In the early 1960s, Kathmandu was a valley just awakening to the 20th century. Matters already commonplace in the metropolises of (colonised) Southasia were discovered with a thrill. The smell of pencil shavings in the classroom was such a novelty that half a century later the experience is still etched in my memory. Loaf bread had just arrived, baked at the Krishna Pauroti Bhandar. There were no refrigerators, and no ice other than the thin layer on cups of water left out at night in deep winter. I had to wait for a trip to Lucknow for my first taste of ice cream, Kwality’s vanilla cup outside Mayfair Cinema in downtown Hazratganj. There were few toys available, even for the middle class, so we made our own dolls and aeroplanes. The noise of the internal combustion engine from the few score motorised vehicles in the Valley, including my father’s motorcycle, could be heard as they crossed the Bagmati Bridge two kilometres down the slope from our house. From the other side, deep within Patan town, the omnipresent sound of my childhood came from the heavy-duty loudspeaker atop the Ashok Hall cinema, belting out Hindustani film music long before anyone knew to say ‘Bollywood’.
While there were others who fell for Talat Mehmood and Mukesh, Ashok Hall’s owner was evidently a deep admirer of Mohammad Rafi. And so the rooftops, gallis and outlying areas of Patan town were regaled – over decades – with endless repeat performances of the playback sultan’s oeuvre. To me, Mohammad Rafi’s Hindustani songs bring up memories not of Bombay but of Patan, though I hardly understood the lines: “Chahoonga main tujhe saanjh savere… awaj mei na dunga…” (Dosti, 1964).
Hindi films have thus accompanied the Kathmandu Valley’s population since it entered the modern era six decades ago, directly and indirectly helping shape worldviews, define fashion and teach the link language of North India.
There was a Rana-era assembly hall on New Road called Janasewa that had evolved as a cinema in the 1950s, but it got burnt down. Four halls then came up to compete for the Valley’s cinema audience, all in the Art Deco style of the day: Ashok Hall in Patan, Biswajyoti, Jai Nepal and Ranjana in Kathmandu. They connected the Valley to the rest of Southasia through Hindustani/Hindi films, productions that tended to arrive long after they were released in Bombay.
Hindi films have thus accompanied the Kathmandu Valley’s population since it entered the modern era six decades ago, directly and indirectly helping shape worldviews, define fashion and teach the link language of North India. This journey started in the 1960s, early enough that the opening credits were still in Hindi and Urdu, but late enough that the early stars did not make it to the silver screen in Kathmandu. Prem Nath, Guru Dutt, Madhubala, and Nargis were unknown other than to those lucky enough to travel to the Ganga Plain. Even for the films not seen, however, there was always the Binaca Geetmala countdown programme on Radio Ceylon with its compere Ameen Sayani, striking the initial blow for Southasian cultural interconnectedness from far, faraway Colombo.
While this was a society immersed in ritual and festivals, performing arts in the modern sense did not really exist in the Valley, and so celluloid arrived like a tsunami. Unaccustomed to the realism of the moving-picture with sound, an entertainment genre already accepted and internalised in Calcutta, Patna or even Darbhanga, Kathmandu’s audience was completely bowled over. The intensity of the experience was too strong for me, and I suspect many others in the audience: to this day, I fear films where something untoward threatens to happen because it is all too real.
Hindi films came to the Valley many months if not a year after release in India, and so the diehards would travel down the long, windy, Indian-made ‘Byroad ko Bato’ highway down to the plains and cross over to Raxaul. Many went as far as Patna for their fill of Bombay celluloid. As the calendar turned to the late 1960s, the roost in Kathmandu was ruled by the senior stars like Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, followed by Manoj Kumar, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna. Among the ladies were Vaijyantimala, Rakhee, Waheeda Rehman, Mumtaz, Nutan, and of course Mala Sinha and Zeenat Aman. In the bahas of Patan town, the matrons hummed the latest Mukesh or Lata numbers, the girls braided their hair like Vaijyantimala, the boys strutted about in the tight pants and later in bell-bottoms.
