Rolling out the red carpet for Indian films

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Pria Anand | 17 years ago

Bollywood movies breach cultural barriers and reach wide audiences with common appeal

Every day, juniors Ngaheteh and Maheteh Ngombi arrive home to a living room rife with culture. On one wall, three elephants stampede out of an enormous copper clock in the shape of Africa. Against another are rows of wood carvings from Sierra Leone, where the Ngombis lived until 2000. Across the room is a bookshelf weighed down by a television, a DVD player and an assortment of silver-and-blue African sculptures: hippos in suits, men thinking, women nursing.

But just a few feet away, atop a carved wooden coffee table supported by two elephant trunks and next to a row of leering Nile crocodiles, lies a stack of movies whose titles don't fit with the Ngombis' African decor: "Yeh Hai Jalwa." "Rishtey." "Planet Bollywood."

Since their time in Sierra Leone, the Ngombis have been devotees of the "Bollywood" culture spawned by the prolific Indian film industry based in the city of Mumbai, formerly Bombay. According to "Bollywood Premiere" magazine, "Bombay Hollywood" currently sells more tickets and produces more films than any other film industry in the world, and its influence is on the rise: Beyond South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, Bollywood films have generated a wide following in the Middle East, parts of Africa and even in the United States. The singing, dancing, formulaic plots and wholesome escapism that have long been the hallmarks of Bollywood films have found a way to resonate across oceans - and across cultures.

"One movie...lots of entertainment"

For the Ngombis, a large part of Bollywood's attraction lies in its song-and-dance sequences. No film is complete without at least 10, and the Ngombis have amassed many of them on an impressive collection of DVD compilations.

It's 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 13, and Ngaheteh is furiously forwarding through the early scenes of "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai," the first Bollywood movie the Ngombis rented in the United States. "Let me show you my favorite song!" she exclaims, flipping through shots of colorful saris and impromptu choreography.

Although Ngaheteh doesn't speak Hindi, the language the movie is in, she's picked up enough to sing along with the familiar refrain. Sometimes, she says, she'll accidentally start singing Hindi songs while sitting in class. "I just like the language, the way it sounds when they sing," she explains. Still, the Ngombis don't own many Bollywood CDs: They prefer seeing the elaborate group dance numbers and continuous costume changes that accompany every song.

Senior Rachel Martin, who first became interested in Bollywood through an Indian dance class, has always been drawn to Bollywood dancing. "I love the dancing; it's so artistic," she says. "It's like that's what's going on in their heads."

Martin, who sometimes performs Bollywood numbers for campers at a local YMCA and at events like Blair Fair, has toyed with the idea of a future in Bollywood. "They're like musicals, except you don't have to sing!" she laughs, alluding to most Bollywood actors' obvious lip-syncing. "Sometimes I think that would be exactly what I would want to do, except for the part that I'm not Indian and I don't speak Hindi."

This amalgam of music and movement is a driving force behind Bollywood's magnetism, says Blair tennis coach David Ngbea, who grew up watching Hindi movies in Nigeria. "In one movie, you get lots of entertainment," he explains. "There is romance and music and plenty of dancing, and all of the actors and actresses are pretty, except for the bad guys."

And, adds Ngbea, some of these features are able to bridge the gap between South Asian culture and his own. "The beat of Indian music is very deep," he says. "It's almost like the beat of African music."

A family affair

Perhaps for this reason, in Nigeria, Ngbea found himself constantly exposed to Bollywood culture. "Indian movies in Nigeria were advertised on billboards, in papers, even shown to us in high school," he says. Fridays and Saturdays were "movie days" at Ngbea's school, where the entire student body would watch a movie together - always a Bollywood film or an American cowboy movie.

For Ngbea, there was no contest between the genres: The simple predictability of Bollywood films appealed to him far more than Hollywood gore. "Cowboy movies always ended up with someone being killed," he recalls. "In Indian movies, what you expected would happen: The bad guys would end up empty handed, the lady would end up with the man she was in love with. It ended in an amicable manner - there was fighting, but no killing."

But it's not just the nature of Bollywood fighting that allows the Ngombis to watch Hindi films with their mother and sisters. Ngaheteh explains that she simply feels more comfortable watching Bollywood films. "Bollywood films have more love and no lust," she says.

Ngaheteh says that this reserve is something her culture has in common with Bollywood films, a sentiment senior Ramatu Ibrahim has also found to be true. Ibrahim grew up in Sierra Leone, where Hindi movies pervaded the entertainment industry. Now, Ibrahim actively seeks out Bollywood films to watch with her family because she finds them more modest than their western counterparts. "They're more appropriate for my family," she explains. "There's no kissing and no sex; they're mostly about love."

Cultural notions of what's appropriate are part of what makes Bollywood films so adept at bridging geographic barriers, according to Jigna Desai, author of the book "Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film." "For a lot of people, culture is not about where you are," she explains in a phone interview. "It's about what values you have."

And, adds Desai, these values are distinct from those of western films. "They're about being modern in a particular way, but still holding on to whatever traditions appeal to you," she says. "They're about holding on to a notion of ethnicity or difference or culture that they distinguish from the west."

Differences aside, it's Bollywood's ability to transcend national boundaries that has kept Ibrahim coming back for more. She explains, "Even if you don't know the language, when you see the stars, you can understand what they're talking about."

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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