by Harlan Kennedy



It has been described in so many different ways. As the oldest eternally-new country in the world. As the nation that bestowed civilization on Britain. (Britain had to come and get it; then Gandhi kicked her out).  As a maternal breast hanging from the continent of Asia – as ‘Mother India’.

For me, though, India is a land of beautiful, inspired madness: Edward Lear out of Rudyard Kipling. It is make-believe posing as reality, or vice versa. It is a sumptuous mythological theatre where foreign guests are granted a priceless privilege. We can enter by the stage door and meet the gods and goddesses: those whom the ticket-buying populace only gaze on from afar, those who dwell at other times in cloudy posters and paradisal mansions.

Ah India, ah cinema. Its national industry has no equal in the world. It lures 12 million people daily to movie theatres. It makes 800 films a year, twice Hollywood’s number. And in a population of a billion, half understands the two main languages that go into ‘Bollywood’ films – Hindu and Urdu, compounded in the hybrid lingo known as Hindustani – while other tongues are served by compass-boxing movies from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta (home to the great art cinema of Satyajit Ray), Madras…..

Ah Madras. I shall never forget this southern capital’s film festival all those years ago (harp music, shimmering lap-dissolve) when a defining moment in Indian cinema history coincided with my visit as a guest and movie critic.

It was the glorious birth of 1970s Indian art cinema when wonderworks like Shyam Benegal’s ANKUR and Mrinal Sen’s THE ROYAL HUNT were appearing. Beautiful New Cinema stars like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were making their bow, actresses so human, even though working out of Bollywood’s Bombay rather than Ray’s Bengal, that ordinary fans felt they could almost touch them. Like Ingrid Bergman they helped to pioneer the no-makeup look, freeing womanhood from the paint-and-pose syndrome of Hindi commercial actresses. Just as Ray had done for screen women on the other side of India.

And lo! Ray, the grand old man of Bengal, was there to bless the new cinema as the Madrasfest opened. It was almost his last full-dress international public appearance. Stately in Indian formal garb, gaunt as a  tiger, tall and sunburned, this walking legend, the director of PATHER PANCHALI,  THE WORLD OF APU and CHARULATA, shook our hands at the opening ‘do.’ Unbending in a vast graciousness, he called us each by our first names as if he had known us forever. Just how living legends should  behave.

Ray carved the Indian cinema most westerners know better than any other, even today. His subtly reverberant tales of moral conflict and emotional liberation - of the plight of women or the fight of India’s underclasses or the pangs and paradoxes of love - were glowing dramas plugged into the humanist grid of world art cinema.

Today, that world is starting to catch glimpses of a different Indian film: pop-Bollywood movies, some of which  – DIL SE, LAGAAN, ASOKA – have been made with extra crossover potential in the hope that concessions to universal taste (a coherent narrative, musical numbers actually relevant to the story) might make the madnesses more manageable to non-Indians.

Before now the easy generalization - easy but presumptuous – is that Ray and his followers in the 70s-born New Indian Cinema portrayed the real India while Bollywood’s mandate then, now and forever is to dispense fable, fantasy and fiction.

But what is the ‘real India’? To a visitor at least, it sometimes seems unknowable. He can describe it only by juggling the very hyperboles, contrasts and wacky contradictions that seem at home in India’s mass entertainment movies. At that glittering Madras Festival launch we swirled among greater and lesser auteurs eager to hype their new films (no such thing as a free launch), while we clutched glasses of - yes - orange juice and humble mineral water. Very surreal, but this was Tamil Nadu, a dry state, of which more anon. At the same time we silently thanked the deities charged with air travel that we were there at all. Earlier we’d landed in one of India’s two flagship Jumbos, not long after the other had plunged into the sea off Bombay, killing all. We read the news as our plane idled on the tarmac during a Delhi touchdown, newspapers thoughtfully distributed by flight attendants. (On one of my earlier film festival trips to Iran the Tehran airport collapsed, with injury and deaths. Is someone trying to send me a message?)

In India abundance mingles with abstinence, comedy lies down with tragedy. You come to the country to be chastened, bewildered, disoriented.  The grace of your hosts, the horror of street poverty. The luxury of your hotel, the squalor everywhere else. On one side of a busy main street will be a movie hoarding as high as a minaret featuring beauty-spotted stars caught in a cataclysm of love, war and fabulous costumery. On the other side beggars crawl on sidewalks, holding out stumps for rupees. A small bundle of clothes is a dead child. An array of charred tin pots and candle butts is someone’s supper. .

