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Tuesday, Feb. 01, 2005 - 8:32 p.m.

A Bollywood film is a special kind of masturbation. Every night, millions of people on the Indian subcontinent retreat to their bedrooms to fantasize about Shah-Rukh Khan and Ashiwaryi Rai, their hands and fingers ready to console the loneliness.

Indeed, the most common noun used to describe Bollywood films is 'fantasy'. It is striking that every film made in Bollywood contains no nude or kissing scenes, no allusions to war, poverty or the caste system - it is like the fantasies intrinsic to masturbation: a practiced self-censorship of reality. But for the laborer who sits on the hard ground, watching a film under the tentage of a traveling theatre, perhaps fantasy is all he needs.

Shah-Rukh looks at the centre of the camera's lens seductively; Ashiwaryi dances alone, thrusting her pelvis violently in a wet sari scene. Bollywood films are remarkable in how they engage the audience. It is not an intellectual or emotional engagement, because there is no plot and there are no characters, but the engagement is a subvertly sexual one: each scene is an invitation to completion. Cameras are positioned at human height, their depths of field set to mimic the focus of the human eye. You stand where the camera stands, and it is a short hop to the empty space in front of Ashiwaryi's pelvis. The scene is incomplete without you.

But the position that a Bollywood film is merely sexual misses the point; it is more cogent to argue that a Bollywood film is like masturbation, because like masturbation, there is actually only one fantasy. Ask the millions who have masturbated tonight, and you will find that all their fantasies are minute variations on a prototype - of physical completion. No one ever has a sexual fantasy with only himself in it. The other, imaginary body means that he is not alone.

And so the masses surrender their rupees, and they enter the multiplexes, the dilapidated cinemas, the weathered tents of the traveling theatres. They will sit in the broken seats in the darkness and close their eyes, because it is hard to imagine the weight of Ashiwaryi's body pressing down on them otherwise. This fact reminds us of the basic human attraction for the impossible, and that it is never good enough, to orgasm alone.


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