13 March 2016

That Filmi Family Feeling

My Mirror column today:

Sometimes stars become a way of cementing relationships between real people.

Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna in the film Anand
Last week, I took a pool-taxi. The pool-taxi is the upscale equivalent of the share-auto. What you pay more for, I'd thought, is the safe distance between warm bodies -- and companionable silence. But sometimes, as happened on this particular ride, the unspoken rule about not soliciting conversation is broken. This time, the person who broke it was the cab driver. "Aap Dilli ke hain, sir?" he inquired of my travelling companion, a young man in his early thirties. "Haan, lekin Bambai mein rehta hoon," came the reply. The driver's rejoinder was a classic piece of North Indian banter. "Tab toh Bachchan sahab ke ghar aana-jaana laga hi rehta hoga (Then you must be going to Bachchan Sahab's house all the time)," he said, chuckling into the mirror. 

Things could have ended there, but the young man's pride had been lalkaaro-ed. How could he be taken seriously as a bonafide Bambai denizen without having a Bollywood connection to impress the Dilliwalas with? Out came a satisfied smirk, and a cellphone photo of himself with the Big B. Apparently the young man's sister worked at the production end of Kaun Banega Crorepati, so his entire Delhi-based family had managed to get themselves on the show at some point. "This is my wife, my mother, father, uncle," his voice trailed off, culminating with an account of the niceness and greatness and deservingness of India's biggest superstar. "Bachchan saab knows everybody on set. Personal interest lete hain woh sab mein..." 

The taxi driver was not to be outdone. "I have met Bachchan saab, too" he said, "But I've met him in my dreams." We were then treated to a detailed description: twice he had dreamt that he was in the Bachchan home, being served "coffee-shoffee" and pakoras by Jaya ji, while Amit-ji introduced him to Aishwarya. "And Abhishek?" I couldn't stop myself asking. "Oh, he was not there!" said the driver, looking mildly irritated that I'd made the real-life son and husband intrude into this technicolour vision of khatirdari, starring himself in the jamai-raja role. 

The rest of the journey passed as it was fated to. I was informed of Amitabh Bachchan's actual level of thinness, his health issues and how they began with an infected bottle of blood during the Coolie incident. This was followed by comparisons of Amitabh and Shah Rukh's differential niceness on the KBC set (SRK is apparently too demanding, especially about cigarettes), segueing into more general comparisons of how much of a nice guy each one's favourite star was (Salman won. Of course.) 

But the taxi-driver's dream sequence, if I may call it that, left me thinking. About how we're so steeped in Bollywood lore that we adopt filmi families as our own. More frequently, of course, it is our real-life family members who acquire a sort of rosy glow in the reflected light of the silver screen. I'm thinking of the great-aunt that everybody said looked like Nimmi, and who I always think cultivated a slightly melancholy air for this reason. 

Or the other great-aunt who abandoned the name her parents gave her and named herself after a famous sixties actress. There was the great-uncle who sang Cliff Richard songs in a perfect deep baritone, and his elder brother who once wanted to be a Hindi film hero. And my dad's old college friend, Anglophone and Bengali to all outward appearances, who I've been told once modelled himself on the careening Shammi Kapoor. 

Sometimes stars become a way of cementing relationships between real people. I'm talking about the friend whose parents - one UP-ite and one Gujju, both from Calcutta, and both Hindi movie buffs - fell in love at least partly because they saw their favourite stars in each other. If one seemed like Waheeda Rehman, the other seemed like Dev Anand. 

Some other times, stars can intrude on real relationships between real people. Like the great-aunt who was so huge a fan of Raj Kapoor that when she bumped into him on her honeymoon, she could barely believe her luck, and spent half the honeymoon on the set. 

And sometimes we get a film that takes this beautiful relationship between the reel and the real, and feeds it back into the cinema so we can watch our filmi selves on screen. If you've watched Neerja, one of the sweetest things about it was Neerja's supposed obsession with Rajesh Khanna. 

From the star's Anand dialogue ("Life badi honi chahiye, lambi nahi") being used to gesture to Neerja Bhanot's own to-be-truncated life, to the other Rajesh Khanna line that becomes Neerja's final message for her mother ("Pushpa, I hate tears"), Ram Madhvani's film routes at least some of its heavy-weather emotion through our relationship to an older melodramatic tradition. The lines might be filmi, but the feeling is real.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13th Mar, 2016.