India suffers from a bit of an image problem. Foreigners are likely to associate it with bleak poverty, squalor, caste discrimination, religious riots, and obnoxious scams, in common with other poor countries. But what India has to offer that other developing countries (for the most part) do not is Bollywood, its domestic film industry. It is the biggest in the world, one of the most influential, and a national obsession with a storied past.
“Bollywood” is so-called because it is based in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India’s biggest and most hectic city. A melting-pot and magnet for the ambitious from all over India, its main language is Hindi, even though the part of India it’s in mostly speaks Marathi. This has sparked some resentment from native Mumbaikars, who complain that their local culture is overshadowed by a giant industry that caters to all of India, and there is a small Marathi film industry in Mumbai as well. In fact, Bollywood is just 1 of many film industries in India, and the south especially has significant industries of its own in each major state. Bengal and other regions of north India also tend to do their own thing. Although the international profile of other Indian film industries is growing, this post will only focus on Bollywood; that is, the Hindi industry.
Bollywood has quite the long history. Indian cinematographers took up filmmaking almost as soon as the technique was invented, and they found an audience for it. India has an ancient theatrical tradition and a love for storytelling, melodrama and choreographed dance numbers. These elements quickly became staples of Indian film. Hindu epics have influenced Indian movies both directly (in adaptations of the stories) and indirectly (in similar characters, motifs and themes). Bollywood movies’ long, long running time probably also owes something to this.
Bollywood came of age alongside the Indian nationalist movement, and its movies helped feed the growth of Indian national consciousness and the notion of Indian uniqueness and purity. Old Bollywood movies would have titles like Mother India and The Land Where the Ganga [a holy river] Flows and song lyrics like “My shoes are Japanese, my pants are British, the red hat on my head is Russian, but my heart is Indian.” They also tended to speak to the nationalist movements’ social concerns. While Mohandas Gandhi, a stubborn traditionalist, hated movies and saw them as corrupting and degenerate, India’s other founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, loved them and saw them as building up audiences for his socialist dogma. A popular actor in the ’50s, Raj Kapur, won fans by portraying a lovable, roguish tramp with a heart of gold, and films often showed the plight of India’s impoverished farmers at the hands of greedy landowners, moneylenders, the weather, and bad luck. Villains were usually cutthroat dacoits (rural bandits) but sometimes corrupt officials or cops. The representative films in this vein are the aforementioned Mother India (which opens with a hammer-and-sickle logo) and the tragic, neorealistic Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Acres of Land,” basically).
Of course, these old movies were pretty modest. With cheap special effects, minimal production values and creaky sound, it’s not hard to tell that they came from a Third-World country with a sluggish economy. But Indians appreciated the catchy songs, the relatable actors and the dramatic stories, and eventually the industry began producing impressive epics for a newly independent country, like the lavish historical drama Mughal-e-Azam (“The Great Mughal”) and Sholay (“Embers”), an action movie inspired mostly by Westerns (and Once Upon a Time in the West in particular). By the ’70s, Bollywood’s production values had noticeably improved and it had become a fixture in Indian society. Although the old emphasis on rural and lower-class themes remained, movies took on a harsher tone as the idealism of the post-independence era faded. As India’s economy stagnated, Indira Gandhi resorted to dictatorship and corruption seemed intractable, the hero of the age was Amitabh Bachchan, whose characters were usually angry young men who rebelled against authority and resorted to their fists to solve problems. Movies helped give despairing audiences an outlet for their frustrations.
The big turning point in Bollywood history came in the ’90s, when 2 movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (“Who Am I to You?”) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Big-Hearted One Takes the Bride”) prompted a shift in emphasis. Both were focused on families and weddings, which are standard themes in Indian culture but have since become Bollywood cliches. Both focused on young couples — cute, mischievous, sometimes sassy, always extremely good-looking teenagers or young adults who start off bickering and end up madly in love, but must conquer misunderstandings or their parents’ opposition first. And both depict lifestyles of the rich. From then on, depictions of slum-dwellers or farmers receded more and more, as producers realized the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful spoke more to India’s growing middle classes and were loved by the poor anyway, who saw the lifestyles as something to aspire to. This decade was also when India’s economy really took off after Manmohan Singh’s liberalizing reforms, making conspicuous consumption something lots of Indians could identify with. The new superstar of Bollywood was Shahrukh Khan, who absolutely nails the “troublesome jerk your parents don’t want you seeing but is actually a good person and quite the hunk to boot” role, and has demonstrated his versatility in comedic and dramatic parts too.
Hrithik Roshan, another hunky, glamorous actor who tends to play romantic leads
Overseas, Bollywood is probably most known for its music. There is good reason for that: the Indian pop music industry is closely tied to movies, and the titans of Indian music (Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman, Mohammad Rafi, etc.) spend their careers working for movies. From the advent of sound, it’s been obligatory for Indian movies to include at least 3 or 4 songs, and since they tend to run for more than 3 hours, they usually have more than that. As movies grew more and more ambitious and well-funded, the dance sequences that accompany these songs also got more impressive, well-choreographed, and lavishly costumed. For the most part, they are not very well integrated into the overall plot, serving mostly as vehicles for the singers (who are dubbed over the actors, usually quite obviously). This has tried the patience of foreign viewers, who have mostly lost interest in musicals, but in recent years Bollywood is moving past the obsession with singing and dancing, and some movies have omitted it entirely (or just insert the song in the background).
