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Bollywood Rules, OK?

Bollywood changing itself in pursuit of the Yankee dollar would be a mistake because it would compromise its fundamental character, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 13:11 IST

It’s a funny thing but it happens to all of us. You know the feeling: you hear of somebody, you pick up an idea or someone tells you something — and then, suddenly, nearly everywhere you go it crops up again and again. It happens most often to me when I hear of somebody new and then discover that this person’s name turns up in conversations all the time. Or I learn a new word and then no matter what I read, that word seems to appear.

That’s how I feel about Bollywood these days.

Not that Bollywood is ever far from our thoughts: the hoardings, the stars, the gossip items and even the films themselves are an integral part of the 21st Century Indian landscape.

But what’s intrigued me about the many references I have heard to Bollywood over the last month is that they have all been somewhat unusual in nature.

It started last month when I went to Paris to speak on the politicisation of the Indian middle class at an academic forum. The audience was intelligent, highbrow and well-informed. This meant that I had to pitch the lecture at a relatively advanced level and then tense myself for the probing questions that followed. But what surprised me were the conversations at the drinks break that followed the talk. Of course, the audience had heard of India’s success as the world’s largest democracy. But the major reference points — the ones they had some tactile experience of — were not the BJP or the Congress. They were Shah Rukh Khan, Devdas and the entire Bollywood phenomenon.

A week later, I moderated a discussion between NK Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Chris Patten at the first Oxford-India Forum. The discussion focused on the India-China economic race but when it was Patten’s turn to make a speech, he introduced himself in a slightly unusual manner. As you probably know, he has been a minister in the UK government, the last Governor of Hong Kong, an EU Commissioner, a best-selling author and is currently Chancellor of Oxford University. Nevertheless, this is how he chose to introduce himself: “I am probably best known as the father of Alice Patten who acted in Rang De Basanti.”

Ten days later, I was at the India Today Conclave interviewing Karan Johar on stage. Though the Conclave was intriguingly non-political this year, it was clear — judging by all the people I spoke to afterwards — that Karan was one of its biggest hits. His session was packed and all that the delegates wanted to discuss was Bollywood.

And then, yesterday, I shot a television programme with Soha Ali Khan and Pramod Mahajan. Though this is not widely known, Pramod is one of Delhi’s great film buffs: he must own over 1,500 DVDs. Inevitably, the discussion turned to Bollywood, Rang De Basanti and whether that film’s message to the young had anything to do with the spontaneous outpouring of public outrage over the Jessica Lall verdict.

“Of course, Hindi films influence society,” said Pramod. “Nobody can deny that.” Soha was more modest in the claims she made on behalf of her film but even she conceded that she had noticed the parallels. Many of the Jessica Lall protests seem straight out of the film. Not only did they take place at India Gate but some of the news channels even copied the shots that Rang De Basanti had used for its India Gate protest sequence.

Which is why I say that for the last month, there has been no getting away from Bollywood.

At one level, this is not strange because we have always been a film-crazy society. But what intrigues me about the manner in which Bollywood keeps cropping up in conversations these days is quite how seriously we now take the Hindi film industry.

Because I grew up in Bombay and because my father knew many film stars, I never shared the usual upper middle class contempt for the movie world. At a time when many of my colleagues regarded actors as over-made-up jokers, I was quite happy to write about them or do articles on films. (It is quite ironic that I spoke to Karan Johar at the India Today Conclave; in 1977, I wrote that magazine’s first film cover story and I remember having to persuade Aroon Purie that a national news magazine had to cover films. He only conceded the point when I pointed out that even Time magazine did it.)