Indian Cinema, A way of life
from 'Bollywood Dreams' a book published by Phaidon press
June 2003

by Nasreen Munni Kabir

Indian movies have a curiously infectious quality and have always had a special place in Indian life since the birth of the Indian movie industry in 1913. Nothing in today's popular culture is as pervasive as Bollywood movies with their distinctive approach to storytelling. Usually woven together by six songs and at least two lavish dance numbers, the movies are about unconditional love, the conflict between fathers and sons, revenge, redemption, survival against the odds, the importance of honour and self-respect, and the mission to uphold religious and moral values - grand themes that Hollywood generally leaves to the now rarely produced epic. Not so in India, where film directors routinely tackle the big questions head-on, even when making a formulaic, run of the mill entertainer and it is this particular kind of storytelling that has offered people of Indian origin their most beloved form of popular entertainment.

Bollywood is characterised by a small number of cinematic ingredients that are reworked in each film. Repetition is part of the often predictable plot-lines, but to satisfy an audience the right buttons must be pressed. These include great performances by glamorous stars, melodious, rhythmic music, exquisite sets and exotic locations. How the audience responds to the weaving together of these ingredients determines a blockbuster hit. Other key ingredients include elaborate, loud action scenes and a sense that the social or moral order will not be challenged. A happy ending is a mandatory requirement to conclude the two and half hour movie.

The majority of the cinema-going audience in India consists of young men from a variety of regional, linguistic, religious, and class backgrounds. Today there are around 500 million Indians under 25 out of a total population of nearly 1 billion and films are made primarily to appease this age group. But of course for a film to be popular it must also entertain the whole family, from grandmother to grandson, who are also avid cinema-goers.

Watching a movie in an Indian cinema hall is a lively experience as the audience makes itself seen and heard at every turn of the plot - whistling at a sexy wet saree number, egging on the hero as he takes on ten bad guys and applauding melodramatic dialogue about lost values. Once it becomes clear that all ends well, the audience often does not bother to wait for the last scene and starts making its way out of the cinema before the film actually ends. However, to assume that audiences are passive consumers of whatever Bollywood offers is not to know them, in fact less than 8 movies will make serious money out of the 800 plus films made each year (the world leader by far).

Presented in a seamless mix of spoken Hindi and Urdu (the two North Indian sister languages understood by over 400 million, around half the current population of India), the Bollywood movie may appear simplistic but even the classic boy-meets-girl saga has many layers of Indian culture manifest in some form or other relating to class, religion, and tradition. Popular cinema in India may borrow plots from Hollywood but these are so transformed by the must-have ingredients of the Bollywood film that only the bare outline of the original remains discernible.

This sense that every film must reiterate what it means to be Indian or reflect Indian thinking can be traced to when cinema started in 1913. The early silent films were based on well-known Hindu epic tales from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. The first audiences who discovered cinema loved the idea of seeing familiar mythological stories involving Gods combatting demons made literal on the screen. The new western invention pleased both audience and filmmaker, as it was perfectly suited to the Indian context of storytelling, which relied on oral tradition. The fact that cinema technique could enhance the mythical (through special effects or low-angled shots) was seen as a great asset in the telling of heroic tales, a major reason why Bollywood films continue to capture the popular imagination in India.

Theatrical forms such as the Ramleela (an enactment of the exploits and adventures of Ram), and the Rasleela (the stage enactment of the exploits of Krishna and episodes from his life) have had a great impact on the evolution of Indian cinema. This is still apparent in the way music and drama work together and in the portrayal of the stock characters of Indian cinema. The villain, for example, is still seen with a twirling moustache and a sinister laugh, an instantly recognizable version of stage demons associated with the Ramleela. Early film showings from 1913 onwards took place in tents next to the village and small town temples where, after prayer, devotees made their way to see Lord Ram or Lord Krishna come alive on the screen.

Such devotion can still be seen today in the hero worship for leading. People want to act, talk and look like their idols. In every decade, barbers have been asked to give their clients an Ashok Kumar, or Dilip Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan cut and tailors have always been told to copy the clothes of the beautiful Madhubala or Aishwarya Rai. Until the early 90s, star gossip was almost exclusively reported in the dozens of film magazines but now interest in the world of cinema is so extensive that virtually every daily newspaper devotes endless print space to who is doing what in Bollywood.

