After I was done with a little bit of research for this blog post I was left even more nostalgic, warm and fuzzy than I started. But let us cross the water when we come to the bridge shall we?
Regulars to this blog will know that once in a while, four or five times a year tops, I write a little post about growing up in the Middle East. It is almost entirely based on my own life with little... err... social commentary and random observations as with most other posts.
(I love that phrase. Social commentary. Makes me sound so Arundhati Royish. Page 3 BUT in Fabindia clothes.)
This is one of those posts that non-bloggers keep cribbing about. "Who cares what happened in his life? Besides the incident in the lingerie section at Shoppers in Bandra of course. The rest is utter crap."
So where was I. Ah yes the middle east.
The time is the mid eighties. Back when the middle east, by which I mean Abu Dhabi in particular and the rest of the UAE in general, belonged to no one in particular. The locals knew they needed outside help. The outsiders knew they were making certain trade-offs in life when they moved in and there was a pleasant, incidental and largely observed-with-satisfaction equilibrium in relations between the various ethnic communities.
Think of it like one of those multi-ethnic chawls they used to show in old hindi movies and new TV serials. Except here everyone minded their own business. None of that melodrama with the families fighting and the sikh family mediating and all that.
This is actually a trickier situation than you think. Especially for the media. What programming do you have on TV? Which languages? How does one cater to the Petroleum engineer from Dallas, the accountant from Lahore, the engineer from Bombay and the building supervisor from Dhaka. (This is well before the Filipinos flooded the place and taught us desis what kick-ass lifestyle was even with salaries of less than thousand dirhams a month.)
The most cosmopolitan TV channel was Channel 33. Dubai's official non-arabic channel.
I use 'non-arabic' for a reason. This was because they played all kinds of programming: English English (Fawlty Towers), American English Upper-Middle (Full House, Charles in Charge), American English Lower-Middle (Bill Crosby, Different Strokes), Gameshows (Blockbusters) and, the point of this entire blog, Bollywood Masala. (Okay there was also wrestling, english football much before ESPN made it cool, and nightly news bulletins with fifteen minutes of news and fifteen minutes of names of pharmacies open for 24 hours.)
Thursday nights was Hindi Feature Film night on Channel 33. Dad had halfday on Thursdays and this meant we spent a few hours after lunch helping him water the plants, vacuum clean, dust, fluff, fold, align at right angles and so on. (He is a little bit of a freak that way. He used to wipe clean each individual leaf of each plant every weekend. We had to sit around and help him. Which explains why I am so easily amused. He has now bought plastic plants and on a fortnightly basis bathes them under the shower. Please don't ask.)
Around five or six in the evening we would move to the living room and begin fiddling around with the TV antenna. This was a box behind the TV with a dial on top. You moved the dial a little and then waited while the antenna, perched somewhere on top of the building, slowly motored into place. (It seems high-tech and lavish to you. But we were big Bill Crosby fans if you know what I mean.)
Channel 33 was on TV while we nudged the antenna a little this way and that. Sometimes it took two hours to get it aligned perfectly. (Meaning that, with any more static, we would routinely confuse Mandakini with that guy who played Samba. The cool anglo-name guy.)
Finally after dinner we would sit with bated breath for the movie. ( I don't think Channel 33 ever published movie details till actual showtime. The newspaper listing simply said "Hindi feature Film." Also "Wrestling". "Football". Hulk Hogan? Aston Villa? Tito Santana? No way of knowing. Full and full suspense only.)
The movies were all mid-late 70s and early 80s classics.
And thence we begat our knowledge of all things Indian and filmy.
There was no ambiguity of characters in the movies those days. There were the good guys and there were the bad guys. Both disagreed on everything. There was the rare traitor who, unsuspectingly, would change sides at the last moment. But we knew who it was halfway through the movie because of the way he kept speaking or smiling to himself in every other shot. But there was none of the gray fellows whose loyalties are wavering till the end. That was blasphemy back then.
Many movies would start with the credits playing over a 'negative' clip of the 'Aha!' scene: the scene where it becomes clear how Amitabh is actually Rishi's brother and Pran killed their father raped their sister, threw their mother's head against a corner table and scared away the domestic help. Also there was some funda about Kumar Gaurav also which we do not recall because, let's face it, no one ever gave even two flying !*#$% about Kumar Gaurav.
This might seem all regular and usual for you guys. But for us NRI kids who knew our India from the CBSE and biannual leave trips, it was pure, unadulterated awesomeness.
We quickly got our hang of the formula though. Even when you were six years old you knew that the kid running on the road will grow up into the hero. While running on the road. That the first non-cabaret song will be the one that brothers identify each other with in the timber mill. Or ice plant. Or dockyard.