Your gang of Anglo-American chums soon sorts itself into two groups: the right-wingers who express honest shock while inwardly trying to reconcile laisser-faire capitalism with laisser-faire death and suffering; the left-wingers who semaphore their pity and indignation for ten minutes, then never go near a sidewalk or shanty settlement again. (Except to take photos). 

In India, though, what if anything unites all or nearly all the people?

Exactly.  Movies. 

Rich and poor alike clamor for the fantasies of the big screen as if the golden rectangle of a movie dream is better, far better, than a square meal on the table or pavement. Films are blowouts for the mind. We fest-guests experienced our share of these: mad spectacles from Bollywood, so daffy in their escapism that they describe and define, in invisible subtext, the very urgency of the need they fill. The need of Indian audiences for glitter, for transcendence, for a mock-celestial afterlife in the here and now.

Basically every Bollywood film (rendered as dialogue) goes like this: “Lovely peasant girl, I am a prince/playboy/young millionaire in disguise, and I am struck by your beauty as I stroll by this picturesque temple/ashram/palace.”  “Handsome stranger, would you but know it, I am the daughter of the richest man in the Punjab and I only look like a peasant because I have rejected my family and/or am doing a thesis on urban renewal, trying to interface with the deserving poor.” “Oh beautiful one, I hear a sitar stealing across the ornamental pond, let us break into song and dance.” “Yes, let’s.” And we are off, warbling and capering away in a ten-minute musical montage that takes in all India’s tourist spots, plus a Swiss Alp, plus Sydney Bridge, plus the Tower of London.

It makes no sense. But then neither does India. Colorful contrariness is the air the country breathes. For instance, half the audience leaves a cinema’s auditorium for drinks or ices during the big musical numbers. This is almost institutional: they’ve already seen those numbers a dozen times in MTV-style preview clips on telly. They return for the story, the drama, the dialogue; and for that untiring miracle, the walking of demigods on terra firma.

In the self-same Madras Film Festival – in this land where stars are too divine to breathe upon – we watched the best and latest of the New Cinema films while crouched in the balcony of a Madras picture palace the size of the Taj Mahal. At some screenings the unsubtitled dialogue was translated viva voce by the director, sitting with us. But for one film, Shyam Benegal’s THE ACTRESS, the live running translation was provided by the star herself, Smita Patil.

Smita Patil! In our midst! Imagine Julia Roberts sitting next to you giving a shot-by-shot commentary on ERIN BROCKOVICH. Smita – I call her Smita – was the darkly damask, delicate-as-a-lily-pad heroine of bold social dramas like NISHANT. This film was so controversial in its day that director Benegal had to go to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to have a nationwide ban revoked. Mrs G granted the repeal, but only on condition that the plot about a village uprising was preceded by a caption saying the events depicted happened before India became independent, even though they didn’t. Benegal still remembers the hilarity of audiences across the country, deriding the imposture. In the Subcontinent of Fantasy, even realist films must sometimes sip from the fountain of make-believe.

Another day, another star encounter. I am in a taxi outside my hotel. The taxi is throbbing to depart for a screening. Who should get in, asking for a lift, but Shabana Azmi? The beautiful, opal-skinned, sapphire-eyed diva of ANKUR and Ray’s THE CHESS PLAYERS squeezed in, having already squeezed into a purple and gold sari stitched together, I appraised in a glance, from stars and gossamer and angel’s hair.

Imagine having your cab shared by, say, the young Elizabeth Taylor.  Shabana – I call her Shabana – soon became a Bollywood star as well as an art cinema icon. More recently she became a top politician. Now she rails beautifully against poverty, injustice and the caste system in India’s Upper House: ultimate glamour finding a way interface with ultimate deprivation. I like to think that our 20-minute chat in the taxi had some small influence on her rise to ideological nirvana. (She calls me Harlan…).

Years later, Azmi told me one of the secrets of Indian cinema: the mythological substructure that gives its best films, whether art or entertainment, their rippling narrative musculature. “Our characters and stories, our notions of good and evil, are rooted in myth and legend, in the RAMAYANA or the MAHABHARATA…. This makes even modern dramas or conventional romances and adventure films seem a little bigger than life. And it gives universality to a culture made up of all these different languages and religions we have: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian. When audiences see them on screen they all recognize the great stories of Indian legend”.

