'In praise of Gateway Drugs" or "How I learned to love Bollywood"

For most Indian film fans, there seems to be one film that initially served as gateway drug . . . the vehicle that shuttles you into Bollywoodland and abandons you there, fumbling about in a sensory flood of pinks and yellows, saris and songs, decadence and drama. More often than not, it's a world where what I would normally expect to be "subtext" becomes maintext, while maintext becomes subtext. It is Hollywood, inverted.

For me, the train to filmi-fantasy was Fanaa (2006), or "Destroyed in Love."

While enjoying popular success, it's a film that is often written off by reviewers for it's over-the-top masala madness . . . After all, in the 21st century, one can only expect  Bollywood viewers to suspend a certain amount of disbelief . . . and many argue that Fanaa is a little too much to swallow. See this review . While I have since seen  much "better" than Fanaa, nothing can erase its magic for me. 

I should confess to something, before proceeding in this blog. I'm not a huge fan of "realism" in film. (Here and there I seek out a dose of it, remind myself what the ground feels like [stable and harsh and limited], to inoculate myself against accusations of runaway romanticism.) I feel like we have real life for that--and at the end of the day, I say bas, bas, enough of that, and start rolling a mainstream Hindi movie as an antidote (parallel Hindi cinema is another creature all together). In my public life, I am the champion of pragmatic solutions, but one cannot live on practicality alone. Thus, in a true Freudian twist, in private life, my favorite films tend to be emotionally exhibitionist; films that unabashedly admit and embrace longing, desperation, and obsession.

Case in point: West Side Story (1961)
I  don't know if I would have ever found my way to Hindi cinema without this film.

What's not to like in this movie? Somehow, the minds behind this work of genius managed to work in the best aspects of Romeo and Juliet, add a hearty dose of social relevance and cultural zest, and pull off about 15 musical/dance pieces ready to tear your heart out if you let your guard down for even a moment.

I think I watched this first when I was 8. My mother made a production out of the showing. And at that point, any time we rented a movie it was a big deal, much less a double VHS movie! Some first times are memorable in and of themselves, and some are all the more significant for their mis-remembering. My first watch was certainly all about Tony and Maria.

(Note: It really didn't help that the Jets and the Sharks were overshadowed for me by their names, which just reminded my marine-obsessed childhood self of the ocean, and ultimately distracted me from their motivations and problems. I was just amused by their antics and stole their names later for teams in swimming pool games.)

I cared far more about Maria and Tony, and ached for them, as I was supposed to. The adolescent crankiness of the gangs paled beside the passion of the doomed lovers. But strangely, somehow, I convinced myself they weren't doomed. To this day, I don't know how I did it. Perhaps my mother had a soft-hearted moment, realizing what tragedy she had subjected her little daughter to, and fudged the truth of the tragedy a bit. Perhaps, I just didn't understand the end or couldn't imagine that it would end so badly when they felt so strongly, and I came up with a solution.

Either way, I came away thinking that Tony and Maria were trying to leave with the circus (maybe because of the crazy gypsy colors in Maria's room when they made their decision to get out of town?) and that when Tony was SHOT, it was merely a delay. He was going to the hospital of course. Why else would they carry him away so carefully towards flashing lights?

Or maybe I just echoed Maria's prayer in this scene and it actually worked, in my head at least.

I just couldn't fathom such a cruel end to a beautiful story. A few years later, a vastly more mature me watched it again, and gasped at the ending. I remember yelling out at the end, "But this isn't what happened. They lived! This is not how I remember it!" This set up a long tradition of trying to work out my feelings about tragic movies that I loved. Unfortunately, sentimental films often punish their characters severely. (Perhaps that's part of the masochistic appeal of the whole thing, but I can't be sure.)

And it really doesn't help Fate make Her decision when two characters manage to be the most appealing when they're unhappy.

Zooni and Rehan are happy here. They are also pretty. We can all agree, right? 

 But Wait. They are not happy here. Yet they are somehow prettier. Kyun? 

So unhappy. Yet so perfectly beautiful. Confusing. One can't really blame Fate for mixing things up.

