Bollywood’s foreign fan brigade
by ASHWIN AHMAD
Greta Kaemmer can really grill you. Hurling questions with rapid-fire velocity, Kaemmer, who is better known as Memsaab, astounds you with her encyclopedic knowledge of Indian cinema. Sample this: How were Mehmood and Meena Kumari related in real life? Don’t know. In which Hindi film do two actresses play the same character? Duh. And in which film does Shammi Kapoor do a nautch girl number? I’m logging off…
Memsaab is part of a growing group of foreigners who love Indian cinema as much as any Indian. Accomplished in ‘Hinglish’, these men and women are passionate about all things Bollywood. Take Maria, a German blogger and diehard fan of Shah Rukh Khan who was so upset with the lack of a German release for Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna in her country that she flew to New York to watch the film: First day, first show. Or Bastet, another German blogger who writes, “Being a Bollywood fan in Germany is not easy. We undertook a 200-km-long trip to Amsterdam (to see KANK). At that moment, we didn’t mind that the film was in Dutch and not in English subtitles.”
Both Maria and Bastet are part of a growing online craze that according to German journalist and author Brigit Pestal is now going offline as well. Pestal, who has written a book on Bollywood cinema and its influence on German speaking countries, estimates that there are 50,000 viewers of Bollywood films in Austria and Switzerland and one million viewers in Germany. She says, “Hardcore filmi fans in Germany go for Bollywood dancing at night. They wear saris, bindis, bangles and even learn some Hindi. About 70% of these fans are female.”
But the craze is not just confined to Germany. Kwanghyun Jung, runs an 8,000 member-strong internet club in South Korea which shows one Hindi film a month and till recently ran Bollywood dance classes. Says Jung, “We don’t see movies silently in Korean style but rather in Indian style, which means making a lot of noise, laughing loudly at every joke and abusing the villain.” This is what attracts Korean audiences to Bollywood movies. As to the choice of films, he says that almost all movies screened are SRK movies because members aren’t interested in anyone but him. “We also make Shah Rukh T-shirts, cups and some members carry his photos. Even their cellphone screensavers are SRK images.”
This passion for King Khan has united online fans of Indian cinema in a rather unique way. It made Beth Watkins, Michael Langhans and Barbara Skoda set up bollywoodbloggers.com, one of the largest online sites for non-Indian fans of Indian cinema. Watkins and Langhans have started a project called tracking the adventures of Mini Khan. Mini Khan is a tiny Shah Rukh doll, who as some members point out, had a six-pack well before the original. The doll is couriered from blogger to blogger who then uploads pictures on Mini Khan from his or her country. Along with the pictures comes a blog about their latest Bollywood escapade. The demand for Mini Khan is so great that a world map with a tracker is put up on the website to show where he currently is in the world.
But while online fans enjoy Mini Khan’s arrival, not all of them like the original. Indeed, a chat with members reveals that a number of them are not diehard fans of SRK or even contemporary Hindi cinema. “I see promos for films like Tashan and cringe. It could be an American film (a bad one),” says Memsaab. She prefers instead the romantic sensibility of the ’60s, specially her dream actor Shammi Kapoor.
Sanni, a 20-something Finnish girl, prefers South Indian hero Siddharth over SRK. And no, it’s not his role in Rang De Basanti that she likes but some of his South Indian films. As she writes, “I know many people, even existing Siddharth fans, found his character Santosh annoyingly hyper — like a kid high on sugar — during the first half of Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana (If you want to come, I won’t say no) Not me. I love all of it. Ostrich pants, random dancing included.”
Sanni isn’t the only one looking beyond Bollywood. Langhans, a German advocate by day and Indian cinema buff by night, says he admires South Indian cinema for staying true to its roots. “Hindi cinema is going more towards a Hollywood style while Tamil cinema has stayed true to its origins. Slapstick, fighting, charismatic stars — I only find this nowadays in Tamil cinema.” Fellow blogger Barbara Skoda, better known as Babasko in her English blog (babaaurbollywood) concurs. “None of the 2006 Hindi releases I watched, made my heart ache the way Surya did in Sillunu Oru Kaadhal (A Cool Love).”
This exchange of views is an eye-opener for most Indians who don’t expect a firang to have heard of most Indian films let alone having such sound knowledge of actors and their work. Most have watched over 100 Indian films, with some even averaging three to four a week. They are largely uninterested in star gossip, preferring instead to concentrate on films and film history. Memsaab, who recently met Boman Irani on a trip to India, so impressed him with her cinema knowledge that she was invited to participate in his show ‘Bollywood ka Boss’. And that’s not all. At a recent film shoot, Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora happily took out time to chat with Pestal once they realized she knew who they were.
The advantage of such fans is that they can end up serving as a bridge between Indians and westerners. Pesimisissimo, in his blog ‘Exotic and Irrational’ has a detailed discussion with Delhi girl Karishma who wants her French lab partner to get into Bollywood music. His advice: “One thing that many western listeners (including me at first) have a hard time with in Bollywood soundtracks is the high pitch in which the women sing. Once I started watching dance clips from the films though, I really came to appreciate singers like Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar. Now I love Bollywood soundtracks. You might try giving your labmate a DVD of Indian film music.” Such insights are a boon not just to outsiders seeking an insight into Indian culture but to Indians who are able to understand the problems westerners face and able to understand and appreciate Indian films and music.