Is This Seat Taken?

The Travails of Bollywood Movie-watching in the U.S.

[This is a piece I wrote that appeared  in the December 15, 2006 issue of India Abroad]

Oily samosas, no TP in the ladies room, toddlers dancing in the aisles and the occasional, pungent remnant of someone’s upset stomach.   Welcome to an evening out in the U.S.A. at the latest Bollywood blockbuster.  

Once in a while, those of us living in a big city actually get to watch Abhishek strut and Priyanka pout while sitting in climate-controlled comfort, nestled in cushy stadium seats, while noshing on tasty Indian snacks.   But more often, our derrières are subjected lumpy, stained velveteen seats dating back to the Reagan era, while the rest of us shivers, either because the aircon is too strong in the summer, or the heat is almost non-existent in the winter.

This May, to get some historic perspective of Hindi cinema, I spent the three months of summer watching as many movies as I could – older ones, interspersed with a few new releases – and reviewed them in a blog as I went along.

Looking back on the experience, and to the past nine years watching Hindi movies, I’m encouraged by several things.   First, the production values have soared.   Some stories are closer to “real life” without completely losing the magical flourishes, stunts are more believable, make-up and costumes look richer, and there are even innovations like funky, creative opening credits and DVD menus.   Second, U.S. audiences now have many simultaneous Friday releases, allowing us to keep up with what India and the U.K. are watching.

My first Hindi movie was Pardes, seen the summer of 1997, in a dreary, two-screen cinema in Hicksville, Long Island, since converted to an evangelical Christian church.   The only decor was the life-size cardboard figures of actors, glittering in their costumes as they greeted you in the lobby.

On subsequent visits, small kids did their jhatkas in the aisles along with Raveena and Govinda.   If there was a problem with the sound, patrons whistled and proclaimed “It happens only in India” and we all laughed at the filmi reference.   Winters were especially dismal, due to little heat and scarce audience.

I sobbed in unison with the two sisters next to me as a post-partum Rani bled to death,  but dheere, very dheere,  in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, while writing several letters to the daughter she’d never see grow up.   Aamir Khan made a special appearance one weeknight, and I cringed as he was prodded to sing  - a capella  - the popular Aati kya Kandala song from his hit Ghulam.  

Nowadays, I see most movies (Hindi and occasionally Tamil) in Manhattan or New Jersey.   New York City dwellers have had it good for a while now, with a multi-screen cinema in the basement of the Times Square Virgin Megastore showing one Hindi movie in each week’s lineup.   After they closed, the smaller, but uniquely focused Imaginasian cinema jumped in to fill the need (it’s tied in to the Imaginasian cable TV channel), and with no rhyme nor reason, and even less advance warning, a Bollywood flick will pop up in a mainstream Manhattan multiplex from time to time.

Suburbanites with cars fare better, as there are Hindi (and other Indian language) movies screened in Queens, out on Long Island, and up north of Manhattan.

New Jersey has a particular wealth of riches.   You will find not only the latest Bollywood releases, but also Telugu and Tamil, near large Indian hubs like Edison and Jersey City.   That’s the good news.   The bad news is, for a big release like this summer’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, good luck if you try to call the theaters to find out specific information about the opening day, or order tickets online.   Amazingly, the latter usually requires that you print out your receipt then still stand on a long queue at the cinema to exchange it for actual tickets.  

In comparing notes with people around the U.S., I found that, for the most part, cinemas disappoint.   Down in New Orleans, Sanket Vyas, who blogs about Indian music, rates his local mall cinema “fairly decent”, though prices are higher than for Hollywood fare.   That’s surprising, since prices by me equal those of other cinemas.  

In Houston, DesiPundit‘s Ash has a laundry list of the problems with the more central of the two cinemas: located in a seedy area, no credit cards accepted, paint peeling, “icky restrooms”, and, most vivid detail: “On one of our visits, the hall actually smelled of puke … uggh. We complained, and they sent in a guy who sprayed air freshener all around!”

Ash fumes: “I feel like desi theater-owners take advantage and don’t care about maintaining the quality of their theaters because they know that no matter what, people will show up for their regular dose of Bollywood. And that’s especially true of cities where there are one or two theaters. They’re taking advantage of their dominance in the supply-demand equation.”

But that’s not what gets Ash the most upset:   “One complaint I have is the number of folks who bring their little kids to movies, who then proceed to create a scene and ruin the evening for everyone else. I get the feeling that people land up in desi theaters and revert to their innate desi-ness!   Would these folks dare to take their bawling babies to their local Cinemark theater?!”

With the New Jersey cinemas, I’ve wondered if the lack of customer service on occasions is sometimes due to cinema owners being harried and struggling to keep up with the demands (during peak times).   I was exasperated this summer as the opening date of Kabhi Alvida approached and I ran into problems ordering tickets online and could not reach anyone at the theater to sort it out.   When I did hear back from the owner, he sounded stressed out at the impending onslaught of crowds for Karan Johar’s huge release, and he claimed that he and his few staff were doing their best.

