India is the world’s largest film producer, having overtaken the U.S. back in the 1970s, but other than the crossover Academy Award winning “Slumdog Millionaire” we Americans aren’t very familiar with what the country produces.
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a 2008 musical romantic comedy called “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” (A Match Made by God). I had a preconceived notion of what to expect from Bollywood, having seen grainy clips over the years, but this movie was beautifully transcendent.
The story is pretty basic. Surinder and Taani are in an arranged marriage just days after meeting. For Surinder, a shy, quiet, ordinary man, it’s love at first sight. But Taani has just gone through major personal tragedy and very early on tells Surinder she has no love to give but will faithfully carry out her duties as a wife.
Taani decides to take dancing lessons to occupy her time and meets Raj, an obnoxiously loud, strutting peacock. Raj constantly flirts and jokes with her, and though she is at first repulsed by him, Taani eventually falls in love.
She has a major dilemma. What she doesn’t know, though, is that Raj is Surinder in disguise. Suri, in order to make her happy, is willing to give up his own identity and give her a person she will love.
The story sounds silly, but it is oddly mystical and religious. There’s a simple underlying message, God is love, and the film touches on various religious practices found in India.
The above clip is where Taani starts to fall in love again, while on a day trip with Raj. Surinder is the guy in glasses with a small mustache. Raj is in the red shirt and tight jeans. In Taani’s reality, Surinder isn’t there, but in this scene Suri as Raj imagines being in these beautiful places as himself, not as an impostor.
Most of the time, when a movie involves someone disguising himself as someone else, the audience generally thinks the person being duped should be able to easily spot it’s the same guy. But it’s totally believable that Taani can’t see that Suri and Raj are the same guy, a major accomplishment by the actor, Shahrukh Khan.
And it’s easy to see why Suri is in love with Taani, played by the beautiful Anushka Sharma.
The musical sequences are great, the cinematography is amazing and the acting is fascinating to watch.
But here’s what surprised my about the movie. Although it is a passionate love story, Suri and Taani never kiss. I couldn’t figure that out, so I guessed it must be a cultural issue.
I went back to look at “Slumdog Millionaire” the only other Indian movie I’ve paid close attention to. In that movie, the main character, Jamal, has been in love with Latika ever since they were children. Then I saw that in that movie, they don’t kiss until the very last seconds before the end credits.
And then I rewatched “Bend It Like Beckham,” the story of an Indian girl in London who drives her parents crazy because she wants to play football (soccer). She falls in love with the coach, and they don’t kiss until just before the closing credits. Thought this is a Western movie, the Eastern influence dominates.
Now in an American movie, if two characters are as deeply in love as the characters in the above movies, there would be major tongue to tonsil action about five minutes into the first reel.
According to the site Bollywhat.com. kissing is rare in Indian movies: The censor board is notoriously unpredictable; no one wants to risk getting a rating that would scare away families. Also, Bollywood plays to a diverse range of people, from the illiterate and provincial to the worldly and urban. Ideas of morality differ widely from group to group. Why include a kiss when you can easily leave it out and avoid the risk of offending customers? Also, actresses don’t want to lose their conservative fans, nor do they want to endure salacious flak from journalists. So they’re not too keen on kissing on-screen, and many proudly trumpet their refusal to do it.
And we’ve already seen India’s cultural aversion to kissing in public. Back in 2007, Richard Gere kissed Indian actress Shilpa Shetty on stage at an AIDS awareness rally in New Delhi.
The public reaction wasn’t what you’d expect, according to the BBC: Demonstrators in Mumbai (Bombay) set light to effigies of the Hollywood star, while protesters in other cities shouted “death to Shilpa Shetty.” The protesters said Gere insulted Indian culture by kissing the hand and face of the Bollywood actress.
That seems an overreaction to a kiss, even though Gere was pretty sloppy at it.
But I now understand more about Indian culture, because I spent the time watching a couple of Bollywood movies. More important: I really enjoyed what I saw.