Thursday, 16 Aug 2018

Life and those who can afford it

Amrita Rajan

“Your people are everywhere,” says Caroline when we meet in Madrid.

My people are Indians and we are definitely everywhere. In Spain, we are running supermarkets and internet cafes (yes, they still exist), selling fake Rolexes and pashminas to those wandering dazed in the sunlight flooding magnificent squares, and boosting the local economy at flamenco shows, tapas bars, and everything else the eager tourist does in Spain.

“I don’t understand,” I tell Caroline. “Why Spain?”

I understand the migrants, but the tourists? One hot afternoon, the kind that makes lethargy appear ambitious, a large family of happy uncles and aunties surround an accordion player outside the Royal Palace in Madrid, teaching him Hindi film songs from the 1950s (perennial favorites at most Indian family gatherings) as they dance a jig around him. I go on Twitter to post about it and there’s a popular Bollywood celebrity lounging in a Spanish courtyard with her famous actor husband and friends.

When did Spain become such a popular destination for Indians? And then I remembered – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Life is Precious, 2011).

ZNMD (long Bollywood titles can be such a hassle that it was decided by popular consent that we may just call them by their acronyms – KKHH, KNPH, DCH, etc.) is a fairly conventional drama about three men who repair their fractured friendship on a road trip through Spain. They run with the bulls, marinate en masse in La Tomatina, skydive, scuba dive, and sing a song with a flamenco dancer about overcoming cultural differences, while confronting their demons and re-forging the frayed bonds of brotherhood. If I remember correctly, they did most of this on Turespana’s dime, the financial crisis driving the Spanish government to emulate the Swiss model.

***

In the late 1980s, director Yash Chopra was readying for a gamble. Famous for his multi-starrer action flicks in the 70s, the increasingly violent tone of 80s Hindi cinema had caught him on the back foot: these weren’t movies he wanted to make or, indeed, was any good at making. So he decided to make Chandini (1989), about a woman caught between her disabled ex-lover and her tragically romantic new boss. It was a radical departure from the then-mainstream’s excruciatingly violent and exploitative rape-revenge sagas. Hindi cinema is notoriously risk averse and industry chatter was less than kind in the buildup to Chandini’s release.

Indeed, India itself was giving Chopra a hard time. The classic Chopra romantic song was filmed in the icy Himalayas, in Kashmir, where an ethereal heroine moved gracefully through the snow, draped in a thoroughly inadequate gauzy chiffon saree. Kashmir in the late 80s, however, was not in the mood for whimsical Hindi film romance. There was an independence struggle in the valley – bloody, devastating, and spilling over its borders. It was no place for pampered movie stars or the crew of a conscientious director, no matter how strong the convention or the inclination. And so, Chopra moved his freezing heroine to the Alps instead. In Switzerland.

The effect of Yash Chopra on the Swiss economy was such that in 2016 its grateful government literally erected a statue to him in Interlaken. Following the wild success of Chandini, which just preceded India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s, Chopra (and later, his son Aditya) established the Swiss Alps as the only acceptable backdrop for Bollywood romance. Soon, other filmmakers joined the Chopras in Switzerland and the hills were alive with the boisterous sound of Hindi film music. Enough material exists for several fantastic montages of puzzled Swiss villagers gathered to watch Hindi cinema’s top talent gyrate through their sleepy main streets in full 90s dance gear. By the late 90s, economic liberalization meant the Indian audience could afford to attempt to recreate the Alpine journeys of their favorite movie characters.

***

“Foreign travel” doesn’t come very easily to Indians born before the 1990s. For one thing, restrictive visa regimes and a weak currency meant that only a small percentage of Indians could even think about traveling abroad for leisure. Secondly, large swathes of the country follow very particular diets – the traditionally business-oriented, well-to-do Jain community, for instance, could probably afford to travel but will not eat anything that grows below the ground (because eating the roots of plants will kill them, which is against the strict nonviolent ethos of their religion) or even things such as onions, garlic or eggplant because their strong flavors are spiritually displeasing. I imagine Italy on the whole is pretty much verboten in Jainism.

