In October of 2004 I took my first of five excursions to India. Finally on this my fifth trip, I was granted THE Bollywood experience I had fervently wished for.
There is a vast difference between Hollywood and Bollywood and not just the production process. Hollywood is a destination; the gargantuan 45-foot-high, 350-feet-long sign nesting in the Santa Monica Mountains, (near Los Angeles, California,) trumpets the film world (actually is referencing Hollywood Hills,Ca.) a Universal studio tour, etc. Bollywood, based out of Mumbai is amorphous and ubiquitous; it is everywhere and nowhere; its illusiveness is difficult to categorize or contain.
Approximately six months of planning went into this “production”; working with Beyond Bombay, my tour guide and countless Indian American friends, I was able to interview the best Directors that Bollywood has to offer; the Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Nancy Myers of the India film industry. A plethora of writers, editors and technicians graciously consented to my probing and inquisitive questions. (I think they thought I was Barbara Walters)!
It has taken six years , approximately 200 films and a myriad of books to grasp the Bollywood aesthetic; with this knowledge, my love India and its film making prowess has increased a thousand fold.
My first interview was with Indu Mirani, the senior film critic for the Mumbai Mirror; also in the process of launching her own company! She not only had the ‘scoop” on who was doing what to whom in the star circuit but was a brilliant satirist who captivated my imagination and ignited my sense of humor! She took me to the set of the upcoming Madhur Bhandarker (“Page 3”, “Chandi Bar”) flick. Madhur, young, handsome, intelligent, with enough charm to fill the new airport in Delhi gives his female protagonists a level of depth that is revolutionary in Bollywood. An added bonus was being introduced to the dark, sensual and extremely “hot’ Ajay Devgan whose latest “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai” is a box office sensation; his wife Kajol whose flame is still intense can be seen in “We Are Family”, now on India and and world wide screens, (will review eventually)!
Later that day I spent a fascinating and edifying hour with one of Bollywood’s sensational and sought after film editors, Kuldeep Mehan. Editing can make or destroy a movie; Kuldeep for 22 years has worked with the scintillating, demanding and most precocious directors; his creation process takes place in a tiny 5X5 room. Hours lived in front of a average size computer; proving genius does not need space to thrive.
Make up! An entertaining light-hearted visit with Virginia Holmes, an English woman whose quest to make it in India, as an outsider, excluded from the main stream, is gaining notoriety and acceptance along with her partner Natasha Nischol. If you can magically make an actor look better on screen than off, your destiny is carved in granite . Her 10 years of diligence has been worth the fray, both as a woman, and artist.
My interview with Aditya Sorap, a sound engineer was certainly educational; never giving much thought to “sound” except for decibel, his lesson in the dubbing process was enlightening. Also was reminded of the expression, “behind every great man, there is a greater woman”; his mother (Rajani) is his manager and at his side at all times!
Aarti Bagdi, a 32 year old female director with Rajshri Films shared her challenges in the industry; she was half way through a film being made in Japan (she learned the language) when it was shelved. Lessons learned early in one’s career are invaluable. Her star is just commencing its ascent.
Another young, beguiling director and writer Mahesh Nair spent time over a leisurely breakfast explaining the difficulties of getting an interview with recognized and established producers and the ultimate problem that all in the business face, the financial backing, the millions of rupees needed for the conception and birth of a film. Also, unlike Hollywood, Bollywood needs the star, not the story to generate a monetary interest in the project.
The major state of the art film studio, Whistling Woods International; a teaching studio studded with ambitious neophytes and stratospheric technology was massively impressive; Sudeep Menor our guide whose encyclopedic knowledge astounded us; wanted to record his every sentence. It was here that I met and interviewed the iconic screenplay writer Sachin Bhowmick (affectionally called Dada) whose career has spanned fifty years with films “Lajwanti "(1958), “Love in Tokoyo” “An Evening in Paris”; he regaled us with tales of times and stars of the past. He is an institution and has richly earned the approbation and idolatry heaped upon him.
Subhash Ghai (“Taal, “Yaadein”) and Ravi Gupta also part of the Whistling Woods conglomerate, shared their perceptions on the viewing and attendance tactics of the Indian American audience; they hypothesized that this group prefers to see films in the privacy of their homes, with family and friends, a social event. I disagreed feeling that there is nothing that can replace the cocoon like quality that a darkened theatre sheds upon the viewer; the exclusion of reality, cast aside; replaced temporarily, by the delectable, delusional domain of fantasy! But the size of the theatre attendees is shrinking, their hypothesis could be correct and tragic.
Rakeysh Mehra. The reclusive genius, the award winning director of “Rang De Basanti”; one of the most catastrophically successful films of all time starring heartthrob, Aamir Khan ; the second viewing more powerfully potent than the initial screening. Rakeysh is a unique, mystical man, an archaic esthetic in a contemporary milieu. He is a visionary who views the world with the wisdom of the past and the prescience of the future; his philosophy so pristine, so applicable it borders on the sublime. For two hours he shared his life, his dreams of a universe devoid of strife and pestilence; of all he held dear. I left knowing that I had been in the presence of not only greatness, but goodness.
Mahesh Bhatt. (“Saaranch”) The quintessential showman; an award winning director, writer, actor. He has directed 50 films, written 24, produced 13 and acted in 5. I encouraged him to increase the number in the last category; for 45 minutes he was a whirling dervish, speaking, gesticulating, expounding with passion and fervor on a myriad of topics. He is brilliant, iconoclastic, shocking and delivers his one liners with perfect pitch. His influences range from the ordinary soul to the extraordinary heart. He feels that film makers are in essence prostitutes, selling their wares at accessible rates; movies are a cure for the “cancer” that eats society, an antibiotic that can have positive short term results. At 62 he is in his prime and turns to gold all that he touches.
Soni Razdan. Actress. Director (“Nazar”). Soni is beautiful, charismatic, graciously delightful; she invited my guide and me for tea in her stunning home. She is a woman of substance, insight, and exudes confidence and professionalism in all she endeavors. She has succeeded in a male dominated arena but still struggles with acceptance and financial support for her future projects. Her talent and energy, channeled for success, inevitably will prevail. Soni is the wife and muse of Mahesh Bhatt. He dedicated his book “A Taste of Life” to Soni, “who helped me put into words those feelings that only the heart can hear.”
My taste of Bollywood, gleaned and flavored by the kindness of these spirited and gifted individuals, will linger forever on the taste buds of my mind, heart, soul and pen. My lasting gratitude to all of you bewitching, enthralling, spellbinding people, and to those who placed them in my sphere.