Bollywood Breakthrough

Ask an American to name a South Asian dramatic figure and you'll probably hear Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart on "The Simpsons." So it may come as a surprise that the best-known actor in the world is Indian, and one most Americans don't know.

Bollywood heartthrob Amitabh Bachchan is a fixture in his home country, where his visage promotes everything from Parker pens to Pepsi on TV and where his hit show, "Kaon Banega Croepati?" (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), dominates the Hindi airwaves. He has appeared in over 150 films and is, according to a BBC poll, "the most popular film star in the world, the most recognized face, the biggest box-office draw."

In Guyana, there are Amitabh Bachchan look-alike contests; in Calcutta, there is a temple to Amitabh Bachchan. His likeness appears in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. A query to most any South Asian will yield a reaction not unlike that of the waiter at a Midtown Manhattan hotel who placed a fist on his chest and proclaimed, "He is my friend." When asked what phrase best encapsulates the actor's profile worldwide, the Jersey-based, Delhi-born journalist Nidhi Kathuria explained simply, "He's God."

Bachchan swung through New York recently as a guest of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which was hosting a retrospective of the 63-year-old actor's 36-year film career and a $60-a-head appearance by the screen idol himself.

Dressed in a somber gray business suit and powder-pink plaid tie, the only hint of his Bollywood pedigree two knuckle-sized silver rings and a Hindu mala around his wrist, Bachchan enjoyed softball questions from an admiring, almost exclusively South Asian coterie of journalists Wednesday. ("It's a great cause!" he was commended for his work with the Indian eye bank.) Hollywood Bollywood magazine came out, as did DesiMatch, BharatMatrimony.com and Bharat Darshan Radio. But given an opportunity for an in-person audience with the world's most beloved film star, the non-Indian New York media stayed home.

The elision raises an important question: Why don't Americans know Amitabh Bachchan?

Bachchan's mostly Hindi-language filmography spans genres from the romantic to the musical to action--though, in true-to-Bollywood form, most of his films are a hybrid of all three. He does fight sequences choreographed like Astaire and uplifting boy-meets-girl musical interludes to rival the Gershwins. The only genre Bachchan hasn't fully explored is the art film, though the 10 movies showcased at Lincoln Center highlighted the rare moments where Bollywood has intersected Hollywood's artier side--stylized, Peckinpaw-esque '70s action films and political morality tales of the last decade. Lincoln Center's curators left out Bachchan's work with the Bollyest of Bollywood's directors--Yash Chopra, for instance, who cast the actor in Kabhi Kabhie (featuring one of the great Hindi film tracks, "Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein" [Sometimes in My Heart]). In explanation of the winnowing, Bachchan pointed out simply, "Yash Chopra's films, everybody has seen."

Everybody, of course, is a relative term.

There are 6.4 billion people on the earth, and, by some estimates, a quarter live in the vast and sprawling megalopolises that comprise the world's top population centers. These are overwhelmingly in the Third World--Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Jakarta, Delhi and Bombay appear reliably on most top-10 lists.

Bollywood has numbers on its side. These population "agglomerations," as social scientists call them, are either South Asian or cities otherwise in the path of Bollywood's cultural footprint. Outside South Asia, Bachchan has permeated where there is either a sizeable Indian Diaspora population or a poverty-stricken underclass at the whim of the optimistic charms of Bollywood and a global distribution market favoring inexpensively reproduced exports from India, Egypt, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

Where American cities feel Bollywood's cultural weight is among immigrants. Of the 21 million residents of the metropolitan New York area, a quarter million are South Asian. Add the Africans, East Asians and Eastern Europeans for whom cheap Bollywood knockoffs have shaped a cultural worldview and you have a massive fan base for a figure like Bachchan.

Village Farm is a grocery on Ninth Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan that is a kind of United Nations of South Asia. It is the sort of place that brings home the message of Bollywood's vast and unifying appeal. Hindi film soundtracks echo through the aisles 24-seven, and a staff of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs hails from such diverse locations as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Calcutta and South India. Hindi is the lingua Franca.

