For anyone brought up on TV, its hard to imagine the power that films continue to wield in India. Every village has a cinema within walking distance, and with a potential audience in the hundreds of millions, film companies seem to have virtually cast-iron guarantees of vast profits. The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, producing around 750 full-length features each year. Regional cinema, catering for different language groups (in particular the Tamil cinema of Madras), though popular locally, has little national impact. Only the Hindi film - one-fifth of films made in India - has crossed regional boundaries to great effect, most particularly in the north. The home of the Hindi blockbuster, the "all-India film", is Bombay, famously known as Bollywood.
To cross boundaries of language and religion, the Bollywood movie follows rigid conventions and genres; as in myth, its characters have predetermined actions and destinies. Knowing a plot need not detract from the drama, and indeed, it is not uncommon for Indian audiences to watch films numerous times. Unlike the Hollywood formula, which tends to classify each film under one genre, the Hindi film follows what is known as masala format, including during its luxurious three hours a little bit of everything: especially romance, violence, and comedy. Frequently the stories feature dispossessed male heroes fighting evil against all odds with love interest thrown in. The sexual element is repressed, with numerous wet saris and dance routines featureing the tensest pelvic thrusts in the world. Other typical themes include male bonding and betrayal, family melodrama, separation and reunion, and religous piety. Dream sequences are almost obligatory, along with a festival or celebration scene - typically Holi, when people shower each other with color - a comic character passing through, and a depraved, alcoholic and most western "cabaret", filled with strutting villains and lewd dancing. One way in which Bollywood has moved closer to Hollywood in recent years, however, has been the development, alarming to traditionalists, of films in which the "hero" is no longer necessarily a moral exemplar, violence can be fun, and good does not always triumph.
Film song is the most popular form of music in India; an average of six songs play an essential part in the narrative of each film. A song can transcend its filmic context, remaining popular years after the film it was composed for has been forgotten. However, the apposite marriage of film and song, through picturization, means the story lives on in the mind of listener. Equally, a good song, released before the film, acts as a trailer to help fill the theaters. The songs are created through the artistic collaboration of a film director, lyricist, music composer, arranger, studio instrumentalists, the "playback" singers(the most famous, Lata Mangeshkar, is in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of songs she has recorded) and finally the actor who mimes the song on screen.
The exploits of Bombay's film stars - on and off screen - and their lavish lifestyles in the city's clubs and millionaires' ghetto of Malabar Hill, the Beverly Hills of India are the subject of endless titillating gossip. Fanzines such as Stardust, Star and Style, Film World and Cine Blitz are snaffled up by millions, while the industry looks to the more sober Screen. Following the careers of the stars requires dedication; each may work on up to ten movies at once.
Visitors to Bombay should have ample opportunity to sample the delights of a movie. To make an educated choice, buy Bombay magazine, which contains extensive listings and reviews. Otherwise, look for the biggest, brightest hoarding, and join the queue.
Back to main page