Gaudy and outlandish as they can be, Bollywood films are also an intravenous cultural drip for me. I relate to them somewhere deep inside in a way I, myself, cannot put a finger on. I remember standing in my living room in San Francisco watching an old Hindi movie with my best friend. We oohed and aahed as tragic diva Meena Kumari slowly raised her head, as if the weight of all that gold and brocade was crushing her.
My American friends laughed with us then and at us as we stood in our T-shirts and jeans singing Hindi love songs of indescribable pathos in shrill falsettos, towels draped around our faces like veils. We all laughed together. But my American friends had no idea how we longed in our flat-footed way for Meena Kumari’s languid grace, how we tried to line our eyes with hopeless tragedy. And knowing we could never get there, we butchered it all by shrill impersonation, hiding our longing with caricature.
Bollywood is so visually overpowering, so defiant of logic in its Technicolor splendor, that it’s just too easy to get caught up in the spoofiness of it all. On-screen, Shah Rukh Khan’s face is quivering with emotion. The blonde woman behind me is chuckling at everything—the painful buffoonery of the comic relief, the little kid with the stagy lines, the syrupy romantic scenes where thundershowers and shooting stars appear on cue. The camp crosses over. The heart stays behind, lost in the subtitles.