forget Bollywood

…give me Kollywood!

This video is from the Tamil movie Sivakaasi starring the popular Tamil actor, Vijay. Between Frankfurt, Germany and Chennai, Lufthansa shows a Tamil movie. Some of them are pure escapism like Vijay movies, others are serious like Kaadhal, a movie that left me sobbing at the ending.

Kaadhal takes place in Madurai, a city I am familiar with. It’s the story of tragic young love. The main character, Murugan, falls in love with a girl but no one wants them to be together, and he is beaten by the girl’s father when he refuses to leave her. At the end of the movie, the girl — who is now grown with a husband and child — sees her old love in the street. Murugan is now a crazy beggar. She is with her husband and child, but despite that she runs to her old love, falls to the ground, and holds him. It is raining, she is crying, and as her husband looks on, she tells Murugan that she will never leave him again. By the look on the husband’s face you know that both she and her husband will take care of her old love.

I was told that the movie is based on a true story — supposedly the director heard the story on a train journey from the actor who plays the husband. I was bawling at the end of this movie and when I stepped into the Chennai airport last year I still had tears in my eyes.

Many people here only know about Bollywood movies, that is, Hindi movies. The word “Bollywood” comes from using the B in Bombay (now Mumbai) and linking it to “wood” in Hollywood. Bombay is where many of the early movies were filmed. However, there are Tamil movies based in Chennai, Malayalam movies from Kerala, and the Bengali industry based in Kolkata. In fact, the number of Telugu (Tollywood) and Tamil (Kollywood) movies that are made have outnumbered Bollywood movies for the last ten years. Movie fans are so loyal to the Tamil actors that they are elected to the government in Tamil Nadu. When I ride in a autorickshaw sometimes there’s a picture of Vijay next to the Shiva or Ganesh decal. I’ll ask the driver, “you like Vijay?” — “Yes, madam, Vijay No. 1! He is SUPER, madam!”

It’s too bad that nowadays Indian movies are defined almost exclusively by Bollywood movies, most of which are musicals. But of course that’s why people love Bollywood movies, for all the flash and the singing and dancing. You have to admit that the Bollywood stars aren’t hard on the eyes:

…long time Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan AKA the “Big B”. The guy is in his 60s and to me he’s definitely the bomb!

or Shahrukh Kahn…

and when the Big B and SRK are in a movie together….

…now THAT’S what I’m talking about!

But I love the old classic movies of Bengali movie director, Satyagit Ray. one of my favorites is Charulata made in 1964. Satyagit Ray was one of the greatest film directors of all time, not just in Indian cinema, but in world cinema.

Two more weeks and I’m back in Kollywood!

I heart Rameswaram

I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .being caught in a “cattle crossing”, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was famished and scarfed it down as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles and watched me eat.

Got to the Hotel Tamil Nadu in Rameswaram, showered, and took a nap. Woke up about 5 pm and was going to walk to the temple and find dinner somewhere. The phone rang — being alone in India, getting a call in my hotel room was shocking — and a man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, what….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and there was the clerk behind the desk and another man waiting, as if just for me. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannen, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the hotel clerk if he knew R. Kannen, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannen”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “foreigner in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens…

As it turned out, I spent about 4 hours with Kannen that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug for in the sand. Kannen and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannen asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and where I had been in the morning, Kodaikanal, was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Tollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures. Of course that started a riot! “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choregraphed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they all ran over to me wanting to see it, then ran back to start dancing again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannen asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannen asked “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”

Kannen jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high, barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. Now how often do these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded! Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, furious swirls of rainbow colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.