Meeting a Bollywood star is a little like being elevated to Mount Olympus. To compare Sharukh Kahn with Brad Pitt or Preity Zinta with Audrey Hepburn would be to do them an injustice. Hercules and Helen of Troy may be closer the mark. While Preity Zinta may be one of the more human and accessible actresses, I have to fight an urge, inculcated by years of of living in India, to fall to my knees in awe of her.
You might be forgiven for thinking her a typical Bollywood star. Her cherubic good looks, glamourous dress, disarming laugh and dazzling smile would seem to indicate a model or an ‘item number’, but as I talk with her she reveals increasing levels of depth. She relates her experience with the Bollywood Underworld in the famous Bharath Shah case. He was a diamond smuggler that frequently financed Hindi films. When his activities were finally brought before a court of law nearly every witness retracted their statements, save the irrepressible Zinta who, despite warnings to keep silent, testified. She tells me that she was foolish to expect the court case to remain ‘in camera’ and regretted the way in which it spilled out all over the press. Cheeringly she adds that it isn’t always necessary to engage with gangsters when making films.
Preity Zinta’s smile is as effective as the Indian flag in building a unifying social fabric for India. A man from Kerala in the far south and the Kashmir in the far north may have little in common apart from a few shared ancient texts, an Indian passport and the fact that they were dazzled by actresses like her in films that all Indians love and enjoy. The way Bollywood comes to its viewers is not just in comfortable sitting rooms, bedrooms or posh air-conditioned cinemas. It also comes to the hot, dusty and mosquito-filled village square, to the seething masses in hot small-town theatres, to the tiny television in the richer part of the slum. It soaks into every part of the Indian subconscious, effortlessly cutting across class, caste and faith to give us a universal story. To a foreigner it looks predictable, stylised and inaccessible, but to an Indian it is another religion. It lifts the poor from their desperate lives for a few precious moments, it brings a vast and disparate society together and brings even more wonder to a country where the extraordinary is already commonplace. It makes a nation proud of itself and encourages its audiences that a happy ending can always happen.
Bollywood is a barometer of how India sees itself. As India becomes more modern, Bollywood has become sexier, more international and more consumerist. It shows a billion Indians their own aspirations, blown up on the big screen. It shows to a nation of abject poverty lifestyles of incredible wealth and happiness, played out all over the world. A good Bollywood film today requires at least five dance sequences shot all over the planet: The hero and heroine can spend half an hour dancing together in the Dutch tulip fields, the foothills of Kilamanjaro and the Miami beaches without any of the viewers even raising an eyebrow. It makes Indians feel happy about themselves when they see their countrymen and heroes enjoying life in the richest cities in the world. Zinta’s career has reflected this phenomenon; she has moved from playing the traditional roles – either sexy or submissive – to modern, independent and powerful women, characters in their own right, rather than mere decoration for the male hero.
When I ask Zinta about the seemingly elitist, aloof Bollywood and the massive gulf that exists between the world that it portrays and the horrific reality of the majority of Indians, she gives a startling defence. An Indian doesn’t want challenging films, she says, ‘they want to escape.’ The typical viewer in India is not a middle-class family settling down for some quality cinema at the end of the day. The vast majority are the poor, crowding around a communal television set in the village or the slum. And after the dreariness of everyday existence in the field or the workshop, they want the fantastical. They want their films to be long (‘at least three hours,’ says Zinta, ‘otherwise they feel cheated!’) They want exquisitely choreographed dances and spectacular settings. They want it to all be all right in the end. As it is said in Om Shanti Om, if it isn’t a happy ending, the film isn’t over. Bollywood should be forgiven for often being little more than pure escapism, because its average viewers have so much to escape.
In a nation struggling under semi-literacy, the power of film is almost limitless, with Bollywood churning out more films per year than Hollywood. Film stars become demi-gods, hero-worshipped wherever they go. Many can stroll into politics, acquiring power of a more worrying sort. At times the hero-worship becomes more sinister. I live in the city of Bangalore in the state of Karnataka but our old car had the number plates of the nearby state, Tamil Nadu. When a Tamilian sandalwood-smuggler and gangster kidnapped a great Kannada film star, Rajkumar, then suddenly driving around in a Tamilian car was unsafe. Tamilian shops were attacked and the whole of Bangalore came crashing to a halt. When another legendary character known somewhat elusively as MGR died, the whole state of Tamil Nadu declared a holiday and banned the serving of alcohol. Film stars rank only alongside cricketers in the power they have over the national imagination. And then there is the gangland infiltration of Bollywood. Many films cannot be made without private sanction by one of the Mumbai underworld bosses like Bharat Shah or Chhota Shakeel – the men that Zinta bravely confronted.
And the power is not limited to the subcontinent – all over the world Bollywood has danced its way into the public imagination. It sometimes follows the Indian diaspora, but in some places it comes of its own accord. It brings joy and community and delivers its same magical panacea all over the globe. Unashamed joy and drama and vitality fill the cinemas of London, Nairobi and Sydney as easily they do Mumbai and Delhi. The mere fact that a British film maker made Slumdog Millionaire within the Bollywood paradigm shows its new global reach.
Bollywood is of course not the full story. Many of India’s states all have their own local version of the dream, outside of what was once Bombay. It is also a reflection of India’s morals and standards. From its conservative past, it has become an alcohol-drinking, hip-swinging, cleavage-bearing and dirty dancing feast of ‘item numbers’ – girls featured for a few moments in a song and dance sequence just to excite the male members of the audience. When I compliment Zinta on playing non-typical roles , she exclaims ‘I also did ‘Item numbers!” – clearly it is still a source of real pride to the more serious actress to be an Indian sex-symbol. This is part of a growing sense of liberalism in the industry. In Dostana two men pretend to be gay in order to live with Priyanka Chopra’s character in order to eventually seduce her, revealing a new openness about homosexuality and, indeed, heterosexuality. A nation of conservative repression may be (very) slowly being replaced by a liberal one – and the starlets of Bollywood are in the vanguard of this change.
Of course there is more to Bollywood. It can be a challenging, excoriating and questioning medium. Rang De Basanti is both a celebration of India but also asks why modern politicians have not lived up to the dreams and abilities of India’s founding fathers. Deepa Mehtha’s haunting film (made in Canada), Water, explored the horrific lives of widows in India, and may be one of the most significant films of the century. Zinta herself has acted in films that address serious issues, such as the lives of widows or domestic violence. In Mission Kashmir, she deals with issues of crime, terrorism and identity, set in the war-torn Kashmir valley.
Bollywood may be predictable, it may follow a set pattern for a majority of films but at least it is a self-expression. India has no need to slavishly follow American film culture like certain English-speaking nations. Indeed Bollywood is an expression of ‘soft power’ that makes Indian culture as big a player on the world stage as the Indian economy and military is already. It is a wonderful example of an ex-colonial nation finding its own voice – and what a voice it is! At once loud and subtle, conservative and sexy, challenging and predictable, international and, at the same time, truly Indian.