So, where in Africa are you from?

If I wasn’t already incredibly frustrated with the American media industry before coming to India, then I am now. I’m going to make a slight generalization here: Indians do not believe that black people live in America— although, black people (slaves) built America.

Let me break this down: people who do not live in America, mostly learn about America from mainstream American media*. I am, and I am not talking about people who are fortunate enough to travel to America.

Clear and simple, the lack of black and brown faces in American media— especially black faces in this case, claims that America is ‘white’ in ignoring people who are just as American as any white person, in that their ancestors played a huge role in building America, and their families had been living on American soil for hundreds of years.

Where does this come from? Hyphenated Americanism, the notion that black people act a certain way, the lack of color-blind casting in the television and film industries, the notion that films/TV shows with more than two black lead actors are only for black people, AND the very, very incorrect assumption that we live in a post-racial society.

Back to India— so, if people around the world are watching American television programs and films, and only white people are being shown on the screen (i.e., Friends), being portrayed as Americans… will people think that black people live in America?

A woman wrote Africa on my receipt, then proceeded to ask me: “Where in Africa are you from?” This jewelry boutique owner lived in Jersey for four years, but probably not in an area where a lot of black people live.

“Are you from South Africa or the West Indies? South Africa.” I wasn’t too offended by this cashier, but I also was because… why do I only have two options of origin— the W.I and Africa? I AM of West Indian descent and I love my culture, but I am American born. I don’t claim being American very much, if at all, but I do claim being a New Yorker.

“Are you from Nigeria?” I was expecting resistance or awe at the fact that I responded “No, I’m from New York,” but this rickshaw driver was well-travelled.

Earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes, the show-runner of two of my favorite television series, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, won a diversity award from the Director’s Guild of America. This is what she said about it: “When I heard I was getting a Diversity Award, I was really, truly, profoundly honored. I began to get calls from VarietyThe Hollywood Reporter, etc., and I was asked to comment on the award. Asked how good I felt about the award. Asked if it made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on my cast and crews. While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off.”

This speaks to the lack of, but growing amount of diversity in mainstream American media. There really shouldn’t have to be an award for diversity, and diversity shouldn’t have to be conscious, because well… we live in a diverse country but not every writer/filmmaker feels the need to portray that in a positive light if at all…

Fascinations with Whiteness

Coming to India, I knew the whole deal about colorism. What is colorism? Colorism is a phenomenon that causes people to preference and give privilege to, lighter/whiter-skinned people. Colorism is rooted in the idea that light or white skin is more beautiful than darker skin tones, and that attributes of kindness go hand in hand with that lighter or whiter skin.

So, there’s this whole thing about skin-bleaching that’s very popular in India and one or two West Indian countries, namely Jamaica. People want to be lighter because they think it’ll make their lives better— open doors for them, make them more attractive, etc. Then there’s skin-lightening in photography, the progression of Rihanna from #teambrownskin** to high yellow, Beyonce from #teambrownskin to #teamredbone.

For God’s sake, I was an entire shade lighter for the Bollywood music video shoot. Whitney, must’ve been three shades lighter— that night she was playing for #teamlightskin.

When we go to major stand-still areas (i.e. Juhu Beach, the Gate of India), some of my classmates always get asked to take a picture. Only once have I been asked to take a picture with someone. Based on the nature of what I am speaking about, it should go without saying that these classmates meet the stereotypical standards of beauty.

There is a fascination with whiteness in this country.

I am not in anyway speaking negatively of India or it’s people. Colorism exists in most places on this earth. There’s extreme colorism in the Caribbean, Brazil, America; any place where there are people of color. It’s something that isn’t really out there. It’s subtle, it has to be observe or noticed and it is a repercussion of colonialism.

In Morocco, I got marriage proposals and I was followed all of the time, because of my dark skin. In Europe, Italian men would always, somehow find me and compliment me on my skin. Skin color plays a different role everywhere in the world that you go, and colorism takes on different forms from country to country.

As I was writing this piece, I started to do some research and discovered that in India there is a lot of racism against Africans in this country. More specifically, Nigerians in particular, are heavily discriminated against by Indians, although millions of Indians live in Nigerian and less than 50,000 Nigerians live in India. I won’t really go into this much.