As Jeetendra gave way to Shahrukh, so did Nutan to daughter Kajol, and to Madhuri and Aishwarya. The day of the unadulterated villain (Pran) and vamp (Helen) made way for slightly more rounded characters, but Kathmandu loved the evil-doers almost as much as it did the male and female lead stereotypes. As the transformation continued of damsel-in-distress to more complex characters, we watched agog as the heroines began to shed cloth, became more risqué, even vampish. You could say that Bollywood was contributing towards women’s emancipation, helping women on screen and in the audience find release from the trap of strait-jacketed subservience. Another evolution we studied with interest was the change in the lineup of female dancing extras, meant to contrast with the resplendent heroine up front under the lights, in the old days. Today, the lineup includes ladies the directors consider ‘lookers’. This elevation of the subaltern, so to speak, was welcomed even if not audibly debated in the stalls.
It was unescapable that the Hindustani films (later increasingly ‘Hindi’ in content and cultural ideology, and with the Urdu titles evaporated) would generate a kind of cultural schizophrenia in the Kathmandu audience. On the one hand, those were the Panchayat years when modern-day Nepali nationalism was being manufactured, based loosely on the son-of-the-soil ‘pahadiya’ identity. On the other hand, in these days before the cassette tape, videocassette and DVDs, it was films from Bombay that provided the only entertainment – with the accompanying subliminal scaffolding. While the triumph of the underdog was of course the populist theme in emerging Bollywood, other messages were not so subtle or pleasant, such as the subservience of the heroine, the suffocating righteousness of the hero, the black-and-white morality, and the unquestioned nationalism with Bharat Mata on a pedestal. There seems to have been no dedicated study, but one can conjecture the impact of this relentless psychological onslaught on the Valley middle class.
While Nepali nationalism was developing its appendages, set in motion by King Mahendra and the Panchayat regime he birthed, the regime’s certitude was being constantly eroded by the coquettish gaze and deft hips of Hindi cinema. While Kathmandu’s middle and upper classes revel in its ultra-nationalism, defined till today by a heavy dose of anti-Indianism, in accompaniment there has also been the constant undertow of India-inclination. Successive Indian ambassadors who have confronted the anti-India sentiment in Kathmandu have found that the sentiment disappears the moment you scratch the surface. This elastic nationalism derives from a need for differentiation from ‘big brother’ on the one hand, and, on the other, the reality of the open border, the fact that tens of thousands of mid-hill ethnicities are dependent upon the salaries and pensions of the Indian army, the simple practicality of a peaceful bilateral relationship with a massive neighbour – and the gyrations of Deepika Padukone on the silver screen.
In the bahas of Patan town, the matrons hummed the latest Mukesh or Lata numbers, the girls braided their hair like Vaijyantimala, and the boys strutted about in the tight pants and later in bell-bottoms.
The radical politicos of Nepal have always carried an ultra-nationalist chip on their shoulder. Directed against New Delhi, that mindset is articulated in demands such as the one for revision of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, made mostly without reading the text to see whether it benefits or harms the citizenry. Off and on, there are also demands for controlled access of Indian motor vehicles on Nepali roads, and a ban on the screening of Hindi films. Among the 40 demands made by the Maoists before they went underground in February 1996 was the scrapping of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, restrictions on Indian vehicles, and a ban on Hindi films.
A section of the Kathmandu political class, particularly student leaders on the make, is constantly on the lookout for slights against the Nepali nation made by Bombay actors. This ultra-sensitivity to perceived slights has a long history, and the reasons why some long-ago actors were sent to the Kathmandu doghouse have been lost in the Himalayan fog. For various reasons, Manoj Kumar, Nanda and Dharmendra all got it between the eye, and for all its success Sholay (1975) could not be shown in Kathmandu and other hill towns – because Dharmendra was one of the three male leads. In December 2000, Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan was said to have made disparaging remarks about Nepal in a television interview with Simi Garewal. The charge was make-believe, but the rumour spread like brushfire, leading to attacks on the street on people who ‘looked Indian’, as if that were possible to define. Four lives were lost. A year earlier, Madhuri Dixit had got into trouble after she said at a press conference, “Nepal is just like India”, or words to that effect.
