Bollywood Bound is a feature length documentary which tells the story of four Indo Canadians who return to Bombay to find fame and fortune in the Hindi film industry. This is the basic through line of the film but at its heart, the film is an exploration of the relationship between NRIs and Hindi cinema.
The NRI market, is per capita, the largest consumer of popular Hindi films and with good reason. We remain a strange community, struggling to find our place in the world--torn between a country which has yet to fully let us in and a country we have yet to let go. Bollywood films allow us the illusion that somehow, we can go home again.
The film is inspired by my own love of popular Hindi cinema and all of its melodramatic, musical, mini-skirted and muscular glory. I wanted very much to make a film which legitimized rather than mocked Bollywood, for though most popular films are simple (to say the least) they gave our private selves a public sphere, for though we had moved to Canada the culture in our homes was not something one saw on prime time television.
As Ruby Bhatia puts it in the film, "Weekdays we'd be totally Canadian, and on the weekends we'd be totally Indian....salwaar kameez, Diwali functions, Holi functions and the songs...we'd always dance to Hindi film songs and the more you knew about the movies, the more Indian you were...." And strangely enough, I knew exactly what she meant, for somehow in our vain attempts at being Indian, knowing everything about Amitabh Bachchan was as good as a passport to the subcontinent.
There are four central people in the film who are at various stages of success. Neeru Bajwa is a young, candid 18 year old who goes from Canada to India when a director calls her promising her a screen test for his first film. Vikram and Vekeana Dhillon are a brother and sister team who have been in Bombay for eight years and have had some degree of success as VJs but are still waiting for the mythical big break. And finally there is the enigmatic Ruby Bhatia, who will surely make the history books as India's first star VJ and has tasted the kind of fame the others are seeking.
There are two journeys I wanted to document--that of the actor seeking fame and that of the person seeking place, both in some ways are fantasies, as ephemeral and as intangible as those incredible epics we grew up watching. It is to this end I use many film clips and film songs so that they become part of their own deconstruction. I felt in that way the poignancy of certain moments would be that much more intense. I knew that Neeru would respond to Bombay as she does--like an immigrant shocked at the reality of a foreign land. I knew also that part of her disappointment would be the realization that India was for more complex than the fantastically simple one we had grown up with.
What really drew me to her and Vikram Dhillon was their absolute identification with Hindi film stars and their desire to become the next Bachchan and the next Sri Devi. They were never interested in Hollywood for their idols were made in India. One of the central questions I ask in the film is whether they would have made that journey back if North America was a place which recognized the complexity of their experience-if they recognized themselves in their adopted landscape would they return to the country their parents left behind?
Bollywood Bound is my first film and was certainly a very difficult film to make. It took three years though actual shooting spanned four months. The greatest time was spent in the research and then the edit.
I did not go to film school so the lack of actual film training was at times quite challenging but at other times I felt it did not limit me in ways that a film education may have for I was not tied to memories of 'how to make a film' per se which other first time filmmakers may be. That said however, the film certainly has that first time earnestness and possibly the desire to express every profound thought one has ever had for fear of not getting a second chance! Which brings me to the discussion of whether the imagined Bollywood Bound lives up to the one which I finally ended up with. The answer of course is no. Apart from the complications inherent in the documentary form, primarily the unpredictability of life, (the film changed drastically due to unforeseen circumstances involving one of the four people I follow), I question whether anyone can ever truly be satisfied with something they've created. I think the relationship between the creator and the thing created is fraught with many complications, most notably that one has to in some sense abandon the ego and allow the story to emerge organically from within the material…I guess what I mean to say is that one really has to respect the story over one's role as the story teller.
Shooting Bollywood Bound was the easy part….incredibly exciting, scary and at times very raw as people revealed themselves and their stories. Probably the greatest memory I have is shooting the opening sequence of the film which takes place at Churchgate station. It took months to get the permission and what I wanted to do, I think the authorities at Churchage did not quite understand though I was emphatic in my attempts at explaining it. Basically I was working with CK Muraleedharan, cinematographer and a digital effects company to formulate a fantasy sequence with Vikram. The shoot involved a rostrum that was 30 feet high which I was going to place in the middle of Churchgate station, on the platform during peak hours. For some absolutely bizarre reason, they okayed this and we created mayhem of the kind that should have had me kicked out of the country! We blocked the flow of traffic, hundreds of people stopped to watch thinking Vikram was Abhishek Bachchan and the next day, we were written up in a Gujarati newspaper. Apparently Churchgate had not been the scene of this kind of film shoot in over 25 years! The authorities kept asking, 'Madam, are you sure this is a documentary?'
The film however really came together in the editing room. I had a strong sense of the story arcs for the four in the film, but the way those progressed, was established in the edit. Managing to juggle four very strong personalities was very difficult. Fortunately, I had an editor whose greatest strength is structure and the film I think really has a good flow.
I was very fortunate in terms of the funding--the film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada who encourage and support the work of first time filmmakers and who also understand the need to reflect the multiculturalism of Canada--a noble concept which, inspite of its progressive intentions, still remains problematic.
Now that the film is over, I feel a strange elation and a sense of loss. As is the case with all filmmakers or storytellers, it is difficult to leave something that for so long you've inhabited and has inhabited you. At the same time, I feel that desire again to say something else and again in film, which is slowly becoming a medium I am growing comfortable in. One of the greatest difficulties was working in a visual medium and that with other people. I've always found writing much simpler as there is no other being to go through in order to express oneself, the relationship is far more direct. With film, the difficulty was communicating what I saw in my head to the people I was working with. It was also about learning to show a story as opposed to telling one, far more difficult than it sounds.
I set out to make a film really for NRIs, specifically for my generation of NRIs for whom Bollywood meant the ability to escape from the strangeness of our skin. Living a dual life is not at all unusual--living between worlds, shifting and negotiating two different realities is commonplace. Though there is no doubt that this is a difficult space to inhabit, it is also an exciting place, for we are on the cusp of something I feel. In some sense we are pioneers, telling our stories, creating a history for ourselves for I believe ours has always been the search to find that elusive history, that 'phantom zameen' we could claim as ours. I realized after making Bollywood Bound that we need to stake our claim in this place, to set our roots down in this place. No more borrowed pasts.