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Indian summer

Bollywood films bring old-fashioned glamour back to the screen

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If the parade of summer blockbusters doesn't get your heart pounding, consider taking the Bollywood route this summer. Hollywood movies have skewed their demographics toward the young men who give blood and guts flicks like Saw and Hostel boffo opening weekends, and independent offerings are often downers. In contrast, Hindi films provide the pleasures of classical Hollywood cinema with sweeping love stories, singing and dancing, and an addictive mix of glamour and family values.

Here in the Triangle, Bollywood films are always playing at Cary's Galaxy Cinema. The Galaxy is owned by local South Asian businessmen who have dedicated at least one screen to Bollywood, while playing regular art house fare on the others. The Galaxy is unique in the nation in being a centrally located theater that welcomes all audiences to Hindi films, and it remains a popular destination for South Asian families from the Triangle and beyond.

Bollywood movies are family films in the truest sense of the word, because they include elements to entice each member of the family, from small children to grandparents. The classic masala movie, meaning many spices are stirred into the dish, includes music, myth, song, dance, fights, stunts, romance and, of course, laughter and tears. These Indian films have the intense emotion (and the big close-ups) of silent film, the glamour-pusses or the social conscience of the Depression years, and the eye-popping musical numbers of a 1950s MGM musical.

As in the studio era, the charismatic movie star, not special effects, provides crowd-pulling spectacle. The songs, intrinsic to Hindi cinema since the first talkie, voraciously embrace everything from Indian classical to trendy global pop to Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." While the rest of the world has embraced Hollywood films at the expense of their own, Indian audiences still crave their national cinema.

That's because the Bollywood formula manages to be both glamorously modern and culturally conservative. As the mother of a teenaged girl, I appreciate seeing screen heroines who have self-respect and gorgeous clothes, wooed by handsome heroes with something on their mind besides casual sex. Western mores are creeping in, but many stars still pride themselves on never having kissed on screen, although a potent eroticism takes on more oblique forms. They are subtitled (well, mostly), but my enthusiasm has inspired me to learn Hindi so I could watch faces and not read dialogue. Not always slick, and sometimes downright slapdash, these movies are definitely not focus grouped. Bollywood films are made with a passion.

The Bollywood summer got underway last weekend with the release of Fanaa (Destroyed by Love) starring Aamir Khan as a charming tour guide who falls in love with a plucky blind woman (Kajol) out to experience life and love. It seems, however, thathe's hiding a secret life as a Kashmiri terrorist. It was released by Yash Raj Films, Bollywood's glossiest production house. Fanaa packed the Galaxy over Memorial Day weekend, making it the latest in Khan's unbroken string of 21st-century hits.

The season's next big release is Krrish, currently slated to open June 23. Hrithik Roshan's fans are panting for this sequel to Koi...Mil Gaya (I've Found Someone), his Film Fare Award win (India's Oscars) as Best Actor. KMG was an amalgam of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Cliff Robertson's Charley. Hrithik played a mentally retarded young man who meets an extraterrestrial who gifts him with extraordinary mental and physical powers. In Krrish (as in the god, Krishna), he plays the son of his earlier character. With Hollywood CGI post-production work, this film raises the bar for special effects in Indian movies. Hrithik even trained with Hong Kong martial arts expert Tony Ching Siu. The release date for this expensive production was bumped up a week in June to give India a home-grown superhero the week before the arrival of the new Hollywood Superman, which has been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, three of India's many languages.

There will be other less promising June and July releases, but in June look for Chup Chup Ke (Shhhh!), the third of this year's comedies about people with physical handicaps. Here, Shahid Kapoor pretends to be deaf to woo mute Kareena Kapoor.

July titles are sketchy at this writing, but things look up in August with Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye), about a man and woman who fall in love despite being married to other people. Adulterous love affairs are rarely the subject of commercial Indian films, so director Karan Johar is taking a risk with his stratospheric cast, which includes Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta and father and son Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. Karan obsesses about every detail of costumes, sets, music and dance, writes detailed scripts, inspires his actors and is undisputed king of the genre labeled "emotional family drama." He helmed two of the most extravagantly romantic films in Hindi film history--Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gaum. Lately he's been slumming, hosting a bitchy TV talk show called Koffee with Karan, interviewing Bollywood biggies--many, in this family-centric business, he's known since childhood. (Several enjoyable episodes can be found on youtube.com.)

Another August highlight will be Munnabhai, Second Innings (a cricket term), a sequel to Munnabhai, MBBS about a gangster who cheats his way into medical school to please his upright father (those letters in the title are the Indian version of M.D.). Munnabhai is one of my all-time favorite Hindi films (and one of the top 100 of all time, according to Rachel Dwyer in her excellent new British Film Institute book, 100 Bollywood Films). This sequel follows the characters on another adventure, this time in law school. Both films are directed by Rajkumar Hirani. Munnabhai is the rare Hindi film about to be remade by Hollywood instead of vice versa: Director Mira Nair is in talks with Rush Hour star Chris Tucker, who would play the lead in the American version, Gangsta, M.D.

Happily for Bollywood fans, the summer blockbuster season extends into October in the Indian movie world. Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights, celebrated throughout India) and Eid (the end of Muslim fasting for Ramadan) coincide on the holiday weekend of Oct. 20 when crime thrillers Dhoom 2and Don are expected.

If you find yourself unable to face another explosion-filled Hollywood action film some steamy night this summer, the enchanted land of Bollywood beckons as an exciting alternative. Take a drive to the Galaxy in Cary, get yourself a snack bar samosa, and sample the addictive cinema. Can one billion movie fans be wrong?

Galaxy Cinema is located at 770 Cary Towne Blvd. in Cary. Call 463-9989 or visit mygalaxycinema.com.

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