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Letters From Mumbai

PHOTOGRAPH BY AKSHAY MAHAJAN

Big B Gets a Bellyache

In Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan is a big deal. When his tummy has troubles, so do Indian cinema and all of its star-crazed fans.

A few weeks ago, I wandered into my still half-unpacked study to check the news on my computer. New York Times: Global markets crashing, doom and gloom. Washington Post: Leaked intelligence reveals Iran invasion may have been in the works. Times of India: Amitabh Bachchan admitted to the hospital complaining of stomach pain.

Good Lord, not Amitabh! My heart starts racing as I go through the scenarios: a bad case of indigestion? Maybe appendicitis or something else that a quick hour under the knife can take care of. But what if it’s stomach cancer, a giant tumor, something that could cause the beloved star to waste away in front of one billion adoring eyes?

Turns out it was only a recurrence of diverticulitis—a minor condition at best. And it wasn’t until I related my relief to my brother in Boston, that he asked the question most people are probably wondering: Who the hell is Amitabh Bachchan?

In India, Amitabh Bachchan—a.k.a. Big B—is God. More precisely, he is the senior-most ranking member of Bollywood’s pantheon of gods and goddesses. Starting out as a rough-and-tough anti-hero in the 1970s, he has aged and mellowed gracefully on screen, now always sporting his trademark shock of white hair and black beard. With more than 150 movies to his name, and seven or eight more coming out this year, he is one of Hindi film’s more durable stars.

And after just three months in India, I am easily as emotionally invested in Big B’s life as any of my 20-something Indian peers. And not just his life, but the lives of his sons and daughters-in-laws and the dozens—if not hundreds—of aspiring, succeeding, and fading actors and actresses in his orbit.

It’s nothing new to say India is obsessed with the cinema, but I had no idea it was so contagious.

 

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India’s relationship with cinema is like I imagine America’s was in the golden days of film—the days when men were men, popcorn was cheap, and back row seats provided much needed privacy for couples.

And just like 1950s America, India is witnessing rapid changes in standards of living. The middle-class is booming. More and more families are buying exactly what the 1950s Joneses craved—a car, a TV, an electric washer. Not everyone is benefiting, though. For instance, see Fig. 1: child playing naked in the street due to lack of pant funds. India has always had an enormous rich/poor divide, but previously it was along the lines of owning a proper bowl versus half a coconut shell. Now it’s sending your daughter to Swarthmore and vacationing in Switzerland—versus half a coconut shell.

But in the movies, that divide is minimized. Everyone is doing just fine, from the rich robber baron to the street sweeper. Everyone speaks the same language—a near impossibility in modern-day India—and gets to sing a little song, dance a little dance, and go merrily their way. The hero and heroine run down improbably clean Delhi streets full of beautiful people, and yes, there’s some struggle—maybe a cop or two dies, or a heart gets broken—but the ending is happy most of the time, or at least triumphant.

The national anthem is strictly a Mumbai phenomenon, the practice being mandated by the nationalist political party Shiv Sena. Given the party’s tendency to burn down institutions that don’t comply with their mandates, the cinemas go along.The contrast isn’t just on the screen. While Mumbai streets are hot, bright, loud, and crowded, movie theaters are cool, dark, air-conditioned oases with a seat for every person. Not, though, that there isn’t a learning curve for newcomers.

First, don’t bother saving up or budgeting for your ticket—no way will it cost more than $2. It’s a return to the good-old days, when you could afford to see a movie just because you’re bored or have few hours to kill. In fact, if the songs are just a little too cheesy for your tastes or the lead has a distracting mole, feel free to walk out halfway through, relatively guilt-free. You’ll find you’re not the only one to do so.

For snacks, prices in India are much more reasonable than at home. Samosas, the staple Indian movie food, go for about 50 cents; a box of popcorn for less than a dollar. It’s important not to let this relative plenty go to your head; stomach cramping from excessive caramel corn consumption can be surprisingly painful.

When you enter, don’t take just any seat. Take your seat—the one listed on your ticket. Otherwise, an usher will go to great lengths in rapid-fire Hindi to get you seated in the proper place. If you don’t immediately respond, the other ushers will get involved.

You can safely ignore the frequent reminders to turn off cell phones. Their utility is highly questionable, as the movie theater seems to be the preferred place to loudly carry out long, drawn-out conversations about your cousin-sister’s upcoming wedding, in your native, aspirative tongue. Someone’s ringtone will interrupt the dialogue every five minutes; on rare instances, the ringtone will actually be a song from the movie you’re watching, causing you to lose track of the plot as you try to puzzle out the quantum physics involved.

And when the Central Board of Film Certification seal of approval shows onscreen, it’s exactly the wrong time to get comfortable, as the cue card is about to quickly change. “Please stand for the National Anthem.” Yes, you have to. On screen is a waving Indian flag against a blue sky. The music is bombastic, repetitive, and kind of catchy. Jai Hind, jai Hind, jai Hind! If you want to look like a local, act supremely bored.

By the way, the national anthem is strictly a Mumbai phenomenon, the practice being mandated by the nationalist and pro-Maharashtra political party Shiv Sena. Given the party’s tendency to, well, burn down institutions that don’t comply with their mandates, the cinemas happily go along.

Finally, know that Bollywood films are long. Long enough that the Academy Award-nominee Lagaan was cut down to three hours, 45 minutes for international audience. (By the way, you haven’t seen that film? Shame on you.) The Bollywood story meanders, it weaves, it builds. And then, just as the building explodes with the hero inside, or the girl accepts the ill-fated marriage proposal, it’s:

 

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Intermission

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What America couldn’t do with some good old-fashioned intermissions. Go and use the loo, get some more masala popcorn, play some old-school video games outside in the lobby. Don’t worry if you’re late getting back as the director expects that—he put the film’s longest and weakest musical number at the beginning of the second half. As long as you’re in your seat before the coordinated belly-dancing wraps up, you’re fine.

Whether the second-half of the film races or drags by, eventually the film ends. Eventually you’re back out on the un-air-conditioned street. Maybe the sun is a bit lower in the sky, but the afternoon heat lingers. A leper with only three fingers between his two hands is trying to get your attention. You think, I don’t remember seeing any lepers in that film, and already the movie’s spell is wearing off, even the false sense of fullness from the popcorn. What’s left to do other than run to your computer, keep hitting refresh to check on the status of Big B’s bellyache, and download some songs from the film’s soundtrack? Hopefully it’s not too long a wait until you’ve got another three hours and $2 to kill.

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler