East Meets West
Picture this. A musty basement, carpeted, coloured light sconces, leather barstools around a padded bar, bottles sitting on glass shelves. Furnace room off the bottom of the stairs, and a television against the far wall. Two small windows, barely big enough for you to crawl out of.
Enter Bollywood, before it was called Bollywood. Three-plus hour movies, filled with at least six song-dance numbers that blend into the storyline. It’s all ridiculous, but I’ll tell you a secret about Indian people, if you’ll hear it. They’re incredibly passionate people but don’t ever go for public displays of affection. In all Bollywood movies, you won’t really ever see a man and a woman kissing, although they’ll be put in situations where that’s clearly where the scene would go. Indian people are just like that – about to embrace, possibly do more, but not where you can see it.
This does not mean that passion is absent. It is there. Promise.
Bollywood is a release of sheer passion. These are emotional movies, where the songs are meant to accentuate the passion. Think of Lata Mangeshkar (ie. ‘Mere Naseeb Mein’, or even better, ‘Pyar Zindagi Hai’), Mohammed Rafi (ie. ‘Waqt Se Din Aur Raat’), Kanchan (ie. ‘Hum Tumhen Chahte Hain’). These songs blister with passion, a ferocity disallowed in public. Bollywood allows people to participate in emotions that are unseemly to show publicly. It’s a surrogate.
One of the most famous classic movies of Bollywood is called ‘Naseeb’. That word means ‘luck’ in Hindi. The story is all about luck, and circles around a lottery ticket that some people in the past realize is a winner, and proceed to kill the person who has it, so they can have the money. Families in the drama combine, disassociate, lose track of each other over time, the crime covered up; two families become rich, two others are so normal. Everyone has children, delightful, bright, singing and dancing children who are going on with their life until they start to intersect, and realize that a crime had been committed. A terrible one. They go to battle. There are fights, shooting, and more than anything, love. There is so much overt love and emotion threading its way through a 182-minute runtime, leading up to a final battle between the families in a rotating restaurant at the top floor of a tower hotel. Enter zip lines, something we didn’t know much about in 1981, that allow the heroes to escape the inevitable fire, just after they dispatch the villains, including their villainous progeny.
In a musty basement, you’re struck first and foremost by the beauty of the women. Just being honest. They were gorgeous, and strong, commanding. Another surrogate. In real life, divisions and gender inequality were quite strong in India, but not in the movies. In the movies, these beautiful women were strong, and often saved the day, while routinely putting the men into their place. The writers of Bollywood at the time were either women themselves, or men who understood that this fractionation of people based on tradition (and often religion) was not going to last. Picture Bollywood as a first mover in change, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
I wonder what would happen if someone mined the many stories and ideas presented by Bollywood over time, and inseminated them into western storytelling. It would be a bit of a messy procedure, and there would be elements that seem incongruent, unless you can get to the core of storytelling. My hypothesis is that the stories all stem from human traits that are common around the world, and are universal in our need for storytelling. They would be understandable, no matter who you are, because they’re ultimately about revenge, loss, grief, underdogs, power, ambition, and of course love. If you distill Bollywood stories down to their essence, that’s all they’re about. When you distill our stories down, same thing. Why the cross-pollenization doesn’t happen more often, I couldn’t tell you. Surely there are bits of both traditions that could work in combination.
Picture a snowy field. A hunter comes across the body of a wounded bear, and puts it out of its misery. Then she tracks down the poacher, but gets stuck in a snowstorm and nearly perishes. Enter the lonely woodsman, who nurses her back to health in his cabin. By spring, they’re dancing and singing amongst the trees, as birds fly between the branches. They come this close to kissing… but don’t. Together, they resolve to go after the poachers, who they discover are strip-mining the land to extract diamonds. They invade the mine, of course, helped by Indigenous people who they befriend in a fiery ceremony conducted under the auspices of pounding drums and much singing. But the invasion is rebuffed by the resolute security forces employed by the villainous overlord of the mine, a man obsessed with diamonds. Still, in this first conflict, the woodsman gets a look at the overlord, and realizes that this is his father, a man he thought dead long ago. Because of that death, he fled to the woods to lead a private and lonely life. Enter conflict between our hunter and our woodsman, and an aching song about how love enters our lives (kiss-free love, as it were), and often flees. But not to worry. The long-lost mother of the woodsman also turns up; she’s been tracking the father, determined to end his duplicitous ravaging of the Earth in his endless pursuit of diamonds. A three-way song ensues between the woodsman and his mother, and our hunter, as the Indigenous folks dance in the background, on the side-slopes of a mountain that is still green with trees, even though winter is just around the corner. These three come together during that song; the hunter and the woodsman are connected once more. A final battle is conducted during a snowstorm, on snowmobiles; the heroes best the security forces of the mine, and blow up the core mining equipment, an event that shakes the very mountain, and inspires a landslide that wipes out the mine altogether, restoring the land to its original state. The overlord, defeated, flees through the land, but of all things, is hunted by a pack of wolves that surround him and start to savage him. Enter the woodsman, his mother, and the hunter, who scare off the wolves and look at this sad man lying in the snow of a new fall, knowing what they have to do. But of course they let him go, because these are good people. Cue a final sad song, images of the mountains and of the land, and the people who have lived there for years, as our three heroes sing their way into the end of this story, and hopefully into the beginning of a new one that we will never see, but that we can imagine.
Picture this. Picture that. Have you ever seen a Chinese movie? How about a Korean one? Japanese? How about Nigerian? Do you know that Nigeria makes more movies than almost any other country? Italian, French, Spanish, British movies. Polish. Czech. Russian. All stories. All boiling down to things that make us human. Similarities in their core messages, even if the trappings are different. What would a world be like where elements of these stories are brought together, to explore how similar we all actually are? After all, it’s one species, this human animal. We’re related, perhaps in no way more strongly than as through our stories. When aliens one day study our radio signal emanations, they will come to the same conclusion. This was one people coming from a common origin; we only have to study their stories to see that.
Next snowstorm, I’m going to put on my coat and thick gloves, my boots. I’ll wear a toque, of course, because hey, Canada. And I’m going to sing down the street, a song whose words I don’t really understand, but that’s okay. It’s the feeling and the strength of the emotion that matters. If you see me out there, come link arms. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately. If you happen to have a flask of scotch on you, I would be very grateful. And don’t worry about the words. Just let your voice fly. Only good things will come of that.