Back in Madras the greatest of off-screen meetings was about to happen: a true interface between life and legend, a cameo, you could say, of India’s ability to blend the divine and the quotidian, the picayune with the epiphanic.

Picture a star-scattered night in the grounds of a luxury hotel on the sea coast south of Madras. The outdoor buffet tables groan with viands, dainties and fabulous fruit. (Plus orange juice and mineral water). No one has touched the spread yet, in respect for the coming visit of the guest of honor. He is Tamil Nadu governor and former film superstar – no, megastar – make that hyperstar – M.G. Ramachandran. MGR was so famous in his life that he had a temple dedicated to him. Later, when he died, a million people attended his funeral. It was not enough to call him a god. He was a religion, a scripture, a whole cosmic system of awe and worship.

Now picture me and my compatriot guests huddled around dear old Ken Whatsisname, the then director of the London Film Festival, who was covertly titrating vodka into our orange juices. We were all there except for the Guardian film critic who had been caught by a roving spotlight gobbling a chicken leg at the forbidden buffet table.

We were in the midst of raising our illegal glasses to our throats when a noise and motion like the parting of the Red Sea happened just to the north of us. It was MGR. The demigod himself. Plus retinue. Plus machinegun-armed bodyguards. Plus formal robe, dark glasses and one of those imposing gray Persian-lamb hats worn only by SIPs (Seriously Important Panjandrums).

He advanced through the crowd, a man on a momentous but unhurried mission. Happily the mission was not to arrest us but to greet the western contingent tout entier, which he did with grace, dignity and the wellknown Indian bow with raised palms pressed together. None of us – since we were all in shock – remembers what he said. Or whether he said anything. He merely shed divine radiance all around. And he seemed to notice no wrongdoing, though there were rumors later that the chicken-eating Guardian critic had been detained and forced to attend an Indian ‘cultural programme’: one of those evenings of classical song, dance and sitar-playing that resourceful visitors such as myself avoid by pleading prior engagements or climbing over a wall.

Ah India. It is inscribed on my heart and mind for ever. And how good to see that Bollywood cinema is itself starting to climb over a wall as intimated – the wall around Indian popular culture – and to make itself known and shown in the west.

The recent roar accorded ASOKA at the Venice Film Festival, followed by its commercial opening in Britain, proves my point. A 3rd Dynasty BC warrior prince who kills thousands in glorious color with song and dance, who loves a foreign princess, and who then converts to Buddhism to unite an empire in peace and goodness: that is the stuff to give the world.

Can such films truly, plurally, cross over from them to us? It is happening in the UK, as it has already happened in other lands and landmasses. (In Russia, Latin America and elsewhere Bollywood pictures have had a following for decades). Early in 2001 a handful of mainstream British cinemas played host to the 4-hour historical epic LAGAAN. A superhit in India, this tells of a group of peasant villagers who rise up against the British in a 19th century province and clobber them with their own most vicious weapon – cricket! The exciting climactic game occupies the movie’s entire second half, a belief-defying two hours. In and around the biffing of leather balls with willow bats we enjoy, with scarcely a  squeak of protest or twinge of aesthetic discomfort, the songs, the dances, the googoo-eyed love scenes.

Even before LAGAAN there was DIL SE, a gaudy adventure-romance which romped into the UK box office top ten, featuring a now-famous musical number atop a moving train. Andrew Lloyd Webber saw the sequence and signed the film’s composer for his next show, opening in 2002, called BOMBAY DREAMS.

Not since the Beatles jet-setted to the Subcontinent, to stock up on mysticism and Ravi Shankar music, has the Empire shown such interest in the ex-protectorate. And when Britain leads, can the rest of the Occident be far behind?

India’s screen showmanship cannot, must not, languish in purdah. Shah Rukh Khan, the top actor in present-day Bollywood, plays the title role in ASOKA and was the star of DIL SE. Khan – I call him Shah Rukh – has become known as the Indian Tom Cruise. Handsome, boyish, wealthy and the top prey for gossip-hunters in Bombay fanzines, he once told me:

“Harlan, Indian cinema is just like India itself. For the rest of the world, enough can often be too much. For Indians – so deprived and yet always so dreaming – ‘too much’ is never even enough.”








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.