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Appreciating the artistry of Bollywood is simply a matter of understanding India’s unique way of filmmaking. Our primer explains the basics.


What is Bollywood?


Bollywood is a term that refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in the Indian city of Mumbai, which used to be called Bombay. Bombay + Hollywood = Bollywood. The term is believed to have been coined by a journalist in the 1970s. Many Indians take issue with the word because it implies that Bollywood is a lesser version of Hollywood, when in fact, India produces far more films annually that attract far greater audience numbers globally than the U.S. And, the Indian film industry is older than Hollywoodby one year.


Are all Indian films produced by Bollywood?


No. Bollywood is only one of many film industries in India. Imagine if the U.S. had a thriving Spanish-language film industry that gave Hollywood a run for its money, or regional film industries in Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle that rivaled L.A.’s. That’s how it is in India. The various Indian film industries are both language- and location-specific. They include Kollywood, which refers to Tamil-language films made in the Kodambakkam district of the city of Chennai; Mollywood, which is Malayalam-language cinema from the state of Kerala; and Tollywood, which refers to both Telugu-language films from the state of Andhra Pradesh and Bengali-language films made in the Tollygunge neighborhood of Kolkata.


While Bollywood and India’s other film industries primarily produce commercial movies, India also has a strong and respected art-film tradition, which is referred to as “parallel cinema.” The delineation between commercial and art film in India is stronger than it is in the U.S. However, that line is beginning to blur as Bollywood is delving into artier projects and Indian art films are aiming for broader appeal.


Are all Bollywood films musicals?


Most Bollywood films include musical numbers. Today’s movies generally have fewer musical numbers than older films. While 10 musical numbers in a film wasn’t unusual in the past, four to six are more typical today. And more and more Bollywood movies don’t have any musical numbers at all.


It’s important to remember that Bollywood films are not musicals in the American sense. Both Broadway and Hollywood are preoccupied with realism, and musicals are, by their nature, unrealistic because no one bursts into song and dance during dramatic moments in real life. American musicals address this problem by either telling stories about entertainers—Show Boat, A Chorus Line, The Producers, to name a few—and thereby creating a setting in which characters logically sing and dance—or by trying to make musical numbers a seamless part of the action, or as realistic as possible, which requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. Bollywood is not encumbered with adherence to realism, which makes them all the more believable. Bollywood films embrace and openly acknowledge the reality that musicals numbers are artifice and that fantasy is a rich facet of emotional life best expressed through artifice because fantasy isn’t real. Bollywood musical numbers, more often than not, show what characters are feeling or wishing, not what they are actually doing. In these picturizations, as the staging of musical numbers is called, anything is possible, just as anything is possible in the musings of the mind. Picturizations are deliberately unrealistic in order to signal to audiences that they aren’t literal.


Do the actors sing the songs?


Very rarely. The vast majority of film songs are sung by playback singers, who are famous in their own right.


The movie and music industries in India are inextricably interlinked. Nearly all Indian pop music comes from movie soundtracks.


Who are the biggest stars in Bollywood?


Click here to read all about the actors who dominate the industry.


Why do so many Bollywood actors have the same last name? Are they all related?


Nepotism is common in Bollywood and many actors and filmmakers come from family dynasties that have been in the movie business for generations. However, there are many celebrities with the same common surnames, particularly Khan and Kapoor, who are not related.


How come there’s no sex in Bollywood movies?


Two reasons: social and artistic. Onscreen physical intimacy is frowned upon in India—even kissing is fairly rare. But more importantly, Indian filmmakers are masters of the art of seduction. There may not be any sex in Bollywood movies, but they sure are sexy. In fact, it’s precisely because there’s no sex that they’re filled with so much incredible tension, which is missing entirely from Hollywood movies these days. In the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “it is less erotic to snoggle for 60 minutes than spend 60 seconds wondering if you are about to be snoggled.” He was talking about Bollywood.


Sometimes Bollywood musical numbers act as a substitute for sex, depicting it not in any crass, overt way, but implicitly, even metaphorically. The characters are often so carried away with passion that they suddenly appear in exotic locations around the world—the pyramids of Egypt, the canals of Venice, the mountains of Switzerland—places that have nothing to do with the plot but have everything to do with the limitlessness of fantasy.


Why are Bollywood films so long?


