Bollywood: Indian Films Splice Bombay, Hollywood

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
January 21, 2004

For years, the recipe for success in Bollywood, India's colossal film industry, has remained the same. You take the usual poor-boy-meets-rich-girl plot line, cram it full of singing, dancing and costume changes, and chances are you got yourself a hit with millions of adoring fans.

But now, the formula may be changing. While most Bollywood movies are still all about the glamor, an increasing number of films are exploring more diverse story lines, from gritty prison dramas to supernatural horror flicks.

The change, observers say, is a result of India's booming economy, which has produced a better-educated middle class that demands more sophisticated stories, as well as the Indian diaspora worldwide that is used to more complex plots.

Ironically, the transformation is happening at a time when Bollywood's visual style is also infiltrating Hollywood sensibilities. First, there were music videos. Then, movies like Moulin Rouge. Now, Indian filmmakers who were born in the United States are infusing their American movies with the kinetic and lavish aesthetics of Bollywood.

"As Bollywood goes Hollywood, some American movies are heading more toward the Bollywood style," said Kiran Ramchandran, an India-born screenwriter and director who is based in Los Angeles. "People are borrowing from each other."

Escaping Poverty

The name Bollywood is a masala mix of Bombay, where the industry is centered, and Hollywood. To satisfy the 14 million Indians who go the cinema every day, the industry churns out more than 1,000 movies a year, at least twice as many as Hollywood. Sometimes, films are made so fast that actors shoot scenes for four different movies simultaneously.

At any given time, the actors will break out into song, something that often leaves Western audiences scratching their heads. Earlier movies included up to 40 songs. Today, the songs have tapered down to about seven or eight per film.

The form is a blend of classic Urdu-Parsi theater, folk traditions, and the nautanki, or street theater. When a hit song starts, Indian audiences will usually dance in the aisles or shower coins at the screen. Film songs are often played at weddings. Some have the power of a national anthem.

"The Bollywood aesthetic is so different from Western cinema," said Ramchandran. "It's purely escapism, to the point where it loses touch with reality. You're here in one place and then somebody walks through the door and you're switched around to somewhere else and there's dancing."

Movies often take place in beautiful European locations, something Ramchandran believes appeals to many poor people.

"A lot of people go to the cinema purely for escape," he said. "When there are characters singing and dancing in beautiful locations in Europe, like Switzerland—for many people that's the only way they will ever see those places."

Continued on Next Page >>


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