Although Indian cinema is one of the oldest world cinemas, and the largest in terms of output, its evolution in parallel to the West with little crossover until very recently leaves a lot of Western moviegoers with the impression that it’s daunting and inscrutable. But with a few simple guidelines, any American movie buff should be able to explore Indian cinema, particularly when it comes to the massive Hindi-language industry based in Mumbai commonly known as “Bollywood.”
Bollywood movies have been cracking the top 10 on U.S. box office charts a lot lately (the most recent one, “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani,” peaked at #9 in June). That means now’s a perfect time for a brief primer on Indian cinema in general. To get an idea of the basics, read on.
There’s More To Indian Cinema Than “Bollywood”
The term “Bollywood,” though often inaccurately conflated with Indian cinema as a whole, refers just to the Hindi-language industry in the city of Mumbai. There are several different regional film industries throughout the country, each in a different language; the most prominent ones are Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, and Kannada languages. The regional cinemas share a variety of common tropes (music, dancing, fabulous costumes, high melodrama, et cetera, ad infinitum), with noticeable differences; in a general sense, the south cinemas, Telugu and Tamil in particular, are more floridly rowdy than the comparatively restrained Bollywood industry. The highest paid star in Asia after Jackie Chan is the Tamil-language star Rajinikanth, also known as “Superstar Rajinikanth” — who, when such things were in vogue, featured in the Indian