Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: My Bollywood love affair

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has always been obsessed by Indian movies. They have punctuated her life, marking marriages, divorce, births and deaths. In this passionate memoir, she explains how her dreams were made in Mumbai – but why she now despairs for the industry she loves
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The Independent Culture

September 1998. I am on an Air India flight to New York with an Englishman I may fall in love with. It all feels very strange. Just months earlier my Asian husband had gone off with another woman. What chance did this relationship have, between two people from such vastly different and conflicted backgrounds? The airline offered several of my favourite old Hindi movies and the grub was spicy and hot. White passengers could ask for bland food and move to be near a screen showing British or American films. It was a testing time. If the new man chose the "English" options, I thought, it would be over before the papadoms arrived.

He decided on the korma and the spectacular classic Mughal-e-Azam, a tale of doomed love between a prince and a court dancer. He laughed loudly when the Mughal king Akbar first appeared – a dead ringer for Ronnie Barker in fancy dress. Offence all round. Then he was gripped by the tragedy, the beautiful Muslim actress Madhubala, lips like rose petals, who in a climactic scene whirls and loops ecstatically in a hall of a thousand mirrors, dances on shattered glass, defiant and unbroken herself. In the end she is buried alive behind a wall and she sings as the bricks go up. The white face next to me dissolved. Most true Brits would have found the din, the endless crooning and the extravagant emoting absurd or alien. He, I could see, was transported to another world... Reader, I had to marry him.

Fast forward to now. The other day I went to Southall, west London, to browse along the Broadway, a long parade of Asian food stores, snack joints, restaurants, tailors, goldsmiths and clothes shops. My mum, if alive, would quake with disbelief in some of the fancy shops selling bridal and party gear. "Costs more than the Taj Mahal," she'd say. Embroidered saris and outfits twinkle and sparkle, a galaxy of gorgeous, cinematic bling.

In one such dream palace I met two Englishwomen from Warwickshire. Brigid, the daughter, with her wedding planner, had decided to recreate "Bollywood" nuptials, her own set of Bride and Prejudice, springtime in Bombay-upon-Avon. Smiling, I gently corrected her. That was not a Bollywood but a British film made by Gurinder Chadha. For avid Westerners it is all the same- razzmatazz, saris and songs, high melodrama. Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge was inspired by Bollywood; so too Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams. "Hindi cinema has never enjoyed as much influence as it has today ... [It is] influencing music, fashion and the world of entertainment ... [and] has become a worldwide phenomenon," writes movie buff Nasreen Munni Kabir in her tome, Bollywood (published by Channel 4 Books). The geniuses who made the first moving pictures in Bombay in 1913 must be cheering in the clouds above.

Bollywood films are now as likely to be shot on location in a Scottish castle or on the banks of the Thames as on the streets of Delhi. And they are watched from Dubai to Durban, LA to Bangkok. It is another chapter of a phenomenal story.

From the Thirties, Bombay talkies were enrapturing international audiences, rich and poor. Hindi movies – mostly low-budget but beautifully made – were seen across the Empire by more people than ever went to Hollywood films. Enthusiasts included those who didn't even understand Hindi. One ditty entitled "My shoes are Japani ( Japanese)" was so popular in Kampala, Uganda, that our African manservant renamed himself "Japani". And so it is today, only the spread is wider, the market colossal. But talk to connoisseurs and you hear laments, disappointment and barely contained ire.

Most of the movies made nowadays are blowsy, artificial, with little subtlety or reflection. Their trashy stories, unmemorable acting and processed songs quickly pass down along memory's waste pipes. The old classics, by contrast, stay in the head and heart for ever. Like Mother India (1957), a story about peasant farmers, callous, high-caste landlords, and a resolute mother. Or Pakeezah (1971), which took the director 14 years to complete. In it, a beautiful courtesan exposes societal hypocrisy and claims respectability. In an unforgettably erotic scene, Pakeezah lies asleep in a railway carriage, her feet are exposed, painted profligately with henna, bells on her ankles. A handsome, captivated hero leaves her a note: "Such feet – don't tread the ground with them. They will get dirty." There were dozens of classics such as these, stretching right through to the end of the Seventies. But they don't make films like that any more.

