Tonight, June 26, and for a limited time, Oak Street Cinema is screening a major Bollywood film essentially in line with its worldwide release. And it stands to be a terrific example—Bollywood does New York, essentially. It’s called New York, actually, setting the usual gorgeous actors in the paradise that is supposed to be New York until, of course, trouble shows up in the form of FBI shenanigans and the big city, per the usual Bollywood moralizing, turns a little darker. Complete with a full slate of musical interludes, it looks like a blast.
The particular magic of India’s enormous film industry, known as Bollywood, is not unlike that of America’s Golden Age of movies, the 1930s and ’40s, with its demure love scenes, outrageous plots, and highly choreographed musical numbers. And, in fact, in the average Indian city outside the Westernized centers of industry, the cinema experience is much as it was here in the past. When I was in Jaipur, I stood in line outside a movie palace for well over an hour as a little guy in army fatigues maintained order (women in one ticket line, men in another, and you best be stomach to back or he’d whack you with his little wooden stick—I was whacked). Inside, huge curtains hung in the lobby, and grand staircases took you to the seating, which was on benches and with assigned seats. We left at intermission, about 2.5 hours in because we couldn’t understand a damn thing, but it was still an incredible cultural experience.
And now, for a variety of reasons, not least being the popularity of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood is edging closer to mainstream America. Which may be a shame. Because what was once a unique industry, created for a particular market, will now become watered down for the general (read Americanized) tastes. Let’s just hope the unprompted musical moments and wet-sari scenes (use your imagination) remain intact. While New York may be a mainstream Bollywood film, it’s still a terrific insight into contemporary Indian culture, and it’s fun in a way that American films have not been in a long time because they’re too busy being self-consciously cool and ironic.