Not the Wedding Crashers
When I was in India this last spring, several people recommended a Bollywood classic called Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge -- or, to use the popular shorthand for an immensely popular film, DDLJ. Now that I have seen the film, I understand why my interlocutors were so insistent.
"Bollywood" is becoming an obsolete term, or maybe it always was. There is Hindustani cinema, which uses a blend of Hindi, Urdu and English, and has been described by the famous screenplay writer Javed Akhtar as "one more state in this country, ... quite different from Indian culture, but it's not alien to us, we understand it." (See his book-length series of interviews with the writer Nasreen Kabir.) In addition, there are several regional film industries in other languages, which together with the Hindustani mainstream produced largely in Mumbai/Bombay, dominate a huge region stretching from West Africa to Central Asia to East Asia and Oceania -- not to mention London, Russia, and New Jersey.
We Americans think of movies as constantly "pushing the envelope" -- that is, first you show kissing, then foreplay (remember foreplay?), then sex in bed, then sex against the wall, then sex with baked goods and fruit, then sex with animals, then rape, then rape and strangulation, then rape preceded by torture (back to foreplay again?), and then -- what? Rape and strangulation of baked goods?
I'm not suggesting that this is a natural progression -- most people are content with the first 2-3 steps. But woe to the Hollywood director who stops pushing the envelope, or even riskier, pushes it in the opposite direction. The only director I can think of who does this is Judd Apatow, whose comedies The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up paradoxically use raunchy humor to affirm (relatively) traditional sexual mores.
There is no raunchy humor in DDLJ, but there is plenty of old-fashioned erotic attraction, battle-of-the-sexes combat, and finally passionate surrender, all accompanied by song-and-dance numbers that are (in the best Bollywood style) extravagant and surreal without being (in the worst Bollywood style) repetitive and tedious.
What is fascinating, though, is what happens after the lovers realize how hopelessly smitten they are. In The Wedding Crashers, the lover whose girl is engaged to someone else simply shows up at the wedding and claims her. He makes a short speech along the lines of "I really love you and that dude is a bum," and she falls into his arms. Needless to say, the wishes of parents and relatives are treated as a minor irritant quickly disposed of. When the bride embraces the interloper, they have no choice but to applaud -- they're old, after all, and therefore irrelevant.
Never mind that this is not how many young Americans see the world. It is the dominant trope of popular culture, that sexual attraction equals love, and that nothing must stand in its path. DDLJ would not disagree, but its way of making the same point is infinitely more subtle, powerful, and human.
When Raj (Shahrukh Khan) falls for Simran (Kajol), the problem is obvious: he is the spoiled playboy son of a London-based millionaire (Anupam Kher), she the sheltered daughter of Chaudrry Singh (Amrish Puri), a hard-working shop owner who hates England and longs for his native Punjab. The young people meet on a Europass tour of the Alps (very picturesque), but when Simram returns home, her father packs her off to India to marry the son of his best friend.
The old man is a stern, forbidding autocrat, and his dream of reconnecting with Punjab is not shared by his wife and two daughters. In an American film, these sentiments would have to be corrected, either by persuasion or coercion. But therein lies the difference: in DDLJ the old man is treated with the utmost respect, and although it seems impossible for 99 percent of the story, he finally yields. (This is not a spoiler! Everyone knows that the lovers get together at the end of a film like this!)
But watch carefully, because this is not just a case of the young folks bringing the old folks into the current century. It's also a case of the young learning from the old that there are two ways to do anything: the wrong way, which leads to happiness in the short term but emptiness in the long, and the right way, which is hard and painful but leads to the greatest happiness.
Maybe we Americans are too sophisticated for this stuff. In terms of revenue, Hollywood still makes a whole lot more money than Bollywood. But in terms of audience size, Bollywood surpassed Hollywood in 2004 and is still ahead: 3 billion, as opposed to 2.6 billion. And most of the latter are not Wedding Crashers fans so much as Titanic and Shrek fans. With regard to stories about human beings, it's the heart that counts. And on that score, 3 billion Bollywood fans may not be wrong.