A few years ago, I was walking down a street in Jakarta when a street vendor said “Kuch kuch hota hai” as I passed by. I thought he was being cheesy and ignored him. Minutes later, I stepped into a store to buy a bottle of water when the young woman behind the cash register smiled and said in one breath “Kuch kuch hota hai I love Kajol.” I lingered to chat and learned that she was a keen Bollywood fan. She had watched only about a dozen Bollywood films, but had seen each one many times over. Through the rest of my trip in Indonesia I found that there was a lot of affection for Indians—most of it thanks to Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
Since then I’ve realized that even though I don’t know as much about Bollywood as my 10-year-old daughter, I am welcomed, even loved, in numerous countries around the world. This affection for India isn’t something that’s new, though I have to admit I’ve begun to recognize the extent of it in only the last five years. In Azerbaijan, people idolize Raj Kapoor and have been watching his films since the 1960s. In a market in Baku, the capital city, an old man sang “Awara Hoon” and “Mera Joota Hai Japani” while I browsed the wares in his shop. Further probing revealed that everyone in the country over age 35 has seen numerous Hindi films and even younger people in their 20s know of stars from Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan.
It’s quite amazing to see how the Hindi film industry has carved out so much goodwill for Indian travellers. I’ve met so many people around the world who hold Hindi movie stars and music in high esteem. Many who know me will be surprised I’m saying this since I’ve never followed Bollywood’s celebrities or its songs, but I’m quick to acknowledge that by some strange (and happy) transference I get the benefit.
Earlier this year, while admiring the mind-boggling artefacts in The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, I heard a voice behind me ask. “Madam, can I take a photo with you?” I was a bit stunned and looked quizzically at the smiling teenaged girl who’d asked the question. “I love India. I love your movies and songs,” she explained, beckoning her brother to take a photograph of us together. He did, and then thanked me, because my “country makes so many great movies”. We ended up chatting and though I felt a bit weird that I was being thanked for something I had absolutely nothing to do with, I also felt happy to be talking to ordinary Egyptians. This goodwill is interesting considering the number of times I’ve heard people say we are hated around the globe because the average Indian doesn’t behave or make a good tourist.
To me, it seems that the joy that Hindi cinema has spread in so many countries far outweighs the misbehaviour and transgressions of some Indian travellers. For this we should all be grateful.
But the love for Bollywood is not limited to Asia and Africa. Increasingly even the West is opening up to its entertainment value (and capacity to bring tourism to a country). During a wait at Munich airport two years ago, the ice breaker between my German co-passenger and me turned out to be Bollywood. I was surprised to hear that her young daughter goes for Bollywood dance classes and absolutely delights in it. She talked of how she herself adores the rhythm, the gorgeous costumes, the beautiful bindis, and the jewellery. She even sang part of a Hindi song. The words sounded like “Dilliwali Girlfriend,” a song I didn’t know at the time, but have since familiarised myself with. It was a good way to spend an hour at an airport, so much better than mindlessly walking around duty-free stores that sell the same goods from Vancouver to Cape Town.
On several occasions Bollywood has helped me as a traveller: a store discount in Egypt, a table in a jam-packed restaurant in Malaysia, even airline seats when our flight from Jakarta to Lombok was cancelled and we were told none were available. I find it prudent to take good advantage of the Bollywood connection when I travel. I just need to ensure I brush up on the latest songs and hit films, and carry a few DVDs as gifts when I’m heading abroad.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Silver-Screen Lining”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.