Monday, September 22, 2008
I admit it: I love Bollywood movies. The over-the-top acting, flamboyant costumes, exuberant dance numbers, and saccharine sweet storylines make American musical theatre look like a Chekhov drama. I’ve seen a few Bollywood films in the US, but I knew that nothing would compare to seeing the real deal in India.
Fortunately for us, India’s largest and most famous Bollywood theatre, Raj Mandir, is located in Jaipur. We were warned to purchase tickets well in advance – opening weekend shows can sell out for days. Raj Mandir only screens one movie on one screen; in this case Singh is Kinng (I honestly don’t know why “kinng” is spelled with two “n”s). At the ticket window we were provided with a choice of seating times and ticketing levels, ranging from Diamond to Emerald to Ruby, an appropriate analogy given Jaipur’s long history in the gem trading industry. We chose the best seats in the house for a whopping $2 per ticket, which is bound to be the least amount of money I ever spend on a movie ticket.
Walking into the theatre feels a bit like entering a nightclub: bouncers man the imposing front doors, and we are wanded and warned not to take photographs, even in the lobby. Once inside, the foyer looks more like a grand Broadway theatre than a cineplex. Plush seats line the perimeter of the room, as gigantic lavender ornamentation stretches towards the soaring ceiling. Starving, we make our way towards the snack counter, where we pay about 50 cents for a soft drink and even less for popcorn which are, for once, a human size. (A host of pakora, fried snacks, and pretty white pastries are also available.)
Most people don’t realize that India – not California – sustains the world’s largest film industry, but to see the occupancy of the theatre would have you believing otherwise. We stumble over sardine-packed rows of moviegoers in the darkened theatre, the previews having already started. Instead of advertisements for future movies, we are treated to what amounts to a public service announcement singing the praises of Rajastan, the state in which Jaipur is located. At the 3:30 Sunday seating of a 1,100 seat theatre there is not a single seat available.
The movie starts, and the opening lines are in English. “Happy birthday, king.” Then, the next three hours progress in Hindi, with intermittent words and phrases in English. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to piece together what seems like a very complicated storyline. It’s obviously a love story and a comedy – most Bollywood films follow the same formula – but beyond that we are hopelessly lost. My favorite parts are the decadent dance numbers, as intense hues sashay across the screen. It’s also fun to listen to the audience – sight gags and pratfalls are a huge hit, and certain jokes have the audience in stitches, clapping loudly. There are no separate rooms for babies, who sit happily on their mothers’ laps but cry loudly from time to time. No one glares or rolls their eyes at the disruption; it’s just part of the Indian moviegoing experience.
At intermission the elegant velvet curtain dips down and the lights go up, giving us a chance to admire the opulent theatre. Large white scallop shapes frame the screen; I understand why the Lonely Planet referred to the theatre as “a giant meringue.” Everyone floods the snack counter – we at the Diamond level have our own – while Maikael and I try to figure out the plot of the movie. Neither of us are able to reach any sort of a consensus.
The movie continues, and we fall further and further behind in our comprehension. There is a woman who sells roses. There are a lot of men in turbans. There is a man who is catatonic. Suddenly they are in some facsimile of Australia. But how these pieces of the puzzle fit together is a complete mystery.
Perhaps the strangest moment of the movie is realizing that the show’s signature dance number, “Singh is Kingg,” is sung by none other than rapper Snoop Dogg. The tune is infectious, and as the movie adjourns, depositing throngs of people into the late afternoon heat, everyone is humming the song.
We make our way into an air conditioned restaurant, where the most bizarre Muzak I’ve ever heard is piped in through the sound system, including an instrumental version of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love.” Over tandoori chicken, vegetable rice, and the world’s fluffiest nan, we discuss the finer points of the movie. Who was that guy? What was the deal with that lady? Why did they go to that place? I finished the meal by taking a chance on a dessert I had never heard of, rasmalai, a Rajastani specialty of delicate balls of light cheese, doused in saffron-scented milk and sprinkled with pistachios. It is delicious, but we reach no grand conclusions about the film.
The next day a 10 year-old girl, who had also seen the movie, tried to explain the plot to me. Even in English it didn’t make a great deal of sense. But the costumes were still gorgeous.2 comments