Let’s face it. The only relationship Mumbai has with cinema is Bollywood. The city’s exposure to regional and international cinema is restricted to film clubs, academic courses and more recently, expensive DVD libraries. The only way I could watch Micheal Haneke’s The White Ribbon that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009 was by downloading it from the internet. This week, though, I can see it on screen, as part of the MAMI film festival. The Mumbai Academy of Moving Images, an independent body of stalwarts connected to the film industry, has been organising an international film festival since 1997, and for long, it has been the city’s biggest resource for regional and international fare.
It’s not often that one gets culture-shocked. I’d consider it a luxury in this information-overloaded world of ours. We know, for example, that little Rajasthani girls don’t randomly dance in the Jaisalmer desert, and that the fish-lipped, enormously endowed Turkish bellydancer is clearly botox enhanced, but let pass such inaccuracies to enjoy a lie called ‘exotic’.
If someone had said three months ago, when I was leaving for an international dance fellowship in exotic Turkey, that Bollywood would be the biggest surprise of my trip, I’d have laughed. Now, having spent three months there in the company of people from 13 different nationalities, I hope you’ll believe me when I say, Bollywood as a force, is as shocking as it is inspiring. If you just let go.
“What does a laddoo taste like?” Rahayu, my Indonesian roommate casually asked me one afternoon. Indonesia, it seems, isn’t just fed on Bollywood films, even their local film industry is dominated by an Indian family aptly surnamed ‘Punjabi’. Rahayu loves Karan Johar films. A Muslim from Jakarta, she can sing the first few lines of the bhajan Om Jai Jagdish and lusts after the orange-coloured balls actors offer each other in the films. Her pal, 20-year-old Maulvi is a big fan of Hawa Hawaii from Mr India. Thanks to him I was once forced to the song in my nightie at 1am one night.
Lucas, an Argentinean is a Latin American ballroom dancing champion. So everytime he decided to impress me with his rendition of ‘Om Shanti Om’, I mistook it for a samba number. Vladimir, a Georgian dancer in our troupe, didn’t speak a word of English, or Turkish, communicating instead with an extraordinary smile and by ruffling people’s hair. The first time I met him, he sang the Mithun numbers Jimmy Jimmy and Duniya Hai Dilwalo Ki. It is difficult to explain the shock of meeting a foreign-language-speaking bonafide foreigner break into a song you heard last in 1989 on Chhaya Geet. Yes, it makes sense because erstwhile USSR was known to be a big fan of Mithun, back in the Cold War years when Indians named their kids Natasha and Tanya. But there’s still an element of surprise that no amount of second-hand knowledge can prepare you for.
It is easy to be taken in by the decorative elegance of Raza’s work. But once you begin to look beyond the formal beauty of his work, you encounter a stubbornly abstract language, refusing to yield its mysteries