Bollywood at Radio City



W 50th St & 6th Ave, New York, NY 10020

Neighborhood: Midtown

October 23 is a cold, gray Saturday.

I get off the train F train at Rockefeller Center and step out onto Sixth Avenue, underneath Radio City Music Hall. 

There is a film crew set up on the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 51st Street.  A white light fills the corner.  At the center of the light, a dark bearded man in a tan sport coat, brown slacks, and a turban holds the hand of a thin, light-skinned Indian woman in cowgirl-looking boots that are too large for her, a short brown leather skirt (also apparently meant to evoke the Wild West), and a pink t-shirt with sequins that spell out “Manhattan”. 

As I cross over Sixth Avenue, I hear the music. 

It’s Bollywood. 

They are filming a scene with the couple dancing on the corner with Radio City in the background.

The film crew — all Indians — begin to clap in time, and count out “one . . two . . . and three!”  The music is turned up, the turbaned man grabs the woman to him, and hugs her.  They twist left, and then right, struggling-dancing, in time to the music, and he finishes by looking into the camera with a goofy grin. 

The woman is looking at him.  The American flags flying out in front Radio City flutter weakly in the background. Someone says “Cut, cut.” 

A small crowd mills around the scene: Indian people, the gyro cart guy, some tourists, and a cop.  The cop is sipping on a coffee and having a friendly conversation with one of the film crew, who seems to be explaining something a bit nervously.  Perhaps why they don’t have a permit to shoot their film on this corner.

On one of the public benches, a group of older Indian men sit watching a replay on a tiny black and white monitor.  One of them, portly, with curly white hair under a baseball cap, and a headset, smoking and drinking coffee out of a paper cup, appears to be the director.  He watches the replay and shakes his head.  He calls the turbaned actor over to him.  He says, “Next time, hold her tighter.”  He emphasizes the word “tighter” with a squeezing gesture.

They do the scene again.  The turbaned actor holds the female star tighter, but the twisting part seems less effective.  The director says, “Again.”

I am not as familiar with Bollywood movies as I should be, but I believe I can list a few basics elements of a good Bollywood film based on the hundreds I was exposed to growing up, after the advent of the VCR. 

We lived in Connecticut, and my parents and their friends would make trips into New York, to buy cooking ingredients, saris, electronics, and Bollywood movies in Jackson Heights. 

From what I have seen, all good Bollywood films have:

(1) a villain with bloodshot eyes

(2) some scene where the female lead falls into the ocean, a lake, river, pool, or fountain in her sari, and emerges in slow motion

(3) at least one scene that ends with the female lead exclaiming, in English, “Shut up!”, and

(4) a dancing and singing love song number during which the singing and dancing couple are transported, through a montage of jump cuts, to various foreign locations — at one moment they are dancing and singing in Bombay, the next they are in a field of flowers in the mountains of Switzerland (Switzerland seems to be the most popular destination for these montages), then in front of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. 

The idea appears to be that true love, expressed in song and dance, allows Indian couples to transcend limitations of time and space.  There are also usually scenes where the male lead crashes through a wall on a motorcycle and fights several villains at once.

So I was witnessing the filming of one of those tiny, ten-second clips that would be pasted into a longer number.  Someone, at some point in the production process, had decided they needed an exciting foreign locale, and someone had suggested Radio City.  The stars, the crew, and the directors had flown all the way over from India to film this little scene on a cold October day in New York, just so they could do the number with Radio City in the background.  The city could be a projection slide for their purposes.

They finish another take and one of the film crew drapes a jacket around the female star, who is hugging her shoulders for warmth.

An Indian guy who looks like me walks by, talking into a cell phone.  I hear him describe the shooting in American English: “Yeah, it’s good, but she looks a little too . . . trampy.” 

A young Indian woman, who appears to be a curious onlooker like myself, looks at me and shrugs, offers a funny smile.  We understand how silly our people are.

It looks like the crew is finished, and the director satisfied, or exhausted. 

Some more tourists from Kansas or Idaho walk by on their way to see the sights in Times Square, look at the turbaned actor, the Indian film crew, and the fat director, and shake their heads.

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