*When I use the term “media” I am referring to television programs and films.
** #teambrownskin, #teamdarksin, #teamlightskin, #teamredbone, and many other skin-color related hashtags are embodiments of colorism seen in the black community that have been given life via social media (mostly in America).

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about colorism, watch D. Chansin Berry’s documentary Dark Girls http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com
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LTOMD (Living the Life of My Dreams)

“Just remember what Christen said— How would you feel if someone came to your house and cried?”*

75% of my volunteer work has something to do with children and education. About 50% of that work is specifically focused on educating girls around the world.

In 2012, after about a year of work, I helped to bring an organization called She’s the First back to Syracuse University’s campus. My closest friend, Makaela Newsome and I worked to do two things with this organization: 1) educate our peers about the importance of girl’s education and, 2) raise money to send our sponsor Mbithe Pius to school in Kenya. Although I am not as involved with She’s the First as I have been in the past, I do work to promote the organization’s events and sometimes volunteer at She’s the First HQ in New York City.

Mumbai, India— In one of my previous blogposts I spoke a little bit about my desire to work with an NGO that focuses on girls’ education specifically. Mark, sadly broke all of my hopes and dreams by informing me that there was an organization like that, but we wouldn’t be working with them. However, Mark then introduced me to Abhyudaya, the NGO that I am now working to produce a documentary about.

In high school, one of my dreams was to become a documentary filmmaker that works work NGOs. This was dually the product of my work in Model UN and my desire to change the world through media. Working on this project is literally me living one of my many dreams.

Every documentary film that I’ve completed, to-date, has been an explorative film— with the exception of one. In this, I mean that I never want to leave my audience thinking one way. I simply open the doors to a topic for them, explore as many sides of the topic as possible, and leave the audience with their own conclusions. Since I have been doing documentary work since 10th grade, I do believe that I’ve grown in trying to achieve this effect. This film on Abhyudaya will be different.

The angle that we are taking in our film, focuses on the girl child. In many developing nations, girls come second because their parents prefer to educate the boy child first. Having a 50%+ participation of girl children as Sitaras, is a goal of Abhyudaya, as was described to us in the first meeting that we had with the NGO. Towards the end of the film we will tie in how the program empowers these girls to become greater than the traditional notion that girl children should not go to school.

Our project first started with a meeting with the students, their mentors, and faculty on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday we divided up into two groups. On Thursday we filmed most of our interviews and some b-roll. Sadly, on Friday I was feeling very unwell and was not able to make it to the school with my team.

I’ll be very honest when I say that this project has been difficult. There are too many modes of communication going on at once. In this, there have been communications problems and there has been a disconnect between us filmmakers and the NGO about the vision and purpose of our film. However, we are working through it and are confident that our film will be great.

On Saturday, Karoline and Erika will go to Abhyudaya’s graduation and get some more b-roll. In the afternoon we will wrap shooting with a visit to the slum areas where our two girl subjects live.

 

*Advice from my best friend on our visit to the slums on Saturday.

I shook my Lungi hard, I shook my Lungi hard AAAALLL NIIIIGHT!

Literally. Oh, what a night! We arrived at Whistling Woods for our shoot at about 4 PM on Friday, and we did not leave until 4 AM on Saturday. Right when we got there, we jumped into action, and Tyler and I got to work on the production design with Sabyasachi Bose, who had been assisting us the previous day. We went over locations and the props we hade picked out the day before. Then we drew up some designs for the layouts, and we began to see our fantasy start to become a reality.

Throughout the design process we could see the designs in our heads as they began to transform from a school courtyard to a fantastical new world. We finalized the plans and the information was sent off to the crew to prepare the sets while we rehearsed the dance for the shoot quickly approaching.

I tried not to sweat too much during rehearsal, as makeup and costuming was next, but that’s like telling a fish not to swim; it’s inevitable. After a quick dry-off and a “Bombay Burger,” we sat down to get our hair did, faces paints, and mustaches glued (oh yeah…that happened!). We put on our costumes, whipped out our stunning Newhouse shades (shameless plugin), and we were ready to shake our Lungis!