Indians also truly enjoy spending time with their families and the traditional Indian holiday involved the entire extended family – grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins – moving all together to enjoy such things as a pilgrimage or – daringly! – the beach. Sometimes they took a pilgrimage to a beach, and that was very good (*waves at my family*). Today, tour operators routinely take families of 20 or more people to see the world, providing them with an Indian cook who will serve them their preferred diet that has been prepared in properly sanctified vessels untouched by foreign i.e. probably non-vegetarian food items or even hands that have touched non-vegetarian food, depending on their degree of piety.

ZNMD is about a very different bunch: post-90s’ economic liberalization Indians with disposable income and a determination to live the consumerist lifestyle that MTV-fueled pop culture has held up as the ideal for the past 20 years. The three men at the heart of ZNMD may come from different financial backgrounds and make a point of acknowledging that they are not equally wealthy but they still belong to a socio-economic group that finds it feasible to organize a reunion road trip in Spain.

***

While “Bollywood” as a term has existed in the popular lexicon long before the 1990s, some experts1 contend that it was the release of Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in 1996 that formally launched it as a genre. The love story of a British couple of Indian origin, DDLJ spent its entire first half following its lead pair through an expansive Europe trip during which they wore smart clothes, rode on fancy (by Indian standards) trains through picturesque landscapes, ate and drank as they pleased, and generally had a good ol’ time living it up like just any person at all. Simran, the female lead, wears short skirts and gets blackout drunk; Raj, the male lead, spectacularly fails school and first meets Simran’s dad while trying to buy a six-pack of beer. If Indians are extremely particular about their food, you can well imagine their opinions regarding drink.

In a radical departure from what had come before, however, DDLJ offered no judgment of these youngsters living their life as they saw fit. They weren’t somehow betraying the land of their origin by participating in these ‘Western’ pursuits unlike the blonde be-wigged caricatures of Purab aur Paschim (1961), until then the most referenced denunciation of how horrifyingly well the children of Indian immigrants assimilated abroad, stiltedly drinking port in champagne goblets and speaking in funny accents.

To say that DDLJ was a blockbuster is to understate it completely. It was a phenomenon. It launched its lead actors into the stratosphere, established the Chopras’ studio as a Hindi film institution, made every line of dialogue into a pop culture reference (even Barack Obama quoted from it when trying to relate to an Indian audience2), and turned a Eurail holiday into the ultimate aspiration for an entire generation of Indians.

Hindi cinema, attuned to the soothing sound of ringing cash registers, set out to deliver whatever the paying public wanted. Soon, every other movie was shooting a song in Europe whether it fit the story or not. By the mid-2000s, everyone had progressed in increments to living in castles in England, commuting to work in helicopters while wearing Gucci around the house, and only pretending to live in India. The core dramatic conflicts of family drama and romance remained the same, but Indians soon came to accept that the settings for these stories were clearly Western and luxury-branded.

Enter the Akhtar siblings. Zoya, who directed ZNMD, and her brother Farhan, who plays one of the leads in addition to being an acclaimed director in his own right, are Bollywood royalty. But they’re cultured Bollywood royalty, which means they’ll probably laugh self-deprecatingly to hear themselves being described as such. Taking the adage “write what you know” to heart, they brought real insight into the lives of India’s moneyed class and an understated, unapologetically beige sensibility to the established Bollywood genre, embracing all the excess but trying their best to root it in some semblance of reality as they knew it. Among their more revolutionary moves was an acknowledgment that women are people too, but they balanced it by keeping their movies firmly malecentric, allowing them to navigate the realities of Bollywood’s choking weed of a star system while introducing their progressive values to audiences unfamiliar with its core concepts. Not for them the tried and tested waters of Lake Geneva; they’d rather take their characters places they loved – such as Spain.

***

ZNMD is an aspirational fairytale with a simple message for its Indian audience: life is beautiful and you only get one shot at living it. In India, this continues to be a revolutionary and controversial statement the further it trickles down socio-economic strata. The idea of “disposable income” rather than just savings meant to be your children’s inheritance (that is to say, your son’s inheritance and your daughter’s dowry) is still deeply unsettling for many raised in a culture that extols thrift and can’t quite believe the government isn’t waiting around the corner to tax it all away.

