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The magic of Indian cinema

Kids line up for a matinee in Hyderabad, India, in 1999.

HYDERABAD, India After the Calcutta Film Festival, I stop for a few days in this pearl capital of central India, where the 14th annual Golden Elephant Children's Film Festival is taking place. Headquarters is the Holiday Inn Krishna, where a papier-mache elephant dominates the lobby. After Calcutta's bump-'em traffic, Hyderabad is a relief; the drivers here are as laid back as the typical Manhattan cabbie.

I plan to catch some children's films. My friend Uma da Cunha, a Bombay casting director and production consultant, tells me I should also see a typical Hindi blockbuster in a typical theater with a typical audience. This is a great idea. India has the largest film industry in the world; its studios in Bombay (or "Bollywood") churn out as many as 600 titles a year, heavy on melodrama, romance, action and song and dance - all in the same movie.

The kiddie matinee begins at 2 in a cavernous neighborhood cinema. Squadrons of kids are lined up outside, sorted according to age, gender and school uniform. Delegates and journalists are admitted early, and we grab aisle seats near the back. The seats are hard but not unforgiving: They recline, so that we can gaze up blissfully at the screen, like in a planetarium.

The kids charge in. These are happy kids. They shout and scream and whistle, skipping down the aisles two by two, holding hands buddy-system. Their teachers brandish wooden rulers, the scepters of their trade, and shout dire warnings. Fifty girls in blue and white uniforms romp into the seats in front of me, but then a teacher whacks a seat with her ruler and they all leap up again and are replaced by 50 boys in shorts, white shirts and ties.

The movie is "Malli," an award winner about a poor village girl who admires the veterinarian and spies on his work. She meets a rich deaf girl who is visiting from the city. They sneak off together to play. A village elder tells Malli about a precious eyestone that was lost long ago and has magical powers. A peacock god manifests himself to her; in his tail is the same design as the eyestone. Men dressed in khaki walk through the forest with rifles, and one of them wounds the little doe that has become Malli's friend. She rips her brand-new green skirt to bind the wound, and deposits the little deer on the vet's doorstop. This good deed is rewarded: She finds the magic stone.

The kids appreciate this film with an intensity approaching ecstasy. When Malli succeeds, they cheer. When she fails, they groan. When the evil men with rifles appear, they hoot and whistle. When there is a song, they clap along. When Malli runs through the forest, the audience makes a sound that is kind of a ululating affirmation, as if they are running with her.

I have never heard louder appreciation from any audience, but no matter - the sound is turned up to rock concert volume. Every theater I have visited in India advertises stereo and air conditioning, and is at pains to demonstrate that it has both. The sound thunders from the speakers, and blasts of Arctic air roar from the ventilation system. This is a warm climate, but I have learned to bring a jacket to every screening.

There is an intermission, so that vendors can sell popcorn and potato chips. I go into the lobby and find a counter that offers the flat, crispy pastries known as "elephant ears." I order one and it tastes exactly the same as the identical pastry at the Swedish Bakery in Harbert, Mich., where I am a leading consumer of elephant ears.

That evening we are sitting in the buffet area of the Holiday Inn Krishna, making plans to attend the Bollywood production of "Taal." It is 8 p.m.

"We will stop on the way and get a bite to eat," says an actress who is on the festival jury.

"But . . . you said the theater was half an hour away, and the show starts at 9," I said. "Won't we be late?"

She makes that distinctive Indian head movement that is not a shake nor a nod, but a sort of circular combination of both. I have learned that it means, "Yes, probably, but one never knows."

"Piffle," she says. "We'll get there late. Nobody comes on time."

Uma da Cunha adds, "And sometimes they don't stay for the whole film, either. These films are always at least 2 1/2 hours long."

We are given a lift by B. Narsing Rao, a tall and friendly man Uma describes as a director, painter, poet and playwright. We arrive at a vast and towering cinema. Neon signs reach for the sky. Enormous billboards advertise the film.

"The stars are so famous they don't even put their names on the posters," Uma tells me. "Those names are for the director and the musical director."

