Tag Archives: Bollywood

an open letter to our omniscient friend, Shahrukh Khan

(Astute readers will remember when we stumbled upon SRK. The letter below details what we now know to be the TRUE meaning of that experience.)

Dear Shahrukh,

I use your first name because I see us on intimate terms.

That’s not because you’re the spokesperson for every single brand that has ever advertised in India, though. No, it’s because you and your marketing people invested millions of rupees to target my wife and I in your most clever image campaign to date.

Money well spent, I’d say. It’s amazing how perfectly your team pinpointed our habits.

You knew that Jenny and I would use that pleasant February morning to wander an area of Delhi we hadn’t yet explored.

You knew we’d stop to gape at the ice factory.

And you also knew we’d stop again to write in the dust on a nearby car.

These conclusions were critical to your strategy, because they predicted the exact moment when we’d reach Lala Hardev Sahai Marg. With that knowledge, you knew exactly when to flip on the red light so we would impatiently turn down Zorawar Singh Marg instead.

Which meant you knew exactly when to clear away the clouds so that we’d walk under the trees to avoid the sun.

Which is where you knew to place your ads.

What perfect research your team did! You’d learned that your Om Shanti Om posters had imprinted your ab muscles so indelibly into our skulls that we’d conditioned ourselves to ignore all subsequent posters of you. Which is why you chose NOT to hang a poster, but instead to drape strips of film over those trees in the exact configuration we were sure to notice.

khan

Just as you predicted, we stopped. Just as you predicted, we saw your face. Just as you predicted, we took pictures.

And now, just as you predicted, I’m praising your cleverness on our blog.

You, sir, are a marketing genius. You, sir, are the king of all media. You, sir, are—

Wait.

What if… what if this article isn’t your goal at all? What if this whole thing has been a clever campaign… to reach whoever is reading these words right now?

Reader! You’re reading this because Shahrukh KNEW you’d read it!

Did you just scratch your nose? Shahrukh knew you’d do that, too!

You have to ask yourself: what else does Shahrukh know you’re going to do? And what does Shahrukh want from YOU?

Shahrukh, I’m frightened by your omniscience. I want to cower under my desk. Except… you already knew that, didn’t you? Who knows what you have waiting for me under there?

Your unwilling pawn,

Dave Prager

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in Saket, the impossibility of unsanctioned chickpeas

Two weeks ago, Jenny and I attended the local premiere of Rajinikanth’s spectacular and ridiculous new movie, Endhiran. This was our first Rajinikanth experience, but we were quickly initiated into the ritual: cheering and confetti when Rajini makes his entrance, whistles and hoots when the leading lady appears, and applause and shouting and screaming in direct proportion to the creativity of the violence of each scene.


It’s also called “Robot.” Go see it!

Jenny and I attended this showing because we’re exceedingly nostalgic for India right now. And our experience with Endhiran did indeed bring back memories of good old Saket PVR, where we saw Om Shanti Om, Jab We Met, and, alas, Marigold, that east-meets-west, Salman-Khan-meets-the-blond-from-Heroes flop that is easily one of the worst movies ever made.


Don’t. Just don’t.

The audience at our Denver showing of Endhiran was as participatory as they are in Delhi. And the intermission was similarly jarring. But one significant aspect of Delhi movie-going did not make it across the Atlantic: the theater security. Here, the usher simply took our ticket and let us pass, as they do in most American theaters.

In Delhi, the ushers search you before letting you in. And they search you good.

We assume that Delhi’s ushers were originally deputized with patron-groping powers in order to prevent cinemaphobic terrorists from recreating scenes from Inglourious Basterds. But it seems that their mission has crept from stopping bombs to stopping bon-bons: while Delhi’s theater ushers may be protecting their patrons, they’re equally aggressive in protecting their snack bars’ bottom lines.

In America, Jenny and I usually attend movies with sandwiches, sodas, and bags of already-microwaved popcorn stuffed into her purse. That’s because theaters here believe it’s a battle not worth fighting: anyone cheap enough to sneak food into a theater would never pay five dollars for thirty cents’ worth of carbonated corn syrup anyway.

But in Delhi, anything entering a theater was deemed game for inspection. First they ran their hands up and down the contours of our bodies; then they manhandled the contents of our pockets; and then, having violating our persons, it was time for our possessions. And when they opened Jenny’s purse on that lamentable Delhi evening when we decided to subject ourselves to Marigold—our first visit to a movie theater in India—they immediately spotted our digital camera.

