Every so often (i.e. when I'm keen to watch a Hindi movie on the big screen) or when there's a big new Bollywood production out (usually this translates into the latest SRK superhit, or the new Yash Raj annual glossy staple) I will head out to one of the many cinemas in London that show Hindi movies.
Usually, the bulk of these tend to be in the suburbs, where there is a sizeable Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan community (somewhat generically referred to as "South Asian" or more specifically, "Brit-Asian". Interestingly, people refer to French immigrants in the US as French, Germans as Germans, Belgians as Belgians, etc, without actually calling them "Western Europeans", though the term "Eastern European" is heard more and more frequently in the press & public discourse...interesting....)
Anyway, we digress...so as I was saying, usually the Hindi films will play in the suburbs, (many, like Himalaya Palace Cinema, only show Hindi movies) but ever so often, a Bollywood movie will be picked up by one of the big chains - usually the biggest hit of the year. If its a Shah Rukh movie, it WILL be picked up (that man has a fan following all over the world); the big Yash Raj ones usually get distributed as well.
As a result, I managed to catch Mangal Pandey, The Rising (or whatever that movie was called) last summer. (In a strange incidence of poetic justice, I also saw that film in the erstwhile heartland of the East India Company, the Isle of Dogs.) And today, I saw Fanaa in the London Trocadero, just off Piccadilly Circus.
This might not necessarily seem to be a big deal, but actually it is. For the bulk of my childhood, when we were growing up outside India, most people either never watched Bollywood (or if they did, never admitted to it) or openly derided them as fantastical, song & dance tripe. This wasn't just restricted to some snotty critics at the latest Trendy-with-a-capital-T New York magazine, but also a lot of the Indians we met overseas - kids of immigrants, diplomats, etc. Watching Bollywood movies if you weren't in India wasn't cool, and it wasn't something you ever admitted to. (Though given that Mithun Chakraborty was the biggest thing in Bollywood in the 1980s, this may not be completely out of place...)
But it was something that was never in debate in India - everyone saw Hindi movies, everyone knew how to play Antakshari, everyone knew every major Kishore Kumar song. This wasn't something you made an effort to keep up with; it was a fact of life.
However, that was in India. When you were outside India, and perhaps not in South Asia, Bollywood was very deliberately off the radar. The only ones who really watched Bollywood movies were the immigrants who were nostalgic for home - and they never admitted to doing it. If they were found out, it was blamed on blatantly uncool parents. Nobody else really did, did they? They all watched Hollywood!
But it wasn't just that these Indian movies weren't in English - the subtitles could easily rectify that. It was that, unlike the cooperative French, Iranian, Turkish, Korean, whatever, film industries, Indian films just didn't "fit" the mold of what good cinema was. We insisted on making really long movies, which were melodramatic, packed full of formulaic emotional plots, usually pilfered stories from big Hollywood blockbusters, and to top it all off, had to throw in at least 5 songs into each film, for which the leads would suddenly be transported into a glamorous foreign locale (usually, but not always, Switzerland). I mean, they were just SO weird! And we weren't even apologetic about it! We insisted, despite all the friendly advice from the West, to continue making the movies we made, without rhyme or reason!
And then, somewhere, somehow, things began to change. In the late 90s, suddenly, the world started to take notice. Obviously, these were still terribly kitschy movies, lacking in plotlines, darling, and absolutely totally lacking class, but I mean, they still sell! And given that the Indian economy had started attracting some attention, people were keen to see what exactly was happening.
This was the same time that the Swiss, in many ways the most pragmatic and sensible of all Europeans, realised the economic value of Indian film crews shooting in their country. They realised quickly that the biggest hindrance to the smooth flow of industry professions was the visa, and introduced the Unit Visa, allowing entire film crews to travel without difficulty on single documents. This was soon followed by renaming a modest peak in the Swiss Alps Mount India...in honour of the many Sunny Deol song sequences shot around its base!
And suddenly, many more countries began to sit up and take notice. And as Indian cinema became more technically advanced, finding new & exciting locations across the world for the latest glossy song sequence was an essential part of the script. And suddenly, if Switzerland was for the slightly unimaginative Salman Khan starrer, we had Urmila Matondkar in Namibia, Kajol & Shah Rukh in Egypt, Madhuri Dixit in Patagonia, and not to forget, Hrithik Roshan in the British Museum, which was a bit of a coup since it was the first film sequence shot inside the museum. Most recently, the Irish government has actively started wooing Indian filmmakers to its shores.
But was it all the money talking? Was that all that made people realise what Bollywood was all about? There was an obvious financial aspect to the whole attention seeking (the former NDA government also declared Bollywood a formal industry, which thus opened up the business to legal commercial funding, and also streamlined insurance policies, etc) But surely there was something else to this?
I think people have finally realised, and accepted, that Bollywood is a bigger global phenomenon than we might think. More people across the world have seen a Bollywood movie than a Hollywood one. I have heard stories from people from Russia, mainland China, Tanzania, Venezuela & Morocco about how they grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan & (unfortunately!) Mithun Chakraborty. I heard from a Chinese colleague how a movie about a dog that avenges its master's untimely death was her father's favourite, while someone in South Africa told me about the survivor of the Rwandan massacres was less interested in narrating his experiences to the Indian origin human rights lawyer as he was in taking a peek at the CD case for the latest Shah Rukh film. There have been Greek university friends who have watched Kal Ho Na Ho and started sniffling half way through the movie, while other friends have bawled their eyes out in Asoka. My former flatmate, a classic English bloke, insisted on calling his former girlfriend, now happily married to someone else, to tell her he wished her health & happiness, again after watching Kal Ho Na Ho. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham has many stories attached, from the German who insisted on subjecting her rather surprised parents to the unedited DVD over an Easter holiday, while the gruff Afrikaner blasted its songs from his laptop for three days non stop and also made up with his estranged father (I mean, it IS all about loving your parents, isn't it?)
So what is it that makes Bollywood so popular? I don't know, and perhaps we shall never really know. Someone infinitely more intelligent shall no doubt some day start researching this phenomenon in more detail. But what I do know is that I can now walk through London, taking the tube to work, and see posters of Fanaa right next to those of X-Men 3 in the London tube. And that is already enough to celebrate. If I was in a movie, we'd be dancing down that platform right now....