Sunday, July 13, 2008

bollywood chef

Last week, after auto-salivating over the delicious scents Melanie's Indian mother-in-law was creating in the kitchen, I hatched a plot for international, inter-generational, cross canine/infant bonding.

There were obstacles to overcome -- whereas I was always encouraging Sequoia to sneak a lick at Leela's toes, Mrs. Chandra was ever-vigilant for signs of any developing dingo/baby scenarios. My idea was to remove both baby and dog from the mix, and ask her to teach me to cook.

Melanie not only approved my plan, she immediately got busy implementing it. Mrs. Chandra was sitting at the dining room table with her head bent over some papers when we launched our attack. After being made aware of our intentions, she informed us that she'd be cooking dinner in 5 minutes and that I was welcome to watch.

I wandered into the kitchen, where tiny bowls of pre-chopped onions, garlic, and ginger were set out on the counter. This was going to be so, so cooking show. When Mrs. Chandra came in, I asked her about the papers she had been working on. Pay dirt: a Bollywood screenplay.

I was dimly aware that Vikram's mom was somehow involved in Bollywood films, but I didn't know she wrote screenplays. I asked her to tell me the plot while she cooked. Most people, when confronted with that kind of challenge, would mumble a few disclaimers and try (unsuccessfully, if I'm involved) to change the subject. But Vikram's mom rocked on.

She started with the star-crossed lovers... [plot description removed by censors] ... and that's where I say, "and that's the end?" Mrs. Chandra suppressed a laugh, shook her head, and said, "No, that's not the end." Then she spent the next 45 minutes weaving an incredibly complex and rich story, complete with dialogue, while at the same time concocting a delicious aloo mutter dinner. I alternated, "What's the English name of that spice?" with "And then what happened?"

Melanie later told me that Bollywood movies are three hours long. Which explains all the plot twists. The nature of the plot twists, however, was something you almost can't find in American film. Everything hinged on conversations. And not just conversations in which new information is revealed. Characters expounded upon different ways of looking at the same thing.

[Some more really interesting plot description removed by censors -- this is oh, so WWII foreign correspondent and all that.] ... and believe me, when Mrs. Chandra looked up from her pressure cooker, gazed into my eyes, and recited that line...well, there wasn't a dry eye in the kitchen.

Several dozen subplots later, and I'm fascinated by how romantic love and familial love are presented -- not as warring factions, but as extensions of each other. In the West, our parents couldn't be more annoying or expendable. In Bollywood, all kinds of love are different shades and expressions of the same thing. This makes the Romeo and Juliet plot far more interesting. For us, the lovers have no internal conflict -- their whole problem consists of climbing the trellis without getting caught. But Bollywood aches with anguishing dilemmas. Way, way more fun.

After Bollywood Chef, I did two things:
1. Decided that a reality cooking show in which contestants are required to tell a story as they prepare a dish is the best idea ever.
2. Rented some Bollywood movies.

I had nothing to go on but the Netflix 5-star ratings, so my first film was a hip, trendy comedy. Again with the thousand subplots, the "let's look at this situation another way" conversations, the importance of family...this time combined with the latest fashions and a bizarre take on U.S. culture. (Apparently, we're defined in large part by our black gospel music.)

It was great, and then suddenly it turned ugly. The hero is dying (heart trouble! again!) and gets the heroine to marry some other dude (what's with the "arranged love is always deeper" thing?) and suddenly everything is somber. We're fast-forwarded 20 years to listen to the heroine reminisce with her little sister about the dead guy. The upshot is that you always remember your first love. But the last lines are something about how most people become best friends with the person they marry, and how she was lucky enough to marry her best friend.

I'm so totally a proponent of arranged marriage now. Wendy had to remind me about the bride-burning thing.

This is an aside, but there was a great narrative technique in the film that I'm having trouble making sense of. At one point, the girl is talking to a friend about how much she loves the first guy. He's still alive at this point. The camera pans, and we see him in the background, listening. He's not actually there -- it was sort of, "if he could hear this, here's how he would react." Completely unnecessary, because we already know he's in love with her and has decided to find her a husband who has more than 27 minutes left to live.

And yet...it was an effective technique. It heightened the pathos of the scene. Here they are, both in love, but divided. If only they could express their love to each other! I'm a total sap for romantic stuff, but what freaked me out is how fast I understood the grammar. I've never even seen an effect anything like that, and it would be laughed out of Western films. And yet I got it immediately, no translation needed . How can something so crazy work so well?

Not sure how many 3-hour musicals it will take before I want to hire a hitman to blow up every Bollywood studio. But for now, I'm all about that tragi-comic passion.

4 comments:

Filmiholic said...

What a charming account of both a film narration and cooking!

From your description of the film you saw, I'm thinking it's Kal Ho Naa Ho, yes? (Was there a lot of NYC in it, plus a rendition of the song "Pretty Woman"?)

PS - What, no recipe??

Filmiholic said...

And what a gorgeous dog!! What sort of breed is she?

Prasun said...

Kal Ho Na Ho, most certainly. Do avoid Karan Johar movies. They are the mainstream, done-to-death stories told with a lot of (melo)drama and very indulgent film-making mostly sold to the NRI (non-resident indian) audience.

I would recommend the following movies which are my personal favourites :

Rang De Basanti,
Dor,
Being Cyrus,
Omkara,
Khosla ka Ghosla,
Iqbal,
Lakshya,
Yuva,
Swades,
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi,
Company,
Monsoon Wedding,
Dil Chahta Hai,
Sarfarosh,
Dil Se,
Diwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,
Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar,
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak,
Golmaal,
Chashmebaddoor,
Chupke Chupke,
Zanjeer,
Parinda,
Anand,
Chak de India,
Ek Haseena Thi,
Johnny Gaddar,
Black Friday,
Khamosh Pani,
Ijaazat


They are in no particular order and belong to various genres. But I think you can check them on netflix before renting.

Hope you have fun.

Poonam said...

Why is it that despite being constantly reviled for his "melodrama" and "candyfloss" films, it's Karan Johar who manages to "pull" in viewers who haven't a clue about Hindi cinema?

If you've liked Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (yes, read your other post just now!) and Kal Ho Naa Ho, you may as well go ahead and watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham as well. It's sure to find a place on your "Guilty Pleasures" list. Just keep a box of tissues handy (watch out for the desert song - it's a killer) Enjoy!