Muffy St. Bernard represents the Bollybob Society at
MEGA CRAZE 2001!
the Air Canada Center, October 7th.
I felt it was my duty to go to Mega Craze 2001 as a representative of the BollyBob Society -- since the other members were off spending a lot of money in Atlantic City -- but this was a duty I was happy to perform. Despite the allure of big Bollywood stars and the hope of seeing something really spectacular, I was most intrigued by the "variety" aspect of the show, something that has sadly disappeared in North American entertainment. The idea of a revolving roster of celebrities dishing out seemingly endless combinations of comedy, melodrama, and song is something I find very appealing, and I assumed -- rightly so -- that I'd see it here.
I would be lying, however, if I said the whole thing wasn't just a little gruelling.
Let's just say, first of all, that I was in the unlikely position of being a form of 'pre-show entertainment.' And no, I wasn't one of the Sama Models -- who put on a great fashion show and managed to stretch the concept of "Shalwar Kameez" to lengths that left the audience giggling. I was on before the Sama Models had finished their makeup. I was the tall, white, elegantly dressed drag queen in the middle of a standing pack of several thousand Indians, all tightly pressed together, waiting to squeeze through 3 heavily guarded doors into the theatre.
What was it like to be in the middle of this crowd? A small girl was squashed into my bum. A second child -- of indeterminate sex -- was getting tangled up in my hair. The people were staring at me in a manner that covered the spectrum from bemused disbelief to hostile resentment. I suspect that -- initially -- I was being viewed as a subversive influence...I was diluting the Indian-ness of the crowd, a bunch of people who came together to celebrate their culture and found me there as well, like a sharp stone in Mogambo's bag of adulterated lentils. Not everybody in the pressing throng was giving me nasty looks, but enough of them were -- particularly the elderly and the cell-phone wielding crowds of angry young hoods.
It was an interesting study in a clash of cultures, beliefs, and social mores. I feel privileged to have been a part, though I wouldn't want to be there again. I don't know what I was thinking when I decided to go in drag -- part of me assumed that the crowd would be more tolerant. But something that I should have learned by now is that INDIVIDUALS are tolerant, but crowds usually aren't, especially when a sort of "Us and Them" feeling is brewing.
Fortunately for me, the "Them" quickly changed from me to a more likely scapegoat: the theatre's security. One of the reasons for the slow, crushing entry to the venue was the stringent measures being employed to make sure nobody was smuggling in munchies, beer, or a anything explosive. Our belongings were searched. We were patted down. We were brought into close proximity with a hand-held metal detector. We were lead past a row of police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs. I asked one of the security guards if this was regular policy and he said it was, though a friend of mine who attended the Jane's Addiction concert at the same venue two days before told a different story: no metal detector, no dogs. But then, this was only hours after the first strikes against Afghanistan, so I suppose they had some justification for being edgy.
So after we squeezed through the security posts the attitude in the crowd changed: we were all there to see a show, no matter what sort of security we needed to get through. And the show had better be good.
Well, it was, of course. The "wibrant and wiwacious" host Mini Mathur -- a popular VJ on Indian MTV -- was a perfect MC and was faced with the daunting task of getting a huge crowd of reserved Canadians to act enthusiastic. Mini was the glue that held the whole show together, coming out after yet another dull Sukhwinder appearance to stomp around and cajole the audience into a round of applause and some whoops and hollars. She even told a notably off-colour joke about child abuse, which serves to illustrate some differences in humour taboos between east and west:
"Little Radha is involved in a custody case when her parents decide to
get a divorce. The judge asks her if she'd like to stay with her
mother. 'No,' says Radha, 'because mommy beats me.' 'How about your
father?' asks the judge. 'No,' says Radha, 'because father beats me.'
"So who DO you want to stay with?" asks the judge, and Radha says, 'the cricket team, because they don't beat anybody.'"
This got a huge laugh. So did the stand-up comic, whose name I didn't catch and who did a half-hour comic routine that seemed to have everybody in stitches. I admit that I was a little baffled by it, probably because I don't speak enough Hindi. Though I can safely say that his Johny Lever, Govinda, Naseeruddin Shah and Paresh Rawal impersonations were 'first class.'
The first big star we got to see was Anil Kapoor, and it was surprising the way he dwarfed his group of handsome, young, technically perfect backup dancers simply on the basis of his raw star power. This guy is CONFIDENT. He's confident enough to perform an extended lounge act, singing snatches of show tunes to various screaming members of the audience...even though he's a terrible singer. I can't stress this enough: Anil Kapoor CANNOT SING. But I also can't stress enough that WATCHING him sing was engrossing. He fed off the adoration of his fans and performed number after off-key number, keeping us fascinated and adoring until the end.