Eventually I settled on a Romance Formula I could live with. Either the characters must be happy most of the way through before they face some horrific tragedy at the very end . . . or they should be miserable all through Acts 1-3 until a twist of fate brings them happiness in the climax. The one exception I can see to this is when two characters have already experienced perfect happiness for any short period(s) in the story.

Somehow, then it is all right for them to die in the end. By then, it's almost a mercy anyhow, because how could the rest of their life ever match up to that perfect moment again? The lovers would forever be reaching for something they'd already attained.

For example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Great Whedon made a choice to separate the human/vampire couple after a perfect night together . . . and the cruel adult longing portrayed in the second half of the season only cast into sharper relief the easier teenage longings of the previous episodes. (See BTVS S2 Ep 13-14: Surprise and Innocence.)

Angel and Buffy were another couple I was to be prevented understanding the "end" of in a timely manner. But that's another story for another day. 

Panning out to look at it from an even wider angle, in archetypal stories, it seems that characters always must be punished and oppressed in exact proportion to the depth of their feelings for other human beings, especially in cases of love or romance. Juliet and Romeo MUST die. It's Tough Shit or maybe it's Karma. Maybe the universe requires all things find a balance?

Maybe it's science. Physics demands that quick flames must quickly burn out. Sensational energy is not sustainable energy.

Because we ourselves tell these stories and set these expectations, this trend either proves that we are innately jealous of other people's happiness, or just fatalistic about our own. Maybe being "destroyed in love" is the most we can ask for.

"I insist on destroying myself in you."

The emotional journeys I love in certain Hollywood stories (like West Side Story), I have also found in Bollywood and Indian Cinema. Only here, sometimes . . . no, OFTEN those emotions are present in greater supply. Bollywood may skimp on reality at times, may falter in the social justice realm, may cause the feminist in me to rise up in desperate indignation, may even bore me with repetitious sequences (do we really need to see any more Indian love songs filmed in the Alps?) but I can't help loving it anyway. This is not a cry for help, so don't bother. (I'm too far gone already.)

I don't always know why I like the stories that I do. I only know that I feel I was destined for Bollywood, even if it took me a long time to get here. I'll pretty much take it any way you serve it to me . . . a steaming-70s Masala platter full of Shashitabh spice; or Madhuri making Anil Kapoor look good even while sporting the worst haircut in a 100 years of Hindi cinema; or Vidya Balan baring it all in the name of biopic; or the inevitable moment when Shah Rukh utilizes his red-eye correction . . . making a poor film into something affecting once again with nothing but a few strategic tears. But Fanaa was my first. And even if it's bad, I'll mis-remember it in honor of it's place in my heart and my journey.

In absence of a blog christening ceremony, I'll just say "May the destruction begin. And may some of you be interested to see how my particular love/tragedy ends." 


  1. Well, as a fellow Bollywood lover, I would argue that Bollywood is, at least in part, about loving something or someone regardless of what others say and often without clear rhyme or reason simply because our hearts tell us to. Anyone can love a well-done, well-scripted movie, but loving a movie that others don't care much for is proof that you have found something special. And, personally, I think Fanaa is an excellent movie. And, might I say, I am quite interested in your love/tragedy. I think it will be utterly unforgettable, like Dilwale Dilhania Le Jayenge.

  2. You make a great point, as usual Bad Wolf about how loving something that nobody else loves is a sign--a sign of personal meaning. I have watched some bad Bollywood lately, but I KEPT watching because I love Bollywood, and I'd rather be watching it when it's bad than reading something profound by Proust or something.

    I'm excited for your upcoming guest post on YOUR personal gateway drug. May it arrive sooner rather than later, this time without technical difficulties.

  3. "This is not a cry for help, so don't bother. (I'm too far gone already.)" - made me chuckle aloud! Fanaa is a good movie to begin your bolly journey - keep it up - there are several good movies to see and a lot of bad ones to tolerate

  4. Glad you were amused! So far, I have seen quite a few good films, actually. It helps to have really good bloggers out there providing recommendations. And I think most bolly-fans find a certain era or type of cinema in which they can stomach second rate films. So far, I think that's the 60s/70s for me. I like the aesthetic enough to put up with the less-than-perfect films. On the other side of things, I often have a hard time with even the beloved films of the 90s, so I tend to make Bad Wolf (who loves all things shiny and campy in the 90s) watch them with me so that I can get through them.


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