We go into a lobby that stretches in every direction as far as marble can reach. We climb a wide, inclined ramp. The first level is for 10 rupee seats. Next are the 20 rupee seats. Higher and higher we climb, looking ruefully at a disabled escalator, until we reach heaven - seats that cost 30 rupees, or about 75 cents.

The movie is under way. It's in Hindi, although the characters occasionally switch to English, which is the only language spoken in every part of India. Uma translates for me: "This is a rich family. There is a dispute over land. The son has come home from America. The father is that man with the very deep voice. His name is Amrish Puri. He is Mr. Villain of Indian cinema. Fans love his voice."

The son from America (Akshay Khanna) wears blue jeans, a baseball cap and a backpack. He stands on a mountaintop and breathes the air of home, and then leaps off and slides halfway down the mountain, just out of joy. When he arrives home, his father can barely be bothered to look up from the Economic Times newspaper. His mother, who has hair like an American rockabilly star, wants him to get married.

The hero wanders around and sees the most beautiful woman in the world. I am not exaggerating. The actress is Aishwaria Rai, and she was voted Miss Universe. She is one of the two or three most gorgeous women I have ever seen in a movie.

Totally unaware that the hero is watching her, she sings a song for - well, for nobody in particular, I guess, since she is unaware. This is just how she passes the time. Two other beautiful women join her in a choreographed dance, and then 24 whirling dervishes with baggy silk pantaloons join in.

"She is a poor girl," Uma tells me. Not too poor to have backup singers and a chorus line when she sings to herself, I reflect. The boy is smitten. He tries to catch her eye. She refuses to return his smile. She looks studiously indifferent. The boy is intrigued. So am I. In an American movie we would already be into the condom jokes.

Back home, the family sits outside on lawn chairs, all facing the camera, while the father reads Fortune magazine. The boy wanders up to a high mountain pasture, loses his footing and falls off. He grabs a tree. The girl, who happens to find herself in the same high pasture, throws him a rope, and she and her two friends and a few of the guys in pantaloons pull the guy up to where he can grasp her hand, just like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest."

"Ah!" says Uma. "They are holding hands!"

"She is saving him," I say.

"Yes, that is the excuse," she says. "It is not right to touch the bride before marriage."

So thrilled is the hero to have his hand held that he inadvertently pulls the heroine over with him, and both of them dangle at the end of the rope before being hauled up by the pantaloon squad. Soon after, she sings another song, while he watches, unobserved.

I have to admit: This is fun. There is an innocence in this pure entertainment that Hollywood has somehow lost. I pull my sports coat up over my head to shield myself from the ferocious blasts of air conditioning, and reflect that Doris Day stories are alive and well in India.

Now comes a scene of such peculiar eroticism that you will have to take my word for it - it was sexy. At a reception, the heroine scratches her chin. The hero, across the room, scratches his chin. The heroine touches her nose. The hero touches his nose. She brushes back her hair. He brushes back his hair. What fills him with maddening desire is that she does not reveal by even a flicker of an eyelid that she notices him doing this. She is a good girl, and will not make eye contact, even though they have held hands.

Trays of soft drinks are brought around. She takes a bottle of Coke and sips through a straw. He takes a Coke and sips through a straw. "Coca-Cola is sponsoring this movie," Uma explains. Product placement is up front in India.

The hero removes the straw and drinks from the bottle with his lips. The woman does not seem to notice. He puts the bottle back on the tray, and tells the waiter to take the tray to where the heroine is standing with her girlfriends. The waiter offers her the tray. Will her lips touch the same Coke bottle as his? Or will she choose Thums Up cola (without the "b"), the other leading Indian brand? The suspense is unbearable. She rejects the tray. But then - this is cinema at its best! - her girlfriend reaches for the same bottle, and the heroine snatches it away. She DID notice! She was looking all the time!

Now the heroine is holding the Coke bottle herself. Does she drink from it? I would like to tell you, I really would, but this is a family newspaper.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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