This essay ran in the Atlantic last week.
"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.
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.
But the defining movie of my childhood was Mr. India. In this sci-fi-fantasy-superhero-family-action-comedy-drama-romance musical, a poor man raising a band of orphans inherits a special watch that gives him the ability to turn invisible...and protect the nation from the evil Mogambo, an island-dwelling character heavily inspired by Dr. No. Mr. India starred the aforementioned Sridevi alongside Anil Kapoor, whom the rest of the world is now familiar with as the nefarious quiz master from Slumdog Millionaire. But while he may be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tom Cruise in December's Mission Impossible–Ghost Protocol, to me he'll always be the bumbling, big-hearted Arun Bhaiyya.
Pre-"Bollywood" Bollywood was a simpler time, with simpler titles like Beta (Son) and Maine Pyar Kiya (I Have Fallen in Love) and Hum (Us). Today, nonsensical spectacles with monstrous appellations like Jab Kabhi Kabhi Kuch Kuch Ho Na Ho to Dhoom Machake Alvida Na Kehna (JK4HNHTDMANK for short) generally struggle to make up for what they lack in storylines by serving up extra helpings of vulgarities. Even the music is rapidly spiraling downhill. "Sheila Ki Jawaani" (Sheila's Sexiness) and "Character Dheela" (Loose Character) might get the frontbenchers excited for all the wrong reasons, but it was during the smash "Mehndi Lagake Rakhna" (Keep Yourself Adorned with Henna) in the '90s classic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Good Hearted Will Take the Bride) at a theater in Hyderabad that I witnessed crowds express their sincerest appreciation by exuberantly flinging rubber chappals (flip-flops) high into the air.
Today's Bollywood is a different animal. Bye-bye, dhamakedaar (action-packed) plot twists; hello, remakes of remakes of remakes. Sylvester Stallone and Rob Lowe share screen space with Kareena Kapoor and Akshay Kumar, and Akon and Snoop Dogg collaborate with Mumbai's top music directors—even singing lyrics in accented but admirable Hindi. The arrival last week of Royal Couple Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan's baby made headlines on E! News; superstar Priyanka Chopra signed on with Lady Gaga's manager and is currently joining forces with the likes of Pete Wentz on an album; and one of India's most celebrated production houses, YRF Films, announced this past Tuesday that it'll be adding a touch of masala to a romantic comedy it's producing starring Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde, and Billy Crudup. Gone is the innocence of yore, replaced instead by X-rated dance moves that put the Pussycat Dolls to shame—in fact, when that very girl group joined music maestro A.R. Rahman for an English version of his Slumdog hit "Jai Ho," it seemed all too natural.
Perhaps it's easy to romanticize the past; after all, when do I ever sit down to watch an '80s romance-revenge mash-up in my Manhattan apartment? Maybe if I actually revisit the favored films of my bachpan (childhood)—I saw Dil (Heart) a mind-numbing 93 times—I'll cringe at the gaudy clothes, over-the-top histrionics, and voluminous tresses (on both the heroines and heroes). Glorified in the enchanted recesses of my memory, these movies will always have a special place in my own dil.
But being a true Bollywood fan has always required a certain kind of undying devotion, a willingness to celebrate the insignificant and overlook the illogical; it's about loving the culture, stubbornly unified eyebrows and all. To billions of people, it's a way of life. Any religion requires a degree of blind faith; Bollywood is no different a creed. So regardless of my personal opinions on the latest sudsy epic, my heart will flutter with pride when I see its name light up the marquee at a Third Avenue theater alongside considerably more substantive flicks by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling.
As I was still reacting to Lady Gaga's recent Bollywood proclamation, a Heineken ad that went viral found its way onto my Facebook newsfeed. The logic- and gravity-defying "The Date" spot shows a couple dodging faux-dragons, performing magic tricks, and dancing with gusto—all to the beats of a frenzied 1960's Mohammed Rafi classic, "Jaan Pehchaan Ho."
Well done, Bollywood. It's about time you got the world dancing to your tune.