After watching four hours of teary-eyed monologues of love and more than my share of good-natured slapstick — all framed by marathon-length song-and-dance routines — I've got a tune in my heart, and it goes "Shava Shava." Parvinder Singh, whose thick, black beard belies his 18 years, suggested Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to me.
Singh's collection of Bollywood videos and DVDs at India Bazar, a one-stop shop for all things Indian, totals nearly 1,100 — from the home-recorded cassette to the latest blockbuster disc out of Bombay. And he watches all the new ones that come in: "I have to watch it. Customers ask, 'Is it worth watching or is it a waste of money? Of course I'm going to say it's good, but it depends on what they like."
Singh has operated the store since January, when India Palace, the restaurant a few doors down, sold it. "My customer mostly is from UTSA, all the Indian students. I didn't know we'd have that many Indian people out here."
Though the films are often light, emotional musicals more in line with classic MGM glitz than Touchstone grit, the newest Bollywood features highlight the seedier side of subcontinental culture. In Company, a Godfather-like tale of the Mumbai underworld, a gang war breaks out, and nothing, not even filial piety — something the song-and-dance movies are built on — can survive the piercing of a Teflon-coated 9mm bullet.
But that doesn't exclude the possibility of a dance sequence at some point amidst the bloodshed, or having the sanctity of marriage brought up during a conversation between the bad guy and his mother. Spontaneous rug-cutting breaks out during a tense gang encounter in a club and Malik bhai, the ruthless underworld boss, is willing to bend to the matrimonial wishes of his girlfriend's mother.
With more than a thousand films produced each year in India, Singh doesn't have time to keep up with all the new releases. He counts on distributors in Houston to keep him abreast of which films to carry — as well as keeping him supplied with Indian groceries. With such a glut of celluloid, the quality of films vary. And although Indian cinema has been picking up serious steam over the last few decades, India's productions have suffered recently due to heavy monsoons and flooding, an earthquake, rumblings of connections with organized crime, and diminishing returns on formulaic blockbusters. Indian reviewers, who can be terribly harsh, reflect this:
From the planetbollywood.com Web site, "On the whole, Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage is banality as film material." Or "Performance wise ... Rani Mukherji looks disinterested in the goings-on. Apoorva Agnihotri does not have much of a role to talk of. Johny Lever is wasted. Even otherwise, he tends to irritate. Om Puri is okay. On the whole, Pyaar Diwana Hota Hai is a dull fare with dim prospects at the box-office."
Reviews aside, it's even hard to figure out which movies are good based on back-of-the-box summaries, which can be incredibly elliptical and, well, hokey. "Soch then becomes a thriller which will not keep you at the edge of your seats, instead it will push you further into it and make you think, Why? Why does a man have to kill? Is it hate or is it an extreme form of love or the extreme desire to be loved that makes him or her, a murderer. The answer lies in Soch. After all, it's a thought which kills."
And a preview for Kitne Door Kitne Paas concludes, "In the climax, Fardeen is all set to take the saat pheras with Sonali, while Ayub is ready to put sindoor in Amrita's maang. Co-incidentally, both the wedding pandals are erected opposite each other. What happens eventually?" Of course, ignorance of India's filmic conventions make this stuff funnier, but even United Artist's latest tag line for Deuces Wild gives me giggles: "They'll fight for family ... for respect ... for each other."
Another genre of Indian film adheres to the "copy successful Western films" doctrine. See if you can identify the Hollywood storyline in Farz:
"Assistant Commissioner of Police Karan is all alone in the world, and therefore, has a no-holds barred approach towards life. He believes in eliminating the disease of crime from its roots. On the other hand his partner, Assistant Commissioner of Police Arjun Singh, is a family man, content to lead a risk-free professional life, since he has only two years left till his retirement. He suffers from an acute fear psychosis because his earlier partner lost his life in the line of duty just a few days before retirement." Add the fact that the two officers are constantly at loggerheads, and you've got a nice remake of Lethal Weapon.
First-time viewers are going to have a hard time getting in-step with the pacing of Bollywood films, but take a walk on the morally-mild side — after three hours of "Shava Shava"-ing, you can't help but be entranced.
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