripathi sets out to watch six British-Asian actors
take on Bollywood 2000: Yet Another Love Story
and has a romp minus the waterfall

Inside the Riverside Television Studios in Hammersmith in
the western reaches of London, Garry Kasparov is
desperately trying to prevent Vladimir Kramnik from stealing
his world chess championship crown. The two stare intently
at the black and white squares on the board. But outside, in
 the foyer, dozens of Indian men and women are laughing, as
 they emerge out of the auditorium. Clearly, they've not been
 watching the game of chess.

 Indeed, the crowd has come to see Bollywood 2000: Yet
 Another Love Story, a lively, entertaining musical, staged by
 the London-based Reduced Indian Film Company (any
 similarity between the fate of Sholay and Shataranj Ke Khilari
 is entirely coincidental).

The musical is an affectionate take on Bollywood, directed by
Pravesh Kumar and Apurva Asrani. It contains the
regulation dose of songs and dance, fights and
tears, deaths, reunions and clichés, which have made
Bollywood films an object of such an enduring appeal
for Indian communities throughout the world.

And beyond. Just last week, at the Mumtaz
restaurant near London's central mosque where I sat
down for an "iftar" meal with Anglo-Pakistani writer
Aamer Husain and would-be Malaysian
novelist Karim Raslan, an Englishman called Tom
is vigorously dancing to a Hindi film song crooned by
a tone-deaf entertainer, making conversation

And not only that: in 1992, in Bangkok, as we took our
sons in a taxi to see a show of elephants, the taxi
driver kept stealing glances at us. And once he was
certain we were Indians, the Thai cabbie began singing
"Chal chal chal mere sathi, o mere hathi..."

 This amazing hold of Indian cinema over the society beyond
 India is a phenomenon still not fully documented or
 understood. Russians alone aren't thinking of Raj Kapoor all
 the time; a Palestinian activist once asked me in Geneva
 about Amitabh Bachchan's health. And Amitabh himself, in
 London for the Madam Tussaud sitting, marvelled at
 Nigerians recognizing him.

 Kumar, whose musical Bollywood 2000 is currently
 undertaking a UK-wide tour, says: "The appeal of Bollywood
 is astonishing. Our play has attracted many non-Indians in
 the audience." The play is loosely based on Yaadon ki
 Baraat, Deewar, Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony, and many
 other films that deal with the same general theme of loss,
 separation, reunion, love, tears, hate, and humour. What
 happens next is not important; in fact, to that extent, Hindi
 films belong to the genre of myths and epic, where the
 audiences know the stories and the plots, but come for the

 Bollywood 2000: Yet Another Love Story is a lively,
 enthusiastic tribute, with some brilliant acting by Amit
 Channa as the mother-worshipping hero, and Ajay Chhabra
 and Kiran Dadlani are genuinely funny. And then there is
 Britain's answer to Madhuri Dixit, Shivani Ghai. The sexy,
 sultry siren, like the Juhi Chawlas and Tabus and Kajols
 before her, transforms from a tight-skirt-wearing spoilt rich girl
 to a churidar-kurta-wearing fiancé, and then, lo and behold, a
 sari-clad arya nari, all within the promised two hours. Only
 the waterfall is missing.

 The play revolves around Shanti, a stoic mother of steel, who
 has not changed her blood-stained sari since her husband
 was murdered 20 years ago by Pinky, the villain. The hero is
 her son, Ajay, who falls in love with Priya, the daughter of a
 rich landowner, who wants to stop the couple tying the knot
 for no apparent reason other than to prolong the story and
 inject some drama. And if things weren't complicated
 enough, along comes Vijay, a long lost twin brother and
 angry young man who falls for Umbro, a football mad
 courtesan, ever eager to take the bullet for her love. Will
 Shanti ever change her sari? Will Ajay and Vijay recognize
 each other in spite of the 236 birthmarks they have in
 common? Enquiring minds want to know.

 The show features all the imaginable clichés about
 Bollywood but no one seems to mind. Jaya Patel, emerging
 out of the theatre while Kasparov and Kramnik continue to
 tear their out, says: "I haven't laughed so much. This show
 is great!"

Part Two:

Along with curries, the Brits are developing a voracious
appetite for Hindi films, writes Salil Tripathi

As a new generation of British Asians comes of age, they
are rediscovering the drama and romance of Bollywood. They
are taking to Bollywood with the same gusto with which they
once took to Disco Bhangra. Parents like their children
spending time seeing Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil to Pagal
Hai, rather than western shows on TV and DVDs. This is at
least partly because the defining trait of a Hindi film
continues to be morality; good always overcomes evil, love
triumphs over hate, the hero and heroine live happily ever
after. The Bollywood experience is a life-affirming one, says
Kishan Desai, who runs a printing press in North London.

For British sociologists, Asians going to see a movie is an
anthropological marvel because these are genuine family
events. As the Asian population accounts for a sizable
proportion, cinemas are also noticing another trend: Its
appeal beyond the Asian community. Even without subtitles,
Bollywood is attracting growing numbers of non-Asian
businessmen who, with appetites whetted by recent Asian
success in Britain, such as "East is East," and perhaps
bored with sex, violence and hi-tech action content of
Western films, are returning to good old-fashioned musicals.