The men who craft security policy for PVR have determined that cameras are just as forbidden as bombs.

And though no rational human would ever want to pirate Marigold, rules are rules, and the busy hands guarding Saket PVR would not let us proceed with a camera in our possession. Our only option was to avail the services of the vendors selling water bottles and mobile phone talk time outside of the theater. We handed one our camera and he handed us a claim receipt, which is how our camera was spared the wretchedness of enduring Marigold.

Lucky camera.

We walked back into the theater. The ushers repeated their desecration of our bodies and Jenny’s purse. But this time they dug deeper and discovered what had been hidden beneath our camera: a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate, and a bag of Haldiram’s roasted chickpeas.


Al Qaeda could not carry this into a theater, either.

The ushers looked up at us from our cache of culinary contraband. Their faces showed neither anger nor disdain, but bewilderment: why would we even attempt to bring food into a theater? Didn’t we know we’d be searched? Didn’t we know we’d be discovered? Didn’t we know that the same rules empowering ushers to save lives also extend to preventing unauthorized snacking?

And so we were again turned away. And while we should have realized that Fate was trying to tell us something (specifically, that Fate was shouting at us in 48-point type: “DON’T SEE THIS AWFUL MOVIE!”), we’d paid our money, and we were going to see all the movie.

But we’d also paid for these chickpeas. And we thought we could still salvage them. As I abandoned our chocolate and our water in the market, Jenny surreptitiously folded the Haldiram’s bag and hid it in the sleeve of her sweatshirt. And then she folded her sweatshirt into a ball. And then we approached the ushers once more.

They found the chickpeas immediately. This time, as they looked up at us, I’m pretty sure they were trying not to laugh.

Jenny guiltily handed over the bag. Only then were we finally allowed to proceed into the theater—where, for the next two hours, Jenny and I endured Ali Larter overacting an affirmation of every conceivable negative American stereotype. She was immoral, hyper-sexual, rude, uncultured, uncouth, uneducated, underdressed, loud, loutish, lewd, and capable of downing an entire bottle of vodka in a single night—which she did. Which caused her to pass out on Chowpatty Beach. Good thing for her that Salman Khan had convinced himself that she was a diamond hidden under all that make-up and loose morality. He decided to stand guard over her until morning, presumably not to protect her honor so much as to protect Mumbai from being wantonly ravaged by this insatiable American caricature. And when the sun rose, he began to transform her into a proper and honorable woman.


Don’t get us wrong: we didn’t hate the movie because it offended us as Americans. We hated it because it offended us as human beings with active brain cells.

We emerged from the theater almost grateful for the nausea the movie left us with, because at least it masked our hunger. We’d refused to buy concessions, of course. Which was too bad, because it would have been great to have had popcorn to throw at the screen.

the sublime awesomeness of Tamil action

It was my boss Murali who first said to me the name “Rajinikanth”.

Murali is a natural storyteller. He’s utterly captivating, Murali, with one of those personalities that immediately commands any room into which he steps. Some of us tend to be indistinguishable from the wallpaper, but Murali is of the kind with an invisible spotlight trained on him at all times. So to see Murali get a faraway look in his eyes when speaking of a film hero — that man must be spellbinding indeed.

And what Murali told me about Rajinikanth was nothing short of unbelievable: something about shooting at a bad guy, realizing there were actually two bad guys, and then throwing a knife to split the speeding bullet into two pieces that each perfectly pierce the hearts of both bad guys.

While it may not have been that exact scenario, it was certainly in that general spirit. And whatever it was, my coworkers nodded in agreement at the assessment that Rajinikanth lived on a plane above us mortals. Oh, they knew of Rajinikanth. Everyone knew Rajinikanth. Except us Americans.

And we Americans are missing out.

After this conversation, I googled the name. The portrait I found didn’t seem particularly transcendent: a slightly pudgy man with an admittedly impressive mustache. But then I beheld the glory that you will experience in the two clips below. Part one:

Part two (it gets EVEN BETTER):

From there, I descended into the Youtube hole, and a world of Tamil cinema embraced me into its overdubbed bosom. Rajinikanth may be singularly glorious in Murali’s esteem, dear reader, but other South Indian action heroes are not far behind.

Conclusion: Tamil action cinema is incredible.

