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Some of the world's most spectacular movies are being made in Bollywood. But fewer really know what really sets these films apart.
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What is Bollywood?
July 15, 2008
Back in the 1980s and 90s when I gave talks to various groups about contemporary cinema, one question that often came up in the discussion periods was "What does it mean when a film is called a "noir?" That question sprang from a new spate of darkly-toned, psychologically-oriented crime thrillers that began with Lawrence Kasdan's landmark noir "Body Heat" (1982) and culminated in the 90s with other noir hits like "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997). The antecedents for the these films came from the 1940s cycle of noirs that included "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "The Big Sleep" (1946). There have now been dozens of new noirs, including ultra-violent "neo-noirs" typified early on by Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) and "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Filmgoers today seem to know a noir when they see one.
So what am I asked about these days? One question is: "What does Bollywood mean?"
The general perception is that Bollywood stands for Indian filmmaking. While Bollywood is a reference to popular Indian cinema, it is only a part of the picture of film in India today. The word Bollywood derives from an allusion to Hollywood filmmaking and its penchant for turning out motion pictures with mass-audience appeal.
The "B" in Bollywood comes from Bombay (Mumbai), the capital of the expansive Hindi-language film industry in India. The wide acceptance of Bollywood as a catch-all term for Indian cinema can be attributed to the increased distribution and popularity of Hindi films around the world—by television broadcast and on DVD. Critics and media have popularized the term.
A central figure in the movement toward mass-appeal Hindi films was Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), a director-producer-performer. In his early landmark films "Awaara" (1951) and "Shri 420" (1955) Kapoor introduced Indian audiences to amusing common-folk heroes whose antics and resilience merited comparison with Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.
In "Awaara," Kapoor incorporated songs into the narrative, as well as previously-taboo romantic candor such as on-screen kissing. He cast beautiful women as co-stars and for one film brought Russian circus performers to India for added entertainment in the picture. In time Kapoor's wildly popular films grew in length. One was four hours fifteen minutes long. Liberal inclusion of music by the duo Shankar-Jaikishen and song lyrics by the poetic Shailendra were a part of every film produced by Kapoor.
Kapoor helped set the sound stages for what would eventually be characterized as Bollywood film—mass-oriented, formulaic, often epic in length and proportion, populated with glamorous superstar actors and beloved character players, and infused with music, song and dance.
Music, perhaps more than any other element, is the essential characterizing ingredient of a Bollywood film. Few Hindi films are made without songs, and the popularity of a film's music can determine the extent of a picture's success at the box-office. (Of local note, University of Michigan graduate Sheena Sippy, granddaughter of the founder of Bombay's Sippy Films, has worked on the CD releases of songs from Sippy productions, a major sideline of Bollywood enterprise.)
The genre range in Bollywood film is wide: westerns, samurai, crime, law-and-order revenge films, action epics, domestic drama, coming-of-age stories, teen-age and adult romance. While there may be considerable repetition and stereotyping in the various Bollywood genres, creativity and innovation within the songs, music and dance can overcome narrative limitations and more than satisfy audience expectations.
Want to watch an example of Bollywood at its best? Try the much-acclaimed "Lagaan" (2001), an epic set near the end of the 19th century in a small Indian farming village. The film's plot includes injustices brought on by a British military officer, youth romance, a cricket match, and a wealth of songs, folk music and dance. "Lagaan" runs a robust 222 minutes.
You can see that the term "Bollywood" does not work as an umbrella for all Indian film. India offers a much fuller extent of cinematic expression, and other regional production centers (as well as various Hindi filmmakers) turn out motion pictures that are distinctly different in content and form than Bollywood's mass-appeal Hindi cinema. The great Bengali director Satyajit Ray paved the way for alternative Indian cinema with films whose humanistic narratives and realistic styling (as in "The Apu Trilogy" of 1955, 1956, 1959) were inspired in part by his work as an assistant for the Italian neo-realist director Vittorio de Sica. Lower budget, art house films with a broad range of social, political and personal subject matter continue to be very much a part of Indian cinema today.
But just like in the US, humble films in India get a lot less attention than the splendor and spectacle that typify Bollywood.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.