SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Bollywood's China link

Sought-after performer: Word perfect renditions of Hindi songs. Photo: V.V. Krishnan  



PALLAVI AIYAR

One of Beijing's hottest entertainers, Hou Wei belts out a range of Hindi and Punjabi songs.

"The first time I heard a Hindi movie song I was four-years-old and I remember thinking it was music from heaven, so beautiful that I could listen to it again and again," recalls 24-year-old Hou Wei. She smiles dreamily and launches into a word-perfect rendition of Chadti Jawani Meri, from the 1971 Asha Parekh-Jeetendra film "Caravan".We are sitting in her bedroom in a typical middle-class apartment in central Beijing. Typical that is except for all the Bollywood paraphernalia that adorns her room, from a giant poster of Madhuri Dixit to dozens of CDs with Asha Bhonsle and A.R. Rahman on the cover.

Wide range of songs

But Hou Wei is not just any starry-eyed, Bollywood-infatuated youth. She is in fact one of Beijing's hottest entertainers having in the last couple of years become a sought-after performer at parties, weddings and restaurants, where bedecked in sparkling saris, she belts out a wide range of Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu songs.Her latest show was a performance for the visiting Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf who she says couldn't believe the perfect Urdu that came out her very Chinese mouth. "He couldn't believe it. In fact many Chinese think I must be Indian when they hear me sing," she giggles.This is a skill Hou Wei has acquired by listening repeatedly to recordings of Hindi film songs. She is often unaware of the meaning of the words that she mellifluously mouths, although she says she tries to look up English translations on the Internet, if available. Her parents, both of whom are classical Peking Opera performers, have carefully nurtured Hou Wei's musical talents. The recording of "Caravan's" music that gave Hou Wei her first taste of what was to later become her passion was in fact made by her father, Hou Lian Ying. "From the time that she was very tiny, if you gave her any music she could instantly sing it back. I knew she had talent," says Hou Lian Ying proudly. China's love affair with Indian films and music stretches back to the period just after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the country began its "reform and opening up" process under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Indian movies were amongst the first foreign films to be shown in Chinese theatres, their socialist themes being deemed suitable. Movies from the Raj Kapoor era such as "Awara" and "Do Bigha Zameen" became instant classics, acquiring a massive fan following, despite being shown some two decades later here, than in India. By the early 1980s, "Awara" finally had some competition for the title of the most popular Indian film in China, in the form of "Caravan", or "Da Peng Che" as it was called in Chinese. This song and dance threaded quintessential road flick played to house-full theatres for years. "The movie halls were packed. We couldn't get tickets for days," recalls Wang Bing, a freelance maid who cooks and cleans for expat households in Beijing. Brandishing a vacuum cleaner in one hand, she launches into a passable rendition of Piya tu ab to aa ja making up in enthusiasm what she lacks of actress Helen's oomphEven today it is "Caravan's" songs that provoke the most enthusiasm from the audience when Hou Wei performs in public. But, the young singer herself prefers the modern beats of A.R. Rahman's music, although she says that when it comes to technical ability no one can hold a candle to Lata Mangeshkar. "It's a pity that in recent years Hindi films have lost their popularity in China," says Hou Wei. "People still remember 'Awara' and 'Caravan' but we haven't had a new Hindi film showing in the theatre for years."

Nostalgic tint

Indeed, the era of Indian cinema in China has acquired a sepia tint, surviving mainly in the nostalgia of a slowly greying demographic. The last decade or so has seen the dramatic rise of Hollywood, which more or less dominates the foreign film market in the mainland currently. For Chinese youngsters who have grown up amid rapid economic growth and an explosion of commercialism, Hindi films are largely seen as antiquated ghosts from the past. For Hou Wei, it is a personal mission to try and bring back the once almost ubiquitous enthusiasm for Bollywood masala to Beijing. To this end she will be travelling to India for the first time in March where she will spend a month "learning more about the culture" and trying to find a suitable teacher. "I have never had any formal training in Indian music and I feel this is a big disadvantage," she says. "But I have big dreams and if I try hard enough I can achieve them."