It started in earnest August 1997. An ad appeared on the weekend morning Indian shows for Pardes and I noticed that the theater was only 15 minutes away, so off I went. People stared a bit as I merged into the crowd, the only gringa on line for the 9p.m. showing, but I wasn’t turning back.
No subtitles, but it was easy to follow the story. I know it was no great opus, but, having not yet been to India at that point, for me it was a bonus to see the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the banks of the Ganga seemingly side-by-side geographically all in one movie.
And I confess, while I didn’t agree with all of the values in it, I did find SRK energetic and the music catchy, and it was hoot to see a young woman in the late 1990s with a Hema Malini bouffant do!
Hooked from that point on, I returned every weekend possible to the dingy, two-screen local cinema, memorizing titles on the drive over so I could say “One for Mere Sapno ki Rani please” without embarassing myself. For a few winters, when there were no big releases, weather was cold and customers were few, I was a staunch regular. Soon after, I was conversant enough that Rajesh, the owner of the local Indo-Pak grocery/video store would turn to me while I browsed the shelves, and when a customer would ask him about a recent release, he’d look at me, prompting me to offer: “Well, Bobby Deol’s still acting too much with his eyebrows, but the scenes filmed in Simla are lovely and the music’s not bad.”
Short of deep psychological excavation, the only explanation I can give for this fascination with such vivid, formulaic epics goes back to, where else, childhood: as a little girl, some of my favorite movies were West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Gigi, Cabaret (all musicals). And in high school. I taught myself Spanish on a heavy diet of Mexican and Venezuelan soap operas at the impressionable age of 14, and they both have a lot in common with mainstream Hindi movies: the clear delineation between good and evil, lots of handsome heroes, and scores of glam heroines fond of eyeliner and flowing tresses (ah yes, and mustn’t forget the melodrama).
A lot of my Indian friends here (and over there), all well traveled and well educated, are dismayed at this choice of viewing matter, but in this, to a great extent, I’m like the front benchers in the cheap seats: I get plenty of Real Life in my real life. I don’t want to pay $10 to see more of it when I want to be entertained.
Almost 10 years on now, after having seen what averages out to about 12 movies a year, I’ve amassed enough movie memories to be able to spot the inside references and jokes in any given film, and to have seen a tremendous improvement in production values. This summer filmi safar is a deliberate attempt to fill in the historical gaps of my own movie-viewing shortcomings (whatever was released prior to the mid-1990s).