Mihir Bose, the author and until recently the BBC's main sports pundit, believes the immortal screen creations of the past are embedded in personal and national history. "Maybe we look back with fondness at our own youth and see it with a special glow," he reflects. "Those films like Mother India had universal themes and were made at a time when India was being created after the Raj." And the modern, super-glossy offerings? They signal momentous cultural and political shifts away from that history. Gandhi's pacifism and the promulgation of national humility have been cremated, the ashes dumped unceremoniously. Along came the most famous Hindi movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, blasting his way to popularity in the Seventies, the angry young man at war with the powerful, as humble as a Bengal tiger.

For Lalit Mohan Joshi, who runs the South Asian Cinema Foundation, what came next was total sell-out: "I don't see any soul in the films today," he complains. "Actually it was in the mid-Eighties that the industry started losing its way, became a package. Today there is no honesty, no sincerity. It is all plastic. Films have lost identity and purpose. They insult audiences, it is so humiliating. I'm at my wit's end."

I feel his pain. Bombay films once gave you imagined families, moral guidance, political courage, love talk, an emotional palate, poetic drama, real catharsis, fantastical comeuppance – and music to lift the most miserable of lives. As mine was as a child, with a bohemian father and a mother, Jena, who toiled and nursed broken dreams. Sewing clothes all night for rich folk, she listened to sad, filmy songs. She took me to the picture houses, escapist lairs, as soon as I learnt to walk, talk and listen. I remember babbling and toddling about in the dark and being pulled up on to the ample laps of cuddly strangers who stuffed me with chocolate to shut me up.

The cinemas programmed afternoon "ladies' shows" but Jena went in the evening all dressed up in saris doused in perfumes (cheaper than dry cleaning) – and, bravely, she went without a male escort. She could recall entire movies when in her eighties: "I cut my hair like Nargis. Remember her? And Nadia in Hurricane Hansa, smart lady, but too much." Nargis was a Muslim star of the Fifties and Sixties who played tennis on screen in shorts and had a face like the doe-eyed princesses in Mughal miniature paintings. Nadia smoked her cigarettes through a jewelled holder, then exhaled in hoops, stupefying the audience. How stirring was her call to arms in the movie Diamond Queen: "If India is to be free, then Indian women must also be free."

Older men only went to the cinema to keep the wives and daughters happy and to protect their reputations; girls without chaperones were denounced as vixens and then no marriage proposals came from the really good families. After finishing several paper cones of salty peanuts, the blokes would usually fall asleep until the final "God Save the Queen" burst into their slumbers. But when Nadia came on, swigging whisky, whips in hand, they sat up and shouted: "Come on shake, shake, shake up more, my bombshell baby of Bombay..." They glistened with desire, their hands pushed down on their crotches, and the wives pretended to laugh.

In those days, vamps were exciting but examples too of aberrant womanhood. Submissive female behaviour was the desirable norm reinforced by Bombay film wallahs. Screen stories were full of pious heroines, sacrificial to the point of madness. Meena Kumari had liquid, dark eyes, lakes of pain. Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Nimi and Soraya were all stunningly beautiful and shamelessly enticing, but when the time came (after the interval) they happily surrendered to a life of marital obedience, or had to die. Even today, I cannot sit down at the dining table before my husband has been served his food. Movie duties get into the blood. (Western feminists find it hard to understand but acquiescent femininity has its uses.)

Sometimes in the soup of consensus, some bold director would place a fly of dissent. Devika Rani was awarded a Rada scholarship, fell in love with an Indian director and starred in his film Karma – an Indian film in English (1933). London critics were bowled over by Rani's beauty and outrageous sexuality. Way back in 1937, in Duniya na Mane (The World Will Not Believe), a much older man marries a reluctant young bride who makes him understand his crime against her humanity.