My friends in Silicon Valley and the Bay area tell me their local movie houses leave something to be desired.   Vivek Kumar, one of the founders of the South Asian American Films and Arts Association, wishes for more options, because as a self-professed film buff, and reviewer, he has no choice but the local IMC6 (Indian Movie Cinema) and NAZ8.   In the latter, he notes the out-of-service water fountains and surly staff.   For him, the IMC 6 is “much more user friendly”, but the Naz shows most new Eros film releases.  

So why do we do it?   Why do we subject ourselves to the churlish staff, wailing babies and mouldy samosas?

For Ash, “We are far removed from home, and don’t have any Hindi TV channels, so we really don’t keep up with Bollywood. It’s not worth waiting for DVDs because they’re not that easily available and by the time they come around, we’ve forgotten all about the movie!”

For Beth Watkins, who lives and blogs about Hindi movies in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she gets her Bollywood fix at the Boardman, a small art/foreign film theater, and is quite happy with the surroundings.   As someone who watches most Hindi movies at home alone or with a few friends, Beth says “I like seeing the colors of all the salwar kameez, overhearing languages I can’t understand, and watching the gaggles of college students giggling and shoving and waving to their friends.   I love gauging the audience reaction against the subtitles – it’s so informative to get a sense of what I’m missing by not understanding the language! And I really love being one of only dozens of voices laughing or yelling or gasping.   It’s extra fun to laugh in synch.”

I asked Siddharth Singh how things compare in London, given the size of the South Asian population in the U.K. and its length of time in Old Blighty, and, as I suspected, it’s the best you could hope for.   Most Bollywood movies he’s seen are in well located multiplexes in Central London that are part of large cinema chains, and, the halls are well maintained.

He told me about a recent night out at the Odeon Whiteleys, in Bayswater, close to a large Arab/Lebanese community:   “The last film I saw there was KANK, and again had the somewhat dubious pleasure of sitting next to a LOUD Iranian woman who laughed all through the first half and spent the latter clutching her husband’s sleeve and weeping silently. In front of us was a HUGE Arab family, who laughed, cried and held hands together through the entire movie.”

For me, I’ll endure the iffy ladies rooms and uneven customer service for the thrill of seeing and blogging about KANK or Don as soon as friends in Bombay, and for the social fun of it, being able to chat animatedly with friends and howl at the trailers (“Vikram Chatwal’s still being offered roles???”), and not being shushed, because everyone’s doing it.

The Namesake

poster%202 The Namesake

Mira Nair does cities well.   She’s taken us from Bombay’s cramped lanes of the red-light district, brought us to  roam around Delhi in the footsteps of a family planning a big Punjabi wedding, and now back and forth between  Calcutta and New York in The Namesake.

The movie opens worldwide in early March 2007  (New York and LA on March 9th), and has been glimpsed already at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and the New York-based  Indo-American Arts Council’s festival in November, and there was a screening in New York earlier this month.

For some reason Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book never appealed to me enough to carry on after reading two stories, but The Namesake was a different matter and had me in tears when it ended.    Her telling of the immigrant experience,  airletters being read over and over, and the moment of fear when a phone would ring too late at night – surely someone back home must be dead – will be familiar to anyone whose family has come to the U.S. from another country.  

The film has been remarkably faithful to the novel, the only small difference being that the Ashoke and Ashima  Ganguli family was based  in New England, not in New York, but I’m guessing Mira Nair may have made  this  switch – at least in part – so she could use the Queensborough Bridge as a backdrop for some shots, especially because, aside from being a shorthand for  New York city,  it serves to evoke the Howrah Bridge, which she cuts to a couple of times.

The Namesake begins with warm colors and Bengali script being painted on a canvas (as is seen on the movie’s website) and we see the young man, Ashoke Ganguli, following his suitcase and a porter to a train in Calcutta.   It’s on this train that he meets a man who extolls the virtues of living in the UK (nobody spits on the street) and urges him to “pack a pillow and a blanket and see the world”.   Ashoke, already reading his copy of The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol counters that his grandfather  said that books are for travel, as they take you all over without having to move at all.   Shortly after, there’s a serious accident and Ashoke is laid up for weeks, recovering from his injuries, and carrying the trauma of the event internally, through all his life.

In a short space of time after that, he meets  Ashima (Tabu), and the couple marry, moving to New York, where Ashoke has been working.   Nair’s film then settles in to show us how Ashima adapts to life in the US in the 1970s (for her first breakfast she takes Rice Crispies and peanuts drizzled in chili powder).   When pregnant with her first child, Ashima looks out her hospital window, looks at  the 59th street bridge and closes her eyes to see Calcutta.   Amid some confusion with the hospital staff over good names and pet names and the grandmother’s choosing, the baby boy is hurriedly named Gogol.

