Bollywood and the other major cinematic hubs (Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu) constitute the broader Indian film industry, whose output is considered to be the largest in the world in terms of number of films produced and, possibly, number of tickets sold. Bollywood is a strong part of popular culture of not only India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, but also of the Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, and among the South Asian diaspora worldwide. The word Bollywood was created by blending Bombay (the city now officially called Mumbai) and Hollywood, the famous center of the United States film industry.
Genre conventions and artistic merit
Bollywood films are usually musicals. Few movies are made without at least one song-and-dance number. Indian audiences expect full value for their money; they want songs and dances, love interest, comedy and dare-devil thrills, all mixed up in a three hour long extravaganza with intermission. Such movies are called masala movies, after the Indian spice mixture masala. Like masala, these movies are a mixture of many things.
Plots tend to be melodramatic. They frequently employ formulaic ingredients such as star-crossed lovers and angry parents, corrupt politicians, kidnappers, conniving villains, courtesans with hearts of gold, long-lost relatives and siblings separated by fate, dramatic reversals of fortune, and convenient coincidences.
There have always been films with more "artistic" aims and more sophisticated stories (for example, many of the films of Guru Dutt and Shyam Benegal). They often lost out at the box office to movies with more mass appeal. However, Bollywood is changing. Current films are increasingly likely either to break the mold or to ironically subvert it. There is now a significant audience of young, educated, urban Indians who want to watch Indian films but demand a different presentation.
It should also be said that a fair number of the mass-appeal films are either estimable simply as well-crafted amusements (which is no small matter in an anxious world) or even artistic achievements in their own way. Any fan of Bollywood movies will be able to list films that he/she regards as transcending the run-of-the-mill masala movie.
Bollywood song and dance
Film music is called filmi. While most actors, especially today, are excellent dancers, few are also singers. Songs are generally pre-recorded by professional playback singers with actors lip-synching the words, often while dancing. One notable exception was Kishore Kumar who starred in several major films in the 1950s while also having a stellar career as a playback singer. Of late, a few actors have again tried singing for themselves. Aamir Khan sang in Ghulam, Amitabh Bachchan in Baghban and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. These experiments, while applauded, have not led to singing careers for either actor.
Playback singers are prominently featured in the opening credits and have their own fans who will go to an otherwise lackluster movie just to hear their favorites. The composers of film music, known as music directors, are also well-known. Their songs can make or break a film.
The dancing in Bollywood films, especially older ones, is primarily modeled on Indian dance: classical dance styles, dances of historic northern Indian courtesans (nautch girls), or folk dances. In modern films, Indian dance elements often blend with Western dance styles (as seen on MTV or in Broadway musicals), though it is not unusual to see Western pop and pure classical dance numbers side by side in the same film. The hero or heroine will often perform with a troupe of supporting dancers, usually of the same sex. If the hero and heroine dance and sing a pas-de-deux, it is often staged in beautiful natural surroundings or architecturally grand settings.
Dialogues and lyrics
The film script (credited as "Dialogues") and the song lyrics are often written by different people. Dialogues are realistic; lyrics are poetic. Music directors often prefer working with certain lyricists, to the point that the lyricist and composer are seen as a team.
Many would say that the dialogues are written in Hindi; others would say that they are actually Hindustani, the colloquial dialect spoken in North India and Pakistan. Descriptive linguistics here becomes mired in nationalism and Hindu-Muslim antagonism; see the Hindustani article for clarification.
Bollywood song lyrics, however, have a definite lean towards the Urdu or Hindustani vocabulary; they tend to use many elegant and poetic Arabic and Persian loan-words.
Cast and crew
Bollywood stars tend to be light-skinned performers from the northern (Hindi, Bengali, or Punjabi-speaking) regions of India. It is a common criticism that subcontinentals harbor a preference for light skin, a bias shown in matrimonial ads and the predominance of light-skinned matinee idols. Though a few darker-skinned actors or actresses have had minor successes in Bollywood (Tabu, Sunil Shetty ), most have been comics like Govinda or Johnny Lever .
Models and beauty queens continuously replenish the pool of talented hopefuls aiming at stardom. The potential rewards are great: stars are well-paid, live lavishly, and are adored by their fans. While some stars rise and fall like rockets, some, like Amitabh Bachchan, become national icons. Directors compete to hire stars, who are believed to guarantee the success of a movie (though this belief is not always supported by box-office results). Some stars make the most of their fame by making several movies simultaneously, criss-crossing Mumbai by limousine from one set to another. However, one contemporary star, Aamir Khan has been notable for his insistence on doing quality films and making one at a time.
