Sankha Guha: Man About World

Bollywood's fantasy is no reflection on us
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The Independent Travel

I am on Planet Bollywood - a place where all the rules of physics, geography, logic and taste have been suspended. Planet Bollywood creates its own orbit, its own centre of gravity and its own firmament of stars. A wormhole of sorts links it to the city of Mumbai (né Bombay) in India, but the connection is pretty tenuous. Bollywood is more precisely located in the unhinged yearnings of a billion people. So forgive me if my despatch from this strange shore has a hallucinogenic edge.

I am on Planet Bollywood - a place where all the rules of physics, geography, logic and taste have been suspended. Planet Bollywood creates its own orbit, its own centre of gravity and its own firmament of stars. A wormhole of sorts links it to the city of Mumbai (né Bombay) in India, but the connection is pretty tenuous. Bollywood is more precisely located in the unhinged yearnings of a billion people. So forgive me if my despatch from this strange shore has a hallucinogenic edge.

How did I come to be here? BBC Radio 2 has asked me to produce a documentary on the phenomenon of the Hindi film industry - aka Bollywood. It is the largest film factory in the world - churning out twice as many movies as Hollywood per year. All, by the ready admission of many of those who make them, with the hold-on-reality button permanently switched off. Nevertheless, audiences the world over are coming under the Bollywood spell - and that does not simply mean the Indian diaspora in the UK or the US. Bollywood also plays well in Russia, China, Turkey, the Far East and Africa.

Small wonder that it is full of itself. Stars have godlike status and deploy armies of skivvies whose main job is stroking giant egos. Their other job seems to be to frustrate us - interview requests are never quite refused, but are never pinned down to a time and a place either. When we try to fix an appointment with the current "hottie", Aishwarya Rai, her minder greets us with "Right now I am not here". While the mega star Amitabh Bachchan's PA bats off my producer with imperial disdain: "I have your email and it is soggy."

The films are equally difficult to pin down. It is not unusual to find love story, thriller, soap opera, comedy and musical all wrapped up in one jamboree bag of entertainment. And this is entertainment plus. The colours are fluorescent, the acting is ham and the directing is in your face. Every turn in the narrative is double underlined - thunderclaps accompany moments of dramatic revelation and crash zooms take you to the emotional crunch. Bollywood doesn't do subtle.

And in many ways Bollywood doesn't do India. Bombay is the physical antithesis of the world evoked in the films. Far from the Technicolor intensity of the movies, colours appear drained in the hazy air. Grime and dust create their own palette of browns and greys. Outlines seem vague, older buildings are crumbling at the edges and new ones seem permanently unfinished. They merge into the pavements, which merge into the roads, and the roads turn to earth. Here cheek by jowl with real affluence, you find the "squalor, the slums, the ragged broken people" described recently by the writer Arundhati Roy. And Bollywood will not face them.

"Hindi film is not looking towards society," says Javed Akhtar, one of its most successful screenwriters. He points to the emergence of a vast middle class. "It is one of the largest middle classes in the world. This first generation is celebrating its status, and they are not interested in problems. They don't want to look at things they have left behind. So their hero is a rich man who lives in a beautiful house, and when he steps out of the house he does not walk on an Indian street. He is in some meadow in Switzerland - because if he walks on an Indian street they will have to see the realities they want to avoid."

On Planet Bollywood geography is mangled. Aside from Switzerland, you should not be surprised to find an English country manor with Capability Brown vistas cineported to Delhi or the pyramids in Cairo popping up behind the lovers as they sing their hearts out. Everything is clean and lovely.

Meanwhile, in Bombay, one key element of our plot has fallen into place. Heart throb, hero, hunk - take your pick - Hrithik Roshan invites us to his palatial penthouse in Juhu and explains the abrupt fractures of time and place in his films.

"The more beautiful it looks, the larger the dream, the more far away the locations, the more interesting to our audience," he says. "That's why it looks as if our films are less about our culture and more about the West and wealth. That's not true - the emotions, the drama are always Indian."

Our drama is also very Indian. Schedules are torn up. Appointments are cancelled and everything is forever provisional. Will we get our leading lady? Will there be a happy ending to our adventure? Has anyone read our script?

The eagle has crash-landed

Taxiing out of Heathrow you can see a Concorde parked near runway 27R at the eastern end of the airport. Heads turn involuntarily. There are hushed whispers. It is a thing of wonder. But why is it there? What is it saying to us?

G-BOAB is in transit - on its way to become a showpiece at the new Terminal 5, which is due to open next year. Until then it is a mute reproach to the lesser flying machines rumbling past. An eagle among geese. It is an act of aviation sadism to put it here, where passengers can still gaze on its aquiline profile from squat utilitarian aircraft.

It is a personal rebuke. In all my years of travelling, the flight on Concorde was always high on the list of things to do before I die, but it died before I got around to fulfilling my promise to myself. Now it's too late.

Finally, it stands there defiantly as a testament to the power of dreams. A symbol of stalled progress. We know it was a wild extravagance. A "Yeah, baby!" Austin Powers aeroplane, a shagadelic Sixties flying circus. It was noisier than Motörhead, but infinitely more tuneful. It was grossly unfair on the environment - but it gave me a visceral surge of pride whenever I saw its elegant silhouette over London.

Now standing there, captive to gravity, its engines removed, Concorde looks accusatory. Its raptor beak points to an empty space in the skies.

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