- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

In a scenario derived from Agatha Christie, a murderer is bumping off the survivors of a plane crash on a deserted island. So what do people with their lives in danger do? Among other things, they have a beach party and perform the exuberant song-and-dance number "Jaan Pehechaan Ho."

Welcome to Bollywood.

India has long had the world's most prolific cinema, producing more than 1,000 films a year in all the nation's languages, and the world's biggest box office. Twice as many tickets were sold in 1999 in India as in the United States, and 10 times as many as in third-place Indonesia. Yet the signature Hindi popular cinema nicknamed "Bollywood" after its production base of Bombay has had little success in the West.

While Bollywood is still an acquired taste with a cult following, the increasing number of Indian immigrants in the United States has led to Bollywood film theaters sprouting up across the country. Nearly every Indian specialty store has a video section to rent current and classic Bollywood films, and numerous rental sites are available over the Internet.

"Now for the first time, in the new wave of subtitled DVD releases aimed at NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) around the world, we firangis (Hindustani for 'foreigners') have a golden opportunity to turn in our tourist visas and 'go native,' to become resident aliens of Bollywood," wrote critic David Chute in the latest edition of Film Comment.

"With the increased profile of Indian theaters in the U.S., and more frequent subtitling, it appears that Bollywood is finally making serious inroads on our shores," added Michael Sicinski, a film studies lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.

The D.C. area has two theaters to watch Bollywood on the big screen the two-screen Loehmann's Twin Cinemas in Annandale and the Laurel Cinema Six, which typically has five screens of Holly and one of Bolly. The New York and San Francisco areas even boast all-Indian multiplexes of 13 and eight screens, respectively.

Madhav Thapa, the manager at Loehmann's Twin, says his theater, which has been in operation for about four years, mostly caters to immigrants from South Asia.

"Sometimes Americans will come if the film is subtitled," which he said is not always the case. But the distributors of the biggest attractions films like "Lagaan" and "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham" provide subtitled prints, he said.

Bollywood's attraction for Indians is easy to see. Mr. Thapa said that because the Hindi film industry releases a film the same day worldwide, Indians in New Delhi as well as New York "are very happy to see them, united, on the same day."

The current hit Indian film "Monsoon Wedding," which although not made in the pure Bollywood style (the musical numbers are dramatically plausible singalongs), pays homage to this culturally unifying role. In a late scene, a character at a wedding reception performs a musical number known to all whether Hindi-speaking or Punjabi-speaking and whether living in India, the United States or Australia.

Sushil Bhagudia, an Indian-born customer at a screening last weekend, said that Bollywood films provide what he called "Indianness the feeling from back home."

His friend Dhruv Jani also described Bollywood's attraction as letting him "learn a lot from over there, about Indian culture."

But Mr. Jani added that Hindi films are "like 'Pretty Woman.' They must always have a happy ending 90 percent of the time," a figure Mr. Bhagudia quickly one-upped to "99 percent."

Some American film distributors are hoping to make this Bollywood formula popular with the "firangi" as well. Spurred by its Oscar nomination for best foreign language film the first for a full song-and-dance Bollywood movie in almost a half-century Sony Classics picked up "Lagaan" to play subtitled in U.S. art-house theaters this summer another Bollywood first.

"Lagaan" is a totally accessible film a Hindi "Bad News Bears," in which Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan leads some high-spirited Indian peasants in a cricket battle against British colonialism. The film, which also stars Gracy Singh, displays the characteristics that make Bollywood cinema unique the long running time, the multiple plotlines, the sudden bursts into song-and-dance sequences, the archetypal characterization, the outsized acting.

These features are not, Mr. Chute argues in his Film Comment article, botched attempts to imitate Hollywood's "seamless realism and disguised artifice." Rather, they are conventions, like vaudeville or stage revues, that openly acknowledge their artifice in the name of the kitchen-sink approach to "putting on a show."

Besides its films' growing prominence, Bollywood also is influencing U.S. films and popular culture.

•One of the musical numbers in "Moulin Rouge" has star Nicole Kidman clad like a movie Devi singing on a stage with Bollywood art direction. The multiple-Oscar-nominated film also shows Bollywood stylistic influences in its anti-realistic acting, its hyperemotional love songs and total disregard for verisimilitude.

•The film "Ghost World," a critics' favorite from last summer, opens with its central character Enid boogieing along to the "Jaan Pehechaan Ho" number, from the film "Gumnaam."

•Andrew Lloyd Webber is teaming up with British-Indian director Shekhar Kapur and Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman to make a Bollywood-inspired stage extravaganza "Bombay Dreams," scheduled for a June premiere in London.

•A New York Times article last month described the effects a Bollywood craze among New York's glitterati is having on the latest styles in fashion, travel, jewelry and cosmetics.

•The prestigious journal Film Comment devotes the cover of its latest issue to "Bollywood 101" a 12-page package of articles on Hindi popular cinema.

Indeed, the quiet way that Bollywood has gained popularity resulted in a minor tiff in December between Daily Variety, the leading Hollywood trade magazine, and the distributors of "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham."

In its opening week, the all-star film grossed slightly more than $1 million, which would have been good enough to place it among Daily Variety's top 10 films at the box office for the Dec. 18 issue. That achievement would have been a first for a Bollywood film that had near-zero publicity outside Indian-targeted channels such as immigrant newspapers and specialty stores.

"They found the number too high," Jawahar Sharma, a spokesman for Yashraj Films, told the Indian news Web site rediff.com. "They doubted that on 73 prints we managed such a high gross."

These distribution patterns, in which Indian films, even subtitled ones, make little attempt to arouse interest beyond South Asians, can provoke frustration among American cinephiles and even professional critics.

In an Internet message board, Time Out New York critic Mike D'Angelo asked: "What is up with this? Nobody ever reviews these films so I never know whether they are worth seeing until it is too late."

"Release these movies properly otherwise there will be no crossover," he exhorted. "We New Yorkers eat Indian food all the time, we would probably dig Indian cinema, especially if it all looks like that dance number in 'Ghost World.'"

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