Toronto International Film Festival 2006

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Hurray for Bollywood

A panel discussion on Never Say Goodbye puts fans in a frenzy

Bollywood hits New York: Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) Maya (Rani Mukherji) are in love, but married to other people, in Never Say Goodbye (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna). (Yash Raj Films) Bollywood hits New York: Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) Maya (Rani Mukherji) are in love, but married to other people, in Never Say Goodbye (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna). (Yash Raj Films)

There are six security guards posted around the stage at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre and no doubt more scattered through the audience. They are enormous, thick-necked and wearing identical dark grey suits, except for one, who is even taller than the rest, bald and dressed entirely in black. The look on his face says, Don’t even think about it.

The actors they’re here to protect might not be household names in North America, but in global terms, they’re colossal. Combine the star wattage and sex appeal of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Jamie Foxx and pre-crazy Tom Cruise and you just might get close to what Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan represent to billions of fans in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, eastern Europe and the Middle East. Together, the two men star in the film Never Say Goodbye (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), by popular young film director and talk-show host Karan Johar. Despite, or maybe because of, its controversial subject matter — infidelity, marital unhappiness, divorce — the film has become a huge hit in India and abroad. It may be contentious, but it still features dance numbers. It’s the first Bollywood film to be chosen for a prestigious gala spot at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s the subject of tonight’s panel discussion: The Making of a Bollywood Blockbuster.

Twenty minutes after the 5 p.m. start time, the 500-plus crowd is finally in its seats. In the front row, a young woman holds up a sign that reads “Sexy Sam,” a reference to the nickname of Bachchan’s playboy character in Never Say Goodbye. Thom Powers, a TIFF programmer, comes on stage in a Nehru jacket to introduce the panellists.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan are in the hooooouuuuse!”

Squeals, shrieks and a standing ovation greet Khan, Bachchan and Johar as they settle into their seats to be grilled by Suketu Mehta, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of the book Maximum City. “Asking why we love Bollywood films,” Mehta says, “is like asking us why we love our mothers. We don’t have a choice. They raised us.”

Johar, who has a reputation for making “clean family movies,” is asked whether there’s been any negative reaction to Never Say Goodbye. Mehta calls it “the most truly adult film from Bollywood.” Even showing a kiss is pretty much a no-no, so what have audiences in family-focused India made of a lovemaking scene in hotel room between a man and woman who are each married to other people?

Johar tells a story about an older woman who approached him at a screening in India and berated him for upsetting her daughter, who had just gone through a horrible divorce. “I wanted her to have a nice night out, to forget her troubles,” the woman said. “Well,” Johar replied, given all the press about the film and its subject, “what did you expect?”  “I expected a Karan Johar film!” she huffed before storming off.

Bollywood lion: Actor Amitabh Bachchan. (Yash Raj Films)
Bollywood lion: Actor Amitabh Bachchan. (Yash Raj Films)

The stars and their director are polite and amiable to a fault. Khan, currently Bollywood’s biggest and most bankable star, is a muscular leading man whose handsome face has been used to sell everything from watches to Pepsi. But the real attraction tonight is Bachchan, the lion of Hindi cinema. Famous for his “angry young man” roles in the 1970s and the low, sultry rumble of his voice, he’s still foxy in his sixties. He has a flawlessly trimmed goatee and, like Khan, he sports stylish, expensive trainers.

There is a lot of discussion of everyone’s brilliance and talent, which would seem like so much celebrity blah-blah-blah if Johar weren’t so obviously — and adorably — dazzled by the two actors. He explains that one of his first jobs in film was as a wardrobe assistant on a Khan film; Johar once spent two hours obsessing over which T-shirt to dress the star in. As for Bachchan, who happens to be a family friend, Johar tells a funny story about being so anxious about directing the legend in Never Say Goodbye that he couldn’t eat for five days. Just before he was about to shoot Bachchan’s first scene, a big song-and-dance number, Johar fainted from hunger and nerves. When he came to, Bachchan was holding his hand. “‘Don’t worry,’” the star reportedly said, “‘I’ll dance well.’”

Politics also comes up. Bachchan was a member of Indian parliament for a brief period in the 1980s, but he returned to acting because he felt it was inappropriate to use his popularity as an actor to get votes. “I spent 20 years trying to woo my audience with my craft as an actor, then I had to woo them with my political opinion. I felt that was unfair. I realized that I shouldn’t be doing that to my audience.”

Mehta jokes, “If only Ronald Reagan had felt the same way.”

Khan is asked about being a Muslim star of Hindi cinema and about his fans in Pakistan. “Making a film is a secular project,” he responds. “Our country is immensely secular. And when I’m abroad, I can’t tell the difference between someone from Pakistan and someone from India. We are all one people.” The largely South Asian crowd applauds in agreement.

Finally, Khan is asked about his love scene with co-star Rani Mukherji. Johar was busy elsewhere and asked Khan to direct the scene himself. It was very awkward, Khan says. “I am very shy with women…”

“And I am definitely not!” roars Bachchan.

“That’s why I called Amitabh and asked him to direct us over the phone,” Khan says.

The crowd freaks out. A couple girls shout “Sexy Sam! Sexy Sam!” A grandmotherly lady sitting beside me in a dark burgundy sari winks and pretends to fan herself.

At this point, a TIFF volunteer cuts the discussion short. She’s been prowling the aisles in a futile attempt to stop the audience from photographing the stars — flashes from cell phones and digital cameras have been flickering non-stop — and she’s finally had enough. The crowd groans. Bachchan offers to give the audience some time for photographs later, but the security guards are already beginning to hustle them off stage. Thom Powers returns and asks everyone to stay in their seats until Bachchan and Khan have left the building. Nice try. Half the crowd escapes through the one unguarded door, to the back of the theatre where a fleet of black SUVs with tinted windows is idling.

A middle-aged woman in an elegant green silk tunic, who’s been waiting by the red carpet out front, races up to me, dragging two reluctant teenage girls in tow.

“Did you see them? Are they in the back?” I point to where the cars are parked. “Girls! Girls! They’re back there!” she squeals and rushes off. They don’t budge. One rolls her eyes and moans, “Mo-om.”

Suddenly, the crowd surges in tighter. A man pushing an eight- or nine-year-old girl in a wheelchair picks her up so she can see over the knot of fans. Khan and Bachchan, circled by security guards, step quickly through the doors of the theatre, wave to their admirers, get into their cars and drive off.

Rachel Giese writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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