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THE BIG MIX : Video : So Many Video Stores, So Many Languages. . . : India: Action, Song and Dance

The articles on these pages, plus those to follow in daily Calendar, explore the multicultural spheres of Homeland Video.

February 05, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF

In Bombay Spices, a shop along Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, the air is redolent with the scent of curry and sandalwood. Herbs, spices and other foodstuffs line the shelves, along with articles of traditional Indian dress and, as touted by a sign in the window, "knit sweaters, cardigans, tops and fancy shoes from England."

The tiny shop also has more than 1,200 videotapes lining the wall behind the register. The titles are mostly in Hindi and Punjabi, with a few English titles--"Hero," "Divorce," "Coolie"--scattered throughout. One of the tapes, entitled "Bijliyann" (which translates roughly as Electric ), is playing on a small, battered color TV near the back of the shop.

In one scene, a number of tough-but-sexy women in Western dress fight off a throng of oafish male assailants. In another scene, the gang's leader does a slinky, MTV-style lip-sync to a bouncy disco tune. There is a hint of slapstick as well, as one character bumbles through a scene a la Jerry Lewis.

To a Western eye, the film seems oddly jumbled. But according to shop owner Bhupinder Singh Batra (shown on Page 1 with his wife), the mixture of action, music and comedy is a formula in Indian cinema.

"There is adventure, suspense, fighting," Batra explains. "Very few (films) are based on one particular theme."

Then there is the music. Bombay Spices carries several shelves of audio music tapes, and nearly all, Batra says, are collections of film tunes. "There must be at least four or five songs" for a film to be successful, Batra says. "There was a time when it was more classical and such. But now you will find more disco songs."

Artesia, originally settled by Dutch and Portuguese immigrants, is now home to a number of ethnic communities, including Latino, Vietnamese and Indian enclaves. The stretch of Pioneer between 183rd Street and the Artesia Freeway (California 91) contains what is probably the largest concentration of Indian businesses in Southern California, including restaurants, clothing stores, jewelry shops and markets.

"Sometimes they call it 'Little India,' " Batra says with a chuckle. "It's nothing like the Chinese and Korean communities, though. It's just a few shops." Bombay Spices once had a monopoly on the local video business, but now several nearby markets rent Indian videos.

Down the street, at Ganesh Groceries, a pair of customers browse the video shelves. "These have to do with social themes, the way society treats people," says Nagarajian R. of Los Angeles, holding up two tapes he had selected.

He classifies the films as social dramas but adds that, typically, Indian movies always include elements of action, music and romance. But the Indian portrayal of romance, he emphasizes, differs from that commonly found in American films: "It's not based on sex. . . . You won't ever find nudity in an Indian film."

While he enjoys Indian cinema, R. is also a fan of American films. His friend, Bijili B. of Culver City, says she prefers Indian movies--not out of a sense of obligation, she explains, but because it gives her a needed cultural connection to the homeland. "It helps me see what is happening at home," she explains.

"The new generation, the ones who are brought up here, don't have much interest in Indian movies," says Bishan Dutt, proprietor of nearby India Video & Records. "The ones who were born and brought up in India prefer to see movies from India."

His shop is set up like a typical English-language video or music shop, with empty video sleeves displayed on the walls and records and tapes in a rack running down the center of the floor. Dutt says his shop is the only one in Southern California that deals in Indian video and music exclusively.

Currently, one of the hottest items in Indian video is "Ramayan," a made-for-TV adaptation of the "Ramayana," a Sanskrit epic written in the 3rd Century BC. India would literally shut down when the series was shown on television there, Dutt says.

On video, "Ramayan's" 23 episodes total more than 50 hours. Dutt says it is actually more popular as a sale item than as a rental, because "people want to have it for their children."

"Ramayan," though, is an exception. Most of the tapes Dutt stocks fall into the action/adventure/comedy/musical/romance category that Indian film makers seem to specialize in. "Fight, dance and songs" are elements of almost all Indian feature films, Dutt says, because reality doesn't sell in India. Moviegoers want escape.

And part of that escape is music. "You will find that one (film) in 50 or so is not" a musical, Dutt says. The 50th he categorizes as an "art" film, one that deals more in reality, and it is here that India and Hollywood find their common ground.

"They don't make money, here or in India," Dutt says of art films from his homeland. "They're made to win awards."

Bombay Spices, 18628 Pioneer Blvd., (213) 860-9949. This special issue was edited by David Fox, Sunday Calendar assistant editor.

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