& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora


Salman Rushdie is a huge fan of Hindi cinema.

Speaking to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show earlier this week he said given its size and sophistication, it’s unfair for the Bombay film industry to be called Bollywood.

He suggested instead that Hollywood should be called Hombay or some such thing.

Rachel Dwyer with Javed Akhtar at Jaipur Literary Festival
There are many who’d share Rushdie’s opinion. Rachel Dwyer would definitely be one of them. Dwyer is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Her understanding of the Bombay film industry is deep and her interpretation breathtakingly original. She blends her academic rigour with her love for Hindi cinema to weave stories that are utterly charming, and propounds insightful theories.

And she does this with her tongue firmly in cheek.

I had read her and about her, and earlier this week I saw her in person when she spoke on Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Munk School couldn’t have thought of a better way to celebrate Indian cinema’s centenary.

Dwyer outlined the recent filmography of two superstars – Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar – to explain the trend of Indian Diaspora-themed movies that became staple Bollywood fare for close to two decades starting from the mid-1990s.

She traced the long fascination for Vilayat – the foreign – in Hindi cinema, especially in the 1960s and the early 1970s – a period when Vilayat was the antitheses of the so-called Indian values, as portrayed by Shammi Kapoor in Junglee (1961) and Saira Banu in Purab aur Paschim (1970).

The genre was transformed in the 1990s by Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and the Non-Resident Indian was coopted into the Indian mainstream. A series of films based on the ‘I’m NRI but I’m missing India’ theme were made, most of them with Shahrukh Khan in the lead.

Dwyer narrated Bollywood's transformation from a cultural outcast for a major part of the last century to cultural mainstream in present times. The question-answer session was also quite riveting, especially the near-absence of the depiction of caste in Hindi cinema (with a few notable exceptions), and the ultra-nationalistic, soft-Hindutva line adopted by most of the Diaspora-themed movies.

Her talk was spiced with innumerable anecdotes - how coincidentally the families of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh Khan lived on the same street in Peshawar; Yash Chopra's love for London.

For a brief while, many in the audience felt that Dwyer’s school girl-like adoration for Shahrukh Khan would hamper her erudition, but she checked herself and went on to give a bravura performance, worthy of a Filmfare. 

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(28-04-13)

Indian cinema is celebrating its centennial year.

I attended a riveting talk by Rachel Dwyer last week on ‘Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora’ where she spoke about the growing acceptance of Hindi cinema across the world (Shahrukh Khan’s fame in the German-speaking world) and how in many non-western societies – especially in East Europe and the Middle East – Hindi cinema emerged as an alternative to Hollywood narrative.

Nearly a decade ago a convenience store manager in Washington DC gave me a hefty discount on a towel because I was from “the land of Amitabh Bachchan.” I asked him how he’d heard of Amitabh. From his Indian taxi driver friend, with whom he shared a room when he had immigrated to the US.

It’s only after immigrating to Canada that I’ve seen the popularity of Hindi movies among audiences who aren't from South Asia.  My friend Kundan Joshi (a Hindi movie aficionado, and a former Mumbaikar) gave me another interesting insight: Until some years ago, Hindi movies were shown only at Albion in Toronto. Now, of course, they find regular multiplex release and I generally go to Dundas Square to watch the latest blockbusters from Bombay.

Earlier this year, Facebook brought me this amazing youtube video where Angélique Kidjo, a Beninoise singer, (now based in New York) sings Dil mein chupa ke pyaar ka toofan (from Aan 1952).
A bit of web search led me to Girish Raj’s blog idigo.

In a 2010 entry on his blog, he says (about Angélique): “Half way through, she begins to tell a story. As a child growing up in Africa, she would beg her father to see Bollywood movies at the local cinema house. She said she loves Bollywood movies because they always have 'happy endings'.

“One particular song from a Bollywood film left an indelible mark. Over the years, she would sing the few lines she remembered, having long forgotten the name of the song or movie. Years later, she asks her brother, who had become an airline pilot, if he can help her find the name and lyrics to the song. On a flight out to India, he pokes around. Does anyone know this song? What do the lyrics mean? With the help of a few kind hearted Indians, he finally gets his answer and gives it to his sister.

“Elated, she begins to incorporate into her repertoire. Now 'Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka' has made its way onto her latest album, 'Oyo' to be released June. When she sang it this past Friday night, the crown went wild. As did I.”

Enjoy the video:  

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