I’m pretty sure it’s a sin and I’m fairly embarrassed to admit it, but before I came to India I had never seen a Bollywood movie. The closest I’d come is the final dance number in Slumdog Millionaire and somehow I don’t really think that qualifies.
So when our program planned an outing for us to see Chennai Express in theaters I was thrilled. After a morning of orientation, our group of twenty or so set out in rickshaws to the movie theater for our showing at 2:00.
The movieplex itself is more like a mall than an American movie theater. The lower level has book stores, clothing shops and stands and the middle level is packed with different kinds of Indian fast foods to eat before your movie. The screens are on the upper level and after a quick bite to eat that’s where we headed.
The theater had even given us each assigned seats so we didn’t have to argue over how far to sit from the screen. Suddenly the lights lowered and the movie began. No previews, no goofy commercials, nothing. Just the title credits.
The movie was everything I had hoped it would be: cheesy, full of music, dance, romance, adventure and comedy. Even though we didn’t understand much of the Hindi we were able to follow the plot fairly easily.
The whole movie was about two and a half hours, complete with an intermission to refresh your snacks and run to the bathroom. And, of course, it ended with a fabulous Bollywood dance number.
We’ve been singing the title song ever since and we might even get to learn one of the Bollywood dances from the movie in our dance class starting next week.
A couple of days ago we went back to the same theater to see an American movie, We’re the Millers. Based on commercials we had seen before we left, it looked like one of those classic stupid-funny movies. Not a lot to focus on. Not a lot of depth. Just some good laughs and maybe an inappropriate joke or two. And after three weeks in India, seeing a stupid-funny American movie was just what the doctor ordered.
The movie met all our expectations and more. And after the showing we agreed that part of why it was so good had to do with the context that we saw it in rather than the movie just being good in-and-of-itself.
Because, let me tell you, seeing an American movie in India is absolutely fascinating!
On the one hand, it was just comforting to see actors we recognized, speaking a language we understood, and doing things that we’ve been socialized to think are funny in America. It was refreshing to see women dressed in tank tops and to hear people talk about periods (which for some reason are biological functions everyone here pretends don’t exist).
On the other hand, I sometimes felt like I was seeing it through the eyes of the Indians in the theater rather than my own. And that gave me an entirely different perspective.
My first thought was, Dear God, no wonder they think Americans are easy.
After two scenes in a strip club and a very confusing moment with Jennifer Anniston and Emma Roberts both kissing the young male actor, I was praying that the audience wasn’t reading too much into it. We’ve been told again and again that stereotypical Indian perceptions of Americans generally come from popular culture–specifically movies. Just as our perceptions of people we haven’t actually met come from similar outlets.
Please don’t do anything else to give American girls a bad reputation, I silently wished as the movie continued.
I know if all of my opinions about America were based on that movie, I would think Americans were easy, sex-maniacs who do a lot of drugs.
And if all of that wasn’t shocking enough to watch through Indian eyes in an Indian movie theater, I noticed that many of the jokes that I found funny, no one else was laughing at. Like a few goofy tampon references or jokes about virginity.
Literally every time a tampon was mentioned the theater went silent. It was like someone had been shot.
Since I’ve been here I’ve noticed a kind of stigma attached to periods (at least in Pune). Even though all girls have it (I am confident in that fact), it is taboo to talk about and many of our host families addressed it only on our first day of moving in, never to be spoken of again–some have even given special instructions for disposing of the evidence.
I guess that’s probably the reason they didn’t think some of the jokes were so funny, but I can’t say I completely understand the stigma yet.
Period stigmas aside, we’re planning to make many trips back to the theater over the next three months, trying to alternate between Bollywood and Hollywood movies to get a sense of both.
Next on the list? A Desi Romance movie! Bring on the dancing…