This was in stark contrast to Sukhwinder, who CAN sing, but was such a dope that his songs were considered "popcorn time" for the audience. Whenever he came out on stage -- sporting a gigantic crotch bulge that was downright scary -- he'd insist that the lighting director turn up the house lights. This was meant to show the audience how much he loved them, and resulted only in Sukhwinder getting a good look at the massive popcorn exodus. He also did this repeated "no more music, I want to hear the audience sing along with me" routine that ended up sounding like this:
SUKHWINDER: BOOM chak-a lak-a lak-a! Everybody!
SUKHWINDER: BOOM chak-a lak-a lak-a. Everybody!
SUKHWINDER: That's great!
So, what was wrong with Sukhwinder? He was damn cocky. He engaged in a smarmy sort of banter that might work in some cities but certainly didn't work in cynical Toronto, especially not when you're 'only' a minor star. He sealed his own fate by lip-syncing two verses of a song before realizing there was no playback and that all we could hear were his amplified breathy lip-sync noises. People started shouting "stop lip-syncing!" I didn't feel sorry for him, but I certainly felt sorry for his co-star Sujata, a very shy woman with a beautiful voice who was visibly uncomfortable being on stage alone...but even more uncomfortable sharing the stage with Sukhwinder and his crotch. If anybody during the night had a thankless job it was Sujata, and she repeatedly fled the stage after every number, no doubt devastated by everybody leaving during her songs.
The two of them DID manage to pull it together for "Chaiyya Chaiyya," entirely on the basis of it being a good song. The guy sitting to my right told me to stop applauding it: "He took the piss out of Chaiyya Chaiyya," he muttered, shaking his head.
The guy on my left had eyes only for Aishwarya Rai. Honestly, I have never seen a man so touchingly lovesick. Whenever she appeared on stage -- even late in the show, when she did only brief cameos -- this guy would jerk to attention and whisper "it's her...it's Aishwarya." Then he'd press his right hand tightly to his heart and squeeze his eyes shut, or put his fingers almost entirely into his mouth and stare at her fixedly. In a burst of goodwill -- and with the realization that guys like this are pretty much backstage passes -- I asked him if he'd like to go visit her after the show.
He turned to me, took the fingers out of his mouth, and snapped "How could I do that? They won't let me."
"Sure they will," I said, and I really believed they would. I had this theory I was working on, that the band members would be the weak link we could exploit, and I'd use this guy as a lever to get both of us inside: I'm brave and he's devoted.
But the lovesick man was too frail to even think about it, no matter how many times I mentioned Kittu and Mallika. "She'd never see me," he whispered, and appeared to visibly sink into his dirt-brown cable-knit sweater. This was when I realized that almost all the Indian men sitting around me were wearing brown cable-knit sweaters. I'd assumed that, being in the high-priced ticket section, I'd be surrounded by dressy-dressy richie-rich's, but that was far from the case...most of the people in my section wearing their street clothes, though some of the girls were decked out in Le Chateau club-wear of varying quality.
I'd hate to make broad generalizations about the ratio of disposable income to potential for fun, but I need to say that our section was the most boring section in the theatre. The people who screamed and danced were primarily in the upper rows -- the "cheap" seats. For whatever reasons, they had fun, and we sat below with our hands under our asses and our mouths tightly shut. I started feeling guilty -- especially after Mini's repeated admonitions to "wake up" -- but whenever anybody DID start dancing in the aisles, they were promptly lead away by security guards. So, short of toppling the entire security system -- and the very basis of security in the world as we know it -- I needed to stay put and not do anything.
The aforementioned heartbreaker Aishwarya was quite a star herself...the fans went wild, she wore incredibly slinky outfits, and she threw stuffed animals into the crowd. I have to admit, though, that I was most enchanted with Priety and Aamir, partly because they had more of a structured role in the show as they engaged in their Dil Chahta Hai "is there such a thing as love?" routine. Priety was an absolute fireball, getting in some slapstick with Aamir and performing a truly odd arm-flapping Irish-pipe dance number. This arm-flapping touched my heart in a significant way, because it sums up something that I love about Bollywood: the willingness to do something absurd simply because it looks good. And it did.
Priety and Aamir, in order to resolve their argument about love, invited a happily married couple onto the stage and started an audience participation routine with a cheerful woman and her somewhat lunkheaded husband (a "man of few words," as Aamir put it). Earlier on, as part of the Lagaan cricket team, Aamir presented a cricket bat to an enthusiastic audience member. Not having seen Lagaan I was a little confused by the elaborate Hindi skit featuring the cricket players, Mini Mathur, and an overweight security guard. But it all seemed to be tremendous fun for the rest of the crowd.
