February 12, 2008

Why Hindi films?

People have asked me many times to tell my story - the story of how Hindi films found me and became my obsession. That's right - how Hindi films found me. I don't like to say I discovered Hindi films; it seems arrogant to credit myself with the discovery of something that has decades of rich history and an audience measured in the billions.

I haven't ever gotten around to writing up this tale, and for a while I wasn't even sure where I'd put it. Filmi Geek seems the most natural place, but the format I've developed there is pretty strict, limited to reviews and the occasional administrative metapost - I've not put anything substantive there that wasn't a film review. Geek of All Trades is where I usually put musings of this nature, but the truth is that GOAT's readership would find this a lot less interesting than Filmi Geek's.

Then a recent post by my friend Greta at Memsaab Story prompted me to personify my story - the short version of the story, anyway - it's Shabana Azmi, herself. And so it was clear that Sounds Like Power was the place this tale should be told.

It began about seven years ago, when an idea for a novel started brewing in my head. I am not much of a fiction writer - though I love writing and usually think I'm pretty good at it, I have no experience with fiction. Yet I had some characters kicking around in my mind, and as I thought about them they took on lives and personalities of their own. And as they took shape, I realized that one of them was Indian. It wasn't a choice I made for her; it was just something she asserted about herself. To this day I really don't know why.

Since I knew so little about India, I set out to learn more so I could understand my character better and shape her in a way that would be interesting and real. In a process that developed in dribs and drabs over several years, I started to learn more about India's history and culture, so I could understand my character's backstory. As part of that I started listening to filmi music - I'd always been interested in music from around the world, so naturally I picked up a compilation CD with some classic Bollywood tunes on it, and was particularly affected by Asha Bhosle and the music of RD Burman. The first time I listened to that CD, the first song - "Dum maro dum" - was like a musico-religious experience; it was the best music I had ever heard, and it felt like coming home. This prologue, properly interpreted, was a hint of things to come.

In the fits and starts of researching my character, about three years ago, I heard about a movie called Fire. Fire seemed like it would have something to say about my character's life and experiences, and I thought I ought to see it. So I got a hold of the movie and one night, alone at home when David was away at a conference, I watched it.

I still don't really know what hit me that night.

I was so deeply moved by the film - and especially by the arc of its main character, Radha - that I watched it three times in eight days. It's safe to say that Fire pushed every button I had, and affected me far beyond the point of researching my character. It resonated both literally and in metaphor at every level in my mind. And Radha in particular - her stillness, her sadness, her introspection, her awakening, her power - got under my skin in a way that I never could have anticipated.

I've never been obsessed with movies or movie stars - I've been obsessed with lots of things but not that - and I never considered myself a connoisseur of fine acting or even someone particularly able to identify it when I saw it. Yet I knew instinctively that the crafting of Radha was a performance for the ages, and in the age of the internet it was a trivial matter for me to look up the actor behind it and find out who she was, this Shabana Azmi.

I was stunned.

I had been blindsided by something, and someone, completely extraordinary. This wasn't merely a good performance; this was a brave and expert turn by the most decorated actor ever, anywhere. And as if that wasn't enough to feed my penchant for accomplished, beautiful older women, she was a Parliamentarian and an activist as well. My favorite actors at the time were Katharine Hepburn and Emma Thompson and Susan Sarandon; Shabana Azmi was like the three of them blended, on steroids, and run through an amplifier turned up to 11.

I hadn't just watched a sweet and moving film; I'd brushed up against a giant whose storied career had been raging my entire life, and yet of whom I had been, until that moment, completely ignorant. I was awed and ashamed. I wanted - needed - to catch up, to learn everything about her that I could, and place that information in its context. I set out to watch Hindi films. I started learning Hindi.