As we left the building and walked outside onto the sets, we saw our designs brought to life. It was exactly how we imagined it and it all sunk in that this was happening. The lights were set, the cameras were rolling, the music was playing, and we forgot the steps. I’m not sure it was nerves, the break, the fumes from the spirit glue or all of the above, but what I do know is that all of our minds went blank. We stopped the music, reviewed some things, shook it all off, and tried again. The lights were set, the cameras were rolling, the music was playing, and we danced… oh… we DANCED!

***Click on following links for music references. Warning: explicit lyrics***

We shook our Lungis to the left, to the left, as if everything we owned was shaken in a Lungi to the left. Our Lungis hung low, they wobbled to the flo‘, as we shook them from the windows to the wall as the sweat dropped down our… Bollywood… We called upon all the Rajini fans, who did not want to miss their chance. And we did, the LUNGI DANCE! All without dropping that thun thun thun, AY! *Mic Drop*

The whole experience was like nothing I have ever experienced and probably like nothing I will ever experience again. In 3 days we learned a full song with a type of dance we had never been exposed to before, came up with a design, and shot a whole Bollywood item number. It was amazing how invested in us and this project the staff and crew of Whistling Woods was They went above and beyond and pulled every trick, aside from the rain machine which posed a health risk but it was very, very tempting…

The night of the shoot was exciting, exhausting, nerve-wracking, stressful, and incredible. I cannot wait to see the final product, and hoping it goes viral. Who knows, maybe Tosh.O will pick it up for redemption and we can go to LA to do it all again! We left our Lungis on the dance floor that night, but it was only just the beginning of the weekend.

After getting back to the hotel at about 4:30 AM, I washed off the work, and passed out until just before noon. Saturday was our relaxation/recovery day. A few of us went to a market with Mark, where we drank fresh coconut water right out of the coconut and ate the meat carved out in front of us. We then returned to the hotel for more relaxation, but that night was anything but relaxing.

We journeyed to “Town” where we ate and saw a comedy show at Blue Frog Comedy Club. The comedy show let us experience more of the culture of Mumbai in a comedic manner. While some jokes were lost due to contexts we had never been exposed to, the show was very fun and I had a great time. However, after the show the tables were cleared, music started playing, and for the second night in a row we danced the night away, but we left our Lungis at the hotel. It was another successful night and again I passed out exhausted, but quite a bit earlier than 5 AM.

After finally almost getting caught up on my sleep, we set out to Juhu Beach where I tried some refreshing pistachio falooda while successfully avoiding getting sunburned. We then went to Bandra to Mark’s favorite store, Fabindia, to get some authentic Indian swag where we met is friend Aditi. After dropping some rupees, we headed over to Candies for some dinner where I had ended the meal with some awesome passion fruit cheesecake.

We took a little star house tour and passed by Anil Kapoor’s (Slumdog Millionaire and 24), Shahrukh Khan’s, and Salman Khan’s houses. Then we walked around some, coming across a Marati wedding procession, and ending the night with a little more shopping at Hill Road.It was by far the busiest time we have had in India yet and an awesome experience. I look forward to what the next couple of weeks have in store for us!

Sweating Through Life

One of the greatest elements of Bollywood cinema is the songs within the films, and this we were to be able to be a part of this great tradition by filming one of our own, starring us! We were given three days to put everything together, with the help of the Whistling Woods International faculty, and it has been an intense couple of days leading up to the shoot that takes place tonight, 6 PM – 6 AM. Before this, the only experience most of us had with Bollywood dance was the quick workshop last Sunday so we didn’t really know what we were doing. On Wednesday, we had a 4-5 hour rehearsal of just intense Bollywood dancing and learned the entire song. Needless to say, we were exhausted, and I was drenched in sweat. The next day we met the production designer, saw the locations, and began picking out props, set pieces, and costumes. Then after lunch, it was back to the dancing with another long rehearsal, even more intense than the first. During this we polished what we already knew, changed some things, added some parts, and rehearsed with the four professional dancers who would be dancing with us. I don’t think I had ever sweat so much in my life! Who knew dancing to fast Bollywood song for 5 straight hours would be so exhausting? Now tonight is the shoot so today we rest up before going in for a final rehearsal, costuming, and makeup. While we aren’t professionals, it’s been a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to the shoot and final product.

