March 28, 2020
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Dance In The Glade

The Shakespearean in Bollywood’s dreamy, bittersweet fantasies

Dance In The Glade
Dance In The Glade

Indians Who Made It Big Abroad

  • A.R. Rahman
  • Aishwarya Rai
  • Kabir Bedi
  • Freida Pinto
  • Shekhar Kapur
  • Om Puri
  • Anil Kapoor
  • Mallika Sherawat


A few years back, a screening of Mehboob Khan’s 1957 classic Mother India was laid on for British critics in London, to mark its re-release there. This took place in a small theatre in the Twentieth Century Fox building in the South-West corner of Soho Square; it’s a building in which I seem to have spent a great deal of my life in the last decade or so. We sat down to this mighty popular classic with a good deal of enjoyment—I did anyway. On the way out, I said breezily to my colleague, Derek Malcolm: “Well, they don’t make ’em like....” I was half-way through the old cliche when the words died on my lips. With a smile, Derek appeared to read my mind, and said: “Actually, they make ’em like that all the time!”

And it’s true. The Bollywood genre has survived and prospered mightily over the decades, offering its audience a genuine, thriving musical cinema long after Hollywood gave up on the idea. One thing the Indian film industry has had no difficulty surviving is the ignorance and condescension of the British reviewers: and I’m sorry and embarrassed to say that I could have done a lot more to reverse this situation in my case. And of course Indian cinema means more than just Bollywood. One of the first films I reviewed professionally was Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist, in many ways a remarkable premonition of the global nightmare of 9/11. But here again I have had to defer to the great passion of my colleague Derek Malcolm, from whom I first heard the names of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, V. Shantaram, Ritwik Ghatak, and latterly Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Just after I started on The Guardian in 1999, I made my first visit to South Asia: a trip to Dhaka, and then Delhi and Rajasthan in India. It was while I was there that I fell into conversation about the great master, Satyajit Ray. “You know The Music Room, of course?” I was asked. Numbly, I shook my head. More education was needed—I made a start on rectifying that, and before I left India I bought a copy of Ray’s fascinating short stories, a collection called Indigo, which is now on my desk as I write.

Aishwarya: ‘The most beautiful, glamorous star I’ve seen in the flesh’

Indian cinema has a lowish profile in the British press currently. A while ago, distributors like Eros made a big effort to put on early screenings of their films for the press. When Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001) came out, it was a big event: the first mainstream Bollywood picture to feature British actors in the cast. I loved it. It had brashness, energy and life. There was a touch of Kurosawa in it, and Kipling too. Bollywood continues to be a mighty force in the UK, but it still functions below the media radar. Bollywood films are rarely reviewed—but the industry is so prosperous it does not need press attention. The colossal success of Danny Boyle’s Indian-set film Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 further popularised the Bollywood aesthetic and made it a media trope, but again Indian commercial cinema itself was not absorbed into the mainstream Anglophone movie business here. And again, I think that is evidence of the muscular independence and prosperity of an industry which simply dwarfs ours.

What happened is we woke up to the existence of massive stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Now, I myself have written rather ungallantly about Aishwarya, calling her performances wishy-washy. But I have to put on record that she is easily the most beautiful and glamorous star I have ever seen in the flesh: far more hypnotic than people like, say, Nicole Kidman or George Clooney, whom I have also stood near at various premieres. I once found myself standing near Aishwarya at a dinner at the Cannes Film Festival, and she was like an impossibly gorgeous creature from another planet, with a benign aura. I found myself standing there in a slack-jawed daze. Like everyone else.

Santosh Sivan’s Terrorist

Again and again, watching Bollywood movies I have been struck by their emphasis on bittersweet fantasy, and again and again I scribble the same words in the notebook on my lap: “Shakespeare”, or specifically “late Shakespeare”, the Shakespeare of Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline. However broad they are, the films have, for me, a connection with something dreamlike and gentle and escapist, which reminds me of Shakespeare—there’s simply no other way to describe it, although I know of no other writer who feels it as strongly as I do.

Now that brings me back to Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film, Days And Nights In The Forest: a wonderful film, which is a perfect example of Ray’s almost miraculous, unforced, untutored cinematic style. When the four bachelors encounter the two women from a well-to-do family in an elegant country estate, it conjures the sublimely Arcadian world of Shakespeare: the world of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I found myself re-reading Ray’s short story, Patol Babu, Film Star, about a middle-aged guy, quite the amateur thespian in his youth, who becomes wildly excited to be offered a walk-on part in a movie. All he has to do is bump into the leading man in the street and say the single word: “Oh!” And so, as he waits around for his scene, he frantically starts thinking about he can endow this monosyllable with meaning. This is a lovely, gentle, funny story, building up to something quite different from the embarrassing catastrophe I had been expecting. It’s a reminder of the energy, sophistication, and sheer enjoyment to be had from Ray, and Indian pictures generally.

(Bradshaw is film critic of The Guardian)

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