Bollywood has suddenly found a way to tap the 25 million
Indian expatriates around the world, unifying them just at a
time when politics is divisive, and cricket has become a matter
of great betrayal. India's film exports jumped from £6 million
a decade ago to £60 million last year. It has attracted investment as
well, with multinationals such as Sony and Universal
Studios setting up shop in Bombay since the Indian Government
relaxed foreign investment rules.

Then there is the broader trend of Indian kitsch becoming
popular. Starbucks sells Chai Latte, and Americans are enjoying
lassi. Thanks to Madonna, henna has become popular, as has bindi.
Alanis Morisette thanks India for inspiration. Indians are dominating
the popular culture of the west with such diverse icons as M
Night Shyamalan, Meera Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri and Vijay
Singh. And desi chic is suddenly the rage in American
fashion and pop culture, with purses, bangles and sandals
selling with other Indian-inspired images and artifacts in gift
shops and department stores. A store near where I work,
which is way off the tourist belt in London, is exclusively
devoted to Indian handicrafts and bric-a-brac.

Britain is the biggest market for Hindi films outside India and
as many as five Bollywood films reached the top ten lists last
year. Little wonder then that the Bollywood Awards staged at
the Millennium Dome earlier this year were a big hit. The
2001 ceremony may take place in Dubai, and before too
long, plans are to take it to Hollywood. The website,
www.catchclusive.com, on which filmgoers were invited to
vote for their favourite stars for the ceremony, received more
than one million hits. One media estimate says that by the
end of 2000, there may be 15 satellite channels devoted to
Indian films.

In Britain, Hum Saath Saath Hain went straight into the Top
Ten, even though it was showing on only 28 screens. In the
US, it quickly grossed more than £1 million. To capitalize on
this, Warner opened a cineplex dedicated to, yes,
Bollywood, in Birmingham in July.

Warner is showing shrewd business sense; observe the
length of the queues in many UK picture houses these days
and you will see Indian-made movies outperforming some of
Hollywood's most hyped productions every day of the week.
The appetite for Bollywood films in Britain is immense (four
films Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Biwi Number One and
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, have in the past two years
smashed box-office records by entering the UK Top 20 on

In Birmingham, where Asians account for 25 per cent of the
population, the potential to increase audiences is huge,
particularly since the Federation Against Copyright Theft
began its clampdown on imitation Bollywood videos. Andy
Stone, who runs the multiplex in Birmingham, says: "People
will come to us from all over Britain not just from Birmingham
but from Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Wolverhampton.
We will also be putting subtitles on some films, which might
encourage, for instance, an Asian gentleman to bring a
non-Asian girlfriend."

In the next five years, analysts expect that more
Asian-dedicated multiplexes will spring up
in Asian populated areas of Britain. According to
The Times, the Cineworld multiplex in Feltham,
West London, for example, whose catchment area includes
Southall and Hounslow, says 26.5 per cent of its
business comes from Bollywood films. And
Britons were startled when they discovered that
BBC's online millennium poll to determine the
greatest actor of the century was won by
Amitabh Bachchan, beating Sir Laurence
Olivier to the second place.

Indian filmmakers are also tapping British locales for filming.
Yash Johar selected locations in Oxford, London and Bath
for his Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam. Not only that, more and
more Indian films are being shot in Scotland, which is now
the most popular film location outside India for Bollywood
musicals. Kevin Cowle, of Scottish Screen, a publicly funded
film promotion body, said in April: "As far as I can tell, Indian
audiences are voracious for new images. They're looking for
novelty in the way a movie looks, which is why they've had a
long connection with Switzerland."

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was partly filmed in Scotland, and has
been Bollywood's biggest British hit. Ashwani Chopra, head
of Trimurti Films, one of Bombay's biggest and oldest
production companies, explained the choice of Scotland for
Pyar Ishq Aur Mohabbat, saying, "We chose Scotland
because it gives a different backdrop and we don't want
anything we have already exploited. England has been
exploited in other films. Everyone shows Trafalgar Square
and Big Ben because they want to show that they are filming
abroad." The British Tourist Authority says that 15 feature
films will be made in Britain in 2001; directors have shown
preference for such diverse locations as Blenheim Palace,
London tourist spots, the Scottish Highlands and the
Bluewater shopping center in Kent.

And as a further nod to the powerful influence of Bollywood,
the guru of western musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber is
teaming up with Shekhar Kapoor, A R Rahman and Meera
Syal to stage a Bollywood-inspired musical next year, to be
called Bombay Dreams. Jesus Christ, we are superstars!
Lloyd Webber said: "I have been watching Indian films for
some time and I think the Bollywood culture has a lot to offer
to international audiences. There is tremendous talent in
India, and I am excited. This is a very serious project. We
will follow the style of a Bollywood film and slowly move on to
an international format. It will be an extension of Indian
culture presented in English to a wider audience…. We have
to laugh with the show and not at it."

Dr Rachel Dwyer, an expert in cinema and comparative
literature at the University of London's School of Oriental and
African Studies, described the musical as a groundbreaking
and financially shrewd move by the British peer. "This is
something quite new," she said at the time of the
announcement last year. "There hasn't really been much in
the way of Western-style musicals in Bombay. They do
perform Westernised theatre but that only applies to a fairly
small elite audience in English and Hindi. Certainly people in
India know the Lloyd Webber name and it is a very good way
for him to tap into the huge Indian market." Not only will
Indians have access to a world class musical, but also there
will be recognition of Indian artists doing well abroad, a
matter of pride for many Indians. Made in India, as Alisha
sings, is a hot tag, at last.