The pleasure of movie-watching as a sport is uncovering undiscovered treasures far away from the new releases section of your local video store. This task usually isn’t too difficult with foreign films as many gems from other cultures don’t even show up on our radar screens in the United States (which is really too bad because it’s our loss). This is particularly true for popular Indian cinema, affectionately referred to as “Bollywood” movies (as in, Bombay+Hollywood). Even if you have Indian friends, Bollywood movie recommendations are hard to come by as some people seem surprisingly embarrassed by their love for this genre. High-brow conversations about Indian cinema usually center around Mira Nair’s latest project or the classic films of Satyajit Ray. When That’s Rentertainment’s “employee picks” rack offered up a 1995 Bollywood film I’d never heard of, I eagerly rented it out of curiosity. The movie was called Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, loosely translated as “The Braveheart Will Take the Bride”, and I was rewarded with one of the most unapologetically satisfying movie-watching experiences of my life.
Bollywood movies are definitely an acquired taste. When I experienced my first Bollywood movie, I watched in a theater with an all Indian audience, and without English subtitles. At first, I was shocked by the kitsch of it all, but the song and dance routines quickly won me over. Bollywood movies are a trip back in time, to a more innocent period of filmmaking when melodrama was the rage, and audiences didn’t mind if actors broke into song at a drop of a hat. As a fan of classic Hollywood musicals such as An American in Paris, I rejoiced that the musical genre was alive and thriving in India. As I sought out more Bollywood fare, the formula became routine, and even when Roger Ebert presented Taal on the big screen at the Virginia Theatre, the awe of it all had started to wane. For nostalgia’s sake, I’ll still visit the Bollywood section at That’s Rentertainment when I feel the need for a little more variety in my movie-musical diet than re-visiting The Sound of Music again. But thanks to Rentertainment’s honorary employee, Shadie’s recommendation, DDLJ renewed my love for Bollywood movies and I am thankful.
DDLJ is a typical romantic comedy – boy meets girl, girl is spoken for, boy has to overcome a few obstacles to get the girl. What’s not so typical about DDLJ is the top-notch execution, from the amazing chemistry between megastars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to the instantly recognizable riffs of the theme song “Tujhe Dekha To,” which is typically repeated to pull the heartstrings at the right moments. Then there’s the elaborately staged musical numbers with colorful costumes and energetically choreographed dance moves that can only be seen in Indian cinema. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge would not have been possible if movies like this didn’t exist.
Like most Bollywood movies, DDLJ was made with entertaining the masses in mind. It is full of clichés, over-the-top melodrama, exuberant over-acting, a corny fight scene, a moral ending espousing traditional values – everything that would make a Hollywood movie bad, but for some reason, in a Bollywood movie it works! From the opening scene, I was instantly hooked and couldn’t stop smiling for the entire three-hour running time. Apparently, neither could the movie’s target audience as DDLJ is currently holding the record for the longest running Indian movie in history – it’s been showing continuously for more than 600 weeks in Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir movie palace. The film also won 10 Filmfare awards (the equivalent of India’s Oscars). So why isn’t this movie available at your neighborhood Blockbuster? Guess they’re just not hip enough.
According to Shadie, DDLJ “transcends cultural boundaries and serves up what is easily one of the most undeniably enjoyable movies ever made, and the ideal three-hour introduction to why Bollywood is so wonderful.” Both Shadie and I have University of Illinois professor David Desser to thank for whetting our appetite for exotic film fare. It was in Desser’s film class that Shadie got his first taste of Bollywood cinema. And ages ago, Desser introduced me to Japanese sword films.
So what to do after falling in love with DDLJ? Keep your eyes on Boardman’s Art Theatre’s calendar as owner Greg Boardman has a habit of renting his theater to local Indian fans who bring 35mm prints of the latest Bollywood hits to Champaign a couple times a year. Or check out the bulletin board at Annapoorna where I just spotted a flyer announcing that Taare Zameen Par will be showing at 12noon this Sunday, Dec. 23. Once you’re hooked on Bollywood, the next logical step is to get tickets for the next live stage show at University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion when Bollywood stars are flown to Chicago to dance live on stage for their adoring Indian fans. Witnessing typically reserved Indian girls in saris rush the stage when their favorite male hunks take off their shirts is a sight to see indeed.