Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Best Flirt in Bollywood History

Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood = Indian Hindi Film Industry) films have the notoriety of abrupt segues to senseless songs, gossamer thin story lines, hideous couture, suggestive lyrics, tawdry rain-dances, cheap physics-defying stunts, daft dialogs, perverted puns and gratuitous melodrama.

It got to the point where I swore myself off Hindi movies. This started, in India, around the third year of my undergrad studies and lasted roughly 6 years. Ironically, Music City USA, a.k.a. Nashville, changed things for me.

I was forced to watch a couple of Tollywood (Tamil version of Bollywood) movies where Rajnikant surpassed all known laws of physics to execute stunts with panache and audacity hitherto reserved for the Gods. After watching these movies (and thankfully not understanding any of the dialog), my mind felt like goo: with a level of intelligence not very dis-similar from a pound of rotten gelatin curdling in the hot Tennessee summer Sun.

I gained new tolerance and respect for Bollywood movies: better production values, better segues to songs, better story lines, better clothes, less suggestive lyrics (from what my friends tell me), more dignified rain-dances, (sigh) better stunts, understandable dialog, tolerable puns and (sigh) reconcilable melodrama.

I even felt encouraged to watch a few desi films again. I watched "Swades". I had never been a Shah-rukh Khan (SRK) fan. Let me rephrase that. I abhorred SRK. Hold on, that still sounds too harsh, let me tone that down a bit. I detested, loathed, abhorred, abominated, despised and hated SRK's melodramatic on-screen persona. I cringed at his fake laugh and reviled at his overly hammed st-st-stutter. "Swades" changed that a little bit for me. His ham improved to mildly irritating, akin to Ford's stock coming up from junk-bond status to "what the hell are you doing still holding on to this" or a "severely-strong-sell" recommendation.

I do not wish to take credit away from Ashutosh Gowarikar or the talented cast and crew. In fact it is probably his direction, the sign-of-the-times story (inspired from "Bapu Kuti", a book that describes the lives and decisions of people who shunned lucrative careers for economically feasible means of political and social reform) and the talented supporting cast that assimilates SRK's melodrama, accommodates it, supports it and makes it tolerable, palatable even. The result, I felt, was a movie that touched the heart and made a very strong emotional (not always logical) case for the Indian diaspora to head back home.

The movie flirts very passive-aggressively with romantic notions about returning back and making a difference. It panders a bohemian infatuation with notions of a sense-of-purpose and meaning-of-life garnished with a surreal mix of destiny and patriotism. It builds up "brand India" and builds it well. It wishes to sell a dream, nay a religion, called India and I stand before you, a firm believer. Pass the hat this way please.

Oscar Wilde is credited with saying "If you want to tell people the truth make them laugh. Otherwise, they will kill you." Gowarikar and gang, go a step further. They sell an idea, a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a mélange of truth, emotion, hope, jingoism and beauty. Did I forget dignified sexual tension, romance and comedy? That's where the demure and coquettish Gayatri Joshi’s character, "Gitlee", comes in.

Image from

Given my abhorrence for Hindi movies, I had never witnessed much of Gayatri’s acting prowess, and was pleasantly surprised by her skill. She comes across as not a ditzy bimbo but instead as intelligent, composed, purposeful and mostly down-to-earth with the agonizingly lovable slightest hint of I-know-I’m-eye-candy. That’s the recipe for “too good to not hit on”.

What sold me despite her limited role and dialogue was the scene in SRK’s RV (called “caravan” in the movie) where Gitli must do Mohan (SRK’s character) a favor by deftly moving a box of Marlboros away from the view of Mohan’s erstwhile nanny (who raised him as her own son since his parents died).

This is a very Indian situation, perhaps with no analog in other cultures. As a sign of respect, smokes have always been considered something of a taboo in front of elders. In genteel house-holds, boys (girls smoking is cause for the Third World War at the genteel home) go to extreme lengths to keep the fact that they smoke hidden from the eyes of their well meaning parents. Even when they approach 30 (don’t question, just bear with me).

The situation calls for non-verbal communication (lest they draw nanny’s attention to the very object they are trying to conceal). This gives SRK’s stuttering mouth a much needed rest and his body-language skills the equally needed exercise. It gives Gayatri Joshi the opportunity to shine and she embraces it with aplomb.

In 5 seconds or less, she displays a range of emotion that very vividly transforms from quizzical to perplexed, to sagacious, to nonchalant, to defiant, to reluctant, to admonishing, to condescending and, finally, to accommodating. Her eyes do the talking and her demeanor echoes her intention. She finishes off the sequence by rebuffing Mohan’s mixture of “I-owe-you-one” gratitude and “you-so-are-hot-for-me” bravado with an artful, elegant flick of her long hair which is the innate hallmark of exquisitely beautiful, yet not-interested women the world over. Her acting in those few seconds is such that the blind can see and the deaf can hear.

There is also a scene where SRK’s physical comedy gets a brief moment of exposure and impresses with substance; when Mohan witnesses Gitli run off a potential suitor he displays a visage that is ostensibly empathic and apologetic but visibly amused and elated. After Gitli and his nanny return to their respective rooms, he rejoices by pumping the air unconsciously and then checks himself lest he be caught celebrating. Assured that he isn’t being watched, he cheers surreptitiously and walks off with a spring in his step.

I have very few Hindi movies in my DVD collection and “Swades” is one of them. Move over Sharapova, Elizabeth Hurley, my desktop is reserved for Gayatri Joshi (at least for the next couple of weeks).

Every now and then, I have a sleep deprived night, when I don’t feel like reading or chatting. I don’t feel like painting or doing anything useful. So I watch DVDs. This blog is inspired by watching a Swades on DVD for the nth time.