The style, content and pace of Indian movies has changed vastly over the years and so has the way in which the film industry makes movies. The studio era ended in the late 1940s, and freelancing became the norm in cities where the bulk of Indian films continue to be produced, including Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, Chennai (formerly Madras) and Hyderabad. The erratic start and stop shooting schedules and complex financing has meant that stars, music directors, choreographers and the top to the lowest-paid technicians work on several productions at the same time. A R Rahman, the ace music director commented, "How do I know that the film I'm working on will ever get released? Or even how long it will take to be completed? So I have to compose several soundtracks at the same time in order to make a living." This juggling of many projects has become commonplace since the 1960s and no one is surprised that a star will travel from one set to another, playing a cop in the morning and a psychopath in the afternoon.

Other key contributors are the action directors, the set and costume designers. There is a huge demand for exciting action scenes as this has great appeal for the young male audience. Yet there are only a handful of action directors (known as stunt masters in India) working in the film industry. The stunt masters are usually members of the same family and, like the stars, work on several films at the same time. This is also how the handful of set and costume designers work. In the Bollywood movie, set design can range from the rickety and make-shift to the elaborate and lavish. Costume design has always been important but never as much as in today's culture of glamour and beauty. Bollywood designers have become so trendy that many create clothes for exclusive weddings of the ultra rich as a side line.

Today, budgets are higher than they have ever been, with star fees tripling costs. This has put a lot of pressure on current filmmakers to succeed at the box-office.

It is no coincidence that during the time when budgets were generally lower and film directors were encouraged to be inventive rather than play safe, that Indian cinema had its golden age, in the 1950s through to the mid 60s. Even the minor films of this period had some special quality about them, whether it was a stunning romantic scene, an atmospheric song sequence or a fabulous performance by actor Dilip Kumar or comedian Johnny Walker. The era produced immensely popular stars and fine directors but the ones who had the greatest impact on the aesthetic of Indian cinema are Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. These extraordinary filmmakers worked within the conventions of Indian cinema while making deeply personal and authored classics. They set the standard not only in their choice of theme and subject, but also in their approach to black and white photography, set design and editing. Avoiding the usual stereotypes and stock figures, the layered psychology and sophistication of their heroes and heroines has given Indian cinema its most enduring characters. These directors mastered the use of film music and film choreography.

Examples of their songs sequences rival the best in world cinema and in many cases excel the Hollywood musical in the subtle linking of dialogue and lyric. These directors transformed the film song into an art form and confirmed that music was Indian cinema's greatest strength. Even today, Indian filmmakers are aware that their moment of cinematic glory can come from the songs. Every decade since the 1950s, a huge majority of films that would otherwise have been completely forgotten are saved by a marvellous musical sequence in which melody, lyrics, camera movements, choreography and performance combine to magical effect.

After this golden period, the form of popular films began to change. By the 1970s, Hindi films began to mix all genres into a single movie with song and dance firmly at the heart of the narrative, and this "mixed" approach is still the way film stories unfold today. In a Bollywood movie, this mixing and matching translates in the hero fighting a sinister politician in one scene and serenading his heroine, with forty dancers moving in unison behind him, in the next.

Despite the popularity of television in India since the early 1990s, there is still a demand in the remoter areas of India for touring theatres, which involve a projectionist travelling in a truck with an assistant, 18 cans of film and a tent that he will set up in the village, while in nearly every city street there are signs of Bollywood's extraordinary influence. On pavement stalls, postcards of the current movie heartthrobs are proudly displayed for sale next to images of the most revered gods and national icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. At nearly every major roundabout and road junction, anywhere where there is space for a massive billboard, gigantic hand-painted images of stars stare down at the passing traffic. Outdoing Bombay in this aspect are the cut-outs and billboards that line the streets in South India where the popularity of stars has been so powerful that the leading names of Tamil and Telugu cinema have successfully transferred their popularity from screen to voting booth and become Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the recent past.

Nearly every Indian, whether they live in a village or the city, feels connected to the movies in some way, either because they love a star (Amitabh Bachchan has broken all records with his fan following) or they love film songs. The Bollywood movie is also an active link to homeland culture for those who have made Europe, the US or Canada their home. When a movie with an A List cast such as Lagaan (2001, Ashutosh Gowarikar) or Devdas (2002, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) is released, people of Indian origin whether they live in Lucknow or Leicester are heading to the cinema at virtually the same time. Impassioned fans can also be found in the Middle East, Russia, China and in many parts of Africa.

While Indian cinema is unique to Indian culture and history, its energetic style, the emotional appeal of its themes, the glamorous lifestyles portrayed, the enduring melodies and lush settings, all contribute to its increasing popularity worldwide. Jonathan Torgovnik's lyrical photographs show us the human face of Indian cinemagoers as well as those working behind the scenes who together have made Indian cinema as alive as it is today.

© Nasreen Munni Kabir

Purchase Bollywood Dreams

Enter Bollywood Dreams - by Jonathan Torgovnik

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist