Behold Hrithik Roshan! Bollywood dream boy! He of the satyr's face-pointy ears, aquiline nose, translucent greeny hazel eyes that melt the hearts of women across the Indian subcontinent! Older women think he's such a "nice boy," though they worry if he's eating enough, while their daughters have spread him across their bedroom walls in ubiquitous shades and a tank top barely hiding his finely muscled form, just as the ad industry has plastered his visage all over India.
There are few overnight sensations of Hrithik's kind. Plucked from relative obscurity by his film director father to appear in a movie that every big star had turned down, twinned with the equally obscure Amisha Patel (an econ grad from Tufts, no less), Kaho Naa ... Pyaar Hai ("Tell me ... You Love Me") opened two years ago with zero buzz to break almost every Indian box office record. Hrithik was soon cast with the immortal likes of Amitabh Bachchan (Big B, as close to a living demigod you get in India), rough, tough Sanjay Dutt, cheeky Shah Rukh Kahn and cutie-pie Kareena Kapoor. In what must have been a first for GQ, the magazine profiled Hrithik, describing him as "the most famous person you have never heard of, one of the biggest movie stars in the world." He told GQ that he was ready to play James Bond.
If some kind of Faustian pact engineered Hrithik's rise to fame, it didn't take long for his creditors to come calling for their cut. The Indian film magazines, perhaps the most bitchy in the world, soon spread rumors that, contrary to the declared devotion to fiancé Suzanne, he was gallivanting in London with frequent co-star Kapoor. This was par for the course. (Amitabh once complained that these rumors come with the territory when you spend more time with your leading ladies than your wife.)
Then there were the two days of rioting in Nepal after it was alleged that Hrithik had dissed the Nepalese in a TV interview. Tires and trees were set ablaze, Katmandu was shut down, and four people died. (Hrithik insists he loves Nepal.) This too is par for the course. When Amitabh was mistakenly declared dead in 1982, India ground to a halt.
But what sent shockwaves through Bollywood was the attempted murder of Hrithik's father in broad daylight by gangsters alleged to be associates of Abu Salem, the Bombay underworld kingpin who is currently a fugitive. (Apparently Roshan Sr. hadn't paid protection money.) Hrithik's tribute to his father -- angry, tender and emotional -- at the Filmfare awards was very moving. And you had to ask yourself, what's a nice boy like him doing in a business like this?
The failed assassination attempt unveiled Bollywood's scariest and most open secret: that the industry, so used to producing industrial-strength fantasy, had become the playground of gangsters. A slew of Bollywood's best and brightest have been subpoenaed to testify in the trial of a leading Bombay underworld figure and film financier.
It's common to hear that India's new gods are its film stars. Hindu imagery is indeed the dominant religio-cultural form in a vaguely secular industry (many of whose leading artistes are actually Muslim). Much is made of the enormous social power that celebrity confers on them, the mass adoration and enthusiasm they generate. This is not lost on the political class, either. Two of Bollywood's biggest stars, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan "Shotgun" Sinha, have just been handed, respectively, the Tourism and Health Ministry portfolios in India's federal cabinet. I remember being in southern India when Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran (MGR), the former superstar of Tamil cinema turned chief minister of Tamil Nadu, died. The news anchor announced that a number of suicides had come in the wake of MGR's death. And before that, 22 people had killed themselves hoping their death might aid MGR's recovery.
But in a country where religious imagery and devotion are deeply embedded and extreme Hindu fundamentalism is ascendant, the direction of worship flows both ways. The industry's leading lights shamelessly genuflect to Bal Thackeray, the czar of Bombay's terrifying Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena Party and a confessed Hitler admirer. Shiv Sena controls the municipality, and Thackeray has become an important broker in the industry, ready to order his supporters to release snakes into movie theaters if he dislikes the film's content. Bollywood's film stars are mortal then, and yes, prey to the vicissitudes of fate: A recent issue of Showtime magazine screams: "Finished! Seven flops, overexposure and disastrous career moves finally spell the end of the Hrithik Roshan mania."
Hrithik's travails are a case of his life imitating his art. Perhaps the only thing stranger than off-screen Bollywood is what's up there on the big screen. There is nothing on earth like it. How to describe this strange film universe? Here are the usual cliches and factoids relayed by hacks: More films produced a year than Hollywood. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, but parents, class, caste and community don't approve. Bumbling but loveable servants. Overbearing mothers getting sentimental over their favorite sons. Domineering daddies who tell their daughters, "You will not marry that man!" Gaudy song-and-dance sequences of tenuous relevance to the plot. Films that go on for more than three hours. Biceps, midriffs and wet saris galore, but no sex, no kissing and certainly no nudity.