Later in Devdas (1955), the heroine (Paro) is ready to run away with her childhood lover (Devdas) even though they are from different castes in the small village where such transgressions are not tolerated. He, however, is too wet and in the end turns to drink and a motherly prostitute and eventually dies. My aunt took me to see the film when I was eight and she said I sobbed so much, I had an asthma attack. They made a new Devdas in 2002, the most expensive Bollywood film ever made; loud, rich and brash, it was like a trip to Harrods. In Guide (1965), a classical dancer is married to a dry old archaeologist, a Casaubon character who can relate to stone but not to the flesh of a woman. She meets a young tourist guide, has an affair and leaves her husband before later dumping the lover too. Shabana Azmi, India's most versatile and intense actress, played an adulteress too in Ankur (1974), made by the esteemed director Shyam Benegal. Azmi knows the risks she took. Audiences in India mix fact and fiction and can be unforgiving of sin.

Male heroes had also to be good in both senses. Some were as talented as the Hollywood greats. Dilip Kumar, who played Devdas, was broody, complicated, vulnerable and gorgeous – our own Marlon Brando, without the brawn. Dev Anand (who played the lover in Guide) and Raj Kapoor were flirty, funny and had panache. Male villains drank black-label whisky and wore moustaches. As with the Victorian dramatists, evil had a face audiences recognised.

Film-makers gave us anti-imperialist fantasies, painfully truthful accounts of prejudice against untouchables and of corruption, endless tales of love-torn youngsters, communal enmities, rural life at its most noble and most vicious and dreams, many dreams of India as it would one day be.

Gone is that collective consciousness. The country is fragmented into niche markets, lusting for Western lifestyles. Many new films are shallow, trying too hard to please affluent Americans, Arabs and Brits, aspirational Indians at home and abroad. Today I hardly go to the big Bolly extravaganzas – too much like overlong episodes of Dynasty and Dallas with family homes bigger than Grand Central station, protagonists in Versace and green contact lenses, and derivative plots that abjectly yield to the power of Hollywood and London. It is as if contemporary Indian film-makers feel validated only if they find a large fan base in the West. And they know, too, that big bucks are up for grabs wherever diasporic Indians have settled.

For the song- and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, the reasons lie in the strain of transition: "The current generation is rejecting traditional values, traditional social and political stances," he explains. "By and large, we are confused. We don't know what is right. We don't know which direction to take. And so we pass the time making romantic films." Just when it seems India is economically unstoppable, culturally it is confused, jumpy, unsure. Hindi films reveal that starkly.

The academic and film-maker Sangeeta Datta warns that the "flattening of identity and social context" is leading to an even faster degradation of the world's most prolific film industry. Skinny women with light eyes, hair and skin are guaranteed success, even if they have "zero talent", says Datta. He gives as an example the meteoric rise of mixed-race Katrina Kaif, a Londoner who flew into Bombay and almost overnight turned herself into a Bollywood queen though she speaks Hindi badly and – in the eyes of many – cannot act. Until the late Eighties, Indian actresses could be large, small, thin, plump, light or dark, old or young. They were adored alike. Now, says Shabana Azmi, an actress has "to look like a fairy, dance like a dream and never get older than 23".

The majority of Indians still live in villages. Once their lives inspired directors and songwriters, says Sangeeta Datta, but now "there is a disconnect between the 'metro' and the villages. The middle classes no longer travel in trains, they keep the poor and ordinary out of their imaginations."

Mira Nair, an Indian living in the United States, gave us authenticity in the 2001 hit Monsoon Wedding. But you don't get that in the "real" Indian cinema, not most of the time anyway. Bollywood avoids gritty reality these days – Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire was in some ways a riposte to that industry and its preoccupations.

The most creative people are trapped in a whirlpool of commercialisation. There's a glut of silly love songs and interminable, show-offy wedding parties. The Indian journalist Madhu Jain writes perceptively: "Bollywood is churning out feel-good, peppy, popcorn romances ... only love matters to the characters of quintessential escapist film. There is no context for the action, no outside world here to speak of. Instead you have an insulated universe."

