Bollywood: An Introduction to Hindi Cinema

Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai in 2002's Devdas

The Indian movie business is the largest and most popular in the world. Over 1000 films are released annually, the bulk of which are filmed in Hindi. It is the Hindi-language industry that has come to affectionately be known as 'Bollywood'. Each year, Bollywood sells up to a million more cinema tickets world-wide than Hollywood. Its current numero uno star Shah Rukh Khan has over a billion fans. Legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan was recently voted 'Star of the Millennium' by BBC Online readers, ahead of Lawrence Olivier and Alec Guinness. Despite little or no coverage from mainstream Western media, limited-release Hindi films can be found shooting up the US Top 20 and UK Top 10 box office charts. In fact, it is being said that Bollywood movies are now grossing more money in Britain than British films – Hugh Grant comedies aside, of course. And yet, mention such classics as Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to your average non-Asian cinema goer and you'll likely be subjected to a clueless, blank expression. For outside of its massive Asian fanbase, Bollywood has always been barely acknowledged. However, as its popularity continues to skyrocket, this is now finally starting to change.

Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan in 1994's Hum Aapke Hain Koun

The appeal of a Bollywood musical is simple. Mainstream Hindi films are specifically created to be escapist cinema. No arty pretensions, just a fun-filled ride of song, dance, romance, melodrama and comedy. To the uninitiated, it may seem like cheesy, irrelevant nonsense. But to Indian movie lovers (particularly the poor) films are a gateway to heaven and the stars are their gods. Ticket prices are affordable to even the poorest wage earner in India and so Bollywood provides their ideal form of entertainment. Dazzling foreign locations that they will never see in their own life are on display for them in a theatre hall. However, beneath all the glitz and glamour, Hindi films are still always grounded with an affirmation of traditional family values.

For newcomers to Bollywood, its song sequences may be viewed upon as unnecessary since the films are not structured in the same way as Hollywood musicals. However, songs are the most vital part of a Hindi film for several reasons. For starters, soundtracks are released well in advance of the movie's premiere and hence acts as a powerful marketing tool – if the CD sells well, a hit film could be on the cards too. Songs also provide work for playback singers since the actors rarely sing for themselves. This is in no way looked on as a rip-off as playback singers are hugely famous in their own right and wield as much clout as the actors do. 72 year-old Asha Bhosle (of Brimful of Asha fame) has recorded over 10,000 songs and still provides the singing voices for young actresses today thanks to her ageless tones. Songs are also important from a storytelling point of view. Social issues may prevent the hero and heroine from expressing their feelings for each other and so a fantasy song number provides them with a way to voice their love.

Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in 1975's Sholay

For most of its history, Indian cinema was aimed primarily at its own population. An international audience wasn't considered substantial enough to alter the tried and tested masala formula until the 1990s when the NRI (non-resident Indian) population proved just as important as the one back home. The typical classic masala movie usually consisted of the following ingredients: A cup of romance, a spoonful of fist fights, a pinch of broad comedy, a sprinkling of song-and-dance routines, a dash of international sight-seeing, one fearless hero, one fair-skinned heroine and one dastardly villain all mixed together and baked for around three hours. The results could be messy and unpalatable at times, but when a coherent whole was formed it was super-hit city. One of Bollywood's all-time greats was 1975's Sholay starring Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan. Inspired by The Magnificent Seven, this beloved 'Curry Western' seamlessly blended thrilling action with romance and comedy and is one of the finest commercial pot-boilers ever made. The film ran uninterrupted in Indian cinemas for five years, a record not beaten until 1995's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (which is still running – more on that later).

Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in 1995's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

In the 1980s, Hindi movies hit a long dry spell as newly-released VCRs kept audiences at home instead of at the cinema. Filmmakers attempted to draw in the crowds by adding a large amount of sleaze and violence to what were previously family-friendly attractions. It didn’t work and as the 1990s drew near, masala movies were as good as dead. 1988's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak was a straight-forward Romeo and Juliet-style romance starring Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla and was the surprise hit of the year. It featured none of the cheap tactics used to lure film goers at the time and signalled the start of a new era of bloodless, family-orientated love stories. As the 90s began, Shah Rukh Khan was emerging as a superstar – particularly when paired opposite Kajol, another newcomer. Their 1995 romantic comedy Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge became one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and, as mentioned earlier, still runs in theatres to this day. 'DDLJ' was an important film for another reason: In it, Khan and Kajol played the parts of British NRIs, Raj and Simran. Previously in Bollywood movies, NRIs were usually portrayed as rich, money grabbers corrupted by 'evil, Western ways'. As the NRI audience grew, however, so too did Hindi films evolve. In 'DDLJ', Raj wore leather jackets and drank beer and Simran danced to Western pop music, but both still valued Indian beliefs. Since then, the most well-made Bollywood films such as Dil Chahta Hai and Hum Tum have featured more mature storylines appealing to its educated and NRI fanbase while still retaining the commercial entertainment enjoyed by audiences who may not even be able to read.

Aamir Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Saif Ali Khan in 2001's Dil Chahta Hai

Today, Bollywood and its influence is everywhere, even if you may not realise it. From something small like a BBC ident to the recent huge success of Gurinder Chadha’s crossover comedy Bride & Prejudice. Classic films previously only available on dodgy bootleg VHS tapes can now be found on DVD in your local HMV. Stars such as Bipasha Basu can be seen in music videos on MTV. Seeing the 1998 film Dil Se inspired Baz Luhrmann to make Moulin Rouge and Andrew Lloyd Webber to produce Bombay Dreams. And recently, Aamir Khan's period epic Lagaan was nominated for an Academy Award. Clearly, Hindi cinema has never been more popular and yet it still has a way to go before achieving the recognition in the West it deserves. Not that the stars and movie-makers themselves are concerned one way or another. They have always thrived on their Asian audience and will continue to do so whether the West accepts them or not. When they do, though, they will doubtless accept them in return. Until then, there is much to look forward to on today's Bollywood scene. After a three-year hiatus, both Kajol and Aamir Khan make their returns to the screen in 2005. Shah Rukh Khan’s next project will doubtless deliver another commercial super-hit at the box office. And Devdas director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's newest venture Black starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji is currently being hyped as a possible Oscar-winner.

Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan in 2005's Black

So if you're tired of a seemingly endless barrage of CGI-laden Hollywood actioners then Bollywood could be your ideal ticket to a brighter, cheerier, more colourful world where it's still cool to dance around a tree and sing a love song.

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