Friday, April 27, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas, Bollywood-Style

With Bollywood movies, you get your money’s worth. A friend has reminisced to me about his moviegoing childhood in South India. When a new film came to his village, young and old turned out to see it. They gathered in a thatch-roofed hut and sat mesmerized for hours. Even a downpour couldn’t spoil the fun.

An Indian movie contains something for everyone. If you like low comedy, or high drama, or brutal action, or social message, or elaborate song-and-dance numbers in spectacular costumes, a Bollywood film will give it to you in large doses. A sophisticated mixture of all these elements (as pungent and complex as a good Indian curry) made the Bollywood-inspired Slumdog Millionaire a crossover hit. When a screenwriting student of mine, Danish Renzu, found out I enjoy Bollywood, he lent me a copy of Devdas. It’s over three hours long, and there’s never a dull moment.

Devdas is based on a 1917 novella of the same name. It’s been filmed three times, and the full-color version I saw was, when released in 2002, the most expensive Indian movie of all time. Starring Sharukh Khan and the impossibly gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, it’s a Romeo and Juliet tale in which family snobbery and class distinctions trump true love. Devdas tells of a nineteenth-century world in which the sons of landlords shouldn’t lower themselves to love the daughters of dancing girls, even if they have grown up side by side. In Devdas, the rules of society are strict, and patriarchs hold sway even over grown children who have spent ten years studying abroad. Still, the film shows us an environment in which passion throbs. (This is hardly surprising, given that romantic ardor -– like that of the god Krishna for Radha –- is entwined in Hindu theology, and the ancient carvings of Hindu temples like Kajuraho are so erotic they can make you blush.)

True to the Indian tradition, Devdas has its share of romance-novel elements, like the lovers deliciously entangled in a flowing stream in the rain. He tenderly kisses the sole of her foot, but there’s absolutely no lip-locking. And, of course, no sex. Though the plot hinges on a courtesan ensconced in a brothel, raw intercourse is never suggested. The film’s most flagrant moment comes when a secondary character makes advances toward her, saying something on the order of “Can I unscrew your nose ring?”

That brothel, by the way, is both clean and exquisitely appointed, as is every set in this film. India, in Devdas, is a place of fire and water. There are thousands of glowing candles, an oil lamp that’s never to be extinguished, and a raging conflagration, when the hero stops sulking long enough to try burning down the family mansion. There are also countless gallons of water, in the form of streams, rivulets, lakes, and lots and lots of tears. But the plot’s major turning-point comes when Devdas forsakes water for alcohol, responding to the loss of his love by going on an epic binge. He’s a depressive sort of drinker: once he gives up his high-class teetotaling ways for a bottle of rotgut, he seems determined to do himself in. In the film’s big finale, he has himself delivered to the gates of his love, who’s been married off (though still remaining virginal) to an aristocrat. As he expires, her name on his lips, she’s running wildly through the corridors of her palace, her veils floating behind her, to reach his side. Will she make it in time?

So much emotion, so much hootchy-kootchy. Western movies seem a bit pallid by comparison.


  1. Bollywood's films always seem an out-and-out blast. I've been in one of them, albeit briefly, with Raj Babbar
    - that man has over 175 films to his name.
    Off-hand, (without zipping away to imdb -- again) I can only think of William Shatner, Christopher Lee, the dearly missed Donald Pleasance and John Wayne who could top that.

    It's a highly prolific industry over in India, and I've long understood that they outstrip Hollywood's output by multiple figures.

  2. Aren't most Indian movies around 3 hours or so? Also, Beverly, weren't they at one time the top country for number of films produced, or still are?

  3. Hi Keith and Brian -- So glad to "see" you both again. Capt. Keith, you must tell me about being in a Bollywood film. Brian, I believe India is STILL the top country for film production. Of course, not every film from India is in the Bollywood style, though these remain wildly popular. I'm thinking of the late great Satyajit Ray, whose realistic slices of Bengali life (e.g. Pather Panchali) are masterful. Mira Nair has come out of India to have a good directing career in the west. And, of course, Roger Corman has discovered India, producing Nightfall in a hypermodern Hyderabad studio that's a far cry from the Mumbai-based Bollywood model. But that, of course, is another story. Which maybe I'll tell someday soon.

  4. I hope we're getting closer to that day - I would like to hear/read that story!

    I haven't taken the opportunity to see a lot of the Bollywood style movies, but I did see one from the 70's or 80's - action, no romance, lots of singing. It's a very interesting way to make movies, and I'll check more out if I can see them properly.

  5. Thanks, Marcus. I hope you visit Movieland again.