<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 135 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 26, 2003

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Enemies A Love Story Life Without Bollywood

Naeem Mohaiemen

I grew up in a household where Hindi films were kept out. My father hated Bollywood with passion. Growing up on a diet of Gregory Peck/Cary Grant films, he had developed ideas about "good cinema"-- Hindi films didn't make the cut.

The late 70s were spent in Libya. With only one decent theatre in town, everyone was reduced to watching B-rolls like "Daring Doberman" (starring Lee "Six Million Dollar Man" Majors). Very rarely, and over my fathers' protests, we would even see a Hindi film. In total, we saw three Hindi films: "Sholay", "Kabhi Kabhi" and "Naagin". My father was persuaded to take us because "everyone" (Bangali expatriates) was talking about these films. "Sholay" was so long, the theatre split it into two segments. After watching Part 1, we had to wait two weeks for Part 2 to start playing. Meanwhile, word leaked out about what happened in Part 2. "Hema Malini dances on glass to save her man, and Amitabh dies at the end." I left Part 2 thinking that Gabbar Singh was the scariest villain I had seen in my life.

In 1979, we returned to Dhaka and I started going to St. Joseph. Like many missionary school kids, we idolized English films and music. Tiffin breaks would be taken up discussing the latest twists of English TV serials ("Dallas" in particular). Hindi films did n't come up, not even to be dismissed. One new boy made the mistake of humming "Ap Jaise Koi Meri" at break one day. He was immediately branded a "dome" (our slang for the terminally uncool).

A few years later, the VCR started arrived in select households. We kept going to my uncle's house to watch films on a borrowed VCR. The first film we saw was "Kramer vs. Kramer"-- a perfectly respectable "good film" until a sudden, unexpected nude scene. The second film was "Star" (Biddoo reprising his Nazia Hasan type musical). My father was already grumbling about us watching Hindi films. Gradually, as VCPs flooded the market, everyone could watch videos at home. As aunties, mothers, and sisters got into the act, Hindi films were in everybody's homes. But our house continued as a lone holdout.

Hindi films' influence was noticeable among girls who were studying at colleges near our campus. They would gather at Newmarket to look over posters for Amitabh and Mithun. The Josephites maintained "superiority" by arriving at the same stores and noisily perusing posters for Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Connelly. By some bizarre trend of subcontinental commerce, there were hundreds of Hindi film posters to choose from, but only two western female stars-- Phoebe and Jennifer. Phoebe had been in one film where she had a brief nude scene (so everyone had seen that one!). Jennifer Connelly had been in "Legend", which no one had seen-- years later, when I saw "Beautiful Mind," my first thought was: "It's the girl from the Newmarket posters!" There were dozens of posters of these two, and the occasional Brooke Shields, but no one else! Eager to prove sophistication, we would only buy Phoebe and Jennifer, ignoring the numerous Sridevi, Mandakini and Rekhas giving us come-hither looks.

Around the time we were finishing high school, Indian films became hotly debated. For years I had been taught they were indicative of poor and plebian taste, now I learnt they were political signifiers as well. Tensions between Bangladesh and India started to grow. Thalpatti, BSF-BDR, Farakka, the list went on. Posters started appearing on walls: "Farakka Badh/ Moron Faadh" (Farakka Dam/Death Trap). Bangali politicians ate up microphones talking about "smashing Farakka".
These disputes boiled over into other aspects of life. Every

one knew that if you wanted a really fleshy cow for Kurbani, you asked for an Indian cow on the market. Now, these cows became a symbol of "neo-colonialism." The police started raiding markets to seize Indian cows. Newspapers talked about how Bangladeshi markets were flooded with cheap Indian goods. There was an enormous trade deficit in India's favour. One of the areas of largest deficit was in book sales. A huge proportion-- some said 60-70%-- of all Bangali books published in West Bengal were being sold in Bangladesh. Given declining rates of Bangali literacy among the new generation of West Bengalis (who had to balance Bangla with learning Hindi and English), this was not a surprise. But complaints rose because hardly any books by Bangladeshi authors were being sold in India. On the pop music front, we had grown up listening to the political folk-pop of West Bengal's Suman and Nochiketa. Now Bangladeshi pop singers took out newspaper ads calling for the boycott of Indian musicians. But Indian musicians continued to be a huge draw in Dhaka, selling out concert venues whenever they played.