Traditionally management and crew consisted mostly of northern Indians (Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali etc), but Bollywood now draws talent from all over India, especially behind the cameras. The music director of the moment is A.R. Rahman, who got his start in Tamil films. South Indian director Mani Ratnam also directed a few hit movies in Hindi. Bollywood is the largest of the Indian regional cinemas and attracts those who have proved themselves in the smaller industries.
Bollywood budgets are usually modest by Hollywood standards. Sets, costumes, special effects, and cinematography were less than world-class up until the mid-to-late 1990s. But as Western films and television gain wider distribution in India itself, there is increasing pressure for Bollywood films to attain the same production levels. Sequences shot overseas have proved a real box office draw, so Mumbai film crews are increasingly peripatetic, filming in Australia, New Zealand, England, continental Europe and elsewhere. Nowadays, Indian producers are drawing in more and more funding for big-budget films shot within India as well, such as Lagaan, Devdas, and the current production The Rising.
Funding for Bollywood films remains hit-and-miss. There are few large studios and until recently, Indian banks were forbidden to lend money to film productions. Thus funding often comes from private distributors, and sometimes from illegitimate sources.
Mumbai gangsters have produced films, patronized stars, and used muscle to get their way in cinematic deals. In January of 2000, Mumbai mafia hitmen shot at Rakesh Roshan, film director and father of star Hrithik Roshan; he had rebuffed mob attempts to meddle with his film productions. In 2001 the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's national police agency, seized all prints of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke after the movie was found to be funded by members of the Mumbai underworld.
Another problem facing Bollywood is piracy of its films. Often pirated DVDs arrive before the print for the picture. Factories in Pakistan and India stamp out thousands of illegal DVDs, VCDs, and VHS tapes, which are then shipped all over the world. (Copying is particularily rife in Pakistan, since the government has banned the import of Indian films; the underworld has rushed to supply the banned item.) Films are frequently broadcast without compensation by countless small cable-TV companies in India and Asia. Small Indian grocery-spice-video stores in the U.S. and the U.K. stock tapes and DVDs of dubious provenance; consumer copying adds to the problem.
Satelite TV, television and imported foreign films are making huge inroads into the domestic Indian entertainment market. In the past, most Bollywood films could make money; now fewer do so. Balanced against this are the increasing returns from theatres in Western countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America. As more Indians migrate to these countries, they form a growing market for upscale Indian films. 'Foreign' audiences—in Asian and Western countries—are also growing, if more slowly.
Accusations of plagiarism
Constrained by rushed production schedules and small budgets, some Bollywood writers have been known to borrow the plots or even the scenes of hit Western films; some music directors have been known to copy tunes or riffs. The copyists could do so with impunity since the Bollywood film scene was largely unknown to most people in the West; in addition, many in the Indian audience were unfamiliar with Western films and tunes.
How much plagiarism exists in Bollywood movies is hotly debated. Some would say that it's sporadic; some that it's frequent. It is hard to quantify the debate, since plagiarism is so hard to define. A scene-by-scene remake of a foreign film is plagiarism, surely. But a complete revision to fit Indian realities, or mixing and matching scenes and plots from many different films -- is that plagiarism or just creativity at work? Hollywood, after all, is also known for its imitative ways. If one cowboy movie succeeds, other cowboy movies inevitably follow.
Just as Hollywood has its Oscars, Bollywood has its Filmfare Awards. Like the Oscars, these awards are frequently accused of bias towards commercial success rather than merit.
References and lists
For an encyclopedic listing of Bollywood movies (and other Indian films), as well as further details on directors, music directors, singers, and actors/actresses, consult the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, by Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, Oxford University Press, revised and expanded, 1999. See also Bollywood by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Channel 4 Books, 2001.
Foreigners interested in sampling Indian cinema may wish to consult this List of popular Bollywood films. These are not necessarily the best films produced by Bollywood; even attempting to make a list of the 'best' would be controversial. Popularity is less open to debate. For lists of the best, consult the various web sites devoted to Bollywood, where critics list their choices or readers vote for their favorites.
- Cinema of India
- History of Indian cinema
- Indian film directors
- Indian film music directors
- Indian playback singers
- Indian movie actors
- Indian movie actresses
- Planet Bollywood.com
- The Culture-Specific Use of Sound in Indian Cinema