What do you do when you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you? By that I mean… the BIG rug. I had been in a long-term situation with someone very dear to me, someone in whom all of my passions and obsessions were reflected: Harry Nilsson, Godzilla movies, Kahlil Gibran, Paul McCartney, God, Star Wars, Badfinger, Universal Horror, Exploitation Cinema, Ghoulardi… you name it, we shared it together. Unfortunately, there were long-running underlying problems too large to ignore. When it came time for me to walk away, I couldn’t just do it, I realized just how lonely I would be… for everything I loved, every movie, every song, everything that once would have consoled me would now smell like his cherry vanilla pipe tobacco, would now merely remind me. What do you do when you’ve had THAT rug pulled out from under you?
The story of “Devdas” could have been an answer for me, as once upon a time I would have drowned my sorrows in alcohol and anger, but…
I found other things to consume me, and probably the most immersive being Bollywood! Here I found a lake deep and wide enough to swim in for a long time to come. And best of all, Bollywood has no whiff of cherry vanilla about it, no, it smells to me like cardamom. It belongs to me, not to my friend and I.
In a time of emotional distress, I began to imprint my need to feel passionately on Bollywood. Not a bad choice, there I have found high emotion, dazzling visuals, long emotionally involved stories, love, tragedy, and high romance. There I have found what was, at first, a place to hide, but what now has become a place to explore and celebrate. And what a place, what a resplendent place! And best of all, I have found a few people to share it with, so those lonely nights have become evenings full of companionship, popcorn, cookies, and the chai I make for myself and serve to my friends and students. Through Bollywood I emerged from heartache quickly and victoriously.
My first discovery had already been a part of my life, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose film “Saavariya” had really captured my heart. I’ve been fortunate in that here in town there is a heady video store that carries Bollywood DVD’s, but all the more fortunate in that there is actually a cinema here in town that regularly plays Hindi movies. Among the many I’ve seen there: “Bajirao Mastani,” “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” and one of my very favorites… “Tamasha.” Some of those movies I saw more than once, being lured to the cinema like a moth to the moon. I haven’t had this close a relationship to the cinema since Star Wars was in theaters. It’s one thing to sit cozily in my home with a cup of chai, but it’s another thing entirely to witness these films on the big screen. When “Bajirao Mastani” premiered in town, the theater even dedicated the biggest room with the biggest screen to it, it was jaw-dropping, and I saw it three times. Immersive to say the least. The musical numbers blew my mind, not merely due to the scope, but in how well integrated they were into the story. Most significantly, in one of the dance numbers, there was a two layered metaphor that struck my heart.
Before I realized I needed to break-up or somehow change this situation I was in, I (metaphorically… “the other woman”) hosted what would have, in Bollywood terms, been a visit from my (metaphoric) “rival,” the wife of my dear friend. The days before her rather surprising arrival were anxious, but when she came, we danced… not literally, but we danced together. We shared great meals, shopped, talked about art, and realized that we had once been friends, though that was a lifetime ago, a manifestation ago for me. In “Bajirao Mastani” there is a love triangle between Bajirao, his wife (who was a truly great character), and his “mistress,” or 2nd wife (depending on who you asked), and in the film the two women set aside their differences and sorrows and danced! There was the very metaphor I needed when I needed it, but the metaphor ran even deeper as in the film the two women were relating to another story, that of Radha and Krishna. Of course, Krishna left Radha to be with his wife. And so it goes. And so it went, and so here I am. But, I followed the path of karma, spoke with Parvati many times, tried to deny the weight of what she was telling me I had to do, but in the end (through tears and torment) I set things as right as I could… knowing from the beginning what that would mean to me… what it means is I, like so many women, am left standing alongside Radha, slowly waiting for the air to stop smelling like cherry vanilla pipe tobacco. It has since, and smells now much more like sandalwood… when it’s not smelling like cardamom.
I went to the Temple soon after all this emotional trauma unsatisfactorily and inevitably resolved itself, and I bowed to Radha, her warm eyes, like pools of water, reflected my soul back to me, and I knew that if nothing else, my karma was now clean. And… I was now free. I have become very interested, of late, in doing what I can to realign my karma and find my center.
At home tonight I just finished “Jodha Akbar,” and just last night I got to see “Dedh Ishqiya” for the second time, and both times I saw it, I did so with friends. It seems with the help of Bollywood, I am emerging from this cloud with a smile on my face and with a room full of friends.
What have I discovered about Bollywood? Mainly that it speaks its own language of cinema and cannot be critiqued from a Western perspective trained to see things a certain… nay… a very specific way. For one, I love the high emotion of Bollywood, it matches my emotional intensity far more directly than Western films do. Western films are, to my eyes, emotionally stunted, full of characters who are not truly free to feel, and critiqued and praised by people who are not free to feel, nor open to another way of viewing cinema. I have found that Bollywood films, at their best, can redefine what cinema can be, or more specifically, how dear cinema can be to one’s heart. I have found that the dismissive cliches about Bollywood only prove to be so from a very narrow point of view. For example I have been surprised, even delighted, to note that in most cases the songs are flawlessly incorporated, and, to me anyhow, seem very organic, and beyond that I have been impressed at the way many of the more powerful directors use the song and dance elements. In “Dedh Ishqiya” the songs fit seemlessly into the film, and the choices of music were very high-minded to say the least. These songs truly speak from and to the heart, and like lyrics and poems, can more easily express deep emotions than dialog.
I have witnessed dance numbers and rhythms that Western Popular music could stand to learn from. I mean, talk about beats! Bollywood’s got beat! The dance numbers can be enchanting, and the choreography impressive, complex, enormous, yet, at times, as subtle as hand gestures (see Devdas for one fine example of that).
I have discovered that as I begin to be able to tell who’s who, I am beginning to develop certain loyalites to certain directors, and great respect and appreciation for certain actors, easily my favorite being Madhuri Dixit. Divine Madhuri! She is full of grace and magic, just as Bardot had been, and before her, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, or even Audrey Hepburn. Madhuri has that larger than life feel, she never seems ordinary or vulgar. In “Dedh Ishqiya,” she plays an older woman, an aristocrat, who at heart is still a dancer, the same woman she has always been regardless of her status. This seemed, to me, like a metaphor for her own life and her own status. Bollywood, like Hollywood, is obsessed with youth. Her role in “Dedh Ishqiya” was inspiring and moving, especially to me, as I am not getting any younger. Madhuri shines, be she twenty-something or forty-something, she radiates with larger-than-life magic, just like the Beatles do and did. The Beatles never seemed like boys to me, rather like manifestations of Deities. Some people, some stars, are too big to be common. And many of us need our heroes to be bigger than we are, after all, what good is a hero who is only as large as our nearest neighbor? I do not seek equals in my heroes.
Do I sound like a fangirl?
Good, because I am, shamelessly so, shamelessly becoming an anime geek for Bollywood. And shamelessly dragging other people into this with me. So far, none of my converts have complained.
if there’s been an upside to this “break-up,” or “falling-out,” or whatever it was (nothing about the situation was typical or as-it-seemed) it has to be Bollywood. I’ve been grateful for the color, the music, the romance, the heroic values… and for the fact that the films are rarely (if ever) cynical. Cynicism, there’s something I’ve ggrown weary of in the West. Ah, give me romance, and I mean high romance, not just between a man and a woman, but romance to a culture, to music, to ideals of heroism. I’ve realized that, at least through Bollywood, the Indians have not forgotten how the hero’s journey works, and have not lost sight of what a hero must be. India, for all its problems and struggles, still understands its own myths, and still honors its own Gods.
Like Mastani with her sword, I have found strength. Shortly after seeing this film I found myself, once again, in a situation in which I needed to defend the integrity of my school and my own space. I have realized that I am, at times, all alone out here, and at times, I alone will stand firm and take matters into my own hands. On this day I ended up beating a door to splinters with a hammer (uh… long story). Ultimately, like Durga, I confronted this Rakshasa demon, and peace and quiet prevailed over the kingdom. I have begun to become the sort of woman for whom the buck stops, and it stops here, at my toes and ankle bangles. Yes, there are role models for women in Bollywood films, women who can be strong without resorting to grunting, groaning and spitting like men, women who know that their strength lies not in masculinization, but in a whiff of perfume, in dance, and in the depths of their femininity. And I have become the kind of woman who can survive having the rug pulled out from under her.
Well, I don’t know where the rug went when it was pulled out from under me, but I like the beautiful Persian rug I’m standing on now just fine. I think I’ll throw a few more pillows on it, lie down, and watch “Bahubali” again. Bring cookies, I’ll make the chai.