Picture imperfect

Indians around the world are obsessed with Bollywood, yet its films have less than ever to do with the realities of home. Sankha Guha asks the stars why
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The Independent Culture

At the other end of the gloomy warehouse, on a stage set that looks like a naff Eighties nightclub, I can make out the figure of Bollywood brat-boy Vivek Oberoi. Surrounded by dancers in ripped T-shirts, beanie hats, regulation baggy jeans and silly haircuts, he's striking gangsta poses stolen from an Ali G video. The backing track kicks in and the Bombay B-boys jump around. "Let me hear you say, c'mon c'mon, let me hear you say, Give it up, give it up, let me hear you say...." A new genre is being engineered. This is Hindi hip-hop.

At the other end of the gloomy warehouse, on a stage set that looks like a naff Eighties nightclub, I can make out the figure of Bollywood brat-boy Vivek Oberoi. Surrounded by dancers in ripped T-shirts, beanie hats, regulation baggy jeans and silly haircuts, he's striking gangsta poses stolen from an Ali G video. The backing track kicks in and the Bombay B-boys jump around. "Let me hear you say, c'mon c'mon, let me hear you say, Give it up, give it up, let me hear you say...." A new genre is being engineered. This is Hindi hip-hop.

Vivek looks about as menacing as a Teletubby and seems entirely oblivious to the rich comedy unfolding around him. They don't do irony in Bollywood, or subtlety, or indeed reality. On Stage 12 of Film City, the giant studio complex north of Bombay, they are manufacturing dreams. Surreal, disconnected from time and geography, beyond taste and logic, the fantasy being confected here is typical of the biggest film industry in the world. The fantasy also requires that our heroes be stunners, and rich - not just acceptably wealthy but beyond-the-dreams-of-Branson rich. They gad about in their executive Gulfstreams and helicopters; they study in the UK or the US and flaunt it shamelessly. Often they get it hilariously wrong. So taking style cues from the Staines massive is all in a day's work for the likes of Vivek Oberoi.

In addition to Vivek, the film on Stage 12, Kyun! Ho Gaya Na, stars Aishwarya Rai and Amitabh Bachchan. To anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Bombay firmament, these names are pure A-list. There is a strong probability that very soon Kyun! will be packing them in at cinemas from Bangalore to Bradford, New Delhi to New York.

This is entertainment at the top of the Champions League. There is something irresistible about the lavish sets, the explosive colour of the costumes, the dash and charm of the romantic heroes and the heart-stopping beauty of the screen sirens. The dance extravaganzas (there are at least six per blockbuster) are executed with a level of craft, sophistication and sheer élan that Hollywood cannot match. And then there is the music. Often based on classical disciplines, the songs from the movies are the soul of India, expressing the entire range of human emotion with transcendent clarity. Small wonder then that Bollywood dreams cross all barriers of language, religion and culture.

Hindi films now have a global fan base - principally wherever you find the Indian diaspora. But it doesn't stop there. They are popular in Africa, China and Russia, and in the UK there is a faddish interest from non-Indian audiences. On Channel 4 we have just had Bollywood Star and the Shah Rukh Khan season; in the West End, Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Bombay Dreams has brought white audiences to the genre; and later this year we can expect more Bollywood mania with the release of Gurinder Chadha's Bride and Prejudice, a re-working of the Jane Austen novel by the director of Bend it like Beckham. Everyone is looking for the big East-West crossover - the prize is the resounding ker-ching of the global box office.

In Bombay, this new interest has not gone unnoticed. The money men are keenly aware of export markets, so much so that some of the big names in the industry feel the industry is being hijacked. The veteran producer, Mahesh Bhatt, is quick to point the finger at non-resident Indians (or NRIs as they are known here).

"You're making movies for the diaspora outside, which wants to have the comforts of the developed world. They want to stay in London and yet have their dhal and pickles and their spices imported from India. They want their incense, their gods and their movies from India. So the geography called India has moved beyond India." Bhatt is clearly irritated that such distant audiences have their bhaji and want to eat it. Don't blame us for the formulaic plot lines, the blatant escapism or the refusal to engage with the realities of India, say the people who actually make the films.

Writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar's credits include many of the landmark films of the last forty years, including Sholay, Deewar and Lagaan. "Whenever the NRI sees the big sets, and people dancing and wearing beautiful costumes, he wants to believe that this is what he has left behind," Akhtar says. "This is his India. He doesn't want to remember and he doesn't want to know that people are dying of starvation, that farmers and their families in this country are committing suicide. It makes him uncomfortable. He is living in New York or in London or in Toronto. He has a cushy life, he doesn't want his conscience pricked."

This is equally true for the emerging middle classes across India. This class, newly affluent in local terms, has exploded in recent years. They are concentrated in the cities - the so-called "metros" - where you will find modern, air conditioned American-style multiplexes. Here, ticket prices are higher than elsewhere in India.

"In the last 20 years, almost 150 million people have come into this middle-class income bracket. It is one of the largest middle classes in the world. This first generation middle class is celebrating its status and they are not interested in the problems," says Akhtar. "If you look at an average Hindi picture from the Sixties or Seventies, the hero was a clerk or a teacher or a mill worker or a farmer or a rickshaw wallah or a taxi driver. Not any more."

I make my way to the home of one of the most bankable current heroes, Hrithik Roshan. The taxi clatters along on potholed roads weaving between chaos and a harder place. There are beggars waving their stumps at me, there is rubbish and dirt everywhere, buildings look permanently unready and unsteady and the smells of sewage and rot assail my senses. The squalor is cheek-by-jowl with some of the most expensive real estate in India. Suddenly we are at the base of the movie star's apartment block in Juhu. The top three floors are taken up by the Roshan penthouse, and within I find myself abruptly in air conditioned, interior-designed splendour.

Hrithik inhabits a different world. "If I walk out on the street I will be able to take no more than a maximum of 10 or 12 steps," he explains, "Traffic will stop and I'll have to be picked up by security and taken back to my place."

Stars like Hrithik are worshipped - not in any metaphorical sense, but as deities. His face, along with a handful of others, stares down from giant advertising billboards in every city. It greets you from every TV screen, every newspaper and every magazine, and the songs from his movies spill forth from every tinny radio on the subcontinent.

What does Hrithik's India - the India magicked by Bollywood - have to do with the India outside his penthouse? "I think what people do not understand is that most of our audience come from the lower status in society, the poor," says Hrithik, "So most of our films, the big films, are about selling larger-than-life cinema. You know, the rich and the beautiful. Rich is very interesting to them to watch."

It is rich. Over 5,000 years of Indian culture supports the music, the dance and the drama of the Bollywood spectaculars. One billion cinema-mad people - the population of India - create the market for a world-beating industry. And yet the films themselves cannot bear to look at the country that nourishes them.

"We don't address any real issue," says producer Mahesh Bhatt bluntly, "We are not in the reality capturing business. Like politicians manufacture illusions, holy men manufacture illusions, we are part of that illusion-manufacturing business."

And the illusion for today is Vivek Oberoi, the wannabe homey, baseball cap backwards, dance moves straight outta MTV. "C'mon c'mon, let me hear you say, Give it up, give it up..."

Sankha Guha presents 'Bollywood Dreams' on BBC Radio 2 tonight at 8.30pm

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