WAS Bollywood's reigning beauty, Aishwarya Rai's making it to the cover of an international magazine a belated western recognition of the Indian cinema?
From the way the Indian media played up the fact that the green-eyed former Miss World had been featured on the cover of Time last week, it appeared that not just Bollywood but the entire country had notched up a big success.
Whether it was a lack of national self-pride or an inordinately high opinion about all things western, the truth was that the Rai cover did not, and would not, put Bollywood anywhere near Hollywood.
The twain shall never meet, in spite of a grudging recognition that the reach of Hindi cinema from “Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town” was bigger than that of its American counterpart.
As the Oct 27 cover story in Time noted, “ the sheer size of the Indian film industry – releasing an average of 1,000 films a year, compared with Hollywood's 740, ... and attracting an annual world audience of 3.6 billion, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion, made it seem as though the West was the last to catch on.”
But the way the Indian media and ordinary people reacted to the Rai cover in the American magazine, it was as if the India cinema had finally arrived on the world stage.
It had not. The US edition of Time did not even take note in passing of the Rai phenomenon in Bollywood.
The cover story evoked derision in knowledgeable filmy circles. For contrary to the claim made in the Time article that Rai was its torchbearer, if ever there was one actor who could epitomise the Indian film industry it wasn't her but Amitabh Bachchan who is recognised by people of Indian origin from South Africa to Alps.
Also, Rai was yet to attain the histrionics excellence of say, a Meena Kumari or Madhubala, or even Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit. The West was taken up with Aishwarya Rai, it was pointed out, because she fitted its model of an ideal brown woman.
The Indians' hankering after western recognition might be rooted in their country's history, notably its colonial past, nonetheless it did not detract from the fact that Bollywood was yet again up and running despite experiencing one of the worst years on the turnstiles in 2002 when only some half a dozen movies were genuine hits while all others had bombed without a trace on the box office.
Yet, it spoke volumes for the industry's collective strength and its instinct for survival that it seems to have put losses of such massive scales behind it to mount more and more ambitious projects on the studio floors.
One of the most prestigious films has been launched by Bobby Bedi, who had co-produced the surprise hit, Bandit Queen based on the real life story of the woman dacoit, Phoolan Devi, a decade ago.
Loosely based on the 1857 uprising by Indian soldiers against the British imperial masters, The Rising has Aamir Khan as the revolutionary leader against the James Bond movie villain, Toby Stephens, who plays a ruthless British army captain.
It has Aishwarya Rai in the female lead. Estimated to cost Rs 32 crores (RM27mil), The Rising will be released in both Hindi and English versions. Bedi is also overseeing the shooting in India of American Daylight, a film directed by the American Academy Award winner set director of the hit Star Wars.
Then there is the always reliable Ram Gopal Verma, the maker of such hits as Rangeela and Company, who is now filming a project based on the Mumbai Police encounter expert, Insp Daya Nayak.
Named, Ab Tak Chhapan (So far, 56), the movie peers into the life of the cop who invariably finds himself chasing notorious gangsters and terrorists and equally predictably ends up killing them all in encounters.
Whether the Verma film will touch upon the controversy that most of these encounters are stage-managed and that most of the criminals/terrorists are already in police custody when they are killed in fake encounters remains to be seen. But given the political overtones in the encounter deaths of Mumbai gangsters, Ab Tak Chhapan is bound to attract wide public notice.
British-Indian director, Gurinder Chadha's latest film, Bride and Prejudice, being shot in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar in Punjab has been attracting tens of thousands of film-crazy youngsters to the outdoor locales.
Based loosely on the Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, it has Aishwarya Rai in the female lead opposite British actor Martin Handerson.
Chadha made a name for herself by making a British crossover film, Bend It Like Beckham a few years ago.
An Aishwarya Rai film which is ready for release has won rave reviews in the foreign press, though it is unlikely to do well on the commercial circuit at home is Rituparno Ghosh's Choker Bali. It has confounded film critics with some calling it her worst film while the US trade paper, Variety has rated it as one of the best Indian films – so much for uniformity in judging cinematic excellence!
The upcoming releases aside, a film that is attracting Indians by droves to cinema halls across the nation is the Amitabh Bachchan–Hema Malini starrer, Baghban. It has Salman Khan and Mahima Chaudhry in supporting roles.
Veteran producer-director B. R. Chopra's family drama, Bhagban depicts the plight of old parents who make sacrifices for their children only to be treated like unwanted orphans by them.
An excellent chemistry between Bachchan and Hema revives memories of their past on-screen romances.
So moved was the Deputy Prime Minister, L. K. Advani, a self-confessed movie buff, that he said he cried all through the movie till the old couple emerged victorious in the last reel of the movie.
The film marks the return of Hema Malini, recently nominated to the Upper House of Parliament by Advani's party, BJP, to the cine screen after more than a decade's absence.
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