First 48 Hours in the City of Rubble

The flight to India went far better than expected, and was much easier than many of my flights to and from school. With watching four on-flight movies, two airplane meals, and a nap, the time seemed to fly by, and next thing I knew we were in Mumbai! The airport was brand new and very beautiful, a nice welcome to India. Our chaperone, photographer Mark Bennington, told us that he calls Mumbai “the City of Rubble,” and I soon found out why.

Our first real Indian experience that I think finally made it sink in that we had actually made it was driving from the airport to the hotel. Back in the states you hear stories about the streets and crowds due to the high population of the city, but until you experience it, there is no way to fully grasp the reality of it. Driving in Mumbai is the epitome of organized chaos. With a combination of cars, rickshaws or “autos,” bikes, motorcycles, trucks, busses, and people, everyone is driving around each other, honking their horns non-stop to let them know they’re there, crossing traffic like they’re playing Frogger, and with no set lanes, people are cutting into whatever space they can find, especially the autos and bikes. Many of us were relieved we made it to the hotel, and after settling in and having a quick bite to eat, we retired to our rooms to rest-up before our first day in Mumbai.

In the room we decided to watch a movie, and noticed before each film that contains smoking/tobacco, there was a disclaimer stating that the actors or producers do not condone smoking and that it kills. Then every time smoking was portrayed, “smoking/tobacco kills” appeared on the screen, which I found very interesting and unexpected as I thought smoking was somewhat popular in India. On the same subject, they are equally against texting, talking, and drinking while driving which is very understandable given the chaos they must drive through.

After a delicious Indian breakfast at the hotel, we were ready to begin our journey and head to Whistling Woods International, where we will be studying for the next three weeks, for their “Celebrating Cinema” event. It was on the ride over when we could fully see Mumbai that I could see why Mark called it the City of Rubble; it truly is a city of rubble! With some tall buildings and many very short ones, there was rubble and trash throughout the streets as if from all this rubble, a city had been erected and the people grew with it. We have yet to see the downtown area, known as “the town,” but from what I can see already is the essence of India throughout, a mixture of the buildings and people, like within the food and cinema. I remember Professor Hallas saying that each Bollywood film must be like the food Masala as in it has “the right mix or spices” or “the right mix of emotion throughout the film,” as in the Navrasa (9 emotions in theater), and I see this translated into the actual city.

The first 48 hours in the City of Rubble was a lot to take in, and without warning we were thrown into the middle of it all. Within two days we experienced the culture, food, market shopping, and met some of the most powerful people in the industry. Beginning our day at Whistling Woods, we watched a documentary celebrating the last 100 years in Bollywood cinema, toured the facilities, and took our first Bollywood dance class, but it certainly won’t be our last! That night we took our first autos ride, which was an experience in itself, to a “sundowner dance party” at Villa 69 in Juhu. In our first night in Mumbai we had the chance to experience a little bit of the nightlife the locals partake in, and there we met Mark’s friend Shanoo Sharma who is the casting director for Yash Raj Films and the “biggest and most important casting director in Bollywood.” It was great to be able to sit and talk with such a powerful person in a huge industry while just eating some food. On our way back to the hotel, some of us brave souls tried paan, an after dinner digestive, and it has become a goal of mine to be able to properly eat it by the time we leave.

Monday has been our busiest and most exciting day yet, beginning when we walked out the door and felt the heat and humidity that takes over during this time of the year as the monsoon season approaches. We had the chance to shop at Lokhandwala Market where I bought a very nice gold and white kurat, which was one of the things I wanted to be sure to bring back with me. We met Priya Kumar, another friend of Mark, for lunch at High Point where we each got to try sav puri, pala paneer, yellow and black daal with naan and roti, samosa, and mango kulfi. We then met Anurag Kashyap, Hindi film director, and Harish Amin, line-producer, at Aram Nagar in Versova. Before heading back to the hotel, we wrapped up the day at Tribal Route, which had all sorts of unique trinkets, and other items where I managed to get a couple things.

