June 1994

Bombay talkie: I’m ready for my close-up

FOR DECADES THE STUDIOS of Bombay have churned out a repertoire of action pictures and sugary romances-the opiate of a people sunk in material hardship-that have transformed actors and actresses into demigods. This isn't the art cinema of Satyajit Ray, but the unabashed melodrama of "Bollywood." Lately the action pictures have become bloodier, the romances sexier, and the stars ever larger. Editorials thunder about moral rot and predict the imminent collapse of Indian society (even out in the villages they watch MTV, clustered around the communal TV set), but such changes are already beyond reversal. Don't expect to see an Indian Basic Instinct anytime soon, but Bollywood's age of innocence has certainly vanished forever.

Amrish Pun

Amrish Pun, master villain of Hindi films, is a soft-spoken, courteous man who lives in what by Western standards is an inconspicuous house on a peaceful Bombay side street. Indeed, so routine was his life as a government bureaucrat that he signed up for a part-time acting course to relieve the tedium, spending his evenings performing roles in amateur theatricals.  "Not just villains," he says with a hint of irritation. "Many kinds of characters. I have done 50 full-length plays, including two of Arthur Miller's." Pun is acknowledged in Bombay to be a fine actor and has continued to work in the theater and the occasional art film. Nevertheless he's made a reputation for himself as the screen's living embodiment of evil. "In Hindi movies we project things larger than life. I must be totally bad," says Pun, who plays even the most absurdly melodramatic parts with conviction. "We have the figure of total evil in our scriptures, and I believe in their reality in society, so I can imagine myself as that."  This doubtless appealed to Steven Spielberg, who made Pun the diabolical Kali priest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "It was wonderful to work with him," says Pun. "He wrote to me to say that I had been a perfect villain."

Jackie Shroff

In Hindi cinema, the male lead has traditionally been a dashing suitor who wins the hand of the heroine in defiance of unsympathetic relatives, chronic financial disadvantage, and a notably perfidious rival. In the past couple of decades, however, the Ramboesque hero has replaced the romantic lead as the desired male archetype.  Jackie Shroff is among the actors who've successfully bridged the gap. Dubbed "sexy Shroff" by the Bombay media, he's equally at home in the bedroom or on the battlefield. When he broke into movies, he expected to be typecast in minor-villain roles. But then he was snatched by Subhash Ghai, a top Bombay director, to play the lead in his film Hero. The picture played for 75 weeks. Shroff now lives in some splendor, in a high-rise overlooking the Arabian Sea-the Bollywood dream of the boy who made good.

Sanjay Dutt

Sanjay Dutt's mother, Nargis, was an ethereal, enigmatic beauty: Bombay's answer to Garbo. His father, Sunil Dutt, was an up-and-coming actor when he rescued Nargis from a studio fire. One thing led to another: The couple married, and now their son, Sanjay, is among the highest paid, most sought-after actors in Bollywood. He lives at the end of Nargis Dutt Road in Pali Hill, the Bel-Air of Bombay, where one of the guiding forces of his life is the state-of-the-art gymnasium he has had custom-built at his house.  "As a kid I went to dance classes," recalls Dutt. "Then I had to learn riding and swimming, kung fu, sword fights, fistfights ...”
Despite his cultivated bad-boy image, Dutt, like all of Bollywood's leading lights, is fanatically hardworking. "Yesterday, between 9 A.M. and 6 P.M., I shot an action sequence. Then I worked out from 6 until 8, had dinner, and shot a song for another film until 1 in the morning. I take one day off a month."  About the gratuitous violence said to be contaminating the Hindi film industry, Dutt -a leading perpetrator-is understandably relaxed. "In America, you play characters for real. Here, you are in fantasyland. The masses, they just go to see Sanjay, the guy with the long hair."


Throughout the early '80s, Rekha (her name means "ray of light" in Sanskrit) was queen of the Bollywood box office. A decade later, she still manages a modest hit once in a while, having settled into her new role as the grande dame of Hindi cinema. "I once worked on 33 films at the same time," she says, "but not anymore."  On the set, Rekha is respectfully addressed as Madam by everyone, including the director. Other Bollywood stars tend to speak of her in hushed tones, partly in deference to her formidable personality and partly as a consequence of her personal life, which over the years has been flamboyant, bordering on sensational.  Even so, Rekha has an unexpected talent for self-effacement. About her introduction to the movie business years ago, she is characteristically laid-back: "There was an economic situation at home, and I was sent to Bombay to do just one film”.  And on the merits of her own career she is also engagingly unpretentious: "Believe me, you cannot be Meryl Streep and succeed in the Indian film industry."

Shashi and Sanjna Kapoor

The Kapoors have been referred to as "the Barrymores of India." Thanks to a long association with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Shashi Kapoor (who stars in Merchant's In Custody) is the Indian film actor best known to Western audiences. He was a matinee idol in his youth and continues to be a respected name in Indian cinema, but it is his late older brother, Raj, who is still regarded as the preeminent figure of the four-generation Kapoor film dynasty. Both as actor and director, Raj Kapoor was among those responsible for Bollywood's golden era in the 1950s.  "Years ago, we made all kinds of films, including intelligent ones that were commercially viable," says Shashi. "In the '70s there came the violence, which I deplore, but I am partly responsible, as I acted in hundreds of these films. Art cinema goes on to a very small extent. These days you have to be a fatalist to get into the business of entertaining people." Kapoor's daughter, Sanjna (her mother was the English actress Jennifer Kendal), has flirted with film, but now tends to concentrate on work in the theater. Her appearance, some say, is too European for Indian popular tastes.

Madhuri Dixit

Madhuri Dixit's love life (she's single) is a matter of consuming national interest in India. The product of a comfortable middle-class background -her father is an electrical engineer, her mother a former music teacher- Dixit is said to have been considering a career as a microbiologist when Bollywood beckoned. If her parents were disappointed, they had only themselves to blame: Dixit began studying traditional Indian dance at the age of four, and her ability to cut a rug, combined with the kind of good looks that appeal to the masses, has resulted in her being booked a couple of years in advance. This should give Dixit many quality hours with her mother, Snehalata, who almost always keeps Madhuri company on film sets. "If I weren't here, she would have no family life," Snehalata remarks placidly, as her daughter the sex goddess launches herself into another uninhibited duet.

Sreedevi and Salman Khan

"Sreedevi is a phenomenon in Indian cinema because she is a woman commanding serious money and calling the shots," says Shabana Azmi, who costarred in Roland Joffe's City of Joy. Sreedevi is said to earn well over $100,000 a movie, a pittance by Hollywood standards but an unimaginable sum to most Indians. Considered a classical beauty (pale skin, large eyes, rosebud mouth, full figure), Sreedevi has a powerful screen presence-so powerful in fact that some leading male stars are said to be reluctant to work with her for fear of being overshadowed. (She is photographed here on a set with one actor who isn't afraid of being upstaged, Salman Khan, a member of the younger generation of Bollywood stars.)  The actress has a curious relationship with the industry. "To me, movies are a job, like going to the office. I like to go home at 6. I cook a lot and watch Charlie Chaplin films," she says. "Madras is my hometown, and I hate traveling." For years she refused to buy a home in Bombay, living, while filming there, in hotel suites.  This distaste for travel has cost her at least one Hollywood role. "I would have to go to L.A. for too long!" she says.