Kejas Mehta is the counter guy, a 25-year-old one-time student at Long Island University from Bombay. India seems to infuse his life here, yet the South Asian names that are household words to many New Yorkers mean very little to him. He raised his voice over the soundtrack from Hum Tum (Me and You), a romance with starlet Rani Mukherjee, as he guessed at the identity of Satyajit Ray.

"Who is that?" he conceded. "That is a difficult question."

Salman Rushdie?

"He has written something?"

Amitabh Bachchan?

His eyes brightened. "Yeah," he answered without a beat. "That's an actor, big stuff." He reached underneath and snapped a CD onto the counter. "This is Amitabh Bachchan"--it was the soundtrack to Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happy Sometimes Sad), illustrated by an avuncular-looking Bachchan flanked by two starlets. "His films are the super hits of today," explained Mehta. "Everybody likes him. No one will tell you they don't like Amitabh Bachchan." He paused. "If you want to buy the CD it's only $15."

If you're not Indian or an immigrant from a zone of maximum Bollywood saturation, you're out of the loop. Unsettling, perhaps, but true: our own entertainment machine, Hollywood, is but a blip in terms of cultural dominance when you consider the global cultural heft of Bollywood.

Bollywood for the Masses

For these viewers, Bachchan is not an actor but a pure unadulterated conduit for his message of populism and optimism. "All over Africa, in Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco," the actor notes, "when they see me on the street they call out to me not by my name but as Vijay, which is a character I've had in several different movies, or they sing a song from one of my films."

The lanky, doe-eyed Bachchan, known as AB to friends and gossip columnists, is revered as a sort of Clint Eastwood of Indian film. His roles promote an agenda of social responsibility (he has a weakness for the honest cop), integrity in government (Bachchan was once a Congress Party member of parliament), ethnic harmony (in Zanjeer, he plays a high-caste Hindu who marries out of caste, dines with a Muslim and performs a signature acrobatic fight sequence wearing a cross borrowed from a Portuguese Christian), and intolerance for official corruption (in Khakee, his character roots out a Muslim-baiter in the central government who shares more than passing similarities with Narendra Modi, who was implicated by the Supreme Court for abetting racial violence in Gujarat in 2002).

He is a champion of the underclass. In a stunning fight sequence in his 1982 film Coolie, he pummels a guard's head against a wooden sign until a puddle of blood blots out the word NOT, leaving only the slogan DOGS AND INDIANS ARE ALLOWED. Based on true incidents, his 2004 film Devdas portrays an honest cop who challenges police collusion in anti-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1992--"something," the actor points out, "we've talked about very softly and only behind closed doors."

His current box office draw, Black, is a morality tale co-starring Rani Mukerji about an aging alcoholic who nurtures a deaf and blind girl. "This movie will beat Million Dollar Baby anytime," argues Nidhi Kathuria, who is a reporter for DesiMatch. "In Million Dollar Baby, Hillary Swank is paralyzed for life. Here the character has a brain. This film is about triumph of the human spirit. It's not a tragedy, it's a victory. That's universal, for all of mankind."

Bachchan believes his work can "cross barriers of class, creed, religion, caste," and it's a standard that he believes the industry as a whole lives up to. "Our cinema is a platform to propagate this peace. It is in this mode of bringing people together rather than separating and dividing them."

With this vaunted sense of the industry's mission, it's no doubt Bachchan objects to the throwaway term, "Bollywood." He prefers "Indian film industry," but it's fitting that, when pressed to tell it like it is, he will also call it "escapist cinema." Musicals and simple morality tales flourish amid suffering--times and places such as World War II America and the millennia's most destitute megalopolises. In contrast to the chaos and corruption of those places, Bollywood is about simple values.

"Our films show some things that are wrong and corrects them. There's justice in three hours, and peace and harmony in the end."

A Man for Everyone

The son of a revered Hindi poet, Bachchan got his start in Indian film before there was Bollywood. In his early roles, he was regarded as too tall--he is 6'3"--but eventually his bedroom eyes, his lanky and sullen screen presence and an understated and acrobatic physicality earned him a breakthrough role as an "angry young man" in the social-realist Zanjeer--with musical numbers--in 1973. In 1982, after he received a near-fatal blow in a fight sequence in Coolie, thousands of Indians lined up outside his house to pray for his recovery. In 1984 he was elected to parliament as a member of the ruling Congress Party. In recent years he's been a regular subject of Indian news and gossip pages as both game-show host and the subject of titillating reports about a bankruptcy and his subsequent comeuppance fronting on TV for cash.

