My First Bollywood Movie Experience

A Novel in Two Books
by N. K. Johel

While editing Bollywood Storm I came across a scene where our heroine, Elanna, is watching a Bollywood movie for the first time. I hadn't considered what the experience might be for her.  Elanna has western sensibilities, and even if she knows the Sanskrit names of yoga positions, she would not understand conversational Hindi. In the particular scene I was working on, my husband pointed out that Elanna would not understanding the humour and  would likely be confused with the mixed-genre style of Bollywood movies.  And Bollywood movies are at least three hours compared to most Hollywood films that go for under two hours each. In order to really appreciate this, I went back to memories of my first Bollywood film.

I was very young when my parents took me to my first 'show.' I vaguely remember standing in a crowd outside a theater in Victoria BC.  The only time I'd seen so many South Asians gathered in one place - or Hindus as we called each other then - was at Gurudawara's at the annual Independence Day celebrations on August 15. It was the 60's, and yes, things were different then.Men donned two piece suits for occasions and women wore dresses, or blouse and skirts. Even the pant-suit had not yet made it's fashion debut. in the west  Women wore their hair up in chignons and hardly covered their hair, except with a scarf when going outside. It was virtually unheard of for women to wear a sari or a sulvar kameez in public. The best way to assimilate into Canadian culture had been to adopt the dress and mannerism as best you could. "Jessa Desh, Ousai Pesh." Loosely translated: "When in Rome..."As my father stood among the crowded booth to get tickets, the sharp smell of sandalwood fragrance wafted around the crowd. My father, himself, often put a vial of the strong aroma in the breast pocket of his suit. Once the tickets were bought, our family struggled through the crowded entrance of the theater and into the lobby. The smell of popcorn met us as dad lead us straight to the doors into the more-than-half-filled theater. We'd walked two-thirds down the red-carpeted aisle before we found a row of seats together on the left side of the theater. I'd never been to 'a show' before. People chatting and laughing. Fragrances mingling.  The cool, air conditioned atmosphere.I looked around. I wasn't sure what this 'show' business was about, other than my mother had been talking about it all week. I marveled at the huge, heavy red curtains on the stage. I wondered at what was behind it.  I watched and waited as the theatre filled to maximum capacity. There were so many people that some were actually sitting on the red-carpeted steps. Finally, after what seemed like ages, the lights went out. Yeah! I wasn't sure about that. It was as dark as dark could be ... except for the red EXIT sign.  The voices around me rose a bit before quieting down. Then, people hush-hushed each other when a big square light shone on a red curtains. I listened to the sound of the projector and film, clickety-clickety clicking as the curtains drew aside to reveal a big, white screen.

I felt my heart thump-thump-thump...

Yeah, this was an event! 'The show' began. I saw grainy black and white images flickering and scratching at the big white screen, There were people moving around, saying things I didn't understand. This was my first experience with visual media. My family didn't have a television set at the time. Although I'd seen the strange boxes at other people's homes, I didn't know what they were and didn't have any interest in why people sat and stared at them.

The language the actors spoke the film was likely Urdu or in Hindi, not Punjabi, like mom and dad spoke at home. This was not only an ominous event in my young life, it was also a long and arduous experience. I was trying to be a good girl, like my mother said she liked me to be.  But, I was soon turning to my mother and asking when this show thing would be over.

Even the song and dance scenes, or the comic relief was strange. The facial and bodily movements of the singers or the jester hardly made up for it either.

Then, the film stopped and the lights went on and I was glad to get out of there. But mom said it wasn't over yet. I was not a happy camper. After a washroom break and some popcorn, I managed to settle back down into my chair. When the film began, it was the same. Black and white, scratchy with a picture-perfect handsome hero speaking to a beautiful doe-eyed heroine. The moustachioed villain shaking his fist and growling. Sad people. Angry people. Saying things I didn't understand. Drama. Songs and Dance. Strange comedic jesters. Finally, it was over.

My mother was always proud of my ability to be patient, but even I was ready to start join the revolt my little sister had started on the way out of the crowded threatre. On the ride home, I decided I didn't want to do that again. On the rare occasion my parents wanted to go to see a 'show' for a few years, I asked for Elva, our babysitter, to stay with us for the day instead.However, many years later, things began to change. I'd gotten used to TV and we were too old for baby sitters. It was the 70's and films were being shot in beautiful technicolor. I still had trouble with sub-titles, but they seemed to be more fun.

The first movies I really enjoyed, and still really love, was "Jungalee" directed by Subodh Mukherjee, with Shammi Kapoor and Saira Banu.  If anyone has seen Shammi Kapoor, you'll know he has fantastic facial expressions and exaggerated body movements. He kept the kids pretty entertained.

Now, when I see the technicolor images and modern stage design of numbers like "Suku Suku" they are amazing! For months afterwards, my family and cousins would get together and sing our Bollywood songs as well as top 100 American hits.  We'd shout "YAHOOO!" and role off sofas in our homes (until we were told to stop) the way Shammi Kapoor and Banu did on snowy hillsides. Another great favorite Mukherjee's movie that kids enjoyed was "April Fool." Biswajit Chatterjee and Saira Banu.It wasn't until we were much older did we begin to pick up on the nuances of the Punjabi, Urdu or "Film Hindi."  However, Bengali, Gujarati and other languages are still foreign to me, and I have to rely on subtitles.

When I became a young adult, VCR's first came out. I spent a lot of time watching Hindi movies, along with everyone else in the small town I lived in.  We'd exchange videos and spend a whole days watching two or three movies in a row.  My understanding and use of Punjabi and film Hindi improved.

Well, it's been a nice little trip down memory lane, and I hope that it was enjoyable for you too. Recalling memories is like editing film. You can exclude all the non-relevant bits and frame the pieces you want. Change the lighting, the mood and create the ambiance you need to draw your audience in.

Until next time....N.K. Johel