This same category of ultra-nationalists is also willing to be completely floored by acts of mild recognition, such as when the lead actor wears the typically Nepali Bhadgaunle cap as Rajesh Khanna did in a song sequence (“Meri sapanoki rani kaba ayegito…”) for the film Aradhana shot on the Siliguri-Darjeeling highway. In September 2013, Kabir Bedi apologised because a commercial for his Zee TV serial Buddha suggested that Siddhartha Gautam was born in India, which had social media going ballistic. Just a month previously, Amitabh Bachhan had received all-round applause when he asked on Kaun Banega Krorepati (Who Wants to be a Millionaire) where Buddha was born, and rewarded the correct answer. The fate of Sholay has not stopped Kathmandu’s cine-goers, to this day, from instinctively responding to the memorable line in the film by the villain Gabbar Singh (played by Amjad Khan) as he threatens a fellow bandit: “Arreh O Sambha! Kitne aadmi the?!”
This ultra-sensitivity to perceived slights has a long history, and the reasons why some long-ago actors were sent to the Kathmandu doghouse have been lost in the Himalayan fog.
Unlike Dharmendra, it seemed, some actors could just do no wrong. Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman remained the reigning Bollywood deities in Kathmandu decades after their star waned in Bandra. The reason was their involvement with Hare Rama Hare Krishna, the 1971 film that portrayed Kathmandu as a hippy den. In a darkened room redolent with hashish smoke were many of my seniors from St. Xavier’s School, alumni trying their best to look shabby and criminal – Dev Anand’s vision of the flower child.
Udit Narayan Jha – the well-known Bollywood playback singer – started his singing career in Kathmandu with the likes of singer Narayan Gopal and composer Natikaji. Moving to Bombay, he was catapulted to Subcontinental stardom, and yet Kathmandu citizens have not fully come to terms with his success. He is a Nepali son of the Madhes plains and he is not an outsider to Kathmandu’s music studios. Yet, he seems too much at home in Bombay! The same attitude may be said to apply to Manisha Koirala, whose career started with the Nepali film Pheri Bhetaula (1989), but whose stardom in Bollywood received an incongruously subdued response in the Valley. Even as Manisha continued to prove her acting talent in a string of films from Saudagar to Bombay to Dil se, she was noticed but not mobbed.
Mala Sinha is probably the one Bollywood actor without detractors in Nepal. She acted in one of the finer Nepali films made, a period piece faithful to the Bombay formula of the late 1960s. Shot in Kathmandu and Pokhara, with song, comedy and tragedy woven together in black-and-white, Maitighar became the introduction of many Nepalis to the true celluloid entertainer. Mala Sinha became even more beloved when she married the film’s lead man C P Lohani, a Nepali who had only accidentally joined the film crew.
The Nepali film industry made some desultory government-funded films during the autocratic Panchayat era, though with notable songs, rose to some height during the 1990s using the ‘Bombay formula’, but has slipped back into desultoriness again. Shooting in 16mm and expanding to 35mm for screening took away the brightness, the actors just could not get away from the ‘theatricality’ of delivery, the script-writing was weak beyond redemption, and the poor finances meant that lighting, sound and editing suffered. ‘Kollywood’ cinema remained a poor third cousin to Bollywood even as the latter achieved stratospheric production values with the recognition as an industry and facilities provided by the Indian government. Bollywood thus became even more entrenched as the enchantress of India and Southasia, with neither Lahore nor Calcutta nor Dhaka able to raise a challenge.
The arrival of digital filmmaking was supposed to make everything cheaper and allow Nepali cinema to finally come into its own. But this hope is yet to be fulfilled. Bollywood has maintained its lead in the new multiplexes of Kathmandu, and the absence of Hollywood is itself significant. Bhojpuri films catering to plains-based Nepali and Uttar Pradeshi/Bihari audiences is the only genre that has taken on Bollywood at one level, but not with the same quality as Tamil cinema at the other end of the Subcontinent. The promise of digital is nevertheless tantalising, and films such as Kagbeni (based on the play ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and shot in the grand locale of Mustang) and Loot (showing the underside of Kathmandu’s modern-day urbanism) probably show the way to a time when the Valley will at long last find films to be enthusiastic about in the Nepali language.
