We were gypsies, Sooni and I. Two sisters in saris surrounded by tuxedoed strangers. But instead of taking our Banjara bullock cart to the nearest water hole, we were in a limo en route to the Oscars, where our first film, Salaam Bombay!, was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film. It was 1989, before the government even recognized filmmaking as a legitimate industry. Armed with just good wishes and some telegrams from family and friends, we spent a few days in the luxury of the Beverly Wilshire, not really minding that we were neglected by our own country. When it came time for our award, Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen tripped and stuttered through the foreign names. As Jackie and Candy announced the winner in another miasma of mispronunciation, Sooni leaned across and said, "India is still too far."
It was back then. In 1976, when I'd trekked across Radcliffe Yard to the Charles River to meet the person who would become my lifelong collaborator, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, we were among only a handful of Indian undergraduates at Harvard. As an Indian filmmaker in New York City in the 1980s, I would ride Greyhound with my documentaries, showing my films to anyone who'd have me. I tolerated audiences who would ask whether there was tap water in India and how come I spoke such good English. Later, raising money for Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, a studio head asked me to "make room for a white protagonist." Back home, my films were also alternative. They were the opposite of Bollywood, and I was an outsider. The publicity campaign for Salaam Bombay! was a horse-drawn carriage stuffed with the street kids from the film, re-enacting scenes through megaphones.
My breakthrough was Monsoon Wedding--a love song to my Delhi and an ode to masti, the Punjabi intoxication with life. I wanted to capture my India, a place that has always lived in several centuries at once, an India of cell phones and peacocks, where housewives play the stock market, Cuban cigars are savored and a marigold-eating tent man reinvents himself as an event manager, only to be undone by love. Little did I know then that people from Iceland to Hungary to Southern California would claim the Vermas as their family and our wedding as theirs.
Today Bollywood is on as many screens in midtown Manhattan as in an Indian neighborhood in Queens. The literary world has learned to pronounce Vikram and Amitav and Jhumpa, and an Amrita Sher-Gil can fetch as much as a Warhol at auction. A click on the Internet instantly conveys the burgeoning scope of South Asian cultural confidence, yielding details of hundreds of art galleries, concerts, readings, plays and indie films. When I was invited back to Harvard for a South Asian night in 2001, I was ushered into a hall brimming with 1,500 heads of shiny black hair. "They'd better be careful," I joked. "Soon this country will be run by people who look like us."
But why is it that India arrives only when the West says it does? Our movies have nourished half the world for a century, as every Russian cabdriver in Manhattan will tell you. And if the West is now waking up to our energy and confidence, will we be tempted to change? Will Oscar fever mean we temper our spice to suit Western palates? Will the few Indian actors and directors cherry-picked by Hollywood shove the khadi and brocade under the carpet and make chick flicks on Fifth Avenue?