I watched my first Bollywood movie when I was 8. Only ancient movies were available on that cheap bus that was taking me north of Lima to see my grandparents. After looking at the scratched CD’s for “Tiburón” (or “Jaws”) and “Misión imposible” (ok, that may be an easy one), the hostess decided to put the very last movie everyone was expecting: “Billu, the barber”, with Spanish subtitles.
It was love at first sight.
I fell in love with the pressing need of the director to include a song every 5 minutes, of course accompanied with the energetic group-choreography, the continuous outfit change and the rhythmic melody. I fell in love with the tragic story of two friends who had been separated as children, and who had come together after many years; one of them, once poor, now a rich actor, and the other one, a barber like his father. I fell in love with Shahrukh Khan’s acting (yes sir), his great ability to make me cry with his tears and make me laugh with his chuckles. But mostly, I fell in love with that country where everything took place, where film’s songs run in everyone’s bloodstream, and where film’s scenes are engraved in everyone’s memory. That night, while everyone slept, I dreamt.
I became an avid Bollywood fan. I watched all of Shahrukh Khan’s movies, then discovered Aamir Khaan, Shahid Kappoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Kajole, Deepika Priyanka, Sidhart Malhotra… Now, being in the land where Bollywood started, I am amazed by how movies are the unifying factor of mother India.
It was in Hyderabad that I started to come with this realization. I had been looking forward to go to Hyderabad since the beginning. And now, that we had completed the first part of our assignment, we got to go to the city that is catching more and more people’s attention throughout India and the world. To make it the best experience, rather than a plane ticket, Naandi decided to book a train ticket for us.
After checking in our hotel, we were ready to go see Naandi’s main offices. I was able to see a little bit of Hyderabad on our drive there; I saw the construction of a new metro system, Pizza Huts, KFC’s, Hardrocks, and big malls with Tommy Hilfiger’s advertisements on their front walls. As big as the Tommy Hilfiger ad of Gigi Hadid was, it was not the main attraction. The biggest ad was that of actress Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor holding an Oppo phone. Again, Bollywood ruled the city.
But it was another instance where Bollywood demonstrated to be well within the Indian DNA: when Taylor and I visited the Mahindra Pride School. While meeting the voice behind the phone, our coordinator Anupama, she told us that she had scheduled a visit to a center that was part of Naandi’s education branch – a Mahindra Pride school (MPS). These schools are intensive training centers where disadvantaged youths who have graduated the university develop specific skills to be able to acquire a job. Young men and women- who come from farmer’s villages, slams or poor sides of the city- have English classes, Math lessons, strengthening personality sessions, and work on their computational abilities, all this in 90 days and for free.
Like its name suggests, these schools which are starting to expand across India, are strongly supported by Mahindra – a big Indian company which provides Naandi with funding. Mahindra’s ample business network provides job openings and guarantees that these pride schools get 100% employment rate. This means that every youth who completes the program gets hired and is able to sustain themselves and their family.
The manager of the MPS we went to had arranged two classrooms to be free during our visit. She expected us to have a chat with the students, to tell them about our experience in India so far. Later she explained to us that all she wanted was the students to have an encounter with foreigners so that they were used to make conversation with everybody. But for me, it was much more than that.
When I entered the classroom, I was welcomed by a myriad of curious eyes and rhythmic clapping. There were about 40 properly-dressed students, who were eager to hear the words I had to say. As of me, I was wordless. I had talked to young children before, told them about my story, about how I got to Penn, about who I am. It was easy to teach young children, who had lived less than I had, and who could definitely learn from my “wisdom”. But I felt that these youths in front of me knew more about life than I did, that somehow those eyes that looked straight at me were older than they seemed. This feeling proved to be right, when, after introducing myself, I asked them to tell me their stories; student after student told about how they were forced to provide for the family after their fathers had died, about how they had to live with other friends in small apartments because their families had stayed on the farms waiting for money to be send, and about how they had never wore oxford shoes before; they told about how their dream was to work “in those big skyscrapers in the center of the city” so that they would be able to send their little siblings to school.
They had been dealt a rough hand in life, and I felt that they should be teaching me, rather than me teaching them.
However, I remembered that I hadn’t been dealt such an easy hand in life either. I told them my story. I told about how my grandfather was a farmer too, and about how my dad had to work extremely hard to leave the farm and acquire higher education. I told about how we lived in a little province in Peru, and how my parents decided to move to the capital to give their children a better education. I told about how my parents had taught me that sacrifice, perseverance and effort is all success required. I told about how it was my grandfather’s words – that night where he told me how he had built his house with his own hands- that had motivated me to go beyond what everyone expected. I told about how I had filled my college applications with no help except that of my mom’s power milkshakes. I told about how my non-English speaking mom was the best counsellor in the world, how she knew the names of every American university as a product of her late nights doing research. I told about how I got a scholarship. And I told about being a Latina second-generation student in Upenn.
I told them that if I could do it, they could do it as well.
The students seemed motivated, but not fully. And then I remembered that next to English, movies were also an official language in India. Maybe the most official one.
So I started telling my story using ‘films’ language. I told them that just like in “3 idiots”, my mama had taught me that studying is not only for the sake of passing grades, but for the sake of knowing and being passionate about what we do. About how I had learned that being a woman doesn’t mean limitations, but means strength, just like “Dangaal” showed. I told them that family support, as showed in ‘Kuch Kuch Kota Hai’ is important, but willingness and strength of mind is even more important. I told them that they should value their roots and their culture; that they should where they came from so that they know where they are going, just like ‘Billu, the Barber’ had showed me.
The youths seemed amazed. I was speaking in the same language, and they understood. Thanks to Bollywood.
That day I left my mark in those students, and they left a mark on me. I left my grandparents and parents’ words on them, so that they could linger, grow and germinate. I think back and I realize that maybe, the universe wanted the Jaws and Mission Impossible CD’s to be scratched, that I was meant to meet Shahrukh Khan and Kajole, and that world of color and flavor behind it, that I was supposed to learn another language so that someday, I would use it for best.
And I did. Used it for best.