Sunday, February 10, 2008

Recipe for the Perfect Masala

I first heard about author Stephen Alter last December when I was in London. Browsing through the shelves of my friend's home library, my eye caught upon an interesting title - Elephas Maximus - A Portrait of the Indian Elephant. The book was a unique blend of myth, legend, zoology and storytelling about the gentle grey giant of the Indian subcontinent. A must read for anyone who loves anything about those pachyderms! I was curious to read more by Stephen Alter, especially when I found out the subject matter of his other books and then a little more about him. I was finally able to get my hands on a relatively cheap copy of Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief recently and haven't been able to put it down.

A first hand insider's view of the world of Indian movie making, ....Love Thief tells about the making of the movie Omkara an Indian retelling of Shakespeare's Othello. Set in the harsh arid plains of North India the story and characters all take on very Indian personas. Othello becomes Omkara, Desdemona is Dolly and Cassio is Kesu. The island of Cyprus is the village of Cypra and instead of warriors and soldiers the story is about a local gang lord and his lady love and his lieutenants.

More than just a telling of one movie, the book takes us through a journey of movie making that is as similar and yet as different from any other. Going behind the scenes, the author explores not only the movie but what lies behind it as well - the actors, directors, producers, musicians and the host of other unknowns on who's shoulders lie the success or failure of an industry that produces on average 900 movies a year.

Growing up in Bombay - the LA to India's Bollywood - Hindi movies were always part of my life. Although I didn't start going to see Hindi movies in the theatre until I was in high school, I remember settling down with my grandmother's maid most Sunday evenings to watch the week' showing. At a time when TV was limited to 3 channels 1 of which was in a regional language I didn't quite follow, we took what we got on TV and we cherished every moment. My grandmother was not really a Hindi movie fan, but was nevertheless obsessed with 2 particular Hindi movies - "Bobby" and "Aradhana" and because they owned the VHS we would watch those over and over until we all knew the dialogues by heart!

When I began college in my mid teens, movies... and Hindi movies in particular took on a whole new persona. There were 4 cinema halls a mere 10 minutes walk from the college and another 3 a short cab ride away. My circle of friends expanded from the very "Christian centric" group that living in a Catho-ville suburb like Bandra accorded, to a more multi cultural group from not only all over Bombay.. but all over India as well. Although everyone liked a good Hindi movie as much as the next guy, one friend in particular was passionate about the world of movies and through his passion, I was drawn into this glittering, gaudy, girating world of Bollywood at the movies.

In his book, Stephen Alter says
"The precise ingredients for a good blend of masala may vary according to the cook, but no matter what the recipe, this pungent concoction of spices excites all five senses.
Masala is the word most often used to describe a combination of elements that go into making a successful Bollywood film. Once again, the ingredients and quantities may be adjusted, with extra measures of romance, sex, violence or suspense, depending on the script. All these are simmered together to form a saucy cinematic curry that keeps audiences coming back for seconds."
And since my life is entirely devoid of masala right now - be it romantically or literally in my food, I turn to my daily dose of Bollywood to spice things up and raise a fire in my belly that keeps me warm through these oh so cold... oh so un Bollywood-like winter nights.

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