Friday, February 4, 2011

Get Your Bollywood On

I am coming to realize that India is a land of extremes.  Nothing is done by halves, everything is taken to excess — the mountains are higher, the deserts are drier, the cities are larger, the traffic is crazier, the food is spicier, the rich are richer, the poor are poorer, than just about anywhere else in the world.  Nowhere is this tendency to throw caution to the winds and live life on the extreme outer edge more apparent than in Indian romance. 

This is a very romantic country.  Not romantic in the sense you’d think of in reference to Paris ... no, this is the over-the-top, full-blown melodrama version of romance.  (Think sappy 1950’s movie, with the soaring violins in the soundtrack.  Different music here, but same idea.)

Just look at the Taj Mahal.  This is in Agra, which was my first stop outside of Delhi; it’s an insane tourist mecca where you can’t move a metre down the street without being accosted seven times to buy something or give someone money.   It’s a fairly hideous place, but you have to come here to see the Taj.

Built in the 1600’s by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his late wife, it is an extravagant statement of devotion.  (He couldn’t have just put flowers on her grave?)   Construction bill is believed to have been at least 3 million rupees (equivalent to about 70 million dollars today); in the best Indian fashion, this was not a man who did things by halves. 

But thank God he didn’t.  The Taj is ethereally beautiful and quite other-worldly in late afternoon light, when I went to see it.  It is huge and solidly built of stone and white marble, but manages to seem delicate and insubstantial.  Despite the ever-present tourist hordes, it still manages to cast a spell on you and make you feel like you’re the only one there.  I sat for a while on a bench, just looking at it; it’s really quite magical. 

The interior (where the tombs of the emperor and his wife are) is disappointing, very small and dark.  It’s the exterior that really shines — literally, actually, as the near-translucent Indian marble glows in the sun.  After her death, he certainly showed the world he loved his wife; I just hope he remembered to tell her while she was alive.

[The emperor apparently wanted to build himself one, too, in black marble, as his own mausoleum.  But his son had other idea for the public purse and imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life to stop him bleeding the treasury dry.]

Amber Palace in Jaipur - Ganesh gate
The Amber Palace in Jaipur (my next stop after Agra) is nearly as extravagant, too, with the royal quarters decked out in white marble, gemstone inlays and glittering mirrors.  The emperor responsible apparently said it was to celebrate his queen’s beauty, so that she could be reflected a thousand times.  (Personally, I think it was just a creative male justification for mirrors on the ceiling — dress in up in romance and flowers and maybe she’ll go for it.)  The City Palace in Udaipur (2nd stop after Jaipur, following Pushkar) carries on the theme with more extravagant carvings and paintings and tapestries. 

It’s not just the architecture that conveys this overblown romantic sensibility.  I get it just walking down the street; I don’t just get a “you look nice”, but rather a “such a beautiful lady, with a smile like a flower opening”.  And apparently I have “dangerous” eyes, those blue-green eyes that “tempt” men.  (Or so I was told.  How brave of me, walking around with them.)  Purple prose is another thing this country does well — even random strangers on the street can dream it up on the spur of the moment for passing foreign women.

Blessing at the Monkey Temple
Even religious types get in on the act.  I was blessed by a Hindu priest at the Monkey Temple in Jaipur -- it's supposed to be good luck for unmarried women to help them find a husband.  (I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't really all that bothered -- he seemed very perplexed by the idea that I wasn't married and anxious to help me rectify it.)

Understatement is not a word this country understands.  You can see that easily enough, without ever coming to India, just by checking out their films.

You will, of course, be familiar with Bollywood.  Or you should be, if you’re not — it is a perfect encapsulation of what I’m talking about.  The storylines are over the top and dramatic, facial expressions are exaggerated and actions larger than life, and every so often everyone on screen breaks out into song and dance, with huge, beaming smiles on their faces.

I went to see a Bollywood film at the Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur.  It’s quite an experience from the moment you walk in the door — the lobby is wedding-cake-perfect in its decoration and colouring.  Inside, after the movie starts, the audience gets into the action and chimes right in when they feel the urge, shouting back at the screen when the bad guy appears and urging on the hero trying to win the beautiful lady.  Much more fun than passively staring at a screen — I think that movies in Canada ought to become audience-participation experiences!

This particular film was the story of two brothers separated in infancy, with one living in Canada with the mother and the other in India with the father.  Through a chance encounter, the Canadian brother learns of his father’s location and heads to India; much confusion ensues over mistaken identities and much dramatic tension unfolds as the Indian brother falls in love (but his family prefers the Canadian man, who’s already married).  All, of course, ended happily with the family being reunited and the appropriate couple falling in love for ever after.

I did have the help of Binu, our group leader, in translating the Hindi dialogue (no subtitles here), but it’s amazing how much we could pick up without understanding any of the words.  The actors’ faces are incredibly expressive (and the story, perhaps, a little predictable as it unfolded — but no less enjoyable for that!).

We hit a Jaipur nightclub after the film to try out Bollywood dancing for ourselves — Binu breaks out into the moves with very little urging, and he spent the night teaching us all.  I think the DJ might’ve been glad when we eventually left, though; he seemed to keep wanting to switch to hip-hop, but we kept making him bring the Bollywood back.  It was just too much fun to give up.

There’s apparently going to be a Bollywood film fest in Toronto (can’t remember if it’s this summer or next), so I definitely have to go.  Anyone in? 

In the meantime, I’ll keep practising my moves and enjoying the melodrama around me.  India might make a romantic out of me yet. 


  1. I think it's the Bollywood film awards that are coming to Toronto, sometime in June(?) all the movie stars will be hanging around...

  2. Not that I'd recognize any Bollywood stars ... but I might have to go gawk anyway.

  3. Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam are the best to play role.. no second thoughts, that's for sure!!
    christian grey