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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 15, Dated April 19, 2008
CULTURE & SOCIETY  

The Mems And Saabs Of Berlin

Forget Raj Kapoor fans in Russia. An international fan club now stalks Bollywood online, says NISHA SUSAN

WHEN BIRGIT PESTAL stumbled upon a film shoot in India she called Barbara Skoda in Vienna. “They are shooting a song sequence. It’s for a movie called Shaadi Ke After Effects with two actors called Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora. Do we know them?” “YES! We do.

They are Salman´s brother and sister-inlaw. You might know him from Hulchul and her as the item girl with SRK in Kaal,” replied Barbara, a 36-year-old manager at a media-technology college but is better known online as Babasko, author of the effervescent blog Baba Aur Bollywood. She and half-a-dozen others from across the world who have formed the group blog Bollywoodbloggers.com are the most visible online presence of non-Indian fans of Indian cinema.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Pestal, a German journalist wrote a book on Bollywood (the title roughly translates to Fascination Bollywood: Numbers, facts and background in the German-speaking countries). But one can only imagine Yash Raj Films’ reaction if they knew their big 2008 release Tashan has been most closely tracked by a 20-year-old Finnish girl. Since 2006, Sanni’s been following Tashan, the latest manifestation of her favourite Bollywood phenomena ‘Sakshay’: movies in which Saif Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar appear together. As an annexure to an extensive manifesto on her blog (So They Dance) she writes, “The thing you should know about Sakshay is that they haven’t done a single honest good movie. You have good Sakshay movies (and bad ones), but you don’t have good Sakshay movies. The distinction is very important... Sakshay has previously been cheesy, unintentionally amusing, vaguely homoerotic and undeniably entertaining. Sakshay has previously been 90’s. Now Sakshay is sleek and cool, 2000’s Bollywood… That’s what’s going to make Tashan the best movie ever.”

Neither Sanni nor Barbara are among those newly seduced by SRK’s bravura appearance at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007 alongside the release of Om Shanti Om (with 50 prints OSO was the biggest Bollywood release in Germany yet). Many may have been hooked by slick, global Bollywood a few years ago, but they stuck around for Indian cinema. Greta Kaemmer works for American Express in Boston. She watches 3-5 Indian films per week, blogs at Memsaabstory and would kill to meet Shammi Kapoor. She “prefers the romantic comedies and silly spy thrillers of the 60s and 70s.” Others like Barbara and Michael Langhans, a German advocate, love Tamil and Telugu cinema. Barbara says “Rajni Superstar rulez” and that “None of the 2006 Hindi releases made my heart ache the way Surya did in Sillunu Oru Kaadhal.”

In the past, travellers have had eye-popping tales of Malayalees in obscure villages who knew every Godard film ever made or those of the ubiquitous Raj Kapoor fans in Russia. These fans remained obscure, unable to connect with other fanatics. Greta says, “Most of my friends think it’s a little nutty, although they are mildly curious and willing to watch one every now and then.” But through her blog, Greta has connected with other Bollywood fans, many of whom have benefited from her exhaustive knowledge.

Some of the most intelligent writing about Bollywood online can be seen on these blogs, and why not? While people persist in thinking that watching three Wong Kar Wai films makes one an expert on Hong Kong cinema, many of these bloggers have watched a 100 Bollywood films each. Greta, for instance, has watched over 600 movies from across the eras. The Internet creates communities where none existed by vastly reducing the cost and difficulty in connecting. 33-yearold Beth Watkins works in the World Cultures Museum at the University of Illinois. She and Michael Langhans, across the Atlantic, coordinate Bollywoodbloggers.com. Last month the half-a-dozen bloggers (ranging from Slovenians to South Africans) and others met in Munich to party, watch their favourite Bunty Aur Babli), eat Indian food and talk Bollywood.

