Heavy drinking, truth telling and... Elvis: Bollywood’s interpretation of Christmas

Lost in translation or genuinely festive? It’s a fine line.

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There’s a common saying in India that when you go to the cinema it’s best you “leave your brain at home” (it sounds better in Hindi). Going to the cinema is seen as an act of escape from daily life. The standard formula for films involves unrealistically good-looking people, wearing expensive clothing, frolicking (in complex choreography) in beautiful locations. It’s what we all want deep inside right? To be skinny, rich and on a boat in the Bahamas?

The lack of realism in Bollywood is often critiqued, as are the “formula films” – the ones which follow the predictable love-against-all-odds storyline. But I think there’s something painfully charming about sticking to the plan. The audience can ignore the plot to focus on consuming the dream that Bollywood feeds them; lifestyles they can only aspire to, luxuries they may never afford and places they could probably never visit.

Where a film is shot often becomes the reason to watch it. Kal Ho Naa Ho for a taste of the high life in New York, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham for some crying on the streets of London or “ultimate Bollywood Rom ComDilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge for tour of the Swiss Alps.

When set in these far-flung places, foreign people, their culture and traditions make their way into Bollywood scripts... loosely translated. A song titled “It’s the Time to Disco” from Kal Ho Naa Ho, for example, is Bollywood’s slightly ridiculous interpretation of what it’s like to party in New York: scantily clad people cavorting in perfect synchronisation.

Similarly, if Dostana is to be believed, a Miami-based male nurse driving around a bubble gum pink cadillac is likely to be greeted by a troupe of rollerblading bombshells when he pulls up on South Beach. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen. It’s just perhaps not the life of an everyday Miamian.

And Christmas, too, can be incorporated into the formula. Like in Anjaana Anjaani, which is the story of a pair of strangers who meet in the US after failed suicide attempts and make a pact to end their lives together on New Year’s Eve. They decide to spend the 20 days leading up to New Year’s making the most of life – while falling in love, of course.

Their adventures coincide with Christmas and one of the songs in the film sees the pair walk into a Christmas celebration: a parade of sorts, with kids running around the streets with balloons. Fake snow and a few Christmas trees create a festive ambience. Santa is in attendance. And so are Batman, and Superman, and Elvis.

Ek Main Aur Ek Tu is the story of two friends who get drunk on Christmas Eve and end up married in Las Vegas. In the time between Christmas and New Year’s they attempt ending the unintended marriage – but fall in love instead (spot the pattern?). In the opening titles the duo can be seen having a jolly time in the Las Vegas to a background of Christmas lights. According to the lyrics, “the ground is drunk, the sky is drunk, everyone here is drunk”. Not sure if they’re singing about Vegas or Christmas. I suppose that isn’t entirely inaccurate in either context.

The most recent example of Christmas appearing in Bollywood is an over-the-top proposal scene from Dilwale, where the boy confesses his love for the girl with a series of placards à la Love Actually. Dilwale puts a Bollywood spin on it of course, with the lead character Veer choosing to profess his love on the day because “Christmas is the day for telling the truth”. He says this with great conviction. 

But before we completely dismiss Bollywood’s interpretation of the festival as being lost in translation, here’s a thought. If classic festive films – those made in the global west – are to be believed, Christmas can be about a variety of different things, as long they are things that make you feel warm and fuzzy. That really could be anything from dramatic confessions of love, grown men in lycra suits or drinking more than you should.

Popular examples from many a “Best Christmas movies list highlight the range of things the festive season is all about: creatively fighting bad guys (Home Alone), the search for a fresh start (The Holiday), looking after a sick comatose stranger (While You Were Sleeping) and taking down drug dealers (Lethal Weapon). Anjaana Anjaani wasn’t too wrong about Batman either, Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns confirms even The Dark Knight can be Christmassy. And if Elton John is Christmassy, Elvis most certainly is.