Sankha Guha: Man About World

Bollywood's fantasy is no reflection on us

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions