At this stage it's worth mentioning yet another incredible Indian institution: the Indian film industry. Rumi's stereotypical image of western women had come mainly from American movies, which seem all the more lewd and free-lovin' because most Indian movies don't even show kissing, let alone nudity. But what Indian flicks lose in censorship, they more than make up for in sheer exuberance.
Bombay is the official centre of Indian film, so much so that the films are known as 'Bollywood' movies (though this is unlikely to change to 'Mollywood' now that Bombay has changed its name to Mumbai). Bollywood churns out twice as many films every year as Hollywood, and where the average Hollywood blockbuster clocks in at about 90 minutes, Bollywood epics run to an exhausting average of two-and-a-half hours. Each movie has at least five sing-along dance routines, and every type of film genre – action, romance, thriller, crime and musical – is packed into the celluloid equivalent of bubble and squeak.
To a westerner the films can appear a little amateurish at times, but the figures point to an industry that is far from unsuccessful. Bollywood blockbusters, of which there are more than 800 produced every year, have million-dollar budgets, produce over 100 million ticket sales every week, have huge advertising campaigns – the posters mount up on walls and telegraph poles, only to be nibbled off by passing goats and cows – and have made a lot of Bombay residents very rich indeed.
The actors, once in the big time, are made for life. The men are generally moustachioed podges who all look pretty identical, while the women are rotund and coyly flirtatious; this excess of weight denotes prosperity in much the same way it does in Polynesia. Once an actor or actress makes it, he or she will end up acting in lots of films, all at the same time; stories of actors working on over 100 films simultaneously are not uncommon, because it's actors that sell films. Directors also spread their talents thinly; one successful director was so overbooked that he directed his movies by phone. And if an actor or actress becomes well known for a certain 'device', they tend to use that device in every film they star in; thus, if Ursula Andress was an Indian film star, they would find an opportunity for her to slink out of the sea in a black bikini and knife belt in every one of her movies.
The plots can also feel rather unsophisticated, at least as far as the western film critic goes. To the untrained eye (and ear) Bollywood films are formulaic, to say the least. There is a handsome hero and a beautiful heroine, normally from different classes, as well as an evil seductress and a villain. The hero has a friend, who falls in love with the seductress and manages to change her ways, and in the end good always conquers evil. Mixed into this less-than-thrilling piece of screenwriting are the sing-along pieces, which spring up with a spontaneity and inappropriateness that even Fame has trouble beating. The action scenes are never far away – fights break out so quickly you're left wondering what sparked them off – and involve plenty of martial manoeuvres and overdubbed grunts and groans. The romantic scenes are renowned for their lack of content rather than their promiscuity; one film I heard about had two lovers embracing, about to go for a kiss, and just as the dirty deed was to be shown the scene cut to romantic orchestral overtures and a picture of the Eiffel Tower thrusting manfully into the sky. With Bollywood, you sometimes just have to use your imagination.
But it's easy to understand the reason for such repetitiveness in theme and presentation. The audience in India must be one of the most varied and diverse cross-sections of mankind ever to go to the movies, so to get big ticket sales, you have to appeal to everyone. So there's no sex, which would offend the more pious pundits; there are no heavy historical or mythological themes, which would annoy the revisionists; there are no specifically regional films, which would restrict the audience on geographical terms (films about the Mughals wouldn't be popular in the deep south, since the Mughals never reached there); films about the western world would only appeal to educated people, and they don't make up the masses; and so the common denominator is the sing-along action romance, and so you find it absolutely everywhere. Sure, there are some arty films that are successful abroad, but as they normally concentrate on poverty and real life, Indians don't want to watch them; they want escapism at the flicks, just like the rest of us.
And, truth be told, Bollywood reflects the country itself. Colourful, noisy, brash, romantic, coy but seductive, festive and larger than life, watching an Indian movie is the next best thing to being here. It's a poor second, though...