Have I forgotten to mention Gracy Singh? No, not really, she was good on stage but fell solidly in the middle of the stardom scale. Let me take this moment to create a scientific measurement system which I hope can be used to rate Bollywood events from now on (please note that this is a largely subjective list, and reflects the individual's exposure, star power, lip-sync ability, and the number of cool things they threw at the audience)
The Bollywood "Star Power" Scale:
|100 - Anil Kapoor
95 - Priety Zinta
90 - Mini Mathur
85 - Aamir Khan
80 - Aishwarya Rai
75 - The unknown comic
70 - Gracy Singh
65 - The Lagaan Guys
60 - Sujata
55 - The Band
50 - The Sama Models
45 - The Bomb Sniffing Dogs
40 - Melton
35 - The Guy With Bad Hair Who Sat Near Me
30 - Melton
25 - Melton
20 - Melton (Melton has an impressive repertoire)
15 - The Local Concert Promoters
10 - Sukhwinder Singh
5 - The Guy Who Yelled "Bin Ladin!" During The Moment of Silence
So you can see that Gracy ends up in the 55 - 75 range of "people I was unfamiliar with, I didn't see enough, and who didn't do anything embarassing or awful during the show."
Whereas the folks at number 15 -- the Local Concert Promoters -- committed a terrible sin: they essentially stopped the show for 20 minutes of confusion and surreal back-patting. Mini announced them, and they didn't come on stage. She announced them again, and they still didn't come on stage. She tried a third time, and a woman arrived to steal her microphone and start a sort of unfunny keystone cops routine that reminded me of the more boring games of Clue I played as a child. Where is the sponsor from the carpet company? Is that dwarf on stage really a dwarf, or is he a small child? Where are the rest of the sponsors? What happened to the sponsor who was here, but who left to find the other sponsors and never returned? What happened to the sponsor they sent to find that guy who never returned, and who never returned? And why is that dwarf still on stage?
The highest low-point during this horrible ordeal was when the microphone-hijacking woman announced a great scheme for deciding the winner of a trip to India. Lesser people would have picked a ticket at random or something like that, but her scheme was to get the lighting director to send a spotlight over the whole audience, and to just "pick somebody interesting," which resulted in an extended drum roll and a roaming spotlight that finally winked out when the lighting director refused to participate. The next idea was to get the spotlight to zoom around the audience and stop on the count of three, as counted down with the participation of the carpet sponsor who seemed confused about which number came after one. Even when the scheme finally came together (one, TWO, three), what nobody on stage seemed to realize was that the spotlight was very big and held about 30 people at a time.
At this point, poor Mini was actually making shrugging gestures at people off stage, no doubt at the weight-lifting concert organizer himself who was threatening to break a lot of necks. Keep in mind this debacle had been going on for a very, very long time, and the audience was starting to jeer and laugh. But the promoters weren't finished yet...they continued bouncing around on stage trying to figure out what the hell was going on and who should win this trip to India. The identity of the dwarf was still in question. Suddenly Mr. Carpet shouted out "Row 22 seat 20" and the matter was settled. That's probably where Carpet-sahab's nephew was sitting.
Finally, at the end of the show, there were huge explosions. We were buried with confetti. Everybody stood, both to avoid suffocation and to applaud the hard-working professionals who'd organized the show. The guy on my left -- the one with a finger-sucking reflex associated with Aishwarya Rai -- bolted before I could use him as a hostage to get me back stage, and to convince his friend to let me use the pictures he'd taken for this review. And besides, I was tired...4 hours sitting on those metal seats was pretty awful. And no doubt the only celebrity I'd meet backstage would be Sukhwinder. I wanted to be able to tell these people what a great job they'd done, but what can you say? And how can you compete with a throng of screaming fans who -- just like you -- are just one of many screaming fans who don't matter and are viewed as simply another obstacle between the dressing rooms and the tour bus?
So, with a splitting headache and a drained, satiated feeling, I joined the line and marched out into the freezing cold night. What were the stars from India doing right now, I wondered? Somewhere, Anil Kapoor -- whose hair hasn't changed in over 20 years -- was practicing his singing in his tour bus. The tour organizers were gearing up for their final show. Sukhwinder was feeding his enormous crotch monster. Mini was wondering what the hell was wrong with Canadians, and shivering in the cold.
And me? I was leaving with a renewed respect for the earnest, zany, meticulous world of Bollywood, and feeling once again my paradoxical close emotional attachment to it and the knowledge that I could never really be part of it. And after all, I thought to myself, would I really WANT to be part of it?
Well, yes, I would. Maybe next time. But at least, in this life, I got the satisfaction of seeing it in person, if only for a few hours.