Bollywood confidential

A guide to the glitz, glamour and surreal cinema as Toronto prepares to host India’s Oscars

Bollywood confidential

Reuters; Keystone Press; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

If there had ever been doubt about the appeal of Bollywood stars in Toronto, it evaporated on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2006. The occasion was the gala premiere of a Hindi movie called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) at the Toronto International Film Festival. Thousands of screaming South Asian fans jammed the street outside Roy Thomson Hall as two Indian superstars hit the red carpet—Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s most revered patriarch, and Shah Rukh Khan, the heartthrob who ranks as India’s Brad Pitt (even if, to respect his wife, he doesn’t kiss his leading ladies). The previous night, the real Brad Pitt had worked the same red carpet for a TIFF premiere—but didn’t create half as much mayhem as King Khan. “When the stars pulled up in their SUV limos, it was absolute pandemonium,” recalls TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey. “Thousands of people rushed the barriers trying to get a glimpse of them.”

Five years later, that pandemonium will be replayed on a grand scale as Toronto hosts the International Indian Film Academy awards. The IIFA celebrations, which run from June 23-25, are expected to attract a pantheon of Bollywood stars and some 40,000 tourists to the Greater Toronto Area. The festivities will include concerts, screenings, a fashion show, a TIFF retrospective honouring screen legend Raj Kapoor, an exhibit of vintage hand-painted film posters at the Royal Ontario Museum—climaxing with the pageantry of the awards at the Rogers Centre, which will be watched by some 700 million people in 60 countries.

Despite the “Academy” brand, the IIFA awards are not quite India’s Oscars. They’re an annual road show designed to promote Bollywood around the world. Now in their 12th year, they have been staged in capitals from London to Bangkok, Johannesburg to Singapore. Toronto is the first North American city to play host—a privilege that Premier Dalton McGuinty bought with a $12-million pledge from the province to the IIFA.

That decision irks some members of the Indo-Canadian film community who question the legitimacy of the IIFA. Distributor Naav Bhatia, who has been bringing Bollywood movies to Toronto multiplexes since 1998, told Maclean’s McGuinty’s IIFA grant is “a waste of public money.” But a dash of controversy is par for the course for Bollywood, with its soap opera politics and a legacy of underworld entanglement. Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Water) applauds McGuinty’s largesse. “It makes perfect economic sense,” she says. “There are two things that matter a lot to East Indians in the diaspora: cricket and Bollywood. We’re investing money in the community, saying, ‘We understand this is what makes you happy.’ Because of its position as a superpower, everything India does is now taken seriously, including a cinema that was derided 10 years ago.”

The IIFA celebrations are the cultural centrepiece for what’s been officially designated as the Year of India in Canada by the two countries. Canada is home to some one million South Asians, half of them in the GTA, and their voting power is not lost on our politicians. In April, Stephen Harper took his election campaign to a Brampton premiere of Thank You, an $11-million romantic comedy shot in Toronto, Vancouver and Mumbai, starring Bollywood idol Akshay Kumar, a Tory partisan, who is Ottawa’s tourism ambassador to India. Kumar also has a role in Breakaway, a $12-million comedy due this fall about a Sikh hockey team in suburban Toronto, with Rob Lowe and comic Russell Peters.

Bollywood is the world’s most prolific film industry, churning out almost 1,000 movies a year, double Hollywood’s output, and many are shot abroad. For the Canadian film industry, which has seen so much of its U.S. production go south due to the strong loonie, that represents an opportunity. With a Canada-India co-production treaty now in the works, this country is poised to become Bollywood North.

For the uninitiated, Bollywood cinema can be a bewildering universe. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland Hollywood where everything is magnified to surreal proportions. Music and romance don’t just enhance the story, they’re the driving force behind narratives that can swing from farce to melodrama in a flash. There’s influence from Hollywood formula, but its DNA gets spun and stretched into a wild tapestry of distinctly Indian styles. The West’s familiarity with Bollywood comes mostly from seeing its music and fashion imprinted on movies like Moulin Rouge and Slumdog Millionaire—or tamed in art-house hybrids like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Mehta’s Bollywood Hollywood. But pure Indian cinema is something else. It spans myriad genres—action, romance, slapstick, melodrama, musical, travelogue—often packed into a single movie of the combo genre called masala.

Take 3 Idiots, a big winner at last year’s IIFA awards. It bubbles along as a goofy college comedy until the camera drifts up to a dorm room to find an engineering student hanging from a noose. We’re told that pressure to succeed pushes a student to attempt suicide every 90 minutes in India. The film resumes its buoyant tone, until a central character jumps from a window. It climaxes with a woman giving birth on a Ping-Pong table in a blackout, as the hero jerry-rigs car batteries and a vacuum cleaner to deliver her baby.

My Name is Khan, one of five IIFA best picture nominees, sports an uncanny mix of romance, melodrama and moral purpose. Shah Rukh Khan outstrips Rain Man’s Dustin Hoffman with his tender portrayal of an autistic Muslim who marries a Hindu in San Francisco (the actor is himself a Muslim married to a Hindu). After his family is shattered by a violent incident of post-9/11 racial profiling, Khan embarks on a pan-American quest to meet the U.S. president so he can tell him, “I’m not a terrorist.” He’s jailed, tortured, then redeemed as a hero by rescuing a poor black family in Georgia from a catastrophic flood—finally saving his marriage to the tune of We Shall Overcome, sung in Hindi!

Aside from the ubiquity of song and dance and an exhilarating lack of irony, it’s hard to generalize about Bollywood movies. The other four IIFA nominees for best picture include a gangster saga based on the true story of a populist crime lord who romances a Bollywood star (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai); a giddy rom-com about wedding planners who fall in love (Band Baaja Baaraat); a sprawling political drama (Rajneeti); and a zany blockbuster action movie (Dabanng).

The mix of gloss and idealism has roots in the work of actor/director/mogul Raj Kapoor. In India’s Golden Age of the 1950s, Kapoor was a one-man Orson Welles and Little Tramp. “His films are full of the passion of post-independence India,” says Noah Cowan, artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. “They have a strong social message component, driven by Nehru and Gandhi. Sometimes they feel like Norman Jewison musicals.”

The Kapoor clan remains one of a handful of dynasties that rule Bollywood—names like Khan, Bachchan and Chopra—and tend to recruit screen goddesses from the ranks of beauty queens. The top international name is Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World and the face of L’Oréal, who split up with bad-boy superstar Salman Khan (Dabanng) in a fracas worthy of a Bollywood soap. She accused him of abuse and harassment amid tales of Khan storming onto her sets to berate her male co-stars. Rai has since married into another dynasty—to actor Abhishek Bachchan, son of the iconic Amitabh Bachchan, the IIFA’s former “brand ambassador,” who’s now estranged from the academy. (It’s unlikely Rai or the Bachchans will be in Toronto. But Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu will fill the glamour quotient.)

Bollywood celebrity exists in a royal bubble, where many of India’s divisions and taboos don’t seem to apply. Remarkably, in this largely Hindu country, three of its top stars are Muslim. And the movies override national rifts to entertain an audience that embraces Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and a diverse global diaspora. “One thing Bollywood does is bring that population together,” says Mohit Rajhans, film critic at Omni TV’s Bollywood Boulevard. In the words of the show’s vivacious host, Veronica Chail: “It’s a multicultural mosh pit.” And she will be at its vortex, meeting Shah Ruhk Khan for the first time. “As a little girl, I remember dancing to his moves with my mom in the living room,” says Chail, who was born in Sweden and grew up in Stratford, Ont. She’s having a dress designed for the IIFA red carpet. “It’s going to be sparkling, glamorous and Bollywood-inspired,” she says. And yes, there will be jewellery—“the love is in the details.”