Is Bollywood the opium of the masses? Or the saviour of battered souls? "Prisoners of a Dream" in Open magazine reminds us that the true magic of movies is experienced not in the air-conditioned comfort of a multiplex, but in the cheap seats of theatres like Imperial and Sheila in Delhi, or Gulshan Talkies and Silver Talkies in Mumbai.
These rundown, old-school theatres offer an oasis for those who spent their lives on the mean streets. Like Shekhar Sahni who ran away from his village in Bihar at the tender age of 12 to become a hero:
At 24, Shekhar is a bit jaded. He is lean and dark and short. He has sunken eyes, hollow cheeks. Yet, his eyes burn bright. “If nobody will give me a chance in Bollywood, I will give myself a chance,” he says. “I used to say this when I was a tour guide with the Salaam Baalak Trust. I still believe in it.” In the world of Bollywood, “anything is possible. It is a magical world,” he says. Back in the day when he was attending NSD’s (National School of Drama) summer school, he carried a tube of Fair & Lovely in his pocket, and would rub it on his face through the day. They said he would make a great actor.
Shekhar is not an actor today but a delivery boy with a drug problem. But for those three hours he spends in a Paharganj theatre, his faded dreams seem within reach, and everything is still possible. Bollywood is not just a pleasant diversion but a worldview which colours everything from his haircut to his identity. “Each of them is the hero in his own story,” says filmmaker, Aatish Dabral, who made a film about Shekhar and his friends.
Where we might scorn the Bollywood cliche, it endows meaning to their often tragic lives. “I want to be someone. Zindagi toh ek aag ka dariya hai, aur ise paar karna hai," says 18 year old Dedh Footiya whose mother died early, leaving him in the care of an alcoholic father.
When Rafiq was kicked out by his stepmother, "[l]ike Amitabh in Khuddar, Rafiq brought his two siblings to Bombay Central and started working as a coolie and sleeping in the yards." Of his close childhood friend in Ram Naresh, he says, "“We are like Dharmendra and Amitabh in Ram Balram."
Re-narrating their lives as a movie plot line dulls the edges of deprivation and struggle, making it heroic. But most of their life references are old, as new Bollywood has little interest in pickpockets or coolies. It cares little for the muqqadar ka sikanders who rise from the ashes of poverty to reach for greatness.
The boon can also sometimes become a curse when the wilful refusal to face reality of one's own life can lay the ground for ever greater tragedies. To say more would ruin the charm of reading the essay for yourself. Chinki Sinha takes an empathetic if unflinching look at the high price of dreaming in celluloid. It's a must-read reminder of the awesome power of the movies.
Read "Prisoners of a Dream" on the Open magazine website.