the world according to Bollywood

Anurag Dhir reluctantly explores his heritage & launches into an elaborate dance routine.

Ashok & Asha Dhir, courtesy of the author

excerpted from the print magazine…

Besides Mahatma Gandhi and most Indian food, there was a time when I thought Bollywood was the most important contribution India made to the world. That really depressed me.

I was eleven years old, and after five years of Bollywood video Saturday nights at home with my family, the predictable, recycled, clichéd and sentimental Indianness I was being presented in popular Hindi films was debasing my appreciation of my inherited culture. In fact, I was convinced that the very existence of this cultural pariah was putting my life in danger.

Within the first two days of entering junior high, I was called a “Paki” for the first time. I was also forced to convince classmates that my mother only wore bindis – or “red dots,” as I called them – at parties and then only when she wore a sari. Finally, I was accused of being a smart ass because of my insistence that Pakis probably came from Pakistan, even though I wasn’t convinced they liked the term, either. I also felt it wise to add that while my parents were both from India, I was actually born in Montréal and not India. I was wrong, and so I was told to meet these three new classmates of mine after school for a beating. Even though my love for Bollywood films was fading by that point, I couldn’t help recalling the plot of a film starring Amitabh Bachchan, who in his heyday during the ’70s and ’80s was no stranger to desperate situations:

The silent, brooding stranger tries to make a new life in the big city after losing his family during a raid on his village by cold-blooded thieves. Now older, all he wants is to become a police officer, take revenge and protect those who are too weak to defend themselves. On this particular day, he needs to get home to help attach the wooden leg his uncle earned after unsuccessfully trying to protect his family from being made an example of in their poor, tiny village. The stranger knows his uncle was lucky to just lose a leg. Some of the less spiritual and more macho townspeople don’t really like this intense but thoughtful young man and decide to surround him at the bus stop to teach him a new lesson. Looks like his uncle’s wooden leg will have to wait.

Amitabh Bachchan was the most charismatic and transcendent “angry young man” in Bollywood’s violent action films of the ’70s. His brooding and rebellious characters, although rarely political, echoed the unstable political climate of India at the time. They portrayed a stylized but visceral reaction to the growing disillusionment with Indira Gandhi’s national policies and the frustrations of struggling workers in big cities. Back in the Canadian diaspora, he was simply my hero. And he was invincible.

Assessing my current situation, I couldn’t recall him ever having to fight off three private school kids in matching uniforms after school. However, I’m sure if he saw a chalkboard eraser within reach, he’d know how to make it count. One awkward swing to the face, clouds of chalk dust and three punches to the gut later, I found myself alone on my knees clutching my insides, trying to exhale anything to release the tears dangling from my eyelashes.

It was one of my first real lessons about exclusion and maybe my first real exposure to my own Indianness. Unfortunately, the character I was playing was beyond the understanding and talents of even the great Bachchan. Who was going to show me how to handle these battles in Canada? Bollywood didn't seem to be in the business of answering these questions. A little too real for it, maybe.

In its eighty-plus-year history, Bollywood films have managed to distract and captivate the attention of nearly a billion Indians with its unique take on mythology, drama, song and dance. Coming from anywhere else, these films would be considered derivative and laughable. Coming from India, their explicit ties to mythology and idealism are tempered with an unpretentious, innocent regard for a simpler life outside the everyday toil everyone already knows about, supported and sometimes justified by a thin but lavish cushion of spirituality. Add a heaping tablespoon of song and dance, a sprinkle of lush locations that have nothing to do with the narrative, deglaze with a rain dance to substitute on-screen sex, soak overnight in high drama and familial intrigue, and you have the ingredients for what has become the most popular and prolific movie industry on the planet.

Even during the Bollywood boycott of my early teens, I would usually take whatever comic book or novel I was reading down to the family room where the Saturday evening ritual was still going strong. There was a familiar warmth and sense of comfort in the room, like slipping into a cozy birthday sweater that you would not dare wear in public. The aural mix of film songs, over-the-top dialogue and my parents’ colourful commentary made up a soothing noninvasive soundtrack to my new, “refined” choice of entertainment.

I was not beyond the occasional snide comment or sarcastic proclamation of the film’s ending, so painfully obvious in most Bollywood films before the end of the first act. Sometimes my parents were amused and impressed with my predictions, but most of the time I would just get “the look.” Not wanting to push my luck, I would resume my silent protest, occasionally lifting a discreet eyeball or two over my book to catch a song and dance number or action sequence flashing on the screen. As much as I convinced myself that there was nothing cool about enjoying a Bollywood film at the time, I was hard pressed to not derive some enjoyment out of it all. After all, they can be a lot of fun.

That’s the appeal of these films: audiences know that films are not real life, but rather allegories for a perfect world, where troubles and difficulties are all sorted out. As current Bollywood star Sharukh Khan says, “You follow the story, you enjoy it, it’s full of emotion and whenever you get a little bogged down, a song will come.”

Anurag Dhir is the son of Ashok and Asha and is currently the managing editor of ascent magazine.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life