Inevitably the word kitsch comes up. But Bollywood is finally going global, aided by the spread of the Indian diaspora, but also helped by a new Western interest. Baz Luhrmann has acknowledged that his Moulin Rouge is an homage to the Bollywood musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber has teamed with A.R. Rahman, the maestro of the Bollywood soundtrack, to pen Bombay Dreams, a theatrical salute to Bollywood. Last year's Lagaan was the first Bollywood movie to be nominated for an Oscar, while Devdas, the most expensive Indian film ever made, was the first to be selected to screen at Cannes.
Not everyone is happy with this development. Film Comment devoted an excellent issue to Bollywood that provoked this response on its letters page:
Just like Hollywood, the Bombay film industry and its mega-rich stars and corporate sponsors have caused immense damage to South Asia's once-vibrant, socially conscious, progressive New Wave cinema. With its kitschy, sexist, out-of-this-world tales, Bollywood has delegitimized the egalitarian work of Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Girish Karnad and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. With its rampant violence and gun worship, it has destroyed the pacifist messages of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
Bollywood has forced at least three generations of South Asian men and women to gulp down trash in the name of entertainment. Yet if only they knew it was there, these generations could easily find ambrosia. Alas, even the West doesn't care to know.
While I was trying to wake up and smell the ambrosia, I recalled a moment in Justine Hardy's book on the Bombay film industry, "Bollywood Boy," when director Subhash Ghai berates her:
You talked of this industry as Bollywood. This is a very wrong thing to call it. We are not trying to copy Hollywood. We are making films for an audience of a billion people. Over 80 percent of these people don't have enough food in their bellies. Our country does not provide its people with pool halls, basketball courts and video parlors, so we make films for them that will let them forget their lives for three hours. We create total fantasy, not the polished reality that Hollywood portrays.
Though at opposite ends, each of these statements reinforces the other. And while both reveal partial (and undeniable) truths about Bollywood -- and all media -- they only succeed in homogenizing an industry rich in genre, song, humor and irony.
Undoubtedly, there is something distasteful about how much contemporary romantic Hindi cinema celebrates the conspicuous consumption of a tiny elite. There is often a repellent nationalist undercurrent too, where all enemies, especially in action movies, have their origins "over the border" in Pakistan (though in an earlier, more populist period, the CIA was also invoked).
Still, the industry doesn't shirk political controversy. The treatment of Islamic fundamentalism and the Kashmiri insurgency in films like Fiza and Mission Kashmir -- both of which star Hrithik as a dream boy Taliban -- though in many respects political cop-outs, do at least acknowledge a history of state violence, repression and discrimination in India against religious minorities. Political corruption and class violence are also perennial themes.
My own 15-year journey through Bollywood has yielded strange and beautiful fruit: the classic (and revolutionary) Amitabh films of the '70s; the weepy and blissful melodramatics of Aradhana; the bubblegummy Maine Pyar Kiya; the action-packed Insaaf; Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Parinda, a brilliant reworking of the American gangster in a Bombay clime; Ashutosh Gowariker's spectacular, anti-imperialist cricket saga Lagaan; and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous, gothic Devdas.
But Mani Ratnam's 1998 film Dil Se is the most notable. The story of an All-India Radio journalist (Shah Rukh Kahn) who travels to northeast India to cover an insurrection and falls obsessively in love with a beautiful, enigmatic and standoffish woman (who may or may not be a terrorist) makes for a sublime cinematic experience. Rutnam is one of India's most innovative filmmakers, blending the conventions of Bollywood's grand style with an operatic art-house aesthetic. His fluid command of mise-en-scène is breathtaking; his song-and-dance sequences have a surreal, seductive and uncanny visual style, punctuated by A.R. Rahman's hallucinatory score. Like his earlier Bombay, this is a devastating film about sexual and emotional desire colliding with communal, political and religious identities.
Rather than going the way of other international film industries under Hollywood's assault, Bollywood's alternative cinematic universe is a vibrant as ever. It's as bright, gaudy and brash as the posters that ubiquitously dot the Bombay landscape, as politically complicated and messy as the country it belongs to. Its siren call is often irresistible, as I discovered myself as a teen-age visitor to Bombay's Seth Studios. As the actors appeared on set and repeated takes, slowly and surely stardust descended on me.
Carl Bromley is editor of "Cinema Nation: The Best Writing on Film from The Nation, 1913-2000."