MOST ADOLESCENTS TREASURE MEMORIES of their first job, their first kiss, their first fuck or their first drunken brawl. But I was different. My most treasured teenage moment was seeing Bappi Lahiri — the obese, froglike music director responsible for the song “You Are My Chicken Fry” (among other horrors) — wearing a bulging T-shirt with iron-on letters that spelled “Michael Jackson Is Cool.” I don't know what movie I was watching, and to be honest I'm not even sure it was Bappi . . . it was only a fleeting glimpse. But it burned directly into my retinas and set up a new group of nerve cells in my developing brain, a specialized bunch of synapses that craves only Bollywood.
Picture me, a 16-year-old kid living in a small southern Ontario town, chafing at my mundane existence and craving a life of fabulousness. “Fun” in my neck of the woods was vintage-car shows and the yearly Mennonite Relief Sale. If you were lucky enough to catch the Apple Butter Festival, you could spend the entire day . . . well, watching people make apple butter. Can you imagine? I was like Dorothy in Kansas — I desperately needed to escape. I'd pray nightly for aliens, a plague, a tornado, anything to save me from my black-and-white existence. The natural disaster that finally rescued me was Bollywood, the Indian film factory that many have heard about but few have had the courage (or the constitution) to really explore.
The only way I could get in touch with Bollywood was by watching TV on Sunday mornings. For about three hours — just before the long-running British working-class soap opera Coronation Street — CITY-TV transformed into the magical world of CHIN, a multiethnic montage of programs aimed at specialized communities in Toronto. Among other things I'd see on Sunday mornings was footage from current Indian films, usually segments of the musical numbers that Bollywood is so famous for: a playful man and a shy woman would hide behind trees and frolic among the flowers, or maybe they'd be in a gigantic, smoky discotheque full of a wide range of physical specimens smiling from ear to ear (unless they were villains) and executing a range of hybrid dance moves — ones I'd previously thought impossible (or at least impractical). The heroines sang in beautiful, ear-piercing voices, and the men proclaimed their love and fidelity with the broadest gestures: hand on heart, eyes to the sky, true exuberant love without a trace of irony and without a single false note. At a time when cynicism was replacing Michael Jackson as the new cool thing in my world, Bappi still advertised unconcerned adoration on the front of his T-shirt. When people in Bollywood loved somebody, they didn't piss and moan about whether their love was true. Instead, they jumped out of lotus flowers, rolled down hillsides and pretended to be mentally handicapped in shopping malls . . . because it was fun! I couldn't help wondering (and I still wonder today), why don't people court me this way?
On top of this — on top of such sincerity — was the kitsch: Amrita Singh wearing beautiful, glittery white disco outfits with big belts and a Wonder Woman headband; Manisha Koirala, scorpion painted on her face, donning her tail feathers and dropping a dwarf in a well; Anil Kapoor, with his shirt open down to his navel, humping the dirty ground over and over again to prove that he was in love, that he was happy, and that he could DANCE!
Well, sort of.
Contrast this with what the other people on my street were watching: Coronation Street. The crustiest bun in the entertainment bin. I didn't want to be somebody named Madge or Mavis, with curlers in my hair, serving beer to a bunch of farty old bastards in a pub. I wanted to be Rekha doing a snake dance over the prostrate, bell-bottomed corpse of her latest victim. Why couldn't everybody else — my friends, my family, my teachers — understand?
It was years before I could actually see an entire Bollywood film. Whenever I asked for Indian films at the video store, they'd try to force Sam Peckinpah or John Ford on me. Despite what could be considered an inexhaustible mine of fun and silliness, Bollywood has never really caught on in the West, and there are a few good reasons for this. First of all, most people weaned on Coronation Street don't like the idea of sitting through such long films — just under three hours seems to be the norm. Some viewers are turned off by the masala mix of styles in nearly every movie: screwball comedy one minute, bone-crushing melodrama the next, followed by a fight scene, a romantic interlude in Switzerland, and a dance number featuring a trained dog (or was that Govinda?). More important: If a person's only motivation for watching an Indian film is for the kitsch and chintz — the initial attraction to Bollywood for many — they'll be doing a lot of fast-forwarding past the “forbidden marriage” and “honor thy mother” portions of the stories.
In order to truly appreciate Bollywood, you need to be able to enjoy the kitsch and the melodrama. You need to laugh when Johny Lever's hair catches on fire, and poke fun at Rishi Kapoor's paunch. You need to sigh when the heroine reads a tender love letter, and cry when her beloved becomes paralyzed after falling out of a helicopter. You must squirm at the villain's nefarious plans. You must thrill at the meticulous plotting — so special to Bollywood — which results in ordinary people being forced to do terrible things to other ordinary people. You must join in with the heroine when she screams at a statue of Hanuman, and exult when the aforementioned Hanuman goes whizzing off his pedestal to set things right in answer to her prayers (usually by crashing into the heads of squadrons of goons wielding cricket bats). Finally, you need to jump off your futon and cheer when the bad guys are brought to justice and the families finally bless the union of the hero and his girl.
Fun? Yes. Silly? Almost always. But also beautifully crafted. Indian filmmakers make the most of their 160 minutes of film. So much attention is paid to the lunacy of Bollywood — and I'm guilty of this as well, because the lunacy is so inspired — that it's easy to miss the cleverness of the plots, the depth of the characterizations, the poetry of the dialogues. You need to look beyond the cardboard sets and variable film quality to find the things that so impress Bollywood fans like me.
Suffice it to say I've made it my mission to save people from their black-and-white, Coronation Street lifestyles. As a crazy-dancin', feather-wearin', melodramatic drag queen, I'm a living testament to the fabulousness of Indian films. This sort of thing may not be for everybody, but if you want your children to grow up happy, give them a daily dose of Bollywood. And leave Coronation Street to the kind of people who shun the sunlight, play darts all night, and eat dust and old socks.
Ms. St. Bernard will perform her song-and-dance routine at next week's L.A. Weekly-sponsored screening of Kaante (Thorns), the Bollywood musical adaptation of Reservoir Dogs, at the Directors Guild of America. Call (323) 993-3604 for more information. In the meantime, you may want to visit Muffy at her Web site.