It’s certainly better to answer questions about Bollywood rather than the usual Indian stereotypes – poverty, cow worship and snake charmers!
Vinita Dawra Nangia
A riot of colour and costume; mesmerisingly energetic footwork; loud music that sweeps you into a dance, and a play of emotion on the faces of Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and a family from grandma to grandchild – all in the course of one extended musical sequence in Kal Ho Na Ho -- Dekho Dekho Na Pretty Woman…
Who said India is known as the country of snake charmers and rope tricks? Or even for willfully roaming elephants and cows? Not even the Taj Mahal holds much fascination anymore!
Today India is the land of Bollywood! On a recent trip abroad, amongst a motley group of nationalities, the first question almost anyone asked me was about Bollywood. A young man from Germany exclaimed over Bollywood theme parties he’s attended and movies he’s watched back home in Hamburg. A Russian lady executed some exaggerated Bollywood dance steps to the amusement of Japanese, Chinese and Thai delegates, who all nodded vigorously in agreement.
Fellow journalists from Netherlands commented on Bollywood dances, a telling comment on the reach of Indian movies! The Swiss of course claim a special relationship with Bollywood, with a string of movies being shot at any given time in favoured scenic destinations such as Interlaken and Berne.
Most wanted to know about “your biggest star, someone called King Khan…?” Then came questions about “the actress who is a beauty queen and also appears in commercials….?” Even Johnny Lever is recognised – ““India’s top comedian, a short man with curly hair and big eyes.”
Bollywood is indeed a great window into our country today and it is through this prism that rest of the world looks at India. What is it about Indian movies that attracts a multitude of foreigners? Indeed, it was a surprise to see “Bollywood” bags with pictures of Shah Rukh selling in the market area in Berne. In Frankfurt, a colleague spied young German girls buying Bollywood DVDs dubbed into their language. Professor Ruthermond, renowned Indologist and formerly of Heidelberg University, comments on how Bollywood is possibly the largest export from India to Germany!
In an attempt to understand the phenomena, I turned to the one man surely responsible for much of it, a director whose movies don’t ever embarrass you with their depiction of India – Karan Johar. Karan agrees there’s been a sudden rise in Bollywood’s popularity abroad. He says, “In 2002 I sold the rights for my movie in Germany for $ 5,000, while four years later, this took a quantum leap to $ 2,50,000! It’s amazing. And Germany for some reason, is particularly smitten.”
Karan denies he has ever made any movie keeping in mind a foreign audience. “I make movies for Indians – from Bihar to New York. If they appeal to foreigners, that’s an added bonus!” He says you never know how or why a movie appeals to a foreign audience but all he has ever done is depict “everything unapologetically Indian -- the glitz, glamour, dances, our emotions which are not at all subtle, but so totally in-the-face. Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gham was a great showcase for all we stand for and at Cannes, people came out with tears streaming down their face.”
Karan opines that Indian films tug at the heartstrings and that is what appeals to foreign audiences and stays with them. “Europe can get quite depressing with the breakdown of their family system and everyone being so alone and self-centred. When there’s no family behind you, you start thinking small. On the other hand, we are all about family and attachment. We laugh loud and we cry even louder. We are not brushing any emotions under the carpet. Family support helps us think big and do well. Abroad they pay huge amounts to go and unburden before psychiatrists. We do so with family, parents and friends!”
So, it is the selflessness, togetherness and bonhomie of Indian families that appeal to foreign audiences, who view India as an exotic country with bright clothes, colours, religion and a strong culture. This intrigues foreigners as they grapple to understand a culture so different and so vibrant and happy.
One can’t help but feel relieved to be viewed through the Bollywood prism abroad. It’s certainly better to answer questions about Bollywood rather than the usual Indian stereotypes – poverty, cow worship and snake charmers! Isn’t it nice to have this replaced by the image of India as a great support system – family support as depicted by Bollywood; spiritual support and of course, tech support!