Sunday, March 01, 2009


During one of my residences in LA, an actor buddy and I used to visit the South Asian Barrios on some of our aimless Saturday afternoons to search out Bollywood movies. It was a shared affection we'd discovered by accident. He'd grown up in a predominantly Indian neighborhood and I'd stumbled across one during my first summer in Toronto, after taking a streetcar in the wrong direction.

I ended up in a down-at-its-heels part of the city's East end that was dotted with Tandoori restaurants, stores selling saris or curry and a tiny movie theatre. I'd been on my way to see some Charles Bronson film and, when the trolley driver explained I had about a half hour ride back the way I'd come, I realized I wasn't going to make the next show.

So I got off to explore and noticed the huge, garrulous crowd outside the theatre. There were entire families from elderly grandparents through women in Saris and men in turbans to kids with bags of exotic candies, all mingling together amid that pre-show sense of excitement that's the same in every culture.

The poster for the double feature on offer showed a couple of square jawed men brandishing pistols as they stared each other down, while all the lobby cards depicted lavish musical numbers. Just how those two genres fit together intrigued me, so I bought a ticket -- and discovered Bollywood.

The cinematic experience was exhilarating and I would later learn that Bollywood churned out far more movies than Hollywood, had stars much more popular than any I admired and that some of its most popular films ran in the same theatre in India for up to ten years of sold out performances.

There have been tons of social and cultural essays on the appeal of Bollywood, examining its reasons for doing the things it does and what all that ultimately means. And I'm not going to go into any of it, because frankly, I don't care -- anymore than I care about putting Canadian film or French Cinema on the couch.

As far as I'm concerned there's way too much cultural meaning being read into or divined from movies and not enough just enjoying them for what they are. Yes, I'm sure Sean Penn's win for "Milk" symbolizes a new dawn for American homosexuals, much in the same way that "Forrest Gump" elevated our acceptance of borderline retards and "Braveheart" brought about Scottish Independence, allowing Sean Connery to become my ancestral homeland's first head of state.

Look, a movie's a movie and winning the rights gay men and women deserve will come at the hands of people who live and work like Harvey Milk, not pretend to be him.

The pure celebration of cinema's power within the confines of a movie theatre has always been what attracted me to Bollywood. That world is one in which you are transported, taken where a Western trained mind like mine is constantly surprised, ambushed and forced to deal with juxtapositions and concepts foreign to it.

My friend and I would walk out of those (far dumpier than the ones back in Toronto) LA theatres feeling fully entertained. We often wondered how and when what we were watching would infiltrate the Hollywood machine. Oh, we'd seen bits and pieces move into the culture. The Beatles and others had sampled the music. Michael Jackson had copied the dance styles. But there was so much more still waiting to be mined.

Apparently, even those who green-lit and financed "Slumdog Millionaire" didn't think the time had come and had relegated this year's winner of 8 Academy Awards to a direct to DVD release until an audience at Toronto's International Film Festival changed their minds.

There are debates on both sides of the Pacific as to whether "Slumdog" is really a Bollywood movie and wondering if it signals the ascension of the Indian culture or its co-option by the White man and the Hollywood machine.

That debate exploded full force with the release of the "Slumdog" theme and best song Oscar winner "Jai Ho" this week by none other than the ultimate music industry manufactured girl band "The Pussycat Dolls". Everywhere you looked, pundits were pontificating on the "cheapening' of the song by allowing these surgically altered tarts to sing it and reminding everybody that this is just like what Elvis did to Black people in the 1950's.

I was reminded of this when a writer friend and I got talking about Elvis this week. Because most of Elvis' Black artist contemporaries will tell you he got a bad rap. Yeah, Elvis inherited many of his moves from Black musicians he rubbed shoulders with in Memphis like Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, B.B. King and Fats Domino. But they and several others will tell you they owe their fame and fortunes to that redneck cracker from Tupelo.

According to Jackie Wilson, "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer I knew copied him." And Little Richard once noted, "Elvis was a blessing. He opened the door for black music."

So maybe Hollywood isn't being so dumb here or so grasping or so malevolent. They know what America likes (hot girls and an infectious tune) and are simply using that to make swallowing the next big thing a little easier for some.

Apparently, the "Dolls" are still putting the finishing touches on the video for the song, rumored to be their hottest yet. I imagine it will come out just in time to be in all the Clubs for March break.

Bollywood meet Hollywood. I think you've finally arrived.

Baila! Baila! Enjoy your Sunday.

1 comment:

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