Mushroom cloud

Image source: Stuff.co.nz


Events in Korea over the past year have set East Asia, and the whole world, on edge. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons. America, in league with China, has responded with a crippling sanction campaign. Undeterred, North Korea continues to fire missiles and now claims to have one that can reach America’s very faraway east coast. America has toyed with the prospect of a military strike.

To be fair, this situation should be familiar. Ever since the Koreas were divided by occupying Soviet and American armies in 1945, North Korea has been antagonistic. It tried to conquer South Korea in 1950 and almost succeeded. In the decades since, it has tried to assassinate a South Korean dictator, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean civilians, blown up a South Korean plane, torpedoed a South Korean ship, and shelled a South Korean island near the border. Since the ’90s, it has had a nuclear program; since 2006, it has had nuclear bombs. It has constantly issued overblown, melodramatic threats against its neighbor and its other 2 enemies, Japan and America. America usually takes a hard line and has imposed international sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

But even against this background of threats and hostility, the past year has been an escalation. Gim Jeong’eun, the North’s dictator, has ramped up the pace of his nuclear testing, with 3 since he took power in 2011 and more than 80 missile tests. (His predecessors had 2 and 31, respectively.) Chinese participation is significant because it is supposed to be the North’s ally and has resisted harsh measures against it at the UN before; most Northern exports have now been cut off completely. Donald Trump, America’s blowhard president, has adopted Gim’s hyperbole by threatening “fire and fury” and mulling an attack to give the North a “bloody nose.”

The stakes are high, and it should be obvious, but I’ll explain anyway just in case. Both North Korea and America have nukes, which could kill millions of people. Seoul, a giant city with over 10 million people, is near the border and could get pounded by Northern artillery fire. American troops are stationed in the South and would come to its defense, since it’s a treaty ally. China might intervene, since although it opposes the North’s nuclear antics, it still prefers its regime to the American-backed one in Seoul. South Korea is one of Asia’s economic hotspots and a technological hub for the whole world; a Second Korean War would have a global economic impact.

These considerations should rule out a military strike for any but the most insane, fanatical hawks. North Korea may be an obnoxious, untrustworthy, aggressive tyranny, but conditions must REALLY be intolerable before another Korean War is willingly unleashed. (The first one killed around 5 million people, more than almost any other war since World War II.) America itself would likely suffer consequences since it’s now within range (theoretically) of the North’s missiles. And talk of a “bloody nose” attack is reckless; how many people give up and just slink away when they’re punched in the face?

Given these conditions, previous presidents have resorted to a policy of sanctions and focusing on other problems, quietly hoping that something gives in the North and the regime collapses (or at least acts peacefully). Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, called this “strategic patience.” It frustrated a lot of his opponents, especially hawks, who pointed to it as yet another example of Obama’s cowardice and passivity — but it’s the better strategy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the policy worked. Gim Jeong’eun has kept testing weapons and amassing an arsenal of as many as 60 bombs. The North’s propagandists talked about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and compared Obama to a monkey. Trump’s patience has clearly run out — as have many other Americans (and Japanese).

But… what can he do?

In the ’90s and early ’00s, the South tried to approach the North with what came to be known as the “sunshine policy,” offering business ventures, badly needed food aid, and high-level talks. America was always skeptical that the North was just gaming the South for emergency supplies and money (thanks to its own dysfunctional economy) and never intended to abandon its nuclear dream. Sure enough, when the North tested its first nuke in 2006, the policy unraveled, and it is now spoken of mainly with scorn.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to revisit the policy. North Korea feels isolated and insecure; with a subsistence-level economy, no real allies, and an enemy known to overthrow dictators, it has good reason to. Gim is probably confident that no country would dare attack him with the prospect of nuclear retaliation dangling overhead, and again, he has good reason to be. North Koreans are underfed and lack the military technology and numbers of their neighbors. A nuclear deterrent is their best hope.

Given the forces arrayed against it — South Korea, Japan, and America — is it plausible that the North would launch an attack against them? Some worry about this, and it’s still a possibility, but it rests on the presumption that Gim Jeong’eun is some kind of madman who’s drunk on his own propaganda and completely oblivious to the outside world. I don’t buy into this theory — it is much more likely that he’s just acting that way to rattle his adversaries and impress (or intimidate) his own people. Why hasn’t North Korea started a war yet? It started the first one because it thought it had a chance to conquer the South. That chance is nonexistent now. South Korea alone is strong enough to beat the North at this point, leading some analysts to wonder if the alliance with America even makes sense anymore.

