[Ed note: Thanks to places like FunAsiA , Dallas-Fort Worth is actually a great place to live if you love Bollywood, the trademark cinema of South Asia. That said, Bollywood, a term that describes one of the largest movie industry centers in the world, is also little-known to most people in the west. Maybe you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, which contains traces of homage to the Indian films. If you’re adventurous, perhaps you’ve seen Lagaan. But D Magazine editorial intern Farraz Khan wants to give you a full re- introduction to the much-maligned and misunderstood cinema of Bollywood. This the first in a series.]
Come in! Fret not—you’re in the right place. Have a seat…and a samosa.
I suppose you’ve heard of this thing called Bollywood. You’ve stumbled upon its mention during a desultory jaunt across the web; or you’ve Zumba-ed off a pound or two courtesy of its infectious rump-shakers; or you’ve come face-to-face with it at your go-to Indian hole-in-the-wall, when your eyes fastened to a grainy TV screen whereon a bare-chested man faux-crooned a love song to a dainty damsel in a windswept sari.
The point is this: you’re here. This Bollywood thing has you tickled-peeved-confounded, and you want answers (and another samosa, if you may). Forget trivia, you exclaim. You already know that “Bollywood” is the goofy moniker for Mumbai’s Hindi-language film industry. You know, too, that India’s flagship cinema rivals Hollywood’s global footprint (in viewership, if not in revenues…yet). And you know, of course, about the frivolous song-and-dance, the hyperbolic drama, and the dazzling leading ladies. You—and your savvy, globally minded, pop-culture-imbibing ilk—know all of this.
What you want—and why you’re here—is to see what all the fuss is about, to take Bollywood for a spin, to offer yourself willingly—arms spread Titanically—to a maelstrom force that has felled billions worldwide. You want insider status: a pair of Bollywood-conditioned eyes and a Bollywood-wired brain to make sense of it all. In sum, you want to be initiated.
So for you, O Samosa Fiend, we humbly present a series on the ins and outs of Bollywood. We begin, then, where—but wait! In true Bollywood form, we shall first proceed with an intermission.
I N T E R M I S S I O N
When you watch a Bollywood film in the theater, trailers always run before the film’s second half. Ergo:
Go Goa Gone. Releasing May 10. A zombie comedy, starring Saif Ali Khan.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Trans.: Run, Milkha, Run). Releasing July 12. A biopic on India’s star sprinter, Milkha Singh, starring Farhan Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor.
We begin, then, where we must: with uninstallation. Misconceptions and half-truths abound as to what the term “Bollywood” entails. If we’re to start with a clean slate, then the bunkum must be banished, the myths shattered. So I present to you the nonnegotiable Need to Knows before you first press play. You may know some or much of what follows, but induction into any solemn fraternity requires a basic, no-frills education. So:
BOLLYWOOD NEED TO KNOWS
Number 1: “Bollywood” is not equivalent to “Indian” cinema.
India is more linguistically diverse than Europe. Consequently, Indian films are produced in more than a dozen languages: there are Tamil films (from Tamil Nadu) and Marathi films (from Maharashtra) and Bengali films (from West Bengal) and Bhojpuri films (from northeastern India) and Punjabi films (from Punjab) and…you get the picture (pun absolutely intended).
“Bollywood” refers to Hindi-language cinema produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The Hindi film industry is India’s largest, most glamorous, and most culturally significant. Next time, we’ll discuss why.
Number 2: Bollywood isn’t just another international cinema.
Bollywood is one of only three bona fide, large-scale film industries in the world; it’s the world’s most prolific film-producing center; and its movies are (according to ticket sales) the world’s most popular. Numbers like these, of course, have no bearing on quality—but they do point to a far-reaching, virtually unrivalled cultural impact. Skeptics will inevitably point to India’s billion-strong population to downplay the cinema’s significance. The truth: Bollywood movies are beloved not just in India or South Asia, but in lands as far-flung as North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia, and East and Southeast Asia, not to mention (thanks to the South Asian diaspora) the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. All told, the cinema’s global audience is estimated at between 3 and 4 billion—half the planet.
Bollywood is an altogether different breed of cinema, then—distinct from the myriad foreign cinemas we encounter in the New York Times, on the Angelika marquee, or during the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film segment.
Driven by the diktats of the marketplace, Bollywood has also cultivated a singular brand of cinema—one with an emphasis on entertainment, as exemplified by its on-steroids star system, its melding of film and music, and its one-of-a-kind cinematic sensibility. Simply: Bollywood is an approach to cinema you movie lovers won’t find anywhere else (no, not even in Slumdog Millionaire).
