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.
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.
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).
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
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
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".
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.
These disputes boiled over into other aspects of life. Every
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?
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