In the 21st century, the Bombay studios are lost, messed up. Look at Iranian films, Chinese films, admired by critics everywhere. In world cinema ratings, Bollywood is down and out.

Those who observe filmic trends express other anxieties too. Aficionados feel in their bones that an industry which self-consciously promoted Hindu-Muslim unity from the start may now be privileging Hinduism. Affluent screen families are all devotional Hindus, their godly statues get starring roles, their festivities are centre-stage, as if to assert divine supremacy. Muslims were always among the top actors, songwriters, singers and directors. Real love affairs between stars of these different faiths were common – and instead of heavy disapproval, the most famous, such as Nargis and the Hindu Raj Kapoor, were indulged, seen as Fate's playthings. Today, the three top stars are all (unrelated) Khans – Aamir, Shahrukh and Salman – and they too freely cross over religious walls in their personal lives. But after 11 September 2001, the baddie Muslim is now part of the lexicon. The fanatics who attacked Bombay's heritage hotels and key sites ensured the embedding of that villainy.

Saif Ali Khan, the screen star and director, whose mother Sharmila Tagore was one of my favourite actresses in the Sixties, believes greatness will come again when film-makers give up the self-conscious "internationalising" of Indian movies: "We have a certain palate," he says. "Westerners won't understand or enjoy it. We must start looking at ourselves and make movies we can be proud of. That's good enough."

It clearly isn't at present. Warner Brothers, Fox and Disney are all in Bombay now trying to cash in and fund movies that are ever more feeble and inane. Warner Brothers backed Chandni Chowk to China, the stupidest film I have ever seen – Edward Scissorhands and Jackie Chan mating with a vacuous Indian Jennifer Aniston to make nauseating progeny.

The scene becomes ever more frenetic as more movies bomb, financial crises loom and producers have to pay out vast amounts for superstars and worldwide marketing. Two hundred movies come out of the Bombay studios each year. Fewer than a dozen will live on to be seen by future generations.

They will include Lagaan, the quiet sensation of 2001. Mihir Bose praises it lavishly for the way cricket is turned into a metaphor for the history of the Raj, gently revealing the games played by the ruled and the rulers. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad, 2001) showcased grotesque wealth and lifestyles but yet it managed to rouse some genuine emotions. The music was beautiful. My teenage daughter doesn't understand Hindi but she listens to the songs whenever she misses my mum, her gran. King Lear inspired Baghban (2003), starring the superstar Amitabh Bachchan. And since 2005, a few well-made comedies have used laughter to remind people of their history, of Gandhi and of precious, fast-disappearing values of mutuality and spirituality.

Datta and Joshi and Bose see signs of fresh shoots, of younger film-makers finding authentic voices and stories and using modern techniques – to make Bollywood films of the third age, perhaps. Madhu Jain does too: "There's a sense of confidence evident in the new films made by younger directors, a new breeze is blowing through." Many of the best of them have pedigree – their parents and grandparents were players in the golden age – but their own identities are composites of that past and the world as it is today. They are introducing a new cinematic language, delving deeper into relationships, expanding into new more challenging themes, discarding formulae past and present, and harvesting their own modern sensibilities. The children of Javed Akhtar, Farhan and Zoya are brilliant film-makers. Zoya's Luck By Chance (2009) covertly criticises the people who run Bollywood and what that world has become.

And then there is Kurbaan, made by the celebrated director Karan Johar, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor (the grand-daughter of Raj Kapoor). Lalit Joshi, Sangeeta Datta and I went to see it at the Himalaya Cinema in Southall, a proper Indian picture house. A thriller and an exposé of Muslim extremism and violence, it blew me away. No other film – Western or Indian – has managed so unflinchingly to capture the uncertainty of our times. The cinematography was polished, the bilingual script (Hindi and English) tight and convincing, and the acting extraordinary.

There is hope, I thought then. Bollywood will find its way back.

The bad news, though: there were only five of us in the cinema. The truth is that such movies bomb – the people, it seems, want trash and that is what they will get.