It is hard to hyperbolize the influence of Bollywood on Indian society. Having grown up unabashedly exposed to Bollywood song and dance as the offspring of non resident Indians (NRIs) in the United States, I understood the importance that Indians both at home and abroad placed on their cinematic heroes and heroines. One Friday night in Mumbai I joined an extended family outing to see 3 Idiots, the newest fillum starring Aamir Khan. Ever since one of his movies had been nominated for an Academy Award, Aamir Khan had metamorphosed into another one of India’s deities. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s combined stardom pales in comparison to the deference paid to Bollywood superstars. The only apt Western analogy might be the status rock and roll legends once occupied among their fanatical devotees.
3 Idiots had smashed opening box office records the previous weekend, only intensifying this particular Bollywood experience. We arrived late to a hissing of shhh’s, but I was quickly engaged by the gigantic 100-foot movie screen. As the screen engulfed me and the rest of the audience, it was quickly obvious how watching your favorite Bollywood stars talking, singing, and dancing for you every week on a mega screen could become a religious experience. It was no surprise, then, to hear the audience’s earnest outcry for a dad to vacate the theater when his baby decided to start bawling. Yet, it was different from the hushing he would have received in an American theater. There was no forgiveness. It seemed obvious to the audience that the baby had overstepped its bounds, and such audacity could not be tolerated. The crowd pleaded its case in cacophonic admonishments until the door closed behind the baby and his frazzled father.
It was also expected when audience members looked to each other for support and approval during the funnier moments of the movie. The biggest laughs came during a scene in which someone with poor command of Hindi had his speech replaced by the protagonist. The dramatic irony and ensuing sabotaged speech was the pinnacle of the movie for many in the audience. My cousin’s teenaged son literally fell off the edge of his seat, clapping jubilantly and tearing while he laughed. The scene had not tickled me in the same way, and when he looked at me for approval, I felt pressured to feign equal enthusiasm to avoid ruining the moment. Never had my belief that comedy is the hardest human experience to translate been better substantiated. Consequently, my brother’s chortle from the row behind me and my laugh were the only audible reactions during a darker comedic moment.
Despite not finding the movie as thoroughly entertaining as most of the audience, I enjoyed the experience. It truly was Broadway, Hollywood, rock and roll, and even a live sporting event all rolled into one. There was an interval during the movie that acted as a halftime of sorts in which people left their seats to replenish their laps with not only popcorn, but India’s version of hotdogs, cotton candy, ice cream and other ballpark equivalents.
Afterward, the teenagers and twenty-somethings of my family shared a car home. My cousin Shanky deviated from the usual route. He seemed in a daze—still transfixed by the cinematic spectacle we just left. Not waiting for our approval, he took Rajeev and me hostage on the quiet city streets. The idea of a joy ride seemed so foreign to us. Watching Shanky smoke his cigarette with his other hand on the wheel, I sensed that he felt liberated on these drives. It almost seemed on cue when his father called to order him home. Shanky had the only key back into the apartment, and the rest of the family was waiting. This time my cousin did not argue, but it was a rare instance of a tension-free exchange between father and son.
One of present day India’s most astounding traits is its youth—half of the Indian population is under the age of 25. India’s juvenescence portends tremendous workforce productivity for many years ahead, but it also carries with it great implications for the country’s cultural fabric. India prides itself on thousands of years of heritage carried forward through mogul reign, British oppression, and post-revolutionary religious divides. Never has the contrast between cultural preservation and modernization been more visually evident: slums, the remnants of an outdated caste system, sit cozily next to rising office parks; women dressed in saris rub shoulders with teenage girls wearing miniskirts in newly opened megamalls; and cows weave casually between imported Japanese sedans.
The friction between modern and traditional values inevitably sparks cultural tensions, threatening family values held at the heart of Indian society. My uncle (a product of the film industry and a Mumbai culture that promotes everlasting virility) actually sympathizes with his son Shanky about issues that might normally create rifts between people of different generations. He gets his son’s cravings for clothes with logos, sex, fast cars and bikes, Western media, and nightlife vices. Yet conflicts arise because, like most Indian sons, my cousin is living in the same household as his parents into adulthood. This Indian tradition has its merits. Instead of entrusting daycare to nannies, grandparents can help raise grandchildren. Children can care for their parents as they get on in years and shield them from the isolation of nursing homes. The system also provides a financial safety net for young couples, who have no pressure to buy a new home before starting their lives together.
Western influence, however, has instilled a new want for liberation in India’s rapidly expanding youth. This independence can be difficult to achieve in a small apartment housing three generations of a family. Nonetheless, single individuals in their 20s who do not yet recognize the benefits of free day care for their future children and the financial savings mentioned previously, are unwilling to sacrifice their freedom.
I found it hard to reconcile with whom I sided when my uncle and cousin fought. I was bemused that my cousin still had to abide by his father’s rules as an adult and how much it upset my uncle when his twenty-three year old son stayed out late with friends. I eventually reasoned it did make sense that if my cousin could not support himself independently, he should have to follow his benefactor’s dicta. One continuing source of conflict involved my uncle’s disapproval of Shanky’s last girlfriend. While differing religions played a role, the problem stemmed mostly from the fact that Shanky’s girlfriend had previously dated one of his friends before she was intimate with my cousin. Whether or not this bucked the traditional Indian notions of romance, it occurred to me that my uncle should not have objected too strongly if his son was content with the situation.
