My ignorance of the history of Bollywood cinema was revealed by the surprise I felt upon seeing Barsaat, Raj Kapoor's first big hit. The film was shot in 1949 in black and white. Somehow I thought the genre was much younger and always in color. Barsaat begins with two young men (one of whom is played by Kapoor, the director) driving through the countryside. All of a sudden a woman appears and walks down a hill singing a lovely song—the wind blows, her scarf flaps in the wind, she stops and looks at the leaves of a tree. It's clearly the language of Bollywood, but now I can see it's an old language.
My second surprise about Bollywood cinema was caused by Satyam Shivam Sundaram, a 1978 film also directed by Kapoor. What surprised me was the raw erotic energy of the film's star Zeenat Aman. This Indian wonder woman puts Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Dandridge in the shade. What Aman's sensual moves, super curves, bursting-out breasts, and dark, dark eyes exposed was my mistake in thinking that Bollywood films are prudish or puritanical. Yes, the film is about the value of true beauty, the beauty of the soul (Jesus-like beauty). But all attempts to instruct on this virtue are undone by Aman's sexy scenes—taking a shower in a waterfall, walking through a bush while carrying stalks of sugarcane on her gorgeous head of hair, and scrubbing a temple on hands and knees as the sun rises. You will leave this film convinced that flesh is the king of desire, the queen of life. Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, through April 11.