Indian films were at the epicentre of the culture wars. Most of the debate called for boycotts, but not for economic reasons. The critics were incensed by the wanton sexuality in Indian films. Cultural commentators kept talking about how it was "corrupting our youth". At a time when FDC was desperately trying to ape Bollywood, much of this debate seemed too little, too late. When Zeenat Aman's wet-dress look was copied by Mandakini (the infamous white sari in "Ram Tera Ganga Maili"), the poster became a Dhaka hot-seller. The morals squad were up in arms. "Indian films had to be stopped!" But how could you stop this free-floating market propelled by the VCR explosion? Ironically, as the debate over Sridevi's hips and Mandakini's chest set fire to local papers, I found myself more interested in Hindi films. What was this forbidden fruit? But my father maintained his iron grip on the family VCR. Even the occasional "Masoom" would not change his mind. The only Indian films allowed in our house were the Bangali classics by Ray, Sen and Ghatak.

More than a decade has passed since I lived in Dhaka. When I visit home, I can't recognise the cultural landscape. Satellite television is everywhere, with 20-30 channels! When we were in our teens, BTV broadcast in black and white, from 6 PM until midnight! They showed one English series every night. Nothing Indian was ever allowed on government television. And now? Indian films are everywhere. There are about ten Indian channels, showing movies and movie songs round the clock. VHS tapes have been eclipsed by the VCD, on which Hindi films are the biggest sellers. Hindi film songs are more popular than any MTV product-- so much for American Cultural Imperialism!

There is still debate about Hindi films. An increase in rapes in the city is blamed on them. The newspapers argue that everyone is watching the sex sizzle on the screen, but their own reality is nothing like it-- so they are driven to rape. Lot of people buy this argument, but so what-- the Hindi films keep coming in.

Back here in New York, Bollywood is the epitome of packaged kitsch and commodification. How many Devi handbags and Ohm t-shirts can Urban Outfitter sell? In Soho, hordes of fashionistas are wearing the same white kurtha from H&M. From "Moulin Rouge" to "Bombay Dreams" to "Guru"-- Bollywood's 15 minutes in America have arrived. My nephew Zarif is growing up in Toronto, with Hindi films as his babysitter. He won't eat quietly unless there are Hindi songs playing on the TV. My brother has a tape of Hindi film songs handy, which is always popped into the VCR at meal-time. What would Dr. Spock say? My brother reassures me that as soon as he learns to talk, Zarif will lose interest in Hindi films and switch over to cartoons. My cousin in Maryland always takes me to the mall that shows Indian films. "You must watch this one! It will change your view of Hindi films. These are our roots!" Accha, baba, accha, I'll watch, but don't tell me these are my roots.

Every now and then a "Lagaan" or a "Hey Raam" comes along and I have to revise my opinion. Yes it is possible to find entertaining and interesting Hindi films. But then I watch "Kal Ho Na Ho" and it's back to the bad Bollywood. As my friend Ali Mir said, "It's a fine film, as long as you don't mind it being totally racist, sexist and homophobic."

When Hindi films like "Bhoot" play at a Times Square theatre, I'm confused. Should I celebrate? After all, it's visibility for us! But who is "us"? Over here, many of my South Asian friends are Indian or Pakistani. But back in Bangladesh, India is the "Evil Empire" in the backyard. Shouldn't I celebrate Hindi films as a way to bridge the gap? Why find more reasons to divide the subcontinent?

In Bangladesh, being called a "India'r dalal" is the one slur that can stick forever. But those political labels seem far away when I'm in New York. Which reality should I live in? I sit here bemused by these contradictory emotions. And I watch Hindi films. Sometimes reluctantly, but also sometimes with great enthusiasm.




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