Wednesday, April 16, 2008

You never know when trivia will bear fruit

The other day I was looking up information about Purana Mandir 2: Saamri on the IMDB, and I decided to check Amazon for availability, even though I knew the odds were against me. Just like at work, I need to do my database searching from scratch, just to be sure. I put in the word "Saamri," and the first thing that popped up was a book called Video Night in Kathmandu, by Pico Iyer, and I'm pretty sure I made that "Whaaaa?" face that Jon Stewart does so well.

Twenty years ago (my God, twenty years!) I was living in what I came to call "the boarding hovel." I'd just graduated from college with no clear career path in front of me, and toiled doing market research surveys to keep myself in coffee and ramen noodles. On Sundays I walked downtown to the main library, and about twice a week I stopped at the small branch library to browse the new nonfiction, where Iyer's book would have been displayed in 1988.

Each chapter of the book is set in a different Asian country, and Iyer describes his encounters with the people he meets, with an emphasis on the impact of Westernization, for good and for ill. I remember reading it, thinking, here in the U.S., I'm living, basically, in poverty. I live in one room, sharing a bathroom with ten people. My paycheck barely feeds me. And yet, if the lottery of fate had put me in another country, I could be living in the same room with those ten people. I might not have running water at all, or electricity.

Overall, a useful perspective, and one I've tried to keep in mind. Seeing so much abundance all the time can cloud the concept of what's rich and what's poor. Anyway, while I've remembered the book in a general way, I didn't retain the specific details. After all, it was 10 countries in 374 pages, 20 years ago, and I've read a lot of books since then.

But...Saamri? So, taking advantage of the low low prices ("I'd buy that for a dollar!"), I ordered the book used. The chapter on India is called "Hollywood in the Fifties," and is all about, what else? Bollywood movies and what they say about the relationship between India and American pop culture. He talks about the poster for Saamri in the context of the family dynasties: the Ramsays, the Sippys, the Kapoors.

An interesting moment is when he describes how Hindi films have come up during his travels to other parts of Asia, where they seemed omnipresent. In Bali, the author was recognized by strangers as Indian, and beset by questions: "Did I know Amitabh? Was Dharmendra still married to Hema Malini? What was the story with Shashi Kapoor?" (p. 246)

Those were the sort of specific, local-color details that wouldn't have meant anything to me, and I'd have kind of skimmed over. Who knew that all this time later, I'd know who all those people are? Actually, Dharmendra and Hema Malini are still married even now. And frankly, I really don't know what the story is with Shashi Kapoor. I still haven't gotten to any of his movies, but I know he has a huge fan following, so he must have been quite the idol in his day.

Who knows what randomly-selected books I've yet to read, and what will blossom into full-fledged obsessions in the years to come? Definitely something to look forward to!

1 comment:

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Very useful perspective to keep in mind.

I paused in reading this when I got to "Bollywood movies and what they say about the relationship between India and American pop culture," hopped over to the university library catalog, and got the book. It should reach me by campus mail by Friday. {Mr. Burns} Ehhxcellent. {/Mr. Burns}

There's a great book by Vikram Seth called From Heaven Lake in which he recounts his travels through western China/Tibet/Nepal and how he made friends by singing Raj Kapoor songs, which somehow even in the 80s had penetrated rural western China. Maybe by the same mechanisms that Bollywood was popular in the USSR? Anyway. International language, truly.

As for Shashi Kapoor, well, I love him dearly, and I think part of it is his range. He does Merchant and Ivory beautifully. He is masala dopey. He can woo a girl from fifty paces. He has the most luscious eyelashes known to human kind. And he and Amitabh make a truly awesome on-screen couple (I'm going to try to write a treatise on that after I get a few more of their films under my belt). If PPCC can't convince you of the goodness that is Shashi, then...all hope might be lost. Her site has some really fabulous images - go browsing and just tell me if your heart isn't moved :)

Thanks for the book rec!