It’s during these years that Mira Nair shows us not only the immigrant experience in the US, but also details of life in the city in that time period.   Ashima trundles off through the streets of their Queens neighborhood in a sari and coat to do her husband’s clothes at the laundromat, shrinking them in the process.   Ashoke shows her, on an old NYC subway map, how to get to the Fulton Fish Market.   Smoking outside her hospital room, Ashoke wears a fabulous mustard color corduroy jacket with epaulets that is very much of the ’70s, and in another scene, now with a baby girl as well, the family picnics in winter by the ocean’s edge, all four of the Ganguli clan bundled up against the biting wind.

baby%20hospital%202 The Namesake

There are some good lines in the film that I don’t recall from the novel, for example Ashima comments, with disdain, how the school has permitted Gogol to opt to use his pet  name – Nikhil – at school, complaining “Here, children make the choices” and Ashoke replies “With a president named Jimmy, there is nothing we can do.”

As Gogol and his sister grow, the family makes some trips to Calcutta, after Ashima’s father’s death and for a summer holiday when the kids are teens, typical for many emigré families, and Gogol grows to be a somewhat sullen teen and distant adult.   He  goes off to do his own thing – architecture, live with a wealthy white girl and be practically adopted by her family –  and takes his parents’ love for granted, while spending occasional holidays with them, and being rather absent  in the process, a common arc that many of our lives take.

taj%20visit%202%202 The Namesake

While I remember the book being more focused on Gogol, the movie is really about Ashoke and Ashima for at least the first half, and that’s good.   It’s in the portrayal of the many small details of their average lives that we see the love that grows between the couple.   Irfan Khan and Tabu  are  solid here.   Both play characters who do not say very much but who both express volumes in their eyes and gestures and simply in how they carry themselves.

Kal Penn as Gogol is fine  when he plays the teenage boy using part  of his graduation cap tassel for a roach clip, and he does well enough when called upon to express his grief at a key moment in the story, but in the rest of the film, I found the presentation of Gogol as hollow.   I really wanted to like Kal Penn  more in this role, but I never got a sense that he was feeling or thinking much of anything.  

I did find the very fetching Zuleikha Robinson interesting as the Bengali girl that Gogol meets as an awkward  teen and later comes to love and marry, after she’s blossomed into a woman of the world.   (She’s also quite nangi in one scene…)

The look of the movie is beautiful.   Not in the showy way that, for example, New York looked stunning in Kabhi Alvida, but rather in a more crisp and real way, and the small decorating details and costumes used to convey home life are dead on (the picture of Tagore on the Ganguli parents’ bedroom wall, the beaded curtain in Gogol’s teenage basement lair).   The music by Nitin Sawney  is a perfect accompaniment, as is the  State of Bengal song Flight IC408  in one scene.

See it or skip it

See it, if you’re at all curious to see how one more director has expressed her take on  Bengali/Indian  American family life, or if you enjoy Tabu or Irfan Khan’s work.   I found the movie touching, without being overly sentimental or mawkish.  


Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures

cover Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnies Pictures  

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  

My, my, Dhoom 2 was one month ago exactly, then a fortnight back, a screening of The Namesake (more on that soon) and I’ve seen nothing else until picking up this Merchant Ivory DVD that Netflix brought weeks and weeks ago.   The Christmas season is just too busy.

I found this 1978 movie title when searching for something, anything with Victor Banerjee that wasn’t Joggers Park.

It was made with funding from Mervyn Bragg’s London Weekend Television, the amazingly small sum of 250,000 pounds UK, and filmed in Rajasthan.

The amber-eyed object of my affections, who I’d last seen on celluloid swinging madly from a train exclaiming “Mrs. Quested, look at me!”, plays a swinging Maharaja, though a different kind of swinging (think safari suits with cravats and massive aviator shades).   He lives in his palace, kept company by his bored and beautful sister, played by Aparna Sen.  

aparna Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnies Pictures  

The pair are visited by two rabid art collectors.   One, Mr. Haven (played by Larry Pine), is American and heir to a canned peaches fortune, and the other, is Lady Gee (Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who previously played Mrs. Quested to VB’s Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India), a flinty old India hand who is there to buy for a museum in London.   They are pursuing a collection of paintings that have been left to the Maharaja, and will stop at nothing to convince Victor Banerjee to sell them.   Add to the mix a  slimy Saeed Jaffrey as the slippery manager of the palace museum, who seems to have his own various side dealings going on.

Mr. Haven tries to woo the elegant Maharani (whose husband is nowhere to be seen) while Lady Gee sets her young blonde travel companion on the Maharaja, whose wife is off on a pilgrimage so she can bear a son.   Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s writing is a perfect take on a certain segment of traveler and a stinging commentary on how Brits see Indians and vice-versa.

See it or skip it?

See it!   It only runs 73 minutes, Victor Banerjee (and his wardrobe) is marvelous as the rock star-cum-maharaja, Dame Peggy is quite bitchy, a pleasantly surprising change fom her usual fluffy slippers Auntie roles, and the dust and marble palace atmosphere just oozes off the screen.   As a bonus, there’s a short interview with Saeed Jaffrey in a separate segment, where, oddly, he speaks more about his work with Satyajit Ray than the making of Hullabaloo.