Still unconvinced? Try this: Bollywood is the cinema of the 21st century. Riding the coattails of a rapidly developing India, the industry is exploding with revenues. Here’s a telling stat: all 10 of Bollywood’s top 10 all-time highest-grossing films have come in the last five years. Admitted, it still sorely lags behind its California competitor in total receipts, but Bollywood’s growth trajectory is the object of a saturated Hollywood market’s envy. And it’s the reason why studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Entertainment have entered the arena. Even Steven Spielberg himself landed in Mumbai earlier this year, in pursuit of his piece of the ballooning Bollywood pie.
Number 3: Bollywood isn’t a melodramatic monolith.
Bollywood has a bad rap. It’s alleged to churn out but one kind of film: the overly contrived melodrama. Indeed, for so-called film sophisticates, the term “Bollywood” has become a fashionable pejorative, hurled at movies deemed insufferably artificial and banal.
This reaction to Bollywood is partly faddish: you’re aesthetically in the know when you scorn Bollywood. (Shoot, even I ribbed its “hyperbolic drama” above.) But there is a kernel of truth undergirding the stereotype. Historically, many Bollywood films have offered escapist allure, larger-than-life spectacles, and a sensibility that favors theater over nuance; narrative directness over complexity; and basic themes of morality, love, and patriotism. It makes for high-voltage entertainment, if not Western critical acclaim. But Bollywood-bashing on this front betrays a misunderstanding. This strain of Hindi cinema is consciously its own thing, a disparate manner of storytelling that serves and represents another set of experiences, ideas, and preoccupations. Asking it to conform to a Western yardstick misses the point.
But the main point: Bollywood has a history of variety in its filmmaking. Its stories have been as manifold as its narrative techniques, as consistently proven by the Golden Age of Hindi cinema (the’40s through the ’60s), the gritty parallel cinema of the late seventies and eighties, the post-2001 Bollywood renaissance, and an unbroken tradition of cerebral dramas throughout. In short, Bollywood isn’t one genre. It’s a rich and varied cinema comprising a world of storytelling.
Number 4: Bollywood means film and music, but not necessarily musicals.
To the uninitiated, the most estranging facet of Bollywood is the song and dance. It’s also the convention that’s most definitively Bollywood. Indeed, Hindi cinema largely owes its unique flavor to music. No cinema has mastered the art of music in film as comprehensively as Bollywood.
A Bollywood film isn’t like a Hollywood musical. From the beginning, Hollywood musicals have borne the anxiety of self-consciousness, an awareness of a musical sequence’s verisimilitude-breaking intrusion. Perhaps that’s why almost all Hollywood musicals have a Broadway-ish veneer: singers and dancers are emphatically performing for the camera. In Bollywood films, musical interludes are more organic, easy, and, therefore, more comfortably and credibly a part of the director’s imagined world. (Credit an Indian culture with a highly developed musical tradition.) Music is also deployed variously in Bollywood films. It’s not always through hit-or-miss choreographed dance sequences (to which Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho” is a risible homage) that music enters the narrative. It just as often emerges, for instance, as a depth-lending backdrop to the action on the screen.
No doubt, the omnipresence of music in Hindi cinema—even in more innovative films—is tough to take for those of us habituated to the conventions of Western cinema. As you grow acquainted with Bollywood, though, you’ll notice that a Bollywood film isn’t merely a Hindi-language Hollywood-style musical. It is (have I said it before?) its own thing.
(Oh, and while we’re at it, Number 5: Slumdog Millionaire is not Bollywood. It is, in bursts, inspired by Bollywood. But it is as authentically Bollywood as tandoori chicken pizza is authentically Indian.)
BOLLYWOOD MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS
At last, some film recommendations! The following films are a good entry point to the world of Bollywood, representing a more accessible, post-2001 cinema—innovative, yet still firmly in the mainstream. For a complete experience, watch them with 20 members of your extended family and a few samosas (try the tamarind sauce…it’s to die for).
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Trans.: You Only Live Once) (2011)
Dir.: Zoya Akhtar
Plot summary: Three thirtyish friends take a bachelors’ trip to Spain, where they find stunning vistas, romantic adventure, and themselves.
Where you can watch it: Netflix (DVD); Eros Now (click “CC” for English subtitles)
Dir.: Vishal Bhardwaj
Plot summary: Shakespeare’s Othello is transplanted to northern India in this dark, fully realized, Bollywood-inflected adaptation.
Where you can watch it: Netflix (DVD) Eros Now (click “CC” for English subtitles)
Dir.: Farhan Akhtar
Plot summary: Witness the exploits of Don, India’s most wanted crime boss, who is one-part James Bond, one-part yesteryear masala hero.
Where you can watch it: Netflix (Watch Instantly)
Photo: Shahrukh Khan (via)