When, if ever, will it be okay to have fun again?
Someday, but perhaps not yet, suggested Mona, a young Syrian Muslim who had traveled from the city of Orange to the Sports Arena on September 23 to join other fans of Indian ”Bollywood“ cinema at a mammoth public-appearance event called Craze 2001. A grand tour that carted truckloads of props and equipment, and busloads of dancers and technicians, to 23 cities in the United States and Canada, Craze 2001 was an eye-opening experience for a sympathetic firangi (foreigner). An estimated 12,000 fans of the world‘s most popular cinema turned out that Sunday to cheer an A-list assortment of Indian movie stars in the flesh, dancing and lip-synching to hit songs from their recent blockbusters, an indication of gargantuan cultural forces at work that the usual pop pundits had somehow overlooked.
The pull was irresistible; nevertheless, Mona was clearly torn: She loves Bollywood’s life-affirming movies, these three-hour full-course meals of music, romance, comedy, action and melodrama. And the centerpiece of the Craze program was re-enactments of scenes from a lavish period picture called Lagaan (Land Tax, a.k.a. Once Upon a Time in India), about a high-stakes cricket match between a scrub 11 of beleaguered rural villagers and a team of colonial Brits, a summer hit on the Indian film circuit worldwide that is one of Mona‘s favorites. ”A lovely, positive movie,“ she said. ”But yet I just don’t know. Maybe it is still too soon for this.“
Perhaps like the rest of us Mona simply had too much time to sit and ruminate, waiting for the show to start. The auditorium filled very slowly over the course of an hour, the delay caused by stringent new security procedures instituted after September 11. Apart from the metal detectors and bag searchers, and a moment of silence observed as the lights went down, terrorism seemed the last thing anyone wanted to think about. Large families of sari-clad women, their grumpy-looking, business-suited husbands and wide-eyed kids who seemed to be jumping out of their skins in anticipation filled the hard plastic seats that normally torment the backsides of basketball fans. The atmosphere, in fact, suggested a massive family picnic more than a concert crowd; with full-course boxed meals sold in the lobby and devoured in the auditorium, it was a Norman Rockwell version of a multicultural utopia.
Although a September 16 show in Chicago had to be canceled when the lid was clamped down on air travel, the Craze tour started up again at the earliest opportunity. Headliner Aamir Khan, the producer and star of Lagaan, delivered the standard ”the show must go on“ speech to journalists in Vancouver last week, and in this context the sentiment made perfect sense. If any group of show people on Earth knows how to take the mind of an anxious, hard-strapped audience off its troubles, it‘s the moviemakers of Bollywood, whose single-minded dedication to delivering intense pleasure to an enormous and diverse audience is unmatched.
India turns out 600 films a year in a dozen regional languages, but the Hindi-language Bollywood contingent, based in Bombay, penetrates every corner of the subcontinent and, increasingly, beyond. Over the past decade, Bollywood has become a global entertainment wholesaler, as NRI (Non-Resident Indian) populations in Europe and North America have grown exponentially. In Great Britain, where Lagaan was enthusiastically reviewed in mainstream papers like The Guardian and became a Top 10 hit, the national cinema is beginning to cross over to non-Indians. It was also the British Indian audience that first created a market for traveling personal-appearance tours like Craze in the 1970s, according to the show’s promoter, Virginia-based entrepreneur Vijay Taneja. But the shows have been a feature on the Indian-American scene since the mid-‘80s, as well.
The current program was staged by Mohamed Morani, a bodybuilding media tycoon from Bombay whose business interests include film production and a fireworks company. He has been mounting these shows in Europe and North America since 1989 at the rate of two a year in a variety-show format modeled upon the exhausting excess of Hindi cinema itself. A production number is followed by a solo song performance that segues to a comedy routine, and then the cycle is repeated and repeated nonstop for close to three and a half hours (even longer than the average Hindi movie) as a tireless squadron of post-Fosse hoofers throws on gold lame, then matching red zoot suits, then wispy ballet attire, trailing anaconda scarves across the stage amid clouds of confetti and eruptions of colored lights — with occasional judicious applications of Morani Company fireworks.
The showiest dance routines last Sunday were those that featured the slender and elegant Aishwarya Rai, recently dubbed ”the second most beautiful actress on Earth“ by no less an authority than Roger Ebert. Judging purely from audience response, however, Aamir Khan was the clear favorite. India’s reigning box-office champion and a widely admired actor, Khan is reputed to be a perfectionist producer who sweats every technical and aesthetic detail of his pictures, and the polished professionalism of his musical numbers (adapted from Lagaan) reflected this. They were the most fully staged and best-rehearsed segments of the evening, in a tasteful and textured style that added up to a 40-plus-minute re-enactment of the entire film in the style of a full-dress Broadway musical.
But Anil Kapoor managed to trump even Khan. Alone on a bare stage, stalking about in a big-belted Elvis-y outfit with silver leg trim, running through a medley of hit tunes from his catalog of more than 80 star vehicles with thunderous accompaniment supplied by a pre-recorded backing track (augmented by an onstage rhythm section), relying on his pipes instead of a playback track, Kapoor was the first performer of the night to lift people out of their seats and get them to dance and sing along. Kapoor has been a popular leading man for so long that he is sometimes referred to simply as ”Mr. India,“ after his title role in Shekhar Kapur‘s 1987 blockbuster of the same name. Now in his mid-40s and looking a little puffy around the edges, Kapoor came across on one level as the filmi equivalent of a cheesy lounge crooner, but what won out was his commitment to the stereotyped gestures of an exalted-yet-humble star making contact with his beloved fans. If anyone at Craze 2001 embodied the ”show must go on“ spirit that is the heart and soul of Bollywood, it was Anil Kapoor — Mr. India.