December 21, 2008 1:03:00 pm
The Bollywood fan club on blogosphere just got firangi—with voices from as far as Fiji and South Korea, Austria and the US
When she is not working at the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Beth Watkins plans to film an instructional video called “The Kapoor System of Driving”. She thinks it is far simpler and just involves gesturing with one hand, sometimes two, wheel be damned, and singing while looking at the scenery and not at the road. “And when Shammi Kapoor substitute-teaches, you also get to do gymnastics in the car while it’s moving,” writes Watkins in her blog Beth Loves Bollywood, a window to some of Hindi cinema’s most brilliant, most hilarious and most logic-defying films. And while you are at her blog, scroll down a wee bit to see the ever-increasing list of other bloggers from across the world, who are logging in day and night, to write about the unbelievable stunts in Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, compare the fashion statements of Saalakhen in the ’70s with the newer Om Shanti Om, subtitles that misrepresent themselves and more. While Watkins, 34, is in America, Barbara Skoda is from Vienna, Austria, Angela Ambroz is in Fiji and Taryn is in Seoul, South Korea.
Over a decade ago, in far away Vienna, Skoda was flipping channels when she suddenly stumbled upon Sholay being screened on A.R.T.E, a German-French TV station. She stuck with it because it seemed close to the Sergio Leone westerns she loved as a kid. But it wasn’t before 2004, when Skoda, 37, watched Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. “It was the right movie at the right time. It took a while to get used to, the hysterical antics of Johnny Lever and even Kajol, but I loved it and I wanted more. So I raided websites, found online stores, spent tons of money. And never looked back,” says Skoda, who works as a manager of a private Media Technology College and is a sound engineer as well. Blogging was the next step and Skoda began her rambles in Baba aur Bollywood. Initially, it was just a way for Skoda to improve her written English, but with a subject matter like Bollywood, it was rather impossible not to get involved.
When asked about what exactly it is that draws them to Bollywood, most bloggers have much to say about the ingredients of their love affair. Angela Ambroz, 25, keeps it simple: “Bollywood is like crack, it’s become an addiction. Kasme Vaade was one of my first ’70s masala films and despite all the ‘flaws’ of outrageous and unrealistic coincidences and illogical leaps, I found it more emotionally intelligent and expressive than a typical mainstream Hollywood film. I remember reading somewhere, that Bollywood is ‘pre-cynicism’, that’s a good way of putting it,” says Ambroz who is currently located in Fiji and writes The Post-Punk Cinema Club, a blog that is as frequently quoted as it is visited.
Like her fellow bloggers, Ambroz writes about each movie with video grabs to illustrate a keen observation and sometimes, outdoes the most avid Bollywood fan in her knowledge of the “Strange but True” occurrences that make up our films. For example, Ambroz has kept up with all the Lost Brothers/Sweetheart reunions that make up for flimsy plot structures in Bollywood and has rated them accordingly. At number five is the scene from Fakira where Shashi Kapoor survives being in the bottom of the sea because of yogic breathing. Danny Denzongpa pulls him out and they realise that they are long-lost brothers (never mind the parentage).
Topping the list is Awaara, where Raj Kapoor recognises Nargis’ childhood photograph at her house and takes her to his house where he shows her the same photograph hanging on the wall. A scene, she adds cheekily, recalls what J.R.R. Tolkien called “joy like knives”.
Well versed in Bolly-speak, the bloggers have also picked up a smattering of Hindi which they sprinkle into their blogs and every-day conversations. So if you accuse them of intellectualising Bollywood, they will scream like any self-respecting Bharatiya Nari confronted with unspeakable slander: Yeh jhooth hai! They collectively drool over Shashi Kapoor (unanimously voted Best Actor by most female bloggers), are fascinated by villains like Pran and Amrish Puri and can hold a long debate over whether Dev in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna was a convincing character or not.
Apart from wanting to visit India—there are some bloggers who have managed to do so— the frequent wish of most female bloggers is to be able to break into song and dance at the drop of the hat. Not to mention manoeuvre themselves through costume changes, get into that chiffon sari for that timely rain shower, and pant prettily while anticipating the lover’s touch. Aaj rapat jaye, indeed!
Which brings us to the music. “I first came to Bollywood through the music, by way of compilation CDs and Bollywood clip shows on American cable TV,” says Todd Stadtman, author of The Lucha Diaries.
Ask these bloggers some of their favourite songs, and prepare to be flooded with songs from the yesteryears such as Kisne pukara mujhe from Pyar Kiye Ja and recent gems like Kabhi neem neem from Yuva. “The music, both on its own and in picturisations in the context of the films, the colors, and all the lovely romance is magical to watch,” says Watkins. In the middle of chaos, social inequality, war or family feud, what sets these movies apart are the songs, evidence of Bollywood’s “big, squishy dil”.
Just as varied as the cinema they watch, the bloggers too come from different backgrounds and are a story in themselves. Take Stadtman. An “ageing hipster” from San Francisco’s Mission district, he played in a couple of popular bands in San Francisco’s post-punk scene in the 1980s. Now working as a singer-songwriter, Stadtman makes what he calls fussy, idiosyncratic pop music under his name and with a duo called Zikzak. “The original Don started my fixation with Indian action films of the ’70s. My first impressions were typical of the non-Indian viewer raised on Hollywood films. So it’s an action movie, there is a bomb in the brief case and a car chase. But now the hero is running through a meadow and singing and he really loves his mom. And now he’s crying!” says Stadtman, who believes that in order to become a true addict, one has to embrace those differences.
The ease with which these movies can be accessed is another reason why Bollywood is so popular. Most bloggers prefer to watch movies from the ’70s while actively avoiding most the ’80s and almost never bothering with the ’90s. Apart from searching for titles in the neighbourhood Indian store, there is a large number of titles available for rental from online services such as Netflix and Nehaflix. And once all the bloggers have acquired the same movie, they organize Watch Alongs: Online friends, including non-bloggers, watch the same movie at their respective homes and chat online while viewing. It is the social aspect of the experience that makes it so satisfying, says Watkins. “We spend time together and exchange ideas in the immediate context of the film,” she adds.
Most of the blogs are rip-roaring funny, with video grabs of the more colourful, melodramatic and stylish parts of the film, some entries also deal with more significant issues such as skin-colour. Taryn, an African-American from Nashville, Tennessee, currently in Seoul, writes in her blog Beliefs, Blackness and Bollywood about how strange it is to know that even the gorgeous Bipasha Basu faces flak for being “dark”. “The first time I saw a Bollywood film, I was quite surprised that there were no brown-skinned lead actors. In general, when Americans think of Indians, they think of brown-skinned people like Parminder Nagra in ER or Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes. I was surprised to watch film after film without seeing any leads that looked like the majority of Indians I had encountered,” says Taryn, who soon realised that Bollywood and most of the country has an unhealthy fixation for light-skin.
Blogging about Bollywood is now a way of life for them. “I was so taken with what I was experiencing that I needed an outlet! I hoped a few people might somehow find my site and help me answer some questions, but I did not anticipate that I would meet so many people from around the world and develop friendships that go beyond our shared interest in the movies,” says Watkins. Whether it’s the retrolicious Salaakhen or the disastrous Yuvvraaj, every time these bloggers watch a Bollywood film, kuch kuch hota hain!
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