Jacqueline Oud - Culture

Bollywood - discover the culture behind Indian cinema

Bollywood is the name for the typical Indian cinema industry. The name Bollywood comes as a reference to Hollywood but with the initial "B" for Bombay (Mumbai), the place in India for cinema productions of the same importance.

Meet Bollywood

Most of the films that are being exported from India to Europe and the United States are Bollywood films. They are in fact the Indian popular films for the local market. This as opposed to the more artistic films that are as well produced in India but far less known outside India.

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The ingredients for the Bollywood cinema are always the same:

  • Songs
  • Choreography
  • Music
  • Decors and colours

As a result, discovering this cinema takes you to a complete different world. The films are most of the time at least 3 hours long; include various songs and dances as well as a variety of the most colourful clothes you can imagine. For the production of these films, there seems to be no limit for the budget on the clothes for the full cast. It is amazing but for every song and dance the cast appears in a new set of clothes, so well combined and organised that it is overwhelming. Especially the women have beautiful dresses, mostly in traditional style, with scarf and combined accessories.

Cultural differences

Whereas the decor and colours are overwhelming, the topics are on the contrary always very basic: mixing love, marriages, different castes and traditions. This makes the film definitely kitsch wouldn’t it be also enriching from the cultural point of view. This total Bombay look, combining "kitsch", classical ingredients and the length of the film, is nevertheless a factor of risk.

In the European and American mass market many may feel too overwhelmed or get bored with such a long film. There are no huge explosions, no murders and any other of the standard ingredients that are so typical for the Hollywood mass productions. It seems that there must be more than just an ocean separating the Indian from Western films, and that the cultural differences haven’t been washed away yet.

The Indian cinema market

For those who are not yet familiar with Bollywood films, this may all appear strange. But let me tell you that the Bollywood industry is a huge and flourishing business that produces more than 800 films per year. Each day about 30 million cinema tickets are sold, and on an annual base, about 5 milliard people go the movies.

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Aishwarya Rai

The Indian market includes only 5% of non Indian productions. Believe it or not: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise are hardly known in India and they cannot compete to the popularity of Aishwarya Rai (ex miss World) and Shahrukh Khan.

Where we speak for the Hollywood production about the high costs of production, in India these costs are mostly under 4 millions of Euros. Cost of labour is low; even though there are always masses of figurants [1].

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Shahrukh Khan

My own experience of cinema in India

I have had the pleasure to go myself to a cinema in Jaipur and discover this other way of living the cinema. There are many people queuing to buy their tickets and they are all dressed for the event. Before the film starts, everyone will buy something to eat and drink and there is a lot of noise of people having fun. As soon as the film starts, people become quite but as soon as the first song starts they want to join in and it sometimes feels like the actors and spectators become one. The "ambiance" is great and very lively.

As foreigners we were an attraction in the cinema hall and many wanted to talk with us. However, none of those we met seemed to speak any English. Well why would they, all films are in Hindi. This means that we didn’t understood a word of it [2]. We more or less managed to understand the story: the style was very expressive and the kitsch part helped so did the gestures and attempts of our neighbours.

If you ask the Indians, they totally agree that the films are kitsch. But they love it. They like these melodramatic films to dream away from their current lives, to have a break and enter for a while into a colourful world. What is surprising however, is that in their idea of dreaming away the paradise scenery is not found in their own country. Often film producers go to New Zealand, Switzerland or Scotland to film the prairies, green scenery and mountains that Indians consider the most idyllic and romantic. Once more we see that the grass is always greener on the other side.

Origins of Indian cinema

A quick word on the origins of Bollywood and other Indian cinema styles. India was one of the first ones to start film productions right after the visit of the Lumières brothers in July 1896 in Hotel "Watson" in Bombay. Cinema industry comes straight from their own culture of theatre and therefore included since the beginning poetry, taboos and traditions. The cultural heritage from the first Indian films is very rich. Still today the tradition and local culture and art can be recognised in Bollywood films. The advantage of today’s films is that it has become more accessible to the overall population, whereas before it was more restricted to a certain standing.

Today’s cinema

But nowadays Indian film industry does not only cover Bollywood productions. There are different more artistic styles and currents that can be found in India. More and more real-life films are being produced and deal with today’s problems including even homosexuality, a topic still wrapped in taboos. India has today about 60 million fluent English speaking inhabitants representing a special segment though their overall importance is relatively small yet.

In the same style as Bombay’s Bollywood productions, we can find cinema industries in Hyderabad and in Madras. These represent a separate cinema industry that tend to look more like American films due to its actions and aim for diverting without the more traditional ingredients. Both actors and producers may start their careers in these areas and then move upwards to the more prestigious productions for Bollywood.

Exporting the Indian cinema

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The exportation of Bollywood films has officially become a success with Lagaan in 2001. This film is a very simple but honest plot showing how people with different origins and ideas finally work together to improve their situation. It has obtained an Oscar, which is thus for India the 3rd time in 75 years. (the previous ones were for Mother India, 1957, and Salaam Bombay, 1988 by Mira Nair). It has therewith cleared the way for more “exportable†productions, such as a remake of the classic Devdas based on the novel. Some say however that it is the lack of originality of Hollywood productions that has made room for the Bollywood ones.

For those who think the Bollywood style of too much to support, Gurinder Chadha has created the missing link between Indian and Western cinema with her half Indian half European productions. She produced "Bend it like Beckham" in 2002 and "Bride and Prejudice" in 2004. These films are more accessible and are shorter. They help to prepare the road to discover real Indian cinema.

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Bend it like Beckham

We will defintely hear more from the Indian cinema in the upcoming years, and not only on Bollywood films. The main cinema countries start to make room for original Indian productions - so not only the Bollywood ones - and seem willing to accept India as a serious cinema player.

Some of todays famous Indian actors: Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan, Ashutosh Gowariker, Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan. Ofcourse, they are all beautyful .... to make you dream away even better.

[1I have heard by American production companies that the Indian film productions are rarely profitable (about 10% only). I’m unable to verify this, but the American industry present in India seems not so eager in joining projects due to the difference in working methods and profitability aim. Nevertheless they are present in the Indian market since around 1930 but have never yet managed to increase their shares.

[2Remember though that the plot is not very complicated

[6 July 2005]


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