It has been an exciting first couple of days, and I know it’s only going to get even more exciting! Let’s just hope it get just a little bit cooler. Thank you for reading and please come back to read more of what we are doing in Mumbai, India!

Entry 02: My First 24 Hours In India

Location: Sai Palace Hotel Room

Time: Monday, 19 May 2014, 12:05am

Mark asked someone to make a post like this, so I figured I’d start! Just a precursor, I hope no one minds that my posts might tend to be long. Blogging/journaling is quite fun; I thought I might only do the minimum requirements of 2 blog posts a week but I may just post more often than that…

Anyway. Everything has been insane. As we were hanging out at a fancy eatery earlier this evening, we realized in shock: WE’VE ONLY BEEN IN INDIA FOR 24 HOURS. In-freaking-sane. We’re going to be here for 3 & ½ weeks?! Whaat. I’ll write out the stuffs in bullets because that’s how I roll.

 

May 16, Friday

-7~8ish hours via buses and shuttles from Syracuse to Newark Airport with fellow traveller Aaron. Was quite the journey.

– Newark Airport – miraculously, we all managed to make it on the plane. Several people had issues getting there on time because the weather was terrible and security was grumpy. Regardless, we all made it and had a relaxing time on our 15-hour flight.

-I watched 3 movies: That Awkward Moment, Goodfellas, and Chennai Express. Veronica and I watched Chennai Express together—she has seen more Bollywood films than I have, and apparently it wasn’t that great of a movie. However, I really enjoyed it (despite how commercial it was) and thought it was really entertaining and cheesy, in a good way. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I just need to see more films.

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May 18, Sunday

-We arrive at MUMBAI!!! We arrived at like 10pm on India time, and basically we lost an entire day on the plane.

-TG (aka Professor Goenka) led the way to the cars that drove us to our hotel, Sai Palace. The humidity hit us like a wave the second we stepped out into the Indian air. We’re not too far from the airport, so it’s pretty great.

-SAI PALACE IS FREAKING AMAZING. Mark said himself, this is the best hotel he’s ever stayed at in Mumbai. I almost feel a little over-pampered and spoiled being here, but I have no complaints at all. It’s beautiful and pretty luxurious. I still can’t get over the fact that we’ll be staying here for 3 & ½ weeks – rooms cleaned everyday, laundry, complimentary breakfast…the works. Thanks, SU Abroad. You really came through. 😉

-We got our things together and went down to the bar before it closed to eat some foods. Kept it simple and safe and ordered chicken masala and other things of which I forgot the names to…

-We finally go to sleep at like 2-3am ish.

-Breakfast is from 7am – 10am, so my roomie Whitney & I got food at around 9am and met up with our fellow travellers. Buffet style Indian food every morning…this is definitely better than any dining hall could ever be. I barely know the names of most of the foods, but I’m pretty adventurous and open with food so I just get a little bit of everything. I trust my stomach—if I can handle Filipino food, I can handle Indian food. 😉 (Hopefully!) Everything is delicious or very unique and interesting at best. Food adventures are real.

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-We head to Whistling Woods International Film School by car. This is the first time we finally get to see what Mumbai really looks like. The humid is real, the smells are real, the culture is real…I don’t know. Personally, I feel a sort of…sense of peace here in India. For some reason, India really reminds me of the Philippines. Traffic congested streets, honking, an ebb and flow, people selling things on the corners, everything. I love it. Things just fall into place. Now I just need to learn some Hindi.

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-Whistling Woods in Film City – my peers and I observed that it’s basically an Indian Newhouse. That’s how it felt, at least. We got to meet Som, who will be our instructor and guide to our itinerary during our stay here. He’s a really cool guy who has been to Syracuse and LA and all over, basically. He’s very accommodating and I look forward to getting to know him!

-We watched a documentary entitled “100 Years of Indian Cinema.” Though it was less informative and more visually pleasing than anything, I was awe-struck at the amount of incredible history and how important film is to Indian culture.

-Short Visual Picturisation workshop on how a Bollywood film is filmed and gets edited via multi-cam, live-editing software. Freaking awesome.

