A date with Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan

For my generation of British Asians, the one part of our ancestral heritage that drew us in was Indian cinema.

Amitabh Bachchan
Bollywood's appeal lies in the lack of "emotional restraint" of so many Western films [EPA]

I was eight years old and there was an air of excitement at home.

We were about to watch our first ever Bollywood film, Amar Akbar Anthony , the tale of three brothers separated at birth and reunited in adulthood, with an abundance of romance, singing, dancing and beating up a few villains along the way.

We were mesmerised.

For the next three hours we forgot everything as Amitabh Bachchan and his co-actors transported us into a fantasy land where cheesiness was without shame, melodrama was unapologetic and the melodies were mesmerising.

We had never seen anything like it and it was an experience we will never forget.

In later years I discovered that Amar Akbar Anthony and other Bollywood films, such as SholaySilsila andQurbani, have influenced many of my South Asian contemporaries in Britain, in a way that is quite distinct from the influence they have had on others.

Amitabh Bachchan: ‘We have a strong cultural identity’

For our parents’ generation, they were one of the most tangible links to a life left behind, a nostalgic trip to the past.

For them, the films and the songs were more than mere escapism; they were a comfort.

For my generation, growing up was a fraught and confused time of trying to carve out our own identities, against the backdrop of the conflicting values of the West and those of our parents.

But even as we rebelled, the one part of our ancestral heritage that consistently drew us in was Indian cinema.

The reason was simple: Bollywood films may have been accused of being formulaic and simplistic, but they lifted our spirits, and left us feeling exhilarated.

The films’ appeal lies in the fact that they lack the emotional restraint of so many other films.

When the characters fall in love, they shout it from the rooftops. When they are sad, they bawl their eyes out. And when they meet an enemy, they beat him to a pulp.

There are no half-measures, and it was this rawness, this antithesis of the stiff English upper lip, this complete lack of any kind of cynicism that resonated with us.

Place in our hearts

I recall at university a British-Pakistani friend of mine flunked an exam because he had been up until 3am the night before watching an Amitabh Bachchan romantic film, Kabhie Kabhie .

When we rebuked him, he declared unapologetically: “My culture is more important.”

That was, perhaps, taking things a bit too far, but it illustrates the place these films had in all our hearts.

Bollywood has influenced us in other ways too. My first impression of feminine beauty and glamour came from Indian films and, to this day, nothing compares.

I still covet the dusky, voluptuous looks of the East infinitely more than the flaxen-haired, androgynous ideals we in the West should apparently hanker after.

But their ultimate appeal is that they are joyous and exuberant in their straightforwardness, in a way that few other films are.

That is why every so often my brothers and I still mention that day we discovered Amar Akbar Anthony .

I watched it again recently and it made me cry because it took me back to that precious time in my childhood with my family and how happy and excited it had made us all feel.

That also is why, when I recently met Amitabh Bachchan, I wanted to tell him what the Indian film industry means to me.

I got tongue-tied but by the way he smiled at me, I got the feeling that maybe he already knew.

Follow Shamim Chowdhury on Twitter: @shamiminlondon

Source: Al Jazeera