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Memphis Flyer Hurray for Bollywood

Indian movie madness sweeps Memphis.

By Tanuja Supuriya

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  It's with great hesitation that I tell you about the latest craze sweeping through area cinemas. After all, it's hard enough to get tickets as it is. But any true movie lover should know that Bollywood has hit Memphis, and the Hindi movie mania is bringing out the sneaky side in many of the city's Indian film fans. (Bollywood is Bombay's huge movie industry, which churns out about 800 titles per year -- twice Hollywood's output.)

For the past year, Hindi movies, which are promoted in Memphis by word of mouth or the occasional postcard from the local Indian grocery stores, have been showing every couple weeks to mostly sold-out crowds of Indians and Pakistanis at Hollywood 20 Cinema and Malco Appletree Cinema. Fans often trek in from Jackson and Little Rock. And when a really popular movie hits town, you can forget about getting tickets -- even 30 minutes before showtime.

So plots to snag tickets and find good seats begin early, with only diamond heists requiring more schemes. Some use the buddy system, having one person stand in line to buy a huge block of tickets for friends, while others try cozying up to theatre managers in hopes they will save them seats (I've tried, it doesn't work). Once you've found a place to park your keester, keep it there, or someone will snatch it up faster than a runaway rickshaw.

What's all the fuss about? Well, there is a reason for the madness. The three- to four-hour movies offer up India's rich culture with spectacular music, dancing, costumes, scenery, and occasionally, good acting. For years, the only way to see a Hindi movie in Memphis was to rent a grainy video from an Indian grocery store, and even those came out months after the rest of the world saw them.

For many, the movies are a quick link back "home" to the people, places, traditions, and language they left behind. And while the first generation of Indian immigrants concentrated on fitting in with America's culture, young Indians today, who often fill up at least a third of the moviehouse, seem more intent on holding onto whatever heritage they can, even if it is only through the big screen. "Being Indian" has gotten cool again, and movies are the main way to keep up with the latest music and fashion. Besides, with a strong dose of Western influence, the movies are a lot cooler than they were 20 years ago. Stars like Shah Ruhk Khan, Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwariya Rai -- the Brad Pitts and Julia Robertses of Bollywood -- look just as hot in jeans and platforms as they do in traditional Indian clothes. Even the music is hipper, reflecting more American hip-hop and techno than sitar.

Party-poopers complain the films are overacted, corny, and too predictable. It's true, they are. But that's the charm. There are some things you can bank on for most Bollywood films:

1. Song and dance numbers out the wazoo. Even bad acting is forgiven if a star can get his or her groove-on on the dance floor. The dances usually feature groups of guys and girls pitted against each other (kind of like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John singing "Summer Nights" in Grease, but with saris instead of poodle skirts.)

2. There must be a dance at some grassy, snowy, watery, or flowery location. It doesn't matter if the movie is set in the steel-and-concrete canyons of Manhattan, there will be a scene of the main couple prancing around: a.) a lush hilltop or valley, b.) long rows of tulip fields, or c.) a desert among the sun-drenched temple ruins. And the heroine will be wearing a different outfit with each new stanza.

3. The closest to a steamy love scene will be the mandatory dancing-in-the-rain scene, in which a monsoon will drop out of nowhere to soak the leading lady's sari, innocently showing off her curvy figure. The couple will rush into each other's arms, stare deep into each other's eyes, and with lips quivering, go in for a passionate hug. Smooching is still taboo, although the recent smash-hit Taal featured a quick kiss, coaxing howls and school-girl giggles from the audience.

4. Finally, the great romance will involve a rich girl and a poor boy, whose fathers happen to be arch-enemies. In the end, the hero will singlehandedly fight off a band of thugs, reunite the families, and of course, win the girl.

Cheesy? Maybe. But Indians and Pakistanis aren't the only ones with Bollywood fever. Just as the flicks are popular in Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and other south Asian countries, people of all different nationalities -- even those who don't understand Hindi -- battle the long lines to watch Hindi movies in Memphis just to watch the dances, if nothing else.

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