I cannot claim to understand who did what first in Tamil cinema. It’s possible that Rajinikanth is the greatest and all else are pretenders. It’s possible that Rajinikanth is the first and everyone else is biting his flow. It’s possible that Rajinikanth got famous copying someone else’s moves. All I know is that it gets better:

And better still:

Dear Indian readers of this blog, if there’s one thing we ignorant Americans know less about than Bollywood cinema, it’s Tamil cinema. In fact, I’m not even sure if Rajinikanth’s oeuvre is properly called “Tamil cinema” — I could be way off. (As the comment below points out, I’ve included at least one Telugu clip above.) What I do know is that I have yet to behold a knife splitting a bullet with my own eyes. I — and all Americans — would be in debt of anyone who could a) explain Rajinikanth and his antecedents to us, and b) embed the knifey-bullety clip below.

an awesome clip without context

Take the burly brawl from the Matrix Reloaded and the bad guy from No Country For Old Men, and then throw in… Voltron? Though we have no idea what movie this is from, this scene is spectacular.

Dave and Jenny, Bollywood style

If you heard about this on NPR’s Studio 360, you’d like our book! “Delirious Delhi” is a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Learn much more.

There was once a time in Delhi when shining malls and Café Coffee Days didn’t exist as refuges from heat and stench. In this land before liberalization, sanctuary could be found in the local cinema halls that apparently dotted the Indian urban landscape. But multiplexes are driving them out of business — and, as collateral damage, taking with them the Bollywood poster painters who relied on their business.

Every year, Jenny and I send out a photoshopped holiday card to our friends and family. When we found out that some Bollywood poster painters are still eking out a living near Old Delhi, we knew that this year’s card would be hand-made. We dissected a bunch of old Bollywood posters for composition and style, took pictures of our faces in our desired poses, and set out a neighborhood near the Red Fort armed with vague contact instructions: “Find the Darya Ganj fire station. Make a right. Walk a hundred yards and ask the paan wallah for Vijay.”

The paan wallah sent us to a bicycle rickshaw stand, where sleeping rickshaw pullers competed for space with the myriad rickshaw parts strewn about. We sat at the stand and chatted with Manesh, who seemed to manage the rickshaw syndicate, until Vijay Singh pulled up on a rickshaw of his own. Vijay and Manesh then took us up the dirt road across the street to Vijay’s open-air studio. Fading starlets gave us sultry glances from dusty wooden walls as we sat on a wooden charpoy to talk.

With Manesh translating, we told Vijay exactly what we wanted — the composition, the elements, the style, the poses, the title, the tagline. Happy for the business, Vijay was nonetheless confused about how we’d found him. Not sure how to explain that our relationship with the woman on the expat listserv who recommended him, we just told him that he was “very famous.” His smile told us that that was what he was hoping to hear.

I returned the next weekend with my father and money for the deposit. Manesh wasn’t there; this time, we sat at the rickshaw stand with a drunk mechanic who kept telling us “I speak English tutti-frutti” and “Vijay is my brother” and “You want some whiskey?” Finally Vijay and Ranjeet, his English-speaking partner, pulled up in a rickshaw. We discussed again the composition and the poses while the drunken mechanic danced around, sent a peon for soda, and interrupted us with “Vijay famous artist!” and “My cousin-brother!” and “You want whiskey?”

Jenny and I had anticipated a small poster, perhaps two feet in length — after all, our main goal was to reprint it on a postcard. Vijay, however, insisted that his work could be no less than five feet tall. We agreed, the peon returned, and we celebrated our agreement with Pepsi and whiskey. As we were walking out, the mechanic turned to me to whisper conspiratorially, “I speak English tutti-frutti.”

A week later, we returned to examine the work in progress. Five feet had become six.

And then, two weeks after we had commissioned it, Jenny and I came to Darya Ganj to behold our first starring role, captured in perfect 1970s Bollywood style. This poster accurately recreated the most exciting experiences we’ve had in Delhi so far: our spontaneous dances in various grand ballrooms, the time we fought criminals as special investigators in the Delhi police force, and that awful incident when our love of diamonds and danger forced us to turn our commandeered autorickshaws against each other.

And you thought we were working office jobs!

As Vijay and his team presented their work with pride, Ranjeet reminded us that poster painting is a dying art, and that we should tell our friends. So it’s with no hesitation that we recommend Vijay to capture your likeness in archaic Bollywood style. You can find him near the paan wallah, across from the rickshaw stand, down from the fire station; or you can just contact Ranjeet at 99996 29382 or ranjeet_2870@rediffmail.com.

P.S. Guess which one is the drunken mechanic?

If you heard about this on NPR’s Studio 360, you’d like our book! “Delirious Delhi” is a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Learn much more.