He may appeal to the everyman, but he is in every sense an insider. He got into politics at the request of his friend Rajiv Gandhi, who, as Bachchan tells the story, sought out his personal and political support during the shaky months of Congress Party rule following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. "We need you because you can win," Rajiv implored the film star and family friend. Bachchan left parliament when he was implicated with arms charges of which he was eventually cleared.

Not even an arms scandal, a bankruptcy, and a decade-long creative slump have hobbled the mighty Bachchan, but his recent tour of New York might suggest the actor is sniffing about for a new fan base.

Not surprisingly, the adoring thousands who sold out the actor's gala at Lincoln Center Friday were almost entirely South Asians. The event was staged at Alice Tully Hall, a 1,000-seat venue perhaps better known for hosting opera, choir music and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. At $60 a ticket, it was reaching for an audience somewhat beyond deli workers.

Bachchan and an interlocutor chatted in red leather armchairs for two hours, after which a 9-year-old got to bellow the following question: "My grandfather loves you. My father loves you. And now I love you. How do you achieve that?"

The actor indulged the crowd for another hour of impromptu discussion. "I just love being in front of all of you," he gushed.

The audience responded in kind. It seemed everyone had a question, and as each shouted over the other, the auditorium devolved to a pandemonium of standing figures waving both arms in the air and calling out pleas--"Mr. Bachchan, Mr. Bachchan, over here!"; "All right! All right!"; "Sir! Sir!"; "Over here! Sir!" Soon Bachchan's son, a dreamy, up-and-coming film star with leads in a half dozen films since 2000, was summoned onto the stage to share family memories from the arm of his father's lounge chair.

The spectacle could easily set one wondering about Bachchan's chances as either a crossover actor in Hollywood films or a vehicle on which to deliver Bollywood films to the West. If every South Asian at Lincoln Center brought a handful of friends to each flick, wouldn't the phenomenon catch on?

Bollywood in the Rest of the World

Ironically, the very engine of Bollywood's global success might be exactly what addles it in the West. The economics of film distribution and dissemination work very differently for Bollywood than Hollywood. In India the industry spits out 800 titles a year--versus a third that in Hollywood. Box offices in India sell 12 million tickets a day; Hollywood sells a sixth that in its home country. India has the numbers--a population of 1.1 billion that is expected to quickly edge out China as the world's largest. And the home field accounts for less than half its audience--another 60 percent of Bollywood revenues come from abroad.

That figure includes ticket sales as well as official DVDs and videos. It doesn't account for the vast numbers of global viewers who partake of unofficial channels for Bollywood: rapidly proliferating second- and third- and tenth-generation pirates on the global black market--head-to-head reproductions and even VCRs recorded from a seat in the audience during an actual screening.

Bollywood pirates reproduce in a way that Hollywood ones do not, in part because of a lack of controls imposed by the Indian government. Bachchan believes Indian cinema cannot compete on the level of quality as long as the economics of the industry rely on its gargantuan output. Pirates water down the value of legitimate prints, forcing the industry into a constantly rolling production juggernaut. "Rampant piracy is eating into our revenues," Bachchan laments. Conversely, though, the pirates fuel the industry's global popularity.

That Bollywood runs on volume contributes to its low production standards. For Bachchan, his role in Black this year was a breakthrough. Filmed in English as well as Hindi, it had a subtle story line and nuanced emotional content that made it a natural entry for film festivals, such as Berlin's. But Black is "the only film on which I've really worked so hard," he admits. He researched character tics among real alcoholics and visited wards for blind children to get a feel for the atmosphere.

This is a far cry from business as usual: Bachchan was in 11 movies in 2004; most years he performs six to seven leading roles, moving daily from one set to the next such that it's easy to lose the flow. "It's not a correct practice. We would really like to be working on a film from start to finish."