This dance number combines Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and a catchy bhangra song (bhangra being a Punjabi folk music especially popular in Bollywood movies).
For most of its history, the standard formula for Bollywood movies has stayed pretty much constant, fluctuations in taste notwithstanding. This is called masala (“mix”), much like the spice mixtures Indians love to eat. There is usually some sort of action, whether it be against murderous dacoits, super-cool Mumbai gangsters, scheming officials or stubborn patriarchs. In general it is bloodless, but some movies are more violent than others and in the 3rd millennium Hollywood-style action flicks with lots of guns and explosions have become more common. There is almost always romance; sometimes it’s a subplot, other times it’s developed carefully over the course of the movie. Thanks to India’s tradition of arranged marriage, opportunities for drama and heartbreak are never in short supply. There is usually some sort of tearjerking tragedy like a parent or love interest who suddenly dies, but also usually some sort of comedic relief (a goofy character, slapstick sequences, comic misunderstandings, wacky hijinks, wordplay foreigners don’t understand, etc.). The idea is to get as much bang for your rupee as the film allows, and to please the widest range of filmgoers possible. This has led to some extremely cheesy and formulaic drivel over the decades, and it’s probably wise for the uninitiated to choose their first Bollywood movies carefully.
Bollywood’s formula means there are some gaps in its coverage. Although foreign locations are increasingly used for exotic and romantic backdrops, foreign countries are rarely depicted in depth, and the linguistic limitation means that whatever action takes place there is strictly fixated on the Indian characters. Caste, an ongoing issue in India, is virtually never discussed; even in the old days where social issues were more prominent, it was implied or marginalized. India’s problem with sexism is reinforced by Bollywood; male characters get more screentime and there has been much more emphasis on feminine purity than holding men to the same standard. Despite India’s wide range of skin colors, dark-skinned characters are seldom seen in Bollywood movies, and actors tend to be very light-skinned. Bollywood’s infatuation with posh, ostentatious sets and dapper actors can present a skewed portrait of modern India, where these things are definitely valued but still far out of reach of most of the population.
But Bollywood movies have changed a lot in recent years. Their subject matter is getting more diverse and they are getting bolder about confronting and depicting once-taboo subjects. The 1995 movie Bombay shows the 1992 riots in Bombay which tore the city apart on religious lines. (To be fair, Bollywood has a history of being fair to Muslims; many of its songwriters have been Muslim, and the 3 biggest actors now, including the aforementioned Shahrukh Khan, are Muslim.) Rang De Basanti (“Color It Saffron”) daringly equates the modern Indian government with the imperial British and has a shocking, pessimistic ending. Dil Se.. (“From the Heart..”) depicts Shahrukh Khan as a journalist falling in love with a terrorist, with a similarly hair-raising ending. Storylines are getting more inventive and less predictable; a good example of this is the 2012 mystery-thriller Kahaani (“Story”), about a woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata. Budgets and special effects are beginning to approach those of Hollywood; the 2015 historical epic Bajirao Mastani, about a macho general from the 1700s, cost ₹1.45 billion (about $23 million). Some movies focus more on women and develop them as well-rounded personalities; some include characters from remote regions of India or Adivasis (India’s native inhabitants). Chak De! India (“Go! India”) does both (although it’s mostly a by-the-numbers sports movie).
Bollywood’s blockbuster trilogy is the Dhoom (“Kaboom”) series, about a badass cop who partners with a doofus who knows a lot about motorcycles and Mumbai’s underworld to catch master thieves in high-octane chases. Image source: IMP Awards
How much influence does Bollywood have overseas? This is hard to say. Historically it’s found an audience in Russia (where Raj Kapur was much admired in the ’50s), West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where Bollywood’s stricter sense of female propriety and avoidance of explicit sex scenes appeals to conservative tastes). But in the West, box offices are harder to crack. Outdated prejudices remain entrenched; some Western movies have been influenced by Bollywood (like the musical romance extravaganza Moulin Rouge!), but generally it’s window dressing over substance. Bollywood films are easier to find in Western theaters these days, but they’re usually targeted at the Indian diaspora. Americans in particular are reluctant to watch foreign films.
Still, it seems that Bollywood is brimming with potential, and could become an arm of Indian soft power elsewhere in Asia. India’s neighbors, who share the same basic culture, already lap up Indian movies and music. As India interacts more and more with the outside world and gets richer, its movies will doubtless change to reflect this. But they’ll always remain an obsession for its masses, who can always use a few hours at the theater to escape into a fantasy of bright colors, beautiful actresses, shocking plot twists, imported whisky, romantic ballads, and dashing actors. And it’ll always be an iconic element of Indian culture to dazzle and intrigue the outside world.