Monday, April 23, 2007

Living on all Sides

I started my Saturday morning with the Times of India and a Kenyan coffee at Cafe Coffee Day. While not as posh as Barista, it's an Indian version of Starbucks that offers a cosmopolitan touch to any morning. From behind tall windows I sat inside over a frothy mug, staring out at the busy street ahead. Tall buildings and billboards surround, and only upon lowering one's gaze does one see the manifold rickshaws and passers by who betray the fact that I'm still in India. From the menu I cannot tell, but from the prices, it's apparent that we're not in Kansas anymore... ok, maybe Kansas.

Pockets of developed middle-class life exist in India for sure, but it's still pockets. In watching Guru, a recent Bollywood hit, this weekend, I see these pockets exemplified and magnified. Perhaps for few, but not for many. The Bollywood sets do bring India to life to the tune of a snappy beat and to the scene of a beautiful gyrating human, but it's India in a vacuum. I would never argue that Hollywood exemplifies realism in America, but I do think that more Americans can draw parallels and empathize with Hollywood storylines. The dichotomy between the average American life and the Hollywood movie life, and the average Indian life and the Bollywood movie life, is in my opinion, larger in the latter. But that's my opinion after 4 months and movies...

It's interesting to me because even after over four months in India, after two hours of watching Guru, beautiful Aishwarya Rai whirling under a Karnatakan waterfall, and second-class sleeper train Bollywood sets, I forgot that India has immense development challenges ahead. The Bollywood set glazed over poverty with a little make-up, avoided sanitation issues by showing Aishwarya plowing a pristine field in the rain, and convinced me that even a second-class sleeper car could be fun... with a soft 40-watt glow, bobbing beauties, and a bit of hay tossed on the floor for that agrarian touch, I had an idyllic longing to be stuck in close-quarters for an overnight journey... with Miss World Rai.

As I spent Saturday afternoon plowing through the Charminar crowds of central Hyderabad, surrounded by poverty, extreme population density, unsanitation, and the gamut of street animal life, I can only hope that my perception of Hollywood is less obfuscated by American idealism than Bollywood's is for India.

After shopping for glass bangles, and removing my shirt in-shop for a free Rajasthani block printing lesson in Charminar, we retired for dinner and later for drinks. As we paid the 1200 INR ($28) cover for Ahala, a posh Hyderabadi club, I looked around the linens and skirts that fluttered under the strobe light and undulated to the pulsing music. The pocket is undeniable, but in a city of 5 million, it's hard to imagine that many more people than were in the room could have afforded to be in the room. When we exited we got a hug and hello from a messy-haired guy in a Monaco Grand Prix t-shirt. Turns out he's a movie director. I guess if this is the life you live, the Bollywood set don't look all that inaccurate.

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