My Own Private Bollywood

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After the Slumdog boom, Bollywood has become more Hollywood—and looks like it's in America to stay. What does that mean for people who grew up with it?

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Priyanka Chopra performs during the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards show in Toronto June 25, 2011. (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

"So, your last name's Khan, huh?" a guy at work asked out of the blue one day. Though we'd always smiled and waved in the hallways, until that particular afternoon, our interactions hadn't progressed far beyond perfunctory assessments of the weather. I nodded and got ready to give him my standard spiel, mastered through years of repetition: "Yes, but K-H-A-N like Genghis or Chaka, not K-A-H-N like the hot dog."

"That's Indian, right?" he continued before I opened my mouth. "Like Shah Rukh?"

Colin, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, rugby-shirt-clad, Nordic-god type—who'd fit in more at a polo match in the Hamptons than among comb-overed, potbellied uncles half his height in line for the latest from India's movie-making industry—went on breathlessly to extol the musical merits of the chart-buster "Rock 'n' Roll Sohniye" and profess his love for sultry siren Rani Mukherjee.

The secret was out, I realized that morning. Bollywood is no longer just my cup of chai.

The Bollywood of my childhood would be virtually unrecognizable

In the time since Colin revealed himself to me as a closet Bollywood buff, Slumdog Millionaire turned the Oscars into a song-and-dance spectacular and all things Indian have now been deemed hot. When Lady Gaga descended on Delhi to perform at an F1 gala earlier this month, she tweeted a pic of herself partying with Bollywood royalty, including Shah Rukh himself. "Screw Hollywood," she declared. "It's all about Bollywood." Hey, if Gaga says it, it must be true.

But what about us who've grown up with Bollywood? We've been singing (and dancing) this gospel for years. The music outnumbers all other genres in my iPod three to one, and I'm far more intrigued by eternal bachelor Salman Khan's romantic entanglements than George Clooney's. I beg anyone heading to the motherland to bring me back copies of Stardust, Filmfare, and People India, which hold prized positions in my personal magazine library, a place where Us Weekly just doesn't make the cut. I even have a Bollywood keychain, featuring a floppy-haired cartoon character wooing a buxom, sari-clad lass in a rain-soaked embrace.

I'll admit, though, that despite all this, I'm not exactly a die-hard fan. For every rare Lagaan (Tax) that holds my attention for four-plus hours, there are scores of asinine Love Aaj Kals (Love These Days) that send me fleeing from the theater in convulsions after 15 minutes. I want to love Bollywood, I really do. Yet as much as I enjoy the accompaniments, the main courses themselves generally leave me unsettled.

But the fact remains that Bollywood is as much a part of my identity as my curly hair. Across the globe, kids of South Asian extraction are raised on a steady diet of screeching violins, over-the-top displays of emotion, delayed reactions to ill-placed dishum-dishums in shoddily realized fight sequences, and, of course, spontaneous, perfectly choreographed and comically attired dance routines. It provides the sound track to every wedding, the punch line to every joke. With more than a billion Indians, it boasts a built-in audience far more vast than anything Hollywood could ever dream of, and hundreds of millions of others are also caught under the influence. Think of Bollywood what you will, but if you're brown, there's no escaping it—whether you're growing up in Delhi, Dubai, or Des Moines.

The Bollywood of my childhood would be virtually unrecognizable to anyone accustomed to the candy-coated and substance-free froth being churned out by the dream factories of Mumbai today. There was a time when a Hindi movie was a wholesome family affair that transcended every strata of society: It offered tear-jerking melodrama to depress the aunties; a sweet, fresh-faced girl to charm the uncles; a chocolate-box hero and cheesy romance to lure in the girls; blood and gore to excite the guys; melodic music to appeal to the masses; grandeur and sophistication to be appreciated by the classes; morality to appease the conservative set; double entendre-laden (but discreet) humor to entertain the shameless; and—a miracle!—an actual storyline that could be followed and enjoyed by all (so what if it was completely implausible and devoid of any reality?).

The first Indian movie I remember watching checked off most of those boxes. It was the '80s, and I was five. That era's screen queen Sridevi—known affectionately to her legion of fans as Thunder Thighs, owing to her copious curves, a source of great pride in those days—starred in and as Nagina, a shape-shifting snake woman (what was that I said about implausible?). I was easily entranced by a world filled with hypnotizing music, romance, and intrigue that went far over my tiny head.

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Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. You can read more of her work at bysarahkhan.com.

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