One of my happiest memories of growing up in England in the 1960s is of the Sunday outings to see a Hindi film. As my elder sister and I escaped the rain and hurried into the Scala Theatre on London's Charlotte Street (where Sohrab Modi's Jhansi Ki Rani was premiered in 1953), I remember slightly bewildered Brits passing us on the street. They were probably wondering what was attracting so many Asians-all excited and dolled up early on a Sunday morning. So few people outside the South Asian community knew that Hindi movies could be seen in Britain as early as the '50s, or for that matter cared that India produced movies at all. The only Indian filmmaker to leave an impression in those days-this is still largely the case-was Satyajit Ray, and even his work made ripples only in a small circle of film buffs worldwide. For countless years, the white press, for example, had pretty much made up its mind about the Indian popular cinema, constantly comparing Hindi movies with Hollywood and its filmmaking conventions-never attempting to understand a unique cinematic language on its own terms. Early reviews are replete with grumblings about the length, the slushy romance and unnecessary songs. Huge numbers of Hindi films are undoubtedly mediocre and merit such complaints, but even the most classic of classics was given short shrift. A bemused '50s reviewer wrote of Nargis in Mother India, "With Mother we go through mud, flood and blood," while a British reviewer dryly commented on the work of Guru Dutt: "There's enough drama in Pyaasa to make six Hollywood epics."
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|A reviewer wrote of Nargis in Mother India in the 1950s: "With Mother, we go through mud, flood and blood." |
But the occasional movie reviews in the '60s never bothered us. My sister and I continued to choose Dilip Kumar or Meena Kumari to entertain us each week. These fine actors allowed us to relish a familiar world, in which-for the most basic of reasons-we didn't look, dress or feel "strange and foreign". How wonderful it was for those three hours to hear Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi sing of ideal love. How comforting not to have to second-guess any cultural references, nor to think for a minute that our heroes were far too romantic to be real. The obsessive love for Indian cinema-so familiar to most people of Indian origin, yet so alien to our English neighbours-was a private affair; something belonging to a subculture. Like anything clandestine, it had a vibrancy and purity all its own. In the eyes of the West, Indian cinema didn't hold much interest till the late 1990s, coinciding with the emerging economic power of the Asian Diaspora. With Indians no longer as culturally invisible as in previous decades, many businesses suddenly wanted to attract the "brown" pound. In this new climate, Indian films were seen as the strongest unifying factor, bringing the diverse Asians together. Whether Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, everyone loved Shah Rukh Khan or Kajol, so the Bollywood invasion was suddenly primed and ready. It is also a sad fact that the label "Bollywood"-the terrible, yet unavoidable term-helped vastly to legitimise Indian cinema in the eyes of the mainstream. The year 2002 saw the culmination of this interest and proved a particular winner for all things Indian-Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, Madonna wearing a bindi, Madame Tussaud unveiling a wax figure of Amitabh Bachchan, chicken tikka being declared Britain's favourite dish, advertisements showing Bollywood dancing, and a month of Bollywood shopping at Selfridges. Everyone seemed ready to embrace Bollywood.
But three years on, despite the small, though ever-increasing, group of white fans and reviewers, who now enthuse over Hindi films, Bollywood's impact on the mainstream cultural mix is patchy. It's true that Bollywood is no longer an obscure notion and is now the object of cultural pickings-yet the better option is to borrow the Bollywood dance and outrageous kitsch design from the '70s and pour these into a European context, rather than go for the real thing. The situation is marginally better in France and Germany, where, for example, Lagaan, Devdas and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (retitled The Indian Family) have drawn big crowds. In the UK, there is more interest in the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai being voted the most beautiful woman in the world by Hello magazine, than whether Munnabhai MBBS is worth a "dekko".
On the other hand, why should we concern ourselves with growing audiences when over a billion people are already addicted to Indian movies? In the wider world, for instance, it is known that for over 50 years, the Chinese, Russians and Africans have shared our love for Indian cinema-everyone has their story of a Moroccan friend melting our hearts by humming Aawara hoon, or overhearing with quiet pride an Iranian declaring emphatically, "What a man that Amitabh Bachchan!" And so, like millions of other Indian cinema fans scattered all around the world, those early Sunday outings to Scala Theatre in the '60s had me hooked too. I ended up spending much time researching Hindi movies, particularly the work of the masters of the '50s. Years of programming Indian film festivals and television events all round Europe and the US followed. Ironically, many years ago, I found myself back on Charlotte Street, this time working as the Indian cinema consultant to Channel 4, whose earlier offices happened to be in the old Scala Theatre building. When Channel 4 began in 1982, it was the great new hope for British TV, and one thing was sure: the channel's decision-makers wanted to change television programming forever. Showing Indian movies was part of their thinking.
By the end of the '80s, I was producing and directing Movie Mahal, a long-running series on popular Hindi cinema, also for Channel 4. It was the first British television series on Indian cinema and we were showered with hundreds and hundreds of viewers' letters. One of these came from Caroline, an Englishwoman who described how she had chanced to watch an episode of Movie Mahal. She described her overwhelming delight when she at last saw a film clip in the programme with the song her ayah used to sing when she was a child living in India. All her life, Caroline had tried to discover what the song was and had asked her Indian friends to identify it when she hummed what she could remember of its tune. Discovering some 40 years later that it was Lata Mangeshkar's Aayega aanewaala from the film, Mahal, finally provided the answer to a forgotten, distant memory.
The long and lasting relationship between Channel 4 and Indian cinema, which started with the telecast on December 26, 1982, of Sholay, continues. Sholay was only seven years old at that time and its energy and strong story-telling so impressed Channel 4's then CEO, Jeremy Isaacs, that he had no hesitation in giving Sue Woodford (the first multicultural commissioning editor at Channel 4) and myself the nod to go ahead and show the best we could find in Hindi cinema. And that's what we did, and still do.
The jury is still out on whether or not Indian cinema will break into the mainstream in the West. No one really has the answer to Ab tera kya hoga, Bollywood (What will become of you, Bollywood)?
(The writer has made over 80 documentaries and written several books on Indian cinema. She is a governor on the board of the British Film Institute.)