Brother one: "Tum. Yahan. Kaise?"
Brother two: "Auto. Frauded meter. Bastard!"
Brother one: "Dey! One movie. One social evil."
Brother two: "Sorry"
Mom: "Kheer anyone?"
We knew without doubt that it will take the hero one month and four songs (one random first meeting, one disco type campus number, one semi item dream number, one impressive youth festival seductive number) to convince Kimi Katkar to go out with him, but exactly ten minutes to convince her that he is actually reincarnated and that his family in the pre-life was massacred by a bald man with a pipe and baggy cap and related to Kimi by virtue of being, according to her statements, 'her father'.
Shortly after her tacit content to their liaison it would begin raining and two hibiscus flowers appeared on screen and gently quivered in the wind in metaphorical fashion. (In one mallu movie they used a dead lizard. Symbolically. I think. I hope.)
Of course her dressing sense rapidly changes from 'screechy flourescent slut' to 'salwar suit with enticingly large back window' as soon as they decide to go steady.
We also gleaned that the harder the hero gets beaten up as a kid the longer his revenge action sequence will be in the end: The Vadukut Inverse Thulp Theorem. "This one for my father" SLAP "This one for my mother" SLAP "This one for the little girl who lives down the lane" SLAP "This is fun! I can do this all day!" SLAP
Also someone always had to walk down the stairs clapping slowly during the climax scene. This was one of the great scenes of 70's to 80's bollywood. One that is sorely missed in movies these days. This was also signal for you to run to the loo finally after holding it back for some two hours. (Few advertisers wanted the SEC C Indian (Malabari) demographics. Sometimes Konica, Masafi, Al Kabeer and such like. Vicco Vajradanti on tape rentals.) After the clap a speech was due by someone and, in any case, we never knew enough Hindi to get those long speeches anyway.
Young Sidin: "Daddy... err... what is the meaning of Izzat lootna?"
Daddy: "Umm... err... talking to women impolitely and without any respect."
Young Sidin: "Oh. Nothing at all to do with the fact he just ripped her blouse of?"
Daddy: "Of course not..."
There are a million more such cinematic axioms from the 70s and 80s I could jot down. I'd actually begun to forget many of them.
But the fact is that as I saw Om Shanti Om at Imax a few days ago, all of those memories came flooding back to me. Cringing when the villains thumped the little kid while hanging his valiant policeman father. Punching the air when the hero wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and suddenly found new strength to fight. Clapping and screaming when the long lost brothers came together, settled their differences, jumped into the jeep and sped to the villains hideout amidst funky music and bongos. Holding my breath while the suitcase with incriminating documents flew in the air from heroine to hero just missing finger tips of bad man. Feeling a little jealous when a lucky child star roughed up a minor villain with cricket bat.
For me OSO stood for everything that was good and great about old-fashioned heart-pounding Indian cinema. Call it parody if you will. Call it slick spoof. Marketing gimmick. Anything you want. But while watching OSO there were moments when I felt all those things again. When those axioms came to play again. Sure Karz's ending song was better. But when was the last time in recent memory you saw a climax to a movie like that? Reincarnations are timeless! And I just knew there HAD to be a supernatural angle to it.
Next to me, in the theatre, there was an elderly couple. Both probably peeking into their fifties. The husband whistled and danced in his seat while his wife tried to hold him back smiling herself. All around us people erupted in laughter as Bollywood star after Bollywood star poked fun at themselves on screen. I may have whooped a few times myself.
OSO was not about Shah Rukh or Deepika. It was not about any individual or song or six-pack abs or anything. OSO was about a world and style of entertainment that probably has little space in our lives today. A style which politely asked us to keep our minds and troubles and hopes outside and step in for a few hours of pure escapist pleasure. Trash the movie and our kitschy heritage all you want. But no one landed a punch like an Amitabh scorned. No one has ever since proclaimed the greatness of mom dearest like Shashi Kapoor.
And really no one can dance on a giant rotating record wearing a silver jumpsuit and get away with it again quite like Rishi Kapoor did.
But what do I know? I was an NRI kid with his chin on the floor and his eyes glued to a grainy National TV screen.
And, sob, this is what my research on Channel 33 uncovered: Some three years ago the government of Dubai quietly shut-down Channel 33. Apparently the expat communities now had their own TV channels on cable and satellite. No more could they find a role for Channel 33 to play for the migrant hordes. Why keep afloat a universal voice when the more passionate individual ones are doing better?
And with that another pleasant memory of childhood had disappeared as well. But thanks to OSO, not entirely.
Viva La Disco! (Trumpets! Funk! Bongos!... aaaaand CRASH CYMBAL!)