Perhaps, sexuality is to remain the cornerstone of cultural tension in India for years to come. Bollywood films have hesitantly embraced onscreen kissing, but these scenes frequently meet their demise at the censorship board before domestic theatrical release. Strolling along the popular Mumbai beach spots, Bandra and Bandstand, I saw forbidden lovers scattered across jagged rocks leading down to the water. These frustrated couples could only venture to meet in precarious places—after all, a girl wearing traditional Muslim garb could not dare kiss a Hindu boy on a street corner.
Modern Indian romance might best be summed up by the story of one of Shanky’s friends. Ravi, a young man in his 20s, had been with his girlfriend for many years. While fidelity was not his style, the relationship blossomed. Unfortunately for Ravi, another guy entered the picture a few years later. Ravi’s girlfriend told him about the guy and her uncertainties about their own relationship. Ravi gave her an ultimatum: forget the other guy and marry him, or their relationship was irrevocably finished. She decided to try out the new guy. Within a couple months she was ready to reconcile with her ex beau. In the interim, however, Ravi’s parents saw an opportunity. They arranged for him to marry the suitable daughter of a family friend.
Even after dating around for years in the Western sense, this young guy was to have an arranged marriage. I had a chance to meet the recently betrothed couple. They seemed happy enough, but Shanky later intimated to me that Ravi and his ex girlfriend had both confided in him that they still loved the other.
Before leaving India, my brother and I wanted a taste of the supposedly debaucherous lifestyle Shanky and his friends were leading. After an argument between Shanky and his father about his prodigal ways, we hopped into his car and hit the pothole ridden Mumbai roads on a Friday night. Running late, my cousin floored it to make sure we wouldn’t lose our table reservation. Traditional traffic was unusually light, but as we approached the first intersection, a bull blocked the narrow path. The proud animal examined us carefully. Unperturbed by our sense of hurry and the honking, he paced leisurely for a few minutes before finally deciding to give way.
We were on our way to “the town” and to one of Mumbai’s more exclusive clubs, Prive. Despite being late, my cousin needed to make a quick pit stop. Rajeev and I sat patiently at the entrance to some residential building until my cousin ran back with a new set of keys. We were switching cars, shifting to a roomier SUV with a booming sound system. This was after all a night out, and my cousin could not roll up to a club in predictable fashion. Used to partying in New York when in the States, driving and clubbing were mutually exclusive activities in my book, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that the ostentatious nature of upgrading to a fancier ride wasn’t quite very Indian either.
We pulled up to Prive and passed undersized Indian bouncers into the club. The glowing club LEDs and strobing dance floor lights flashed to the rhythm of electronic music and a thumping bass. I felt as if I had been transported to South Beach. The humidity and congestion of Mumbai had been replaced by the familiar posh, pretentiousness of a Western nightclub. Sipping on outrageously priced drinks, I stood awkwardly, self-conscious that people somehow knew I didn’t quite belong. Maybe it was because I wasn’t dancing enthusiastically like many other guys at this early hour. Indian male flamboyance, I found, had not been checked at the door tonight. Dance moves were very middle school. No grinding here. Instead of being an adult playground, where public sexual foreplay was encouraged, the nightclub scene here was PG. Skirts were short but did not ride up to reveal taboo parts. There would be no Britney or Paris flashings for us when everyone stumbled out of the club in a few hours.
Suddenly, cops burst through the club doors to end the night early. I turned to my cousin to figure out what was going on, but he was busy paying full price for table service that had been cut at least two hours short. Even later he had no explanation. The cops could randomly poop the party whenever they wanted. I realized I was going to be disappointed on my quest for debauchery in India, but we tried one other nightspot before heading back to the suburbs of Mumbai.
On the drive back we stopped by the beach. The smokers lit their cigarettes, and the rest of us sat on rocks overlooking the waves. I threw a pebble into the abyss and turned around to see my cousin doing a handstand. The guys, though sober, were running around putting each other in headlocks. The only person in this group that had imbibed past his limits was actually from Singapore. Having to catch a flight back in the morning, he was no longer with us, but he serenaded us to the tunes of the Indian classic, “Om, Shaanti, Om,” before heading off. Back at the roadside, Shanky handed a friend the keys to our car so that he could get into the other one. I did not understand why until we hit the road again. As we got onto Mumbai’s newest cable-stayed bridge, I looked out the front windshield to see my cousin sticking his torso out through the sunroof of the car in front of us while Jay Sean’s Down blasted on our speakers. He waved his arms and screamed into the night air. He carried on wildly for the length of the bridge before switching back to our car.
Although he was my contemporary, I didn’t quite get my cousin. We were comfortable in each other’s presence but never seemed to connect on a meaningful level. This last display of exuberance, while somewhat contrived and Bollywoodesque, had a youthful innocence to it almost from another era. And at that moment while I knew I could not live the Indian experience, I was happy to get a glimpse of this optimistic time in my cousin’s and the country’s lives.
 “The Rising Elephant.” PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005.