Kitsch With a Niche: Bollywood Chic Finds a Home
IT was a swell crowd last Tuesday at a dinner party in the Fifth Avenue apartment of Tracey Jackson, a screenwriter, and Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer. The hosts had lured their guests — including the journalist Carl Bernstein; Shashi Tharoor, a United Nations official and writer; and Amy Gross, the editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine — with the prospect of meeting India’s hottest new import. Not the requisite guru or swami, fixtures at society gatherings since Edith Wharton’s day, but Aamir Khan, a superstar from Bombay’s over-the-top film industry, Bollywood.
Mr. Khan, the leading man of ”Lagaan,” a colorful epic that opens in New York next week, has been called India’s Tom Cruise, and he was dressed to thrill in a snug T-shirt and cargo pants. Guests craned for a glimpse. Although he has toured the United States several times — as a singer performing hits from his films for throngs of Indian-Americans — this night Mr. Khan seemed a little unnerved. ”This is my first time actually being invited to a party on Fifth Avenue,” he said. ”A year ago, it would not have happened.”
From the point of view of Ms. Jackson, a longtime aficionado of Bollywood films, she was a megastar’s host. ”It’s like having Clark Gable drop by in 1944,” she declared.
Maybe so. But Mr. Khan’s status as guest of honor among the urbane crowd was a kind of milestone, an indication that the gaudy style and excesses of Bombay’s film industry are making inroads into the tastes of non-Indians in America.
Since the 1960’s, India’s chief cultural export has been spiritualism, embodied in a pantheon of leaders from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Gurumayi and Deepak Chopra. Today, the exports are more showily crowd-pleasing, arriving in the form of film-inspired fashions, home décor and foods. Once such goods were marketed mainly to Indian-Americans, whose numbers have more than doubled since 1990, to almost 1.7 million. Now they are finding an avid non-Indian audience. Style-struck New Yorkers are embracing Bollywood style, which they once might have dismissed as kitsch.
”When you’re living in a society that is always pushing towards homogeneity, flamboyance has an inescapable allure,” said Gita Mehta, the Indian-born author of ”Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India” (Doubleday, 1998). Bollywood-inspired style, she added, feeds ”a tremendous hunger for everything that is over the top, rowdy, gaudy and noisy — everything, in short, that is reflective of that mad celebratory chaos of India.”
The riches trickling from India include lurid movie posters; wedding ensembles crusted with spangles and gold embroidery; denim tote bags and T-shirts irreverently splashed with Hindu deities; and a maharani’s ransom of gold bangles, eardrops and chokers. To hear some tell it, that trickle may soon become a freshet. ”The interest in India’s spiritual side has been going on a long time,” said the producer and director Ismail Merchant, who celebrated the melodramatic conventions of Bollywood filmmaking in such early movies as ”Bombay Talkie” and ”Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls.” The news, Mr. Merchant said, is that Americans are about to be seduced by India’s exuberant secular side. ”In fashion, in movies, in music and in food, Bollywood is going to hit New York with a bang,” he predicted.
It is already infecting London. In anticipation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage extravaganza ”Bombay Dreams,” which is to open next month, the London department store Selfridges is highlighting Bollywood-inspired fashions and music. M.A.C, the American cosmetics maker, has gotten into the act, introducing a collection of Bollywood-inspired products like Aura nail polish and Smolder eye kohl that will first be offered at Selfridges.
This month Warren-Tricomi, an upscale Manhattan hair salon, introduced mehndi, Indian henna body painting, to meet a resurgent demand. In the salon’s exotically decorated backroom, Melody Weir, a makeup artist who helped drive the henna trend in the mid-90’s, is creating new variations on this ancient ritual art. Instead of using henna alone, Ms. Weir embellishes her filigree designs with Swarovski crystals.
”The look is very Rajasthani,” said Ms. Weir, who has applied henna and crystal designs to Karen Lauder, a New York social figure, and Joi, a popular hip-hop artist. ”Henna and crystals are great fashion accessories,” Ms. Weir declared, calling them the perfect complement to the vibrantly colorful saris some young New Yorkers have begun to wear in the streets, wrapped sarong style and paired with simple T-shirts.
It is mainly through films that a taste for exaggerated Indian style is spreading to the United States. The movie ”Monsoon Wedding” by the New York-based filmmaker Mira Nair might not be a product of Bollywood, but it incorporates Bollywood-inspired dance numbers, costumes and music. The film is about the chaotic wedding preparations of a New Delhi family. Like many Bollywood sagas, its story unspools in a staunchly middle-class milieu.
”Indian culture has long been the rage in the other half of the world,” Ms. Nair said. ”Finally it is coming our way, too.”
Other mainstream international filmmakers have been borrowing from the Bollywood tradition. In ”Moulin Rouge!” the Australian director Baz Luhrmann has Nicole Kidman, bedizened like a goddess, performing a Hindi dance sequence. Mr. Merchant’s new movie, ”The Mystic Masseur,” about Trinidadian Indians in the 1940’s and 1950’s, includes a Bollywood-style wedding scene, complete with gold-flecked crimson saris.
Ms. Jackson, the screenwriter who gave the party for Aamir Khan, has written ”The Guru,” a splashy commercial comedy scheduled for release by Universal in the fall. The film fuses Indian spectacle and American mass culture. It stars Heather Graham, who plays a porn star doubling as an exotic dancer, resplendent in a sari and mounds of gilt.
India’s cacophony and hothouse color ”bring us a sense of pageantry, of religious imagery mixed with Disneyesque characters,” Ms. Jackson said. ”You can lose yourself in it.”
On the heels of the movies come the goods. Quick to capitalize on the success of ”Monsoon Wedding,” Vikram Nair, Mira Nair’s brother, an Indian garment manufacturer, has introduced a collection of apparel and accessories: iridescent shawls, swim trunks, sandals, gold bangles and a heart-shaped bag covered in marigolds — a direct steal from his sister’s film.
The travel industry, too, is trying to capitalize on the current interest in the gaudy side of India. This year, Arrow Travel, a New York agency, will offer tour packages that include visits to a Bombay movie set.
When some New Yorkers need a taste of Bollywood chic, they venture to the South Asian enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens. Ms. Jackson likes to load up on bangles, videos and CD’s. Jane Schub, the owner of a cosmetics business in New York, stepped into one of the many jewelers lining 37th Road the other day, which was filled with 22-karat gold bangles, earrings and rings, and exclaimed, ”This is a total candy store!”
One day, she will need travel no farther than her local pharmacy or Virgin record store for a fix. Already, Zitomer, the tony Madison Avenue drugstore, is stocking sari-style textiles, and Ricky’s, the New York drug and cosmetics chain, offers handbags laminated with splashy Hindu iconography — signs that Bollywood has begun to invade the American market in a manner unthinkable a decade ago.
”Ten years ago, for most Americans, India and Bollywood simply didn’t figure,” said Mr. Tharoor, the United Nations official and author of ”Show Business” (Arcade, 2001), a satirical novel about Bombay’s Tinseltown. ”But now, in many ways, it has entered the mainstream.”
Article by RUTH LA FERLA originally appeared in The New York Times on May 5, 2002.