Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

India's Technicolor City: Vibrant Psychedelia and Cinematic Camp in Bombay, the Window to Modern India

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

India's Technicolor City: Vibrant Psychedelia and Cinematic Camp in Bombay, the Window to Modern India

Article excerpt

Bombay is the city of dreams, goes the commonly tossed line that was probably coined centuries ago by some romantic. The dreams in Bombay have only gotten bigger and more colorful. One of the world's ever-evolving cities, often called the New York of the East, every face here has a different story to tell, and every mind weaves a vibrant dream in true Hindu psychedelic fashion.

In cosmopolitan Mumbai (what Bombay was renamed in 1996, though loyalists prefer the former name) the most elite of the elite and the poorest of the poor often cross paths. The dimmed lights in plush apartments of the Manhattanesque skyline overlook the simmering kitchen fires that provide the light by which children study in the slums. Different realities exist and coexist. Life is full of contrasts and contradictions, of extremes, and yet there's a twinkle in every eye. This city is a city of survivors; you can feel it and you can smell it.

As your flight hits the runway of Mumbai's Sahar International Airport the scent of life is unmistakable even in the wee hours of the morning. You are instantly thrust into the Mumbai trance during the arduous taxi ride from the airport to Colaba, the area of the city most popular with tourists. As your cab floats by the promenade on the seashore opposite the grandiose Taj Mahal Hotel, your eye catches something peculiar: dozens and dozens of men returning your stare, a mischievous glint in their eyes. You are passing by "the walls," the oldest gay cruising area in the city, where nocturnal creatures venture out with darkness on their side. But now modern gay life in Mumbai is finally coming out of the shadows.

The southernmost tip of the island of Bombay, Colaba hosts the two most famous landmarks of the city: the Gateway of India and the grand Taj Mahal Hotel. Colaba causeway is the area most tourists call home. Whatever you want you can get it here and more. Leopold Cafe, the place where every Westerner goes for breakfast, is right in the center of this street. And right outside the cafe you are likely to encounter a friendly; middle-aged, unnamed woman. She's been a permanent fixture here for years and offers foreigners small parts in Bollywood movies for about $44 a day. You may not come out a star, but scores flock to Mumbai just for the chance.

Modeled on big brother Hollywood, as the name suggests, Bollywood is the Indian film industry, the largest in the world (producing nearly 1,000 films a year), headquartered in Mumbai. Films aren't just a part of life for people in India; they are a way of life. The over-the-top, suited dance numbers in nearly every Bollywood film often make no sense in relation to the story, but no one seems to be complaining. A new wave of filmmakers is making hard-hitting films, sticking to the subject and without any songs, but those still constitute only 10% of films made today. When you're living in abject poverty, who wants more harsh reality? The city needs its Technicolor dreams like a desert needs water, and those dreams get no larger-than-life than in Bollywood. Most of the studios are situated in suburban Mumbai north of the old city. Filmcity is the studio that most tourists visit to get a glimpse of the separate reality of Bollywood. Spread out in a picturesque rain forest, it houses about 20 film sets and many natural locations. There are nearly a dozen studios besides Filmcity; two noteworthy ones are Filmistan and Filmalaya.

Bollywood's pomp and campiness make Mumbai a natural draw for gays. But just how gay-friendly is India? In this era of desis (Indian expatriates living overseas) and globalized outsourcing, the subcontinent is more hip to homosexuality than it would seem at first glance. Local gay groups are fighting against part of the Indian penal code that makes any homosexual act illegal and punishable with life imprisonment. (Luckily it is rarely enforced, but police often threaten with it when looking for bribes). …

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