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-We at a delicious lunch (I had Chicken Kheem Pav, a sort of minced meat/sloppy joe looking type of food).

-Bollywood dance tutorial! We learned like 1 minute of dance in 1 hour. ‘Twas quite the workout but tons of fun.

-Go back to our hotel for a nap…

-8 of the 12 of us decide to go out to this fancy eatery/dance place that Mark knows!

-We withdrew Indian rupees from an ATM (conversion is like 60 rupees = $1 US dollar). We then ride rickshaws to the place.

-the rickshaw ride itself was a beautiful adventure. They remind me of tricycles in the Philippines!

-We eat, drink, and dance for the next few hours. Absolute fun ensues.

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-We meet Shanoo, a very important Casting Director in the Bollywood industry. Mark knows basically everyone at this place!

Shanoo Sharma is incredibly outgoing, strong-willed, and inspiring. She got where she is today because she goes after what she wants and works hard. Work hard play hard, is what I would say to describe her. Random people kept stopping to say hi to her. I hope we get to meet her again.

-Also, she called out to a friend who also happened to be from Pasadena, CA—what an amazing coincidence. She started naming places in Pasadena – Intelligensia, Huntington Gardens, Rose Bowl, etc. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

-Before we go home, we stop at a small side shop to get these little dessert snack things (gah, I forgot what they were called.) They were wrapped in a leaf, and had this very interesting…sweet taste. It was a bit of a challenge to finish, but the aftertaste is minty, clean, and refreshing. EDIT: It is called paan.

-We take rickshaws back to the hotel and miraculously make it back by saying what Mark told us to say. “Chakala, Anderi East” But hey, we made it.

-And that was just DAY 1 of India. Like how. All this time I am taking tons and tons of video footage of our daily travels and a few pictures. I plan on editing and cutting video of our experience. It’s going to be wonderful.

 

Here’s to the next 3 weeks!!!

Early Morning, Late Start: Today’s the Day!

Good Morning! It is 7:05 AM, and I am in the Syracuse Greyhound station with fellow traveler, Losa Meru, as we wait for the arrival of our bus to New York City, predicted to be an hour late. While I have packed, double checked everything, and began my travel, I still can’t believe it is finally the day we will be going to India! While I have traveled some, mainly back and forth from school at Syracuse University to home in Northern California, I have only gone as far as Central America and Canada. I am beyond excited to be traveling all the way to Mumbai, India, home of Bollywood cinema!

My name is Aaron Goldsmith, I am a senior at Syracuse University, dual majoring in Television/Radio/Film and Information Management & Technology. I was first exposed to Bollywood cinema my freshman year while taking “Interpretation of Film” with Professor Hallas. In the class we learned about the techniques and styling throughout the films and how they differ from American cinema. While it instantly peaked my interest, it was when we watched Om Shanti Om that I truly wanted to watch and learn more. The music, colors, dances, story, and pageantry of the whole film immediately engulfed me into the world of Bollywood cinema, and I was hooked. For weeks after, my friends and I watched more films and listened to the music as if we had been doing so our whole lives.

When I found out about this program through SU, I knew right away that I had to be a part of it. While I knew I would have to save up and break the bank some, the experience I would gain from it would be more than worth it and something no one could put a price on. How many people have the opportunity to say that they got to travel to Mumbai to film a Bollywood song and journey around a country so different from their own?

I will have to admit that one of the things I am most looking forward to is learning how Bollywood songs are created and filmed from start to finish, and then being able to be a part of it, maybe even in front of the camera. However, I am most excited for being immersed in the culture of India, one so exciting and different from our own. I can’t wait to meet the people, eat the food, and wear the clothing. While I am not looking forward to the heat, humidity, sunburn, and insect bites, those are all small prices to pay in comparison to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this.

Our bus has now arrived, hopefully not too late to miss our connection to Newark, so we continue our grand and long journey to India, as I listen to “Contemporary Bollywood” and “Hindi Bollywood Hits” Radios on Pandora and check out Netflix’s selection of Bollywood films. You shall hear from me again soon from across the pond, and in the meantime enjoy this Bollywood hit from Om Shanti Om, “Deewangi Deewangi.”