Talk of the Town – The Pictures –
With the Islanders away, Bollywood invades the Nassau Coliseum
On a normal Saturday night, the security detail at Nassau Coliseum has the arduous task of keeping thousands of heavymetal enthusiasts in line. Or the famously aggressive fans of the New York Islanders. But at the recent performance of “Megastars—live in concert” these hefty men, many of them moonlighting Irish and African-American cops, stood around looking bemused and a little inconsequential as some seventeen thousand Indians of all ages applauded the giants of the subcontinent¹s cinema.
“Megastars” features, for the first time on one stage, five of the biggest stars in the Hindi movie industry: Amitabh Bachchan, Manisha Koirala, the brothers Sanjay and Anil Kapoor, and the nation¹s newest sex symbol, Shilpa Shetty. They are here to dance, to lip-synch to movie songs, and to horse around with the comedian Johnny Lever. As Amitabh Bachchan points out, “It is a mix like Indian movies—spicy and different.”
Tonight, at the coliseum, the loudest shrieks are for Buchchan. A cross between John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, he is handsome in a rugged, broken-nose way, although his hair is an unnaturally deep black. “He¹s just a god!” a young female fan says.
India produces about eight hundred movies a year, and most are musicals, love stories, and melodramas all at the same time. Each has a compulsory wet-sari scene, some slapstick comedy, and several gun battles or fistfights. The acting is hammy by Western standards. The dancing is a hybrid of Hindu temple dance, folk dance, and moves copied from Michael Jackson. It is also hugely suggestive, with much pelvic thrusting by both sexes. At “Megastars—Live in Concert,” dancers accompany each of the five superstars in elaborately choreographed production numbers from their best-known films. With the prerecorded music and vocals, these spectacles resemble nothing so much as the song-and-dance bits on the Academy Awards broadcast. In each routine, the dancers wear a different costume, but most feature sequins and exposed midriffs. In one, the girls are dressed as nurses and the boys as doctors, while Anil Kapoor appears wrapped entirely in bandages, which the dancers then unravel. In another, they wear orange mechanics¹ coveralls.
When you see them in the flesh, you realized that Indian movie stars are heavier than our own. They are wearing the five pounds that the camera adds to our skinny actors. The Bollywood moviegoing public just prefers them that way. Fans also seem to like men with bushy nineteen-seventies-style haircuts who won¹t leave coy women alone. A typical stage bit: the star approaches a dancing girl and starts thrusting his hips in her direction; she pushes him away, he grabs her; she pulls away, then turns and thrusts her pelvis at him, then runs away. The crowd loves it.
Between numbers, Bachchan comes out onstage alone to declaim, in Hindi, speeches from his movies, and it is clear that the audience knows them all by heart. Many of the speeches are overflowing with anger—Bachchan usually plays poor, oppressed, but extremely macho men who take terrible vengeance on someone who has wronged them. (His popularity with poor urban Indian men helped him win election to India Parliament in 1984.) Then, unlike the other Megastars, he actually has a go at singing. After reciting some Urdu poetry, he finishes the four-hour concert with a set of magic tricks, and makes a live puma appear in an empty cage.
“We don¹t actually have concerts like this at home,” Bachchan says later, in his courtly British English. “People have the original musicals instead.” But there are those who find the whole film-stage-show genre rather embarrassing Upper-crust Indians despise it in the way Western highbrows despise Las Vegas kitsch. Only last week, at the Asia Society, the New Delhi fashion designer Rohit Bal said, “Indian movies are a completely warped, disgusting, vulgar part of Indian sensibility.” But any foreigner watching the Megastars is sturck by how well Indian popular culture has resisted American influence at a time when almost everywhere else in Asia Hollywood movies have won huge audiences. Similar concerts sell out at the Nassau Coliseum several times a year. The fans never cause any problems. And, unlike Islander fans, the never go home disappointed.