Bollywood: Audience Participation Required

Aamir Khan is one of the most popular Bollywood actors working today.
Aamir Khan is one of the most popular Bollywood actors working today.

When I travel, I all too often find myself swept up in seeing as many of the classic, ancient sites in a city. I definitely try to balance that drive with as many everyday activities as I can, and going to a movie in India is definitely one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. My knowledge of Bollywood before my trip to India was minimal, to say the least. I knew they sang, I knew they danced, I knew it was over-the-top…and that was about it.

Outside of the Raj Mandir Theatre in Jaipur
Outside of the Raj Mandir Theatre in Jaipur

I can say without any hesitation or doubt that I have never had more fun at the movies than I did at the Raj Mandir Theatre in Jaipur. The theater itself is a sight to gawk at: the exterior is lit by gaudy neon lights, which is a stark contrast to the opulent art-deco lobby. It’s been open since the mid-1970s and was actually offered as part of the original owner’s daughter’s dowry. When I hear the term “dowry,” I usually think of “two goats, a cow, and a dozen chickens,” not “movie theater that I’d happily live in.” Raj Mandir was once known as the best theater in all of India, and even now, it’s the best in Rajasthan. My ticket only cost 150 rupees (or about 2.5 USD), which is definitely the cheapest price I’ve ever paid. Interestingly enough, those 150 rupees also included a few extra to pay one of our guide’s friends to get to the movie early and reserve a chunk of seats for our group.

Inside Raj Mandir
Inside Raj Mandir

If I were to see the same movie, Dhoom:3, in an American theater, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much. Bollywood movies are ridiculous and unbelievable in the best way. Dhoom:3 was a mix of The Prestige and The Fast and the Furious with a healthy dose of synchronized song and dance for good measure. (And yes, it is every bit as over-the-top as the trailer makes it seem.) American audiences would likely think it overly exaggerated and tacky – but it’s supposed to be that way. Camp is appreciated for exactly what it is; it’s never taken seriously.

Lots of dancing was paired with some motorcycle chases that were both hilarious and hugely entertaining.
Lots of dancing was paired with some motorcycle chases that were both hilarious and hugely entertaining.
Bollywood movies are known for borrowing from Western movies, too...which is why Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean got a brief shout-out.
Bollywood movies are known for borrowing from Western movies, too…which is why Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean got a brief shout-out.

I learned more about Indian culture in those two hours than all of the majestic palaces I saw in an entire week. If you go to India, go to a Bollywood movie. Unless you’re a robot, you will enjoy the hell out of yourself. And if you’re worried about not being able to understand the plot, it’s definitely not an issue. About a third of Dhoom:3 was in English (and it was set in Chicago, of all places), and even the sections that were in Hindi were relatively easy to understand. All of that overacting definitely helps out.

Admittedly, my enjoyment of Dhoom:3 probably had something to do with the fact that you could grate cheese on Khan's abs.
Admittedly, my enjoyment of Dhoom:3 probably had something to do with the fact that you could grate cheese on Khan’s abs.
That being said, his co-star, Katrina Kaif was a bombshell herself.
That being said, his co-star, Katrina Kaif was a bombshell herself.

In America, I think it’s safe to say that anyone talking during a movie will quickly become the most-hated person in the room. In India, though, talking isn’t just tolerated. It’s expected. People were catcalling, heckling, laughing, and cheering throughout the entire movie, and it only made the experience even more enjoyable. What you’re seeing on screen is over-the-top, and the reactions of the audience mirror that exactly. Case in point: at one point, the two romantic leads move in to kiss each other, and someone yelled from the back, “Why stop there?!” It’s impossible not to get swept up in the hoopla, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves cracking up and whooping along with the rest of the audience.

Classic Bollywood films are more about the song and dance routine, but more modern movies throw in a hefty amount of action, too.
Classic Bollywood films are more about the song and dance routine, but more modern movies throw in a hefty amount of action, too. Even if it’s not exactly the most believable.

It seemed that the security was pretty lax, too. At first, I was nervous about whipping out my iPhone to take pictures of the film. Once I saw the guy in front of me recording the entire thing with his video camera, though, I figured it was kosher.

Hanging upside down in the middle of a circus show...yup, that's how I expect my first kiss with my crush, too.
Hanging upside down in the middle of a circus show…yup, that’s how I expect my first kiss with my crush to be, too.

For the rest of the trip, we kept seeing posters for Dhoom:3 and hearing the main theme wafting from television ads. It got to the point where any time we’d hear the soundtrack, we’d clutch our ears and groan, because we knew we’d be humming the same five bars over and over again for the rest of the day. (In fact, I’m listening to the soundtrack now as I write this…it’s addicting.)

One of things that I found most interesting was that, in a culture that's extremely conservative when it comes to women's street clothing, nobody bats an eyelash when the stars of a Bollywood film are scantily clad. In Kaif's introductory dance number, she started off wearing baggy clothes that covered all of her body. By the end of the song, she was in calf-high boots, boots shorts, and a bra.
One of things that I found most interesting was that, in a culture that’s extremely conservative when it comes to women’s street clothing, nobody bats an eyelash when the stars of a Bollywood film are scantily clad. In Kaif’s introductory dance number, she started off wearing baggy clothes that covered all of her body. By the end of the song, she was in calf-high boots, boots shorts, and a bra.

Now I’ve got a long list of Bollywood hits – both classic and more modern – to work through, and I’m loving every moment of it. I admit that they lose some of their charm when you watch them home on your couch, rather than in a theater filled with more than 1200 people, but it’s still giving me new appreciation for a style that’s totally novel to me.

Action, acrobatics, romance, glittery outfits...what didn't Dhoom:3 have to offer?
Action, acrobatics, romance, bank heists, glittery outfits…what didn’t Dhoom:3 have to offer?

And it’s leaving its mark, too. Dhoom:3’s main theme is my ringtone now, and I bet it’ll stay that way for quite a while.

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