Changes to the industry and the Indian economy may make it possible to ratchet up quality. Deregulation of Indian industries with the change in government in the early '90s expanded Indian television from one channel to 150. As competition forces the Indian gaze Westward, the bar will perhaps edge higher.

Bachchan predicts that South Asia's actors and cinema will break through to Western audiences as the Indian economy continues to open. "Whenever a country becomes economically strong suddenly it starts getting noticed."

Can Bollywood Make It in This Town?

As for the prospects of entertaining U.S. audiences in their own, Hollywood, idiom, he has low expectations. He says publicly that he would gladly entertain a suitable offer, but he doesn't seem optimistic. If he'd like to work with one of his own film heroes, Pacino, say, or DeNiro, it might be "to walk on the frame and hand him his briefcase."

For anyone who's experienced the charm and charisma of the world's biggest film star first hand, it's hard to imagine why American cinema hasn't snatched him up for bit roles or even leads. He's never appeared in an American or British production in spite of his refined Anglo-Indian English, nor has he been tapped by the current generation of South Asia-born directors whose English-language productions have crossed over, such as Mira Nair, with Monsoon Wedding, or Gurinder Chadha, with Bend It Like Beckham.

The Lincoln Center film society's program director, Richard Pena, shared this disbelief. "I'm sitting next to one of the great stars the cinema has produced. If we can open up more non-Indian Americans to this great work, then our mission is done."

Pena believes that with greater exposure, Bollywood films will catch on. Proof: every year his students at Columbia University give raves when he screens the 1975 proto-Bollywood Bachchan masterpiece Sholay, an art house staple on its own terms.

But this clientele might not feel the same way about, say, one of the costliest productions to come out of Bollywood in recent years, Devdas, which the London Telegraph tarred as "embarrassingly bad." "The chief problem with Devdas is watching it," noted the reviewer. "It looks absolutely horrid. The interiors are appealing--if you're Imelda Marcos."

Clearly, '70s cult classics and movies by subaltern luminaries such as Satyajit Ray hold a sway with a certain class of American viewer that Bollywood does not. Even with just 10 films carefully culled from 150, Lincoln Center's Bachchan festival had to compete with a concurrent festival across town--the Masters of Indian Cinema, at the Indo-American Arts Council. There, a film by none other than Ray headlined a festival designed to "showcase films that are neither Bollywood nor of the Diaspora" but of a newly coined breed called "alternate Indian films." The promoters were careful to distinguish their product from the Bollywood's more lumpen "Indian pop culture and a certain melodramatic Indian formula genre."

On Sunday at the arty festival, the American-born poet Vijay Seshadri--whose persona and work are better associated with New York than anything overtly Indian-- introduced a Bengali film about a child prostitute by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a one-time best director at the Venice Film Festival whose current film had been lauded as "substantial."

The crowd spooning up Bachchan at a simultaneous screening at Lincoln Center was more silly than somber, less of an international art house crowd than merely South Asian. There, audience-member Seema Malik allowed that Bachchan was perhaps "too melodramatic" at times, but a living legend nonetheless. While her friends held Satyajit Ray in high esteem, "Given the choice between seeing AB and seeing Satyajit Ray, I would see Bachchan," explained Malik, a 27-year-old architect from Delhi who now lives in New York.

"Oh no," countered her companion, Preetam Rao, a financial consultant in New York from Hyderabad who, his cohorts agreed, resembled the young Bachchan. "I would go to the art cinema. We'd be at that one as well," he remarked, gesturing to the Bombay-born financial analyst at his side, a woman named Puja Ogale.

"I would be at both," Ogale allowed, "but if I absolutely had to choose, me, I'd be here." She shrugged at the sorry truth. "Bachchan's are Hindi films," she explained. "They are for all of India."

"They are more popular, for the illiterate classes," their associate, Rittik Chakrabarti of Calcutta, affirmed.

Reminded that this contingent of literate South Asians had themselves voted with their feet, Ogale's expression became pensive. "Ray's films are in Bengali so we can't all understand. Bachchan has a unifying factor, and not just in India, but even for people here." Her eyes scanned the group, which indeed included representatives from every major city and language group in India. "Bachchan is for everyone."

Sort of. Maybe.

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