Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Great Divide

There is a retrospective of Popular Indian cinema "Vous Avez dit Bollywood" at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. There are about 40 films to be shown between February and April, a selection showcasing the essence of Bollywood, from a wide selection - Bimal Roy, Raj kapoor, V Shantaram, blockbusters, family dramas, women oriented films, crime to name a few. There is a movie everyday of the week and as many as 4 or 5 on the weekends. And it was because of this that we decided to go yesterday, a Saturday, to the centre Pompidou. (And not to celebrate Valentines Day)!

There were 4 movies showing. We decided on Sahib bibi aur Ghulam at 5pm and Shree 420 at 8.30. Both classics and of different genre. We arrived early with loads of time to spare. We bought tickets and spent the time by checking out restaurants for our dinner to be had in between the two movies. We finally settled on a Chinese resto which had a grand buffet.

We returned to the centre around 4.30 to find that a long queue had already formed. The cinema hall was half full by the time we took our seats. Mostly French. I counted exactly 4 Indians apart from us.

In France, the cinema halls are usually small and unlike in India, seats are not numbered. You are free to choose your own seat. And to my utter amazement, people opt for the front rows, up close to the screen. In India, the real cheap seats are the ones close to the screen, prices going up as one goes away from the screen. Once A & I sat in the front row (not out of choice, they were the only ones available). What a horrible experience that was. The images were blurred and pixillated. And the movie “Punch Drunk Love” did nothing to alleviate our misery. So I cant quite understand this love for the front rows.

The first film Sahib Bibi aur ghulam based on the Bengali masterpiece by Bimal Mitra about a young boy caught up in the excesses of the crumbling zamindari era, brilliantly translated for the screen by Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt. The film beautifully captured images of palatial mansions, the luxurious idle lifestyle of the zamindars, baijis and the social and religious restrictions of women, as seen through the eyes of the simple village boy Bhootnath. The wonderful score by Hemant Kumar, fine portryal by Guru Dutta, Rehman, Waheeda Rehman, Dhumal and ofcourse the magnificient Meena Kumari as the tormented Choti Bahu. Can we imagine anyone else but her, singing ‘Na jao saiyan chura key baiyan’. I cant. Not for the life of me. She was no great beauty, and yet, her poise, her voice, her dialogue delivery gave her a certain charisma that was lacking in actresses far more beautiful than her.

The setting as we know, is that of a zamindar family at the fag end of its glory days, with its social and moral binds that was extremely far removed and alien to the French audience: The choti bahu’s pining for her wayward husband, starving, praying to gods and applying sindoor in the hopes of winning him back, her making the supreme sacrifice of taking to drinking in order to lure her drink loving husband to stay at home and away from the dancing girls to name a few.

The French subtitles made it worse. They failed to capture the essence and appeared ludicrous. So the poignant moments when Choti Bahu asks Bhootnath to smuggle in a bottle of alcohol for her and takes it from him with trembling hands had people laughing. Translated into French, it appeared as banal as 'I want wine, bring me a bottle’. It had the audience in splits. There was one particular woman right behind me (it always is so…families with wailing babies or the ‘narrator’ who had to give a running monologue never fail to be seated in my vicinity), who laughed at bits when no one else did. When the by now, alcoholic choti bahu falls down the stairs, she (this woman behind me) split a seam laughing and was nearly hysterical with laughter at the end when bhootnath realises that the dug up skeleton among the ruins is choti bahu’s.

The film became tragic to me for reasons Guru Dutt couldn’t have ever imagined.

I didnt have much of an apetite and couldn't do justice to buffet at the Chinese resto. It was extremely crowded and uncomfortable since there was a constant stream of diners going to and for helpings, carrying plate over my head, squeezing past your table.

The second film Shree 420 started sharp at 8.30 to a packed hall. More Indian faces this time.
From the first scene itself, we were hooked! Raj Kapoor is a penniless honest young man who comes to Bombay to look for a job is befriended by the footpath dwellers. He soon realises that honesty does not pay and takes to the crooked path to make it big. He gets it all but at a cost. He however does the right thing at the end and the bad men go to jail and he is back to the people he loves most – his fiancĂ©e and his friends from the footpath. The acting, the cinematography, the dialogues, the songs and even the choreography are wonderful and even today, don’t appear dated. Despite all the masala elements, the story was eminently believable and credible. One didn’t have to suspend one’s belief like one now has to for the recent spate of masala movies. The audience burst in a round of spontaneous applause when the film ended!

Throughout our return journey, I was a bit crest fallen at the audience reaction. Okay, certain things were incomprehensible to them coming from a very different culture. But why was there a 'Oh no, not again' sort of a sigh each time there was a song? People happily pay money to see Hollywood musicals. No such sighing there. A who is extremely self assured and confident has no such problems. He enjoyed both the movies and cared two hoots about who thought what. Something inside me however kept on bothering me.

I finally put it down to cultural differences. Song and dance routines are ingrained in us, and we can’t imagine a movie without one. Sure we get weary of a bad song but do love the singing and dancing around the trees!

Apart from the Indian subcontinent, Bollywood has its fans in middle east, parts of Africa and once upon a time in Russia(don’t know if it still exists even now). But here in France, it’s a new phenomenon. After Lagaan and moreso Devdas at Cannes, ‘Bollywood’ has become chic. One ‘does’ a bollywood film like one goes to a jazz bar, take up yoga or try a new diet. They haven’t taken to it like fans elsewhere. Its merely something amusing. Upset as I am of seeing Sahib bibi ghulam sending the audience into splits, I have to admit that this is a two way thing. For example, although I think I have adjusted quite well to life in France – everyday life that is and the popular culture… and yet I don’t agree to all things considered great by French or even understand it. The most glaringly example would be the late singer Claude Francois. With his 25th death anniversary, there is some programme or the other on the TV, everyday. He is a major star with a huge fan following – something I can't understand. His weird hairstyle, his bizarre dancing on the stage which to me looks like PT exercises quite puts me off. There a number of other French singers I prefer over him anyday. But were I to mention it to some one here, it wouldn't be taken lightly. But I don’t mean any disrespect but that’s they way I feel. Perhaps that’s how they too felt and laughed!

Somehow, the poem 'Oh, East is East and west is west, never the twain shall meet' pops up in my mind. But relax, I am letting it get out of hand. There is surely more to bridging cultural differences than the acceptance of Bollywood films?

Post Script: This morning I found this bit of news on the net : Asia's Largest Slum to Get $1.3 Bln Face-Lift. Dharavi (in Mumbai, the city where Raj had come to find his fortune in Shree 420) home to 600,000 is to get proper amenities. Perhaps its nothing more than a pre-poll gimmick. But who knows, it might be for real. Then Raj’s dream (in Shree 420) of homes for the homeless might be more than a just a feel good filmy dialogue. It would be prophetic! Atleast for some of them.

Glossary French Words
Vous avez dit 'Bollywood' - Did you say Bollywood

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