The young men of ZNMD therefore are not precisely relatable. Arjun looks like a sun-kissed Greek god and conducts business in fluent Japanese, much to the astonishment and mockery of his friends; Kabir comes from the kind of family money that enables his fiancée to buy designer bags that cost the yearly salary of a mid-level bureaucrat in India; and Imraan is… a poet. He also has a dad who ran away to become an interesting person but I think the audience pretty much stopped cold at “poet”. In a nation where the top 1% own 53% of the country’s wealth,3 these men are a window into another world entirely where unimaginable things are possible:

Things like personal agency and lazy sunlit drives through olive groves as you learn to live in the moment. Or becoming adult enough to look your family’s hopes and dreams in the eye and tell them you aren’t ready to shoulder the weight of those as yet. Perhaps meeting a father who chose to remain a stranger all your life because he valued his own personal growth above watching you grow – a dramatic departure from the all-sacrificing dad of pan-Asian mythology.

Movies like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, with beauty in every frame, are often dismissed for being too pretty because they can translate as empty and soulless onscreen. But there is a discreet authenticity to this film, lent by the palpably real, lived experiences of the men and women who made it. All cinema is imagination that succeeds in getting people to take a little walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and come away feeling as though they had grown up there. Mostly this empathy is built through pain, but there’s something to be said for the times it is built through happiness.

The world we experience is not solely of our own construction; it is a collaboration between our imagination and the intermediaries who perform for us the stories that shape our world. In India, it is the cinema that brings us to life. In the 1950s, Hindi cinema grappled with the teething pains of a brand-new republic; in the 1970s, it rained thunder and fire on a corrupt establishment that found new ways every day to further betray the idealist dreams of independence; in the early 2000s, we lost ourselves in an orgy of consumerism like children handed carte blanche in an ice cream shop, gorging ourselves to the point of illness.

***

On my last day in Barcelona, I decided I had to go see a flamenco show – my one true Turespana-promoted tourist experience as detailed in ZNMD. As twilight enveloped the city and a gentle moon rose in the west, I downed my last potent Negroni at the rooftop bar overlooking a quiet square that still bore the scars of General Franco’s bullets and carefully stepped over to the Plaça Reial where several people had promised me a good time.

It was still spring, or something drearily like it, back in London but summer had clearly arrived at the Plaça Reial with its should-be-incongruous-yet-somehow-not palm trees donated by the Bacardi family. Music and people spilled into the square as discreet professional waiters ghosted between close-set tables and lines formed to enter the various establishments lining the sides. I avoided the eyes of the Indian hawkers, punctiliously offering watches and scarves in perfect Spanish to people who needed neither, and ordered a pitcher of sangria to wait for a suitable, later hour because the flamenco will not be rushed, not even for gaping tourists in this economy. If we were in a Bollywood movie, this is when I’d start tapping on my glass and we’d launch into a fun song.

A few tables down a family of four was tucking into several plates of French fries: the staple diet of Indian vegetarians terrified of being fed dishes contaminated by meat. Nothing pains me more than to witness a storied cuisine rebuffed in its own land by tourists who ostensibly came to enjoy its culture, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t also feel a rush of affectionate familiarity at the sight. Across the square a large family gathering had gone the opposite direction, the clink of wine glasses punctuated with friendly Punjabi swears mixed with roars of laughter floating above the murmured conversations of the Europeans; they are like raucous flamingos in a crowd of well-behaved storks.

None of this seems out of place at the Plaça Reial. I found myself relaxing into the chair at the familiarity of those sounds, that unselfconscious bonhomie of my childhood. Thirty years ago, none of us – not them, not me – could have imagined this night a possibility.

Yet here we all were, in Spain, negotiating our own realities as we saw fit, enjoying this one life we had.

“In Barcelona,” I texted Caroline. “And my people really are everywhere.”

1 Rachel Dwyer, ed., Bollywood: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, Routledge, UK, 2015. 

2 “Koi baat nahin, Senorita, koi baat nahin. Bade bade deshon mein, aisi chhoti chhoti baatein hoti rehti hain” – Never mind, Senorita, never mind. Tiny things like these often occur in big countries.

3 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2015.

Amrita Rajan is a writer and digital consultant. She’s lived in Delhi, New York, London, and Bangkok. 

Photo from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara from santabanta.com.

 

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