Let a thousand films bloom
The Hindi cinema out of Bollywood is not only an Indian or Southasian but a global phenomenon. It is an entertainment behemoth whose reality and presence in our everyday lives requires adjustments, from the philosophical to the geopolitical. This adjustment in understanding is required not only from neighbouring countries, but societies within wide and diverse India itself. While we wait for the promised tide of digital filmmaking to lift us all – which will release the creative energies in all parts, leading to not hundreds but thousands of films in scores of languages every year to entertain a region that houses nearly a quarter of the global population – what to make of the behemoth in our midst?
One way to adjust to the ubiquity of the Hindi film in our lives is to accept it, not only practically, which we do in any case, but intellectually. From Kathmandu to Colombo, and Quetta to Chittagong, we would do well to disentangle the Bollywood film from the Indian nation-state, and claim ownership on behalf of all of Southasia. For it is a fact that the genre of Hindi cinema predates the present-day nation-states of colonial Southasia, and predates India. The Hindustani film industry, incubated in Lahore a century ago and nurtured by Bombay, represents a pre-1947 ‘Indian’ sensibility which in the present context can be termed the Southasian sensibility. The typical format and grammar of Hindustani cinema was developed as a collaboration between filmmakers and audiences from Sindh to Bengal. Indeed, the Hindustani film is the output of the Indo-Gangetic-Brahmaputra sensibility, privileging the cultural elements of northern Southasia. It is not at all inappropriate for the present-day Pakistani or Bangladeshi to take credit for Bollywood, much as Pakistanis or Bangladeshis of New York or London are well within their rights to run an ‘Indian’ restaurant. The song-and-dance formula is as much Pakistani or Bangladeshi as naan and biryani.
From Kathmandu to Colombo, and Quetta to Chittagong, we would do well to disentangle the Bollywood film from the Indian nation-state, and claim ownership on behalf of all of Southasia.
If the origins of Bollywood is in what used to be ‘northern India’, by its spread and acceptance in the rest of the Subcontinent, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and parts of the Indian Northeast, it could now definitively be called a Southasian phenomenon. There will be resistance to calling it such from the nationalist Nepali, for one, who may perceive it as an imperial threat to the evolution of the national film industry. Likewise, the nationalist Indian may be unwilling to part with ownership of Bollywood, seen as an element of New Delhi’s soft power in a competitive world. The answer to nationalists on all sides, is to suggest that a cinema industry is ‘owned’ by whoever watches and enjoys the films – and all of Southasia does by now.
One bonus of the spread of the Bollywood audience, though many may not take it as such, is the extension of the Hindi language to large parts – to which you could also add Urdu and Hindustani because of close proximity between the tongues. There is now a spoken language that is becoming a link between the populations of Southasia, whereas earlier there was only English. If we could learn to use Hindi as an additional tool to promote regional discourse, cross-border issues from public health to anti-nuclear weaponisation to climate change, we would have reason to thank Hindi cinema. Indeed, why not take advantage of the spread of Hindi, by now a language of Southasia, to promote regionalism? To date, activism for Southasian regionalism has been limited to the English-educated elite realm, which could be one reason it has taken so much time to gain traction. Knowledge of Hindi may no longer be kept as a hidden secret by so many societies, and the ability to communicate in it (and in Urdu/Hindustani) all over the Subcontinent must be taken as a boon, for lifting the possibilities of inter-regional communication leading to a lowering of regional tension.
Using Hindi as a functional tool to build regionalist camaraderie, something made possible by Bollywood, would be a bonus. The reason for the existence of cinema is to entertain the masses, and that is what Bollywood has been providing, a quintessentially Southasian product that provides unabashed escapism – and why not? The producers and stars of Bollywood have been benefitting from it all, and at the same time holding the fort while the economy and capacity of the film industry develops in other parts. But we must understand the audacious incongruity of a region as vast and populous as Southasia being held in thrall of no more than a handful of Bollywood stars. This must change, and a thousand flowers must bloom as far as Southasian cinema is concerned. Some regions and countries may take the Bollywood blockbuster formula and polish it further, others may go the way of independent art cinema, and we will all thank Bollywood as we make the way to a future of entertaining the masses some more.
Kanak Mani Dixit is the founding editor of Himal Southasian.