For starters, Indians are used to longer forms of entertainment. Cricket matches last for days. So do Indian weddings. A three-hour movie isn’t long at all in comparison. Also, Indians tend to be value-conscious. They expect a full afternoon or evening of entertainment for the price of a ticket.


But the biggest reason Bollywood films are long is artistic. The time commitment required of the audience heightens their emotional investment in the story. (The same is true of operas, which are often as long or even longer than Hindi films.) The effect can be powerfully moving, even for Americans accustomed to shorter films.


Bollywood movies are getting shorter, though, mostly because there are fewer musical numbers than there used to be. While three and a half hours was once typical, three hours or less is now the norm.


What’s the biggest artistic difference between Bollywood and Hollywood?


In a word: “masala.” The concept of masala is key to understanding Bollywood films. It’s a culinary term that means “spicy mixture.” Masala filmmaking combines more than one genre in the same movie, blending elements of comedy, romance, action, and drama. The goal is to appeal to as many people as possible. That way there’s something for everyone in every filmthe grandparents, the parents, the teenagers, the little kids—because Indians often go to the movies as a family.


Hollywood filmmakers do the oppositethey do super-narrow niche marketing to target the demographic groups they think are the most profitable (and then ignore everyone else). One exception to this might be the James Bond movies, which have been enormously successful for decades. There’s action, of course, romance, some campy comedy, and even a little melodrama when James feels bad about his best friend betraying him or his latest lover dying in his arms.


That’s not to say that all Bollywood films are masala. Many strictly fall into one genre or another, but even then, there’s often a dash of masala thrown in.


Do Bollywood actors work in Hollywood?


Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is the first Indian actor to significantly crossover to the West. She appeared in The Mistress of Spices (2005) with Dylan McDermott, The Last Legion (2007) with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, and Pink Panther 2 (2009) with Steve Martin. She has also garnered more high-profile publicity in the West than any other Bollywood actor, having appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Late Show with David Letterman, and 60 Minutes.


Two Bollywood actors appeared in the Oscar-winning British film Slumdog Millionaire (that’s right, it’s a British film): Anil Kapoor, who played the sleazy game-show host, and Irrfan Khan, who played the police interrogator. Kapoor has since appeared in the hit American television series 24, which starred actor Kiefer Sutherland, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with Tom Cruise. Prior to Slumdog Millionaire, Khan appeared in the English-language films The Namesake (2006), A Mighty Heart (2007), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007).


Do Hollywood actors work in Bollywood?


Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards made cameo appearances in the Bollywood film Kambakkht Ishq in 2009.


British actor Sir Ben Kingsley—best-known for his Oscar-winning performance as the famous Indian independence leader in Gandhi (1982)—appeared in his first Bollywood film, Teen Patti, in 2010.


Western musicians are breaking into Bollywood, too. American rapper Snoop Dogg performed on the title track of Singh is Kinng in 2008 and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue performed a song in Blue in 2009. Senegalese-American music star Akon recorded a song for the soundtrack of the superhero-action film Ra.One.


Does anyone outside of India watch Bollywood movies?


Yes! Bollywood has fans all over the world. It’s big in other parts of South Asia, of course—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka—as well as the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Bollywood is beloved in Australia, the home of director Baz Lurhmann (of Moulin Rouge fame), who’s a Bollywood filmmaker in spirit. Bollywood movies are routinely in the box-office top 10 in the U.K. And Bollywood is all the rage in Brazil (thanks to a hit Indian-themed television show there, called Caminho das Indias.) Finally, Bollywood is huge in Canada, particularly in Toronto, which has a large Indian population. And Americans are finally starting to catch on to what the rest of world already knows—that Bollywood is fantastic!


Why don’t more Americans like Bollywood movies?


It’s human nature to mock what we don’t understand. Americans are used to watching Hollywood movies, which reflect our cultural values, traditions, and storytelling techniques, and Bollywood movies reflect another culture’s values, traditions, and storytelling techniques, which are unfamiliar to us. We’ve unfairly maligned Indian cinema because we can’t take it for granted like we can our own. We actually have to do a little thinking when we watch them. Some people find thinking fun; some don’t.


Why would Americans want to watch Bollywood movies?


Why do Americans like pizza? Because it’s good. Who cares what country it comes from? If you like good movies and you’re not watching Bollywood, you’re missing out.



What else would you like to learn about Bollywood? Send us an email and let us know.




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Bollywood for Beginners