An English teacher’s ode to Bollywood

I am just back from a class excursion with 50 adolescents. We went rappelling, rock-climbing, jungle cooking, bird watching, star-gazing, zip lining, trust-walking, obstacle clearing, bonfire singing and dancing, tree-climbing and strawberry picking, among other things. It was my first excursion as a teacher. The kids’ hormones were on overdrive, their responses to everything was hugely exaggerated and their ability to talk endlessly often tired me out. But what was interesting is despite our age gap, we had plenty of common ground.

On the onward bus journey which lasted five hours, there were the usually medley of jokes, knock- knocks and smart one liners doing the rounds. I watched, curious, not knowing how entertainment in today’s generation would unfold. Eventually they began singing, and in a few minutes, the verdict was clear. Bollywood won. They were singing my songs, although they were singing the remix versions. I was warned about the power of One Direction in today’s adolescents, but I am sorry to report, you-cute-in-a-monochromatic-way-boys, that you are nothing in comparison to Bollywood. Within minutes, One Direction was out and “Badtameez dil” was in.

I felt a sense of excitement when I sang the lyrics of the original “Bachna ae haseeno” with Rishi Kapoor while they belted the opening bars of the Ranbir Kapoor version. I thought back and realised our excursions were the same. It’s just that our songs were different, our stars were different. It’s Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, Arjun, Deepika, Alia, Priyanka, Katrina (they only refer to their ikons by their first name) for them. It was Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Rekha, Hema Malini, Reena Roy and the gang for us.

But I was overwhelmed that Bollywood music has the same power to unify, irrespective of how the world has changed and how technology has taken over. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I thought to myself, and smiled.

When I was in grade 4, my English teacher, Mrs Ferns asked us to make sentences with a few words she wrote on the board. One of the words was ‘favourite’. I had just watched Chupke Chupke (or was it Charas?) and I wrote, “Dharmendra is my favourite actor.” I knew it was considered ballsy in my time, but I liked him so much, I had to immortalize him on paper. Some of my classmates saw what I was writing and rolled their eyes. “They seemed to say, “I hope you are not going to turn this in!” They were the “good girls” and “good boys”, the ones who were not tarnished by Bollywood. I was the outsider who went for matinees with my dad.

Thankfully, Mrs Ferns didn’t judge me. “Oh, Dharmendra?” she said. “I prefer Vinod Khanna.” It was the first time I realised that liking the movies had nothing to do with doing well at the exams. I always cracked exams, especially English and Math.

For the music vocal exams in grade 4, while most of my class sang bhajans and patriotic songs, I sang “Na jaane kyun” from Chhoti si baat. Thankfully, there was a boy who sang “Maine tere liye” from Anand and so we sort of neutralized each other. I still remember thinking it was cool of him to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the funny thing is, I still like boys who do.

Now I teach kids of grade 7 and 8, and one of my students is high on Bollywood. She told me her role model was Alia Bhat and the only reason she wants to get through school and college is so that she can be more articulate in interviews later in life when she becomes a movie star. To that end, she really wants to get her English right and so that makes her one of my most committed students. I loved her clarity of thought. And thanks to Mrs Ferns, I didn’t judge her.

When I moved to Filmfare magazine as Managing Editor a few years ago, I could sense much speculation about my ‘shocking’ career move among my peers. “Are you sure? Bollywood?”, a few asked. I of course shrugged and said that I would try anything. Now I am a teacher, but my students never wonder about my non-linear career path. They love backstories, and the more I tell them, the more boundaries dissolve in their heads. To them, it’s a big deal that an English teacher comes from a Bollywood lineage, who thinks conversations about the movies and movie stars are also learning. It ups my cool quotient significantly, added to the fact that I have met some of their crushes, even interviewed some.

I think Bollywood is as much a part of our growing up as is Science and Math and the reason it connects with the youth is the possibility that if you are willing to put yourself out, anything can happen. And of course there are other things that Bollywood  teaches you:

  1.  You are only as old as you feel. So yes, you can be in your fifties and shimmy away (and contrary to what you may think, Madhuri Dixit is still a huge hit with the kids as is Shahrukh) if you dare enough.
  2. If there are hobbies or interests that you’ve dismissed as unattainable, it’s time to tackle them head on.
  3. If you can dream big, there is nothing that is truly challenging, scary, or nerve-wracking.
  4. If the boy or the girl rejects you, there is always a song to celebrate your pain.
  5. Thinking out of your league (boy, girl, career, profession, destination) is a risk we must all take.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a great dialog.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on Feb 23, 2015)

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