Most people who know us have some knowledge that Tom, Anne, and their descendants hate musicals. Unconditionally. It is odd then that my mom, McKane and I walked out of a largely musical Tamil movie so happy. It probably wasn’t the movie itself, but the atmosphere and the experience that accounted for our good mood.
One night at the volunteer home, Raja (a boy who recently graduated high school and lives at the home) invited us to go see a Tamil movie with him and some women from the home. We gladly accepted and were soon out the door and on our way to the theatre. We arrived early, an hour early, so we could make sure we got tickets. We bought them and with fifty minutes to spare Raja, McKane, and I headed off to a nearby market to buy some snacks for the movie. On the way Raja explained that the most popular Tamil “hero” (Indians use this term instead of actor) would be starring in the movie we would see and that his movies generally stay in theaters for over a year–that’s right a year. We talked a little about American cinema and who the biggest “heroes” in it were. We returned to the packed theatre parking lot just in time for the movie. We entered the theatre which was quite odd due to the fact that it was extremely long, not so wide, and curved almost like a semi-circle. Raja handed us some pieces of cotton and told us, “The movie can be very loud at times. Put these in your ears!”. As soon as the lights dimmed we knew that this would be just about as different a moviegoing experience from the U.S. as possible.
The names of the directors and actors popped up on the screen and immediately the entire crowd whistled and cheered. When the most famous Tamil actor made his entrance, you couldn’t even hear the extremely loud speakers over the hollers and whistles of excited fans. This continued until all the main characters had appeared. We were thankful when they all had because Indians are very, very good at whistling loudly and annoyingly. The movie started with guess what? A song and dance sequence (the staple of most Indian films)! This was more funny than annoying. After the song, the plot played out before our eyes, but we could hardly understand anything and simply had to guess what was happening with little hints from the few English words thrown in here and there. Raja tried to explain what was going on but the deafening roar of the crowd and the not so good speaker system made it hard to understand what he was saying. So we guessed. The movie was about gangsters and police and as such quite violent. But whereas at home gangster movies are rarely comedies or musicals, this film was both. Between the killing and singing, we noticed many comic antics, most notably from an Indian man who fancied himself a martial arts guru. The movie was a deviation from the typical Hindi script of a poor country girl being saved by a rich Westernized hero and portrayed some dark aspects of Indian society. To put the movie in a nutshell, a gang member meets a Westernized aerobics instructor with whom he falls in love, kills about three hundred guys with his bare fists, changes gangs about three times, kills the largest gang leader in India (also the most popular villain actor in India, hence the loads of cheers), and turns out to be an undercover cop. If it sounds complicated, bear in mind it took the plot about three hours (including an intermission) to unfold.
We left the movie with a better feel not just for Indian movies, but Indian culture in general. Everywhere else we’ve been, entertainment mimics Western, especially American, influences. But India does not conform or try to be ‘western’ like most other nations. India is unique in many ways, from the odd head bobble (looks like they are shaking no, but it actually is just acknowledging yes), to the lunatic driving. From the styles of dress, to the culture, to the movies and the people themselves. India, is India.