Shreya Sen-Handley is a former journalist and television producer, who now writes and illustrates for British and Indian media.
I do not like thee, Mr B
The reason is plain, for all to see
You have aged, but not gracefull-ee
(Have to admit, I liked you at three)
But now, I do not like thee, Mr B
Amitabh Bachchan, or Big Mr B, is just the tip of the Bollywood iceberg of doom, or even its figurehead (but icebergs don't have figureheads, so let's stick with the imagery). The Bombay film industry is a gigantic monolith of puerile pastiche you will inevitably crash into if you live in India, with tragic consequences for your mind. And terminal for your taste. You can run but you can never hide from its trundling trajectory.
This is my story, my tearjerker in true filmi ishtyle, of how Bollywood's pervasive influence in India, forced me into exile (sob), because I couldn't abide the gurning, grinding, hamming and hawing, that spilled over from the screen into everyday life. Every day. Growing up in India in the late Eighties and Nineties, the keening of Lata Mangeshkar and sound-alikes assailed my ears at every turn. 'Heroines' were pale and otherworldly (but stunningly dark-skinned Indian women still strove to be them) and 'heroes' affected mile-high quiffs and pot-bellies that did nothing for the libido. Not mine anyway.
So, why watch them? Returning to India after years of glossy American entertainment, we were suddenly reduced to one channel whose highlights were the cacophonous 'Chitrahaar' and the Sunday evening fillum. I remember watching with dismay as porcine male and female leads threw their bodies around with wild and wobbly abandon all those years ago. The climactic weekend offering was worse, with melodrama, slapstick and (unintentionally) hilarious song and dance sequences coalescing in a storyline so predictable that if you'd seen one you'd seen 'em all. When Ajay Devgan complained, "It gets tiring, doing the same thing every day", I felt his pain.
But my ordeal was only just beginning. My final year of school brought with it the horror of a first Hindi film outing with school friends. To this day, I blanche at the sight of white doves cooing as it brings back memories of the mindlessness that was 'Maine Pyaar Kya' and the young Salman's inexplicably smug mug (why does he fancy himself quite so much?).
Bollywood in India, perhaps all of South Asia and Asian ghettoes 'round the world, is ubiquitous. It's not just the movies. The songs blasted out from trumpery equipment, the inane catchphrases spouted by everybody and their dog, especially the innuendo-laden missiles lobbed at women by Roadside Romeos, there's no getting away from it. The actors and actresses are omnipresent, like the deities they have become, looking down on you from every hoarding, leering at you from peeling posters in unlikely places. Fancy encountering Akshay Kumar's trademark smirk in the cubicle at the ladies'? It's been known to happen!
Then, just when you think you are safe, someone will launch into a cringeworthy rendition of some crowd pleaser, or try walking into a mall without feeling disoriented as filmi lookalikes swarm around you. And even after you've dumped every dvd, banned your kids from putting up posters, they'll still find their way into your home through the insidious idiot box. The doyens of Bollywood shamelessly plug products, magnanimously host game shows and hector you on reality TV (though I am all for Aamir Khan's do-gooding in 'Satyamev Jayate').
But for every Bollywood star interested in social change there are far too many interested in loose change. I lie, they're after much larger swag. And that's the least of it, there's a long list of crimes that can be laid at their darwaza. For every Shiney Ahuja that gets his comeuppance, there are plenty who get away with murder. Not literally, perhaps. But illegally shooting deer and even more unlawfully running over sleeping people and then saying, "I hope I'm not taking advantage of my stardom"? Well, I don't know, but it feels about time we knocked that pedestal from under them.
Nowadays, in a fit of nostalgia, I may subject myself to a fillum because someone has recommended it, but the regret is profound and immediate. For every well-spent hour on a film like 'Lagaan', there are at least ten you wish you hadn't frittered away ('Kabhie Khushie Kabhi Gham' and 'Ashoka' come to mind).
I am constantly being told that things are looking up. There are new kids on the block and brave new movies being made. I set out to re-educate myself but after 'Three Idiots', I'd had enough. Aamir Khan in my estimation is the best of Bollywood, and the movie isn't half-bad but if that's amongst the best of the best, I'd rather watch Argo, Thirty Dark Zero or Les Miserable instead.
'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara', and 'Barfi,' I never got 'round to watching you. I don't doubt you are slicker and cleverer than many of your predecessors and that your leading men and women have stomachs so taut, they reflect an appropriately celestial light, but not enough seems to have changed. Too many movies still cater to the lowest common denominator. Think 'Tees Maar Khan' and you'll know what I mean (with an apology to old friends who appear in it, you are the only reason I managed to watch five minutes).
The stereotypes, the slapstick, the gore and the gyrations, it all happens in Hollywood too, but there's something for everyone in their mix. A 'Silver Linings Playbook' for those who don't want a 'Lincoln' or 'Django Unchained'. It's probably just me but I prefer songs sung an octave lower (than in B'wood) and not too often. Being able to lust after the actors is oh-so-important as well. They look like grown-ups. And men. No peachy skin or podgy cheeks on them. And when I've finished lusting, I like that I can shut them out, because they aren't all endorsing products (Brad Pitt, really, does that crummy Chanel ad enhance your credibility any?). No leering from hoardings or cubicle walls. They are celebrities, not deities.
They are not Amitabh. Thank God. But then, of course, he IS God. The veneration for this mortal, superstar though he may be, is a discomfiting experience. I witnessed it at Mumbai airport many moons ago when The Great Man walked on undistracted by the little people nearly prostrating themselves before him, seemingly unaware of their existence. And marrying Bollywood's most successful actress Aishwariya to a tree before allowing her to wed Little B because she's a Manglik (or something), what kind of example is this privileged, educated man setting his millions of fans? Such a man doesn't deserve deification. He deserves ditties, badly written, like the one above.
So is it Bollywood I abhor, the people who prosper off it, or the influence it has on Indian society? They are all one, surely, like the lines between real and reel life, forever blurred in India. And if that isn't a tragedy worthy of a Bollywood melodrama, what is?