THE QUIRKIEST ACTIVITY the group shares is the tracking of Mini Khan’s adventures. Mini Khan, a tiny SRK
doll, embodies the combination of lightheartedness and obsessiveness they each bring to what what is more than a hobby. The group couriers Mini Khan from blogger to blogger. Each host uploads photographs of Mini Khan in his or her country. The group blog even has a tracker to tell you where Mini Khan is at any given point. Currently he’s on his way to Switzerland and France, and is scheduled to go to Nigeria, India, Japan and Canada. One blogger points out that the plastic Mini Khan had six-pack abs before SRK got his for OSO.

Many bloggers rue not being able to watch all movies ‘first day, first show’. Websites like Nehaflix and Anytamil make it possible for people to buy DVDs online, but one blogger Marta was so displeased by Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna not being released in Germany that she reportedly flew to New York to catch the film first day, first show. Even the ones who have never actually been in an Indian movie hall have mysteriously acquired the notion that applauding, whistling or talking loudly through the film is very important for the full Bollywood experience. So they synchronise movie viewing with friends in other cities so they can chat online as they watch. Beth says, “I often watch at home on DVD. My town gets a few new-release Hindi films a year, and I always go to those. Ticket prices are just a bit higher — maybe $11 compared to $9 for a Hollywood film. I think DVDs tend to be cheaper (except for Yash Raj productions, which are always pricey!), but I very rarely buy any non-Hindi DVDs.”

Most bloggers watch movies with subtitles (in Austria the movies are dubbed in German). Sheetal Makhan, who teaches English in Korea, has films sent to her from her home in South Africa. On the other hand, Hangulo, head of an 8000 strong online Bollywood club in Korea, says, that frustration with English subtitles, led to their opening an office and screening movies with Korean subtitles that they themselves made. The bloggers’ attempts to learn Hindi have had varied results but a working knowledge is on ample display. SRK, Barbara feels, did enough by learning to say, “Ja, Mann” and “Wunderbar” while in Berlin, but she herself has a spectacular grip on Hinglish — particularly hilarious since she professes to blog to improve her English. Talking irritatedly about Aaja Nachle, she says, “Bas. Goodwill khatm. And don’t get me started on the Ajanta set decoration and background dancer thing.” Beth reports Deepika Padukone as ‘giving good bhoot eyes’ in OSO.

But Barbara reserves German for her baby-faced Tamil heroes: “Schnuffig means cute, cuddly… used in combination with a high-pitched squeaking sound… applies to crumpety guys like Siddharth.” While these bloggers may direct moans at John Abraham’s new haircut, they’re largely uninterested in gossip. Where the transforming role of the Internet is apparent is in their easy familiarity with the trade. Forthcoming releases are scrutinised against the previous record of production houses, directors and cast. Minor variations on eternal themes are discussed. As commentator Clay Shirky says, the Internet’s mass amateurisation breaks down professional barriers. When Anupama Chopra’s biography of SRK was released last year, Bollywoodbloggers.com interviewed her with great finesse. When Greta met Boman Irani she impressed him so much that she did a spot on his show Bollywood Ka Boss. Greta frequently considers writing a book about “all those character actors in the 50s-70s like Rashid Khan, Iftekar, Moolchand.”

These bloggers amuse their compatriots and shock Indians who don’t expect a ‘phirang to know anything more than Lagaan.’ Pessimisissimo feels he needs to say in his blog Exotic and Irrational, “I’m a Bollywood-loving white guy. I’m not some hipster whose ironic or camp “appreciation” is really a form of mockery — I truly enjoy Bollywood movies, and find myself unexpectedly moved by them.” Beth is occasionally worried by the implications of “blog comments from people who think I’m exoticising Indian culture”. But many of the ‘phirangs’ have good, thoughtful reasons for the frothy objects of their affection. They are grateful for their insights into another culture, worry about sexism, rejoice in fake moustaches and sob when people die. And most would agree with ‘Miss Bolly’ when she says, “I’m convinced the world would be a better place if everyone broke into song and dance at regular intervals.”

 

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 15, Dated April 19, 2008

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