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In praise of the cinema god

Bollywood Dreams, Jonathan Torgovnik, Phaidon Press: 116 pp., $40

June 22, 2003|Shashi Tharoor | Shashi Tharoor is the author of seven books on India, including the 1992 novel "Show Business," which was made into the motion picture "Bollywood."

Bollywood Dreams

An Exhibition

Jonathan Torgovnik

Stephen Cohen Gallery

Through July 5

7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

IN 1982, the reigning Bombay superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, lay gravely ill in after an accident on the set of his film "Coolie." The nation came to a standstill; public prayers were offered at every intersection for the actor's survival; anxious crowds in the thousands thronged the hospital; the prime minister came to sit at the patient's bedside. Humble rickshaw-pullers spent their life savings on train tickets to Bombay so they could maintain a vigil outside the hospital for Bachchan's recovery. One fan walked backward for 300 miles, his bizarre penance an offering to the gods for his hero's survival. Two disconsolate youths committed suicide, hoping the heavens would agree to trade their lives for Bachchan's.

Bachchan survived. He celebrated his 60th birthday last year as the host of India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and as a major movie performer who is still a considerable box-office draw. But his brush with death crystallized for many what the popular cinema of "Bollywood" had come to represent in India. It was something much larger than mere entertainment, indeed an alternative reality: a way of escape for an entire nation from the humdrum facts of their daily existence, a living embodiment of a country's mass culture, a Technicolor excuse for millions of people to dream with their eyes open.

Two decades later, Bollywood still reigns supreme, producing some 800 films annually -- nearly twice the number of movies Hollywood manages. Some 14 million Indians watch them on any given day, at more than 7,000 cinema theaters around the country, some that are little more than traveling tents pitched in rural fields.

In addition, an increasing number of cinemas in the U.S. and Britain are devoted to Bollywood fare, aimed principally at the affluent Indian diaspora. One Indian release, "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening)," last January grossed enough on its first weekend in the U.S. to have appeared at No. 7 on Variety's lists, had that magazine been counting Bollywood films and not just Hollywood's. The Empire has struck back.

Lensman Jonathan Torgovnik, fresh from three years of army service in Israel (as a photographer), spent five years in India taking pictures of the assorted deities and rituals of what he terms "India's common religion," popular cinema. The result is the stunning "Bollywood Dreams," a compilation of 100 photographs sparingly punctuated with text.

His handsomely produced volume (another testament to the consistently high quality of Phaidon Press) is divided into thematic sections: a short introduction to Indian cinema by filmographer and critic Nasreen Munni Kabir, followed by chapters on the "touring cinema" (a uniquely Indian phenomenon), movie sets, actors and cinemagoers.

Bachchan is there, of course, looking moody and intense. So are assorted heartthrobs, character actors and stock villains, with their handlebar mustaches and demonically rheumy red eyes. Elaborately costumed dancers leap and cavort off the page; stuntmen are captured in mid-assault or dangling upside-down from the ceiling. There is a classic shot of actors Govinda and Sonali Bendre in an archetypal dance sequence, their perfect bodies clad in impossibly glamorous "rural" dress, laughing as they lip-sync to the playback track. They sway at the waist, their hands open at the wrist, fingers turned, in a gesture of interrogation, as 40 sequined extras, black veils held aloft behind their heads, match steps in unison behind them. It is a scene reminiscent of those that played so well last year in "Lagaan," the crossover success that saw a Bollywood epic score an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film.

This is Bollywood, purveyor sans pareil of the song-and-dance extravaganza in which music melds with melodrama, and truth and justice triumph before the closing credits. Torgovnik captures the gaudy exuberance of India's popular films in all their color, but what makes his work even more remarkable is his effort to go behind the scenes to provide glimpses of the real world from which Bollywood emerges and from which its audience escapes.

Torgovnik's eye is keen and omnivorous. There are candid pictures of the technicians and workmen on the movie sets, of projectionists mending torn reels of film, and of the truck driver for a traveling cinema, their ordinariness a striking contrast to the formally posed portraits of movie legends Torgovnik also includes. There are images shot in the teeming streets, of passersby dwarfed by movie hoardings, of queues snaking round the block for a matinee, of bicyclists looking up at the five-times-life-size painted cutouts of movie stars on a Chennai street, and even -- can this Indian forgive him for, what? The cliche? -- of a man on an elephant at a street corner dominated by an enormous movie billboard.

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