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I'm an hour into my flight to India and have just finished lunch which, because of the time difference, is going to have to count as dinner. By the time I land in Delhi my body will be ready for a good night's sleep, but I will have to stay awake.
I don't sleep well on planes so when the in-flight movie comes on I take an unusual step for me and watch it, hoping it will relax me and lull me to sleep.
It's an Indian film. Bollywood! I've heard so much about it. Foreign films give one a glimpse into the workings of a society and I look forward to seeing what this film will tell me about Indian culture.
I pull the headphones on, and reading the subtitles, slide into the movie. The film starts quite abruptly. A young man fails his mathematics exams and is berated for shaming the family by his father (who angrily slaps him). Curiously, the young man takes this all in stride, and smiling as if nothing is amiss, announces he will succeed in restoring honor to the family.
The next scene shows the young man in Istanbul of all places, where he gets a job at a oil refinery, makes friends with an odd group of characters and engages in various G-rated hijinks. This must be the Indian equivalent of sowing your wild oats.
Without any segue, the film shifts to a young woman wearing a purple and gold sarong, who eagerly opens a letter. One assumes the letter is from her lover because the reading of it makes the young woman burst into song and begin dancing through the house. She sings of her undying love for a certain Mr. Vinod and, still dancing, makes her way into the teeming street where no-one takes the slightest notice of her. Personally, I tend to notice women dancing in the middle of the street.
The actress is an especially bad dancer, primarily relying on flailing her arms around to convey the fact that she's dancing and not about to fall down. The film is truly bad and the dialogue is hilarious. I may have found a new source of comedies.
Monsoon clouds gather overhead as the young woman dances and sings her way out of town.Sheets of rain begin to fall from the sky. Oddly, it appears to only be raining in half the screen. I assume the actress has just "danced" her way off her mark and beyond the reach of the rain machine. I'm reminded of an article I read prior to my trip which said mistakes like this are common in Indian film because continuity and tightly woven narrative is not considered essential.
Nor, the article continued, is the acting always up to snuff. In one instance, an actress was to say a line while raising her right arm. Time after time she'd utter the line properly but raise the wrong arm. The director was adamant about which arm needed to be raised and when she flubbed another take he walked up to her, took her in his arms and bit her hard on the hand. "The pain will tell you which arm to raise," he said.
Someone needs to bite this actress because she plods along, arms still waving (and thus still dancing) out of town. "Your love is like a cow," she sings. The beatific expression on her face leads me to assume that this is a compliment.
Somehow she ends up at the edge of a ruined temple's wading pool into which she kerplunks ungainly like a frog. She surfaces-- and continues singing! How long can this song go on, I wonder?
A lot longer evidently. In the next scene she stands on a large rock in the middle of a river, a waterfall tumbling in the background. The long shadows on the water signify the shot was taken in the late afternoon. How did we lose six hours? How did she get in the river? Why are her clothes dry?
In mid song the scene shifts to the young man we met earlier, asleep on a train bench. The young woman we just saw in mid-river now stands in the shadows of the train station. A young girl hands her a note and says "The bearded man told me to give this to you." No explanation of who this might be is offered.
The young woman opens the letter and begins to cry. She blubbers her way onto the train, lowers herself into a seat and sits on the young man, waking him. Ah, I get it--it's a love story!
The young man asks her what's wrong. The young woman just cries. Cries a lot. Cries non-stop for three minutes. We are treated to far shots, medium shots and far too many close-ups of the actress crying.
Some people have the ability to cry and still look pretty. This actress is not one of them. I'm glad I've already had my dinner because I don't think I could eat after watching this.
Stupidly, the young man again asks if she's OK. Thankfully, she doesn't break into song, but oddly enough starts yelling at him. "Your problem is that you don't think beyond the village!" she shouts. What village, I wonder? Is this a problem with the translation or are all Indian films this obtuse?
I look at my watch. Good heavens, the film's been running for an hour and a half and we're barely into the story. I later learn that Bollywood films regularly run from three to four hours long.
I also learn that in India, unlike in the West, families see movies together. As the films are so long, people are understandably in a hurry to get home toward the end. Film makers know this so the last five minutes of a movie consist of a throw-away song number or a bit of dialogue which fits the story line less than the regular dialogue.
Theatres don't help by throwing open the doors and turning up the house lights five minutes before the end of the film, at which point bedlam ensues as families rush the exits.
I have to get some sleep as I have a very busy day ahead of me. and don't want to plod around like a zombie. With regret, I take off the headphones and try to sleep--but a line from the film stays with me.
"Your problem is that you don't think beyond the village," the actress had shouted. I realize I've been doing just that. The desperate Music Maker situation has given me tunnel vision. I've totally focused on producing as many Music Makers as possible and have lost sight of the opportunity India presents.
Products the Belorussians swore they could make, and never did, can be made here by cheerful, willing people.
I will heed the actress' advice and think beyond the village.