Therefore, I think the best strategy now is to hold high-level talks with North Korea, including a summit if possible, and drop the sanctions. Given the current balance of power, it is America in reality that is most threatening to Korean security. An American attack is the most likely flashpoint that would start another war. North (and South) Korea needs an assurance that America won’t start anything and has peaceful intentions.

In fact, I would argue that foreigners should go even further and try to trade with North Korea and loosen the barriers that isolate it. This won’t be easy, given Northern paranoia at subversion and contamination by liberal thought and capitalism, but it’s worth seeing how far it can go. The model should be the opening of China in the ’70s: even though China had been seen by America and its allies as a fanatical, ideological, implacable enemy, it turned out to be willing to reach an understanding and eventually to trade and open up to the outside world. With a growing North Korean middle class and a leader who might be more familiar with the world outside his borders, there might be an opportunity here too.

It’s not a perfect strategy. But none are. North Korea has been called “the land of lousy options.” America and its allies (especially Japan) are committed to halting nuclear proliferation, meaning keeping more countries from getting nukes. Their current strategy hinges on making North Korea give them up. But how would that work? Why would North Korea give up something it has worked so hard on for so long and at such a price? Iraq and Libya did it and were convulsed by invasion and civil war. Iran (apparently) has done it and Trump is talking about cracking down some more because the deal wasn’t harsh enough. Nukes are almost all North Korea has. There is a risk that South Korea and Japan would get nukes if North Korea never gives them up, something they could probably do quickly; North Korea’s precedent could encourage more and more countries to look into building nukes. But it’s a risk worth taking — after all, 9 countries now have nukes, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war yet.

Another problem is the sanctions regime. After 12 years of harsher and harsher sanctions, it would be impractical for America to suddenly back down without an excuse. This is a big problem, and it will probably keep a reconciliation policy from happening in the near future. But I’m not convinced that sanctions are working. It’s extremely hard to understand North Korea given its near-total isolation, but it’s lasted over 70 years and survived devastating war, horrible famine and punishing sanctions. North Koreans are used to hardship, and take pride in their stamina. The longer economic avenues are severed, the more likely they are to lash out and resort to criminal activity to get by.

There is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s not worth risking a nuclear holocaust over. In international relations, exceptions have to be made to avert tragedies or forestall problems from escalating. North Korean behavior might even improve if its enemies managed to convince it of their peaceful intentions. Human rights activists would object that a regime as brutal and totalitarian as Gim’s deserves no mercy, and frankly it doesn’t. But in reality lots of evil dictators get away with their crimes, and there’s no real way to hold Gim accountable.

A richer North Korea with trade and contact outside of its borders would also only happen if the elite that sustains the regime was kept secure and happy with lucrative contracts and dodgy kickbacks. The country would still be poor and isolated. Myanmar, which basically opened to foreign development 7 years ago, has headed in this direction. But it’s a common development, and this kind of system would be needed to ensure Gim’s cooperation and the elite’s support. Without it, North Korea would just stay angry and isolated.

America has a historic tendency to favor firepower, muscle and bullying because those are its strong suits. When you have the world’s biggest stick, you look for ways to swing it. Anytime a situation calls for diplomacy or patience, Americans tend to get nervous that they are looking weak. They need to relax and remember how scary they look to almost everyone else. Lengthy hostility didn’t prevent America from coming to terms with China, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Finally, it is important to consider South Korea. South Koreans have longed for reunification the whole time, and tend to take a sanguine view of their northern siblings. They are used to belligerent warnings and over-the-top boasts and don’t take them seriously. The South’s current president, Mun Jaein, wants to return to the sunshine policy and has reacted warmly to the North’s recent overtures like the joint Korean Olympic team and the visit by Gim Jeong’eun’s sister. Reunification may not be very realistic, but otherwise America and Japan should respect the South’s wishes for reconciliation and peace. Without being naive about Northern intentions, they should welcome any efforts at lowering tensions and accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Gim Jeong’eun’s new strategy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between the hawkish Trump and Shinzou Abe of Japan and the comparatively dovish Mun. Trump and Abe should avert this by aligning their policies more closely with Mun’s. North Korea might be the single worst country on Earth with no real friends and a population desperate to get out. But I was in Hawai’i this year during the missile scare, and I can safely say the specter of nuclear Armageddon should make everyone think twice about acting tough in these circumstances.



India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.


Bollywood dance

Image source: iDiva

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.

Ram Rajya

Still from Ram Rajya (“Rule of Rama”), a 1943 adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana

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.