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An introduction to Bollywood

In December 2001, a big glamorous three-anda-half-hour movie, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sorrow – better known by the initiated as K3G) burst onto the British film charts at number three. This wasn’t the first time a Bollywood movie had made UK box office history. Since 1998, Bollywood films have become regular entries in the UK charts and, although they are watched mainly by British Asians, more and more people are drawn to Bollywood’s magic, keen to discover the world’s largest film industry for themselves. Indian film production is staggering by any standards: 800 movies a year roll out of Bombay, Madras, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Calcutta. Of this vast number, the most popular and widely distributed are those made in Bombay, seamlessly mixing two sister languages, Hindi and Urdu, and now popularly known as the ‘Bollywood’ movie.

Cultural exchange

Hindi films boast a billion-plus audience on the Indian subcontinent alone and entertain millions of Asians throughout the world. In addition, people from the hugely different social and cultural worlds of China, the Middle East, Russia and many parts of Africa, love Indian popular cinema. Bollywood fans don’t look to the cinema for realism; essentially they want good old-fashioned family entertainment that won’t embarrass or offend. A Bollywood movie requires handsome heroes and gorgeous heroines, spectacular dance routines and melodic songs, colourful flowing costumes, lush locations and extravagant sets – a heady mix of romance, family values and the celebration of noble themes such as the importance of honour and sacrifice.

Those new to Hindi films will have little difficulty following the often straightforward storylines or recognising character archetypes: poor boy meets rich girl, they fall in love, a villain comes between them, our hero overcomes all obstacles to win the beautiful heroine with an approving nod from his elders. The gamut of emotions may be universal but the codes of behaviour relate specifically to Indian culture. On the surface, Bollywood characters may lead modern, westernised lives, but when it comes to making major decisions they always revert to traditional modes of behaviour. Perhaps the more formulaic Hindi films’s insistence on tradition enables audiences to know what it means to be Asian – even if the lessons are deeply buried in music and metaphor. Like Hollywood, the enduring appeal of this kind of popular cinema is that it rarely steps beyond its conventions. Such has certainly been the case with Hindi cinema, since its origins almost a century ago.

Like India’s first feature, made in 1913 (Raja Harischchandra), many early films were dominated by religious and mythological stories, littered with special effects and relating tales based on the great Hindu epics,The Mahabharata and The Ramayan. With the arrival of sound in 1933, the ingredients of the Urdu Parsee Theatre were reworked for the silver screen, with its multi-layered romantic plots, comic interludes, dramatic Urdu dialogue and dependence of music. These early films set up conventions in Hindu cinema that still hold true today – the principal rule being never to rely on one genre alone. No film is simply a thriller or a musical. Bollywood movies juggle many genres, so that a Bollywood hero can spend a lifetime avenging the murder of his parents and, while he sets about vanquishing the bad guy, take time out to sing a qawwali or mirror Michael Jackson routine against a lush New Zealand backdrop to impress his dream girl. Bollywood stars enjoy a following to rival Hollywood’s top names. A recent BBC online poll revealed that Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan (now hosting India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) had won the people’s vote as ultimate star of the millennium, with Laurence Olivier in second place.

Sound effects

The other great draw of the Hindi film is its soundtrack. Each Bollywood movie has at least six songs, usually love songs, when used to good effect these can carry the story forward as an integral part of the plot. For example, to miss out a song in a 1950 movie by a director such as the famous Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor would be like missing a key scene.

Today, Bollywood movies rely more than ever on the song to create the big moment of spectacle. In fact, countless mediocre films are saved purely by their musical numbers. The dances are often brilliantly choreographed and the songs marvellous, with haunting melodies. In addition to the stars, music composers are essential contributors to Hindi films. Throughout Indian cinema history there have been many excellent music directors but in recent years composer A R Rahman has made the greatest impact. Blending Indian and Western sounds, his extraordinary work has made him a favourite with millions.

Bollywood movies can be real weepies – silly, violent, outrageously illogical, tacky, slick, vulgar, sophisticated – but they are always full of energy and life. As reigning star Shahrukh Khan says with a smile, “A Hindi film is a complete variety entertainment show. In Hindi films, everything is nice, crystal clear, simple, straightforward. They are not pretentious. A Bollywood movie has so much in it – there are songs, dances, emotions and fights, and yet the format is very simple. I think that’s the winning feature of good Hindi films.”

Nasreen Munni Kabir

This article was taken from the March 2002 edition of Theatregoer magazine.

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