The rest almost seems like epilogue. The next several films I watched followed two main branches outward from Fire. On the one hand, to learn more about Shabana Azmi, I watched Ankur and Mrityudand, two of her films that were available from Netflix. On the other, since I liked Fire, I watched Deepa Mehta's other film Earth, and liked that very much too. From there, the branches continued to grow and split. In Earth Aamir Khan impressed me so I watched Lagaan and Dil chahta hai. In Mrityudand I was charmed by Madhuri Dixit and so I watched Hum aapke hain kaun. Continuing to investigate Shabana Azmi's work I watched Amar Akbar Anthony and was gobsmacked by the presence of Amitabh Bachchan. And on, and on. By this time I was reading BollyWHAT and learning the landscape of significant actors and films. Each new film I watched introduced me to a new actor who piqued my interest and beckoned me to explore further. It took me a few tries to really surrender to the aesthetic of Hindi films, to learn to appreciate masala and to shed my western bias against melodrama and displays of strong emotion, but surrender I did.

I have a dozen "favorite" actors now and three times as many "favorite" movies. Very early on, when I'd only seen two or three films in Hindi, I told a desi acquaintance that Shabana Azmi was my favorite Indian actor. "Well, I've only seen a couple of Indian movies," I immediately backpedaled, "it's not really right to call her my favorite."

"Oh," my friend smiled knowingly, "you never forget your first love."

I've not yet written that novel. But I've written a whole different story, this story, in which I lost my heart and my head over an actor and an art form that I feel blessed and lucky to be able to enjoy. I love the color and chime, the intensity and range of emotion, and the transcendent music that really is the best music in the world. I love Shabana Azmi, and her passion for and pride in Hindi cinema is, by extension, a source of pride for me. And above all I love the window Hindi films give me into aspects of Indian culture and the opportunity they have given me to meet and learn from interesting folks from all over the world. So to all of you, again, thanks so much for reading.


Anonymous said...

"Shabana Azmi was like the three of them blended, on steroids, and run through an amplifier turned up to 11."

Lovely! And isn't that true of most things Indian? What a great story, so unusual. I hope you do write that novel; but even if you don't, your presence in the world of Hindi movie fans has enriched it greatly!

yves said...

Wow, Carla, that was very nice; thanks for sharing that "genesis" of yours. I loved the "gobsmacked by Amitabh"!! (wonder if he did that to me too?...) And as for Shabana-ji, I still have to see her most important films, I think. That only makes me think that there's so much more pleasure to come!

Filmi Geek said...

Yves - not that long ago a friend of mine said I was "lucky" in my choice of favorite film star. And I think she's right - Shabana Azmi has been in a hell of a lot of good movies. Lots of bad ones too, but I've seen about 30 so far and really only one or two were so bad that I wanted the time back afterwards. I still have several really good ones and even more fair ones before I really have to start scraping the bottom of the barrell. The point is yes, there is more pleasure to come for you! :D

Greta: thanks so much! *blush*

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your writing very, very much!(Whatever happened to the fiction novel?)

What an amazing and honest story of your entrance into Hindi films...Like you, I had never been completely enchanted by a film until I started watching Indian cinema.

I think its very sweet and a bit ironic that your first Hindi film would be a Shabana starrer...like you said, its like the films (and Shabana-ji) found you!

Wonder if Shabana-ji has ever (or will ever) see this site. You just never know, right? :) I'm sure she would absolutely love it!

Filmi Geek said...

Nida, word on the street - from a reader who met Shabana ji and asked her about it - is that Shabana ji is aware that we are here.

It still makes me wobble a little when I think about it!

I hope she likes what we're doing here. :D

Anonymous said...

She did write on this blog a couple of times offering help and material for publishing but people, including the blogger, refused to believe it was really her, justifiably I suppose though there wasn't any harm in testing out the offer :-). There's nothing she can possibly do to convince you it's her, so she was just amused and let it go.

Filmi Geek said...

Anonymous - I wish I knew who you were! - actually there was just one comment from someone claiming to be Shabana herself, and she left no means for contacting her so there wasn't much I could do to follow up. I think my skepticism was understandable, and I also think I was pretty nice about it. :D

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you KNOW or you GUESS Shabana was just amused and let it go? ;) She could answer a couple of questions and we could be finally convinced...which would be wonderful, by the way!

Hans Meier said...

Very nicely, sweetly written "coming of age" story... welcome to the club... :)

I always felt your reviews were very carefully and sensitively crafted and a pleasure to read if i disagreed with your points. If you do have any fiction available, let us know.