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Song and Dance, Bollywood Style

Nicknamed after its Hollywood exemplar, Bollywood, the famously spirited and wildly popular Indian film industry headquartered in Mumbai, is the largest movie production center in the world. Its devoted Hindi-speaking patrons number in the tens of millions.

For almost 40 years, the blueprint of Bollywood movies hasn't changed much: boy meets girl, boy and girl dance provocatively, but never kiss; something keeps them apart, usually some sort of injustice, or something having to do with religion or family; a poorly staged fight ensues in which one man takes on an entire village, and, finally, love conquers all and the pair live happily ever after. Often a dream sequence is used as an excuse for what basically amounts to a music video, often shot in the Swiss Alps, wherein famous actors otherwise unaffiliated with the movie's plot will appear, and lip synch. You may also notice pieces of your favorite American films popping up, uncredited (one popular Bollywood movie includes pieces of all the following films: The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Goodfellas; another took the plot of I Am Sam and turned it into a post-9/11 film, and managed to fit in a subplot featuring a Katrina-like situation in the American South). Although on the whole, the films, not to mention the acting and writing, aren't quite up to Western standards, production values are improving dramatically.

Hindi films play a special role in the lives of the Indian people. Sure, it's a lot of musical gobbledygook, but for the poor and the illiterate, paying a few rupees for three solid hours of fantasy is a terrific bargain—and middle- and upper-class Indians are no less attached to their movies and the gods of Bollywood. An on-location film shoot, or the arrival of a Hindi star at a restaurant, will attract mobs; these actors and actresses are the demigods of India. (You'll also find them on TV and billboards, hawking everything from cell phones to cement.) The lion of the industry, Amitabh Bachchan, one of India's favorite superstars—think of him as a cross between Burt Reynolds and Ben Kingsley—has a temple dedicated to him in West Bengal.

Moviegoing tips: Remember to stand up for the national anthem before the movie. You could try to brush up on your Hindi before you go, or have a local accompany you to provide a translation (you'll find that patrons talking in the movies is not uncommon, indeed, it's also not unusual for theatergoers to hold full-volume cell-phone conversations in the middle of the movie), but even though the movies are in a foreign language, it's pretty easy to follow along.

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