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Hollywood's Bollywood Connection

Internationally acclaimed Indian filmmakers are indebted to Bollywood.

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Ismail Merchant, Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Deepa Mehta, Gurinder Chadha. You can take all of them out of Bollywood, but can you ever take Bollywood out of them?

Apparently not! These internationally acclaimed filmmakers may have achieved recognition for their work in Hollywood and around the world, but they all acknowledge their indebtedness to Indian cinema.

Their films may be vastly different from the regular Bollywood fare, yet it is in darkened cinema halls across India or on borrowed Hindi film videos in immigrant homes in the U.K. that they first began their love affair with film.

Mira Nair, whose Monsoon Wedding has been such a major box-office hit across the world, has always created realistic, edgy cinema from the days she made documentaries and the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! Yet even when she's making films as starkly true-to-life as Hysterical Blindness, elements of Bollywood seep in.

As she explained in a lecture she delivered at the Netherlands Film Festival, "I've seen that the Indian films' influence, specifically that unabashed emotional directness, the freewheeling use of music, that emphasis on elemental motivations and values, is a thread running consistently through every one of my films; even when exploring foreign worlds, I have taken the bones and flesh of those societies and tried to infuse them with the spirit of where I'm from."

Yes, no one can escape the powerful impact of Bollywood. Ask producer-director Ismail Merchant. He first brought his Bombay sensibilities to the world screen three decades ago, as one half of the elite Merchant-Ivory production company. Noted for classic literary films like Room with a View and The Bostonians, the duo's first film ever was The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and starring a handsome young newcomer called Shashi Kapoor.

"I can remember the exact moment when I knew that I wanted to spend my life in the world of movies," observes Merchant in his book, My Passage from India: He was 13 years old and had been invited to accompany the winsome, green-eyed actress Nimmi, a family friend, to the premiere of her first film Barsaat.

He recalls, "As we drove toward the cinema in her green Cadillac convertible - quite an impressive car in India at that time - a shower of marigolds began to rain down on us. I looked up, and it seemed as though the marigolds were dropping from the night sky - thousands of golden flowers gently falling around us.

By the time we emerged, the open car was full of marigolds - and still they fell as we walked into the cinema, scattering petals along the way, as crowds of people stared and called out Nimmi's name."

After that, the magic of darkened cinema halls had him hooked, leading him and James Ivory on their Oscar laden path. Merchant has also brought his directorial talents to many screen adaptations of serious literature including Anita Desai's In Custody and V.S. Naipaul The Mystic Masseur.

If there's ever an example of Bollywood making it big in Hollywood, it's Shekhar Kapur, Mr. India himself. The creator of such Bollywood favorites as Mr. India and Masoom, Kapur got the attention of the West with his stark and potent Bandit Queen. He next made Elizabeth with all the kinetic color of a Bollywood film, and went on to Four Feathers Kapur was the producer for the recent Bollywood style romantic comedy The Guru, complete with dance numbers and dream scenes. He's also the man behind Andrew Lloyd Weber's Bombay Dreams, which after its success on London's West End is going to be making its Broadway debut next year.

Even that big Hollywood phenomenon M. Night Shyamalan of the mega box-office blockbusters may owe something to Indian cinema. As Nayay Bhushan, editor of Connect Magazine, notes, " Shyamalan may not be Bollywood-savvy but his script for The Sixth Sense somehow exhibits elements often seen in Indian films - mysticism, the central figure of the mother, life beyond death. Bollywood may only package this with syrupy sentimentalism but Shyamalan turned it, knowingly or unknowingly, into a global cinematic phenomenon."
Gurinder Chadha's Bend it like Beckham has certainly been a big plug for everything Indian, and according to Gitesh Pandya of Boxofficeguru.com, it was among the top 20 films in the U.S. for 17 consecutive weeks. Produced at a cost of roughly $5.5 million, the British-Indian comedy has grossed $70 million at theaters worldwide making it one of the most profitable films in recent years.

Parminder Nagra, the young British Asian actress who made her debut in this film, has bagged the lead in Ella Enchanted and also will be seen in the popular TV series, ER. Keira Knightley, who plays her friend Jules Paxton, has had an even more astounding success with Pirates of the Caribbean, in which she stars with Johnny Depp and which has been breaking box office records. As for Chadha, she's off and running to another big success: Bride and Prejudice for which she's got Miramax. And how much more high art can you get then Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice? Based on this classic, Chadha's film is a contemporary adaptation starring Bollywood Queen Aishwarya Rai and New Zealand actor Martin Henderson.

A posse of Bombay stars like Rekha, Vivek Oberoi and Milind Soman are said to be featured in Conde Nast Traveler magazine in the September issue. And recently Amitabh Bachchan, already immortalized in wax by Madame Tussaunds, also made it to list of 100 top film stars of all time, conducted by Channel 4 television. He was listed 92nd in a list that included Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and Cary Grant.

Indian films, both from the North and South, are winning an astounding number of awards at festivals, as the world gets to see the work of Indian directors including Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Mani Ratnam.

Stars including Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Gulshan Grover are acting in films internationally. According to a PTI report, Hrithik Roshan turned down an offer from Warner Bros to act in a Hollywood production of Hamlet. And yes, there was talk of Aishwarya Rai starring in a James Bond film. Every week seems to bring a fresh story of the Hollywood-Bollywood connection.

So as the Bollywood behemoth continues to find acceptance across the world and as its stars become known to mainstream audiences, diehard fans can take joy in the fact that the Bollywood tamasha has only just begun! 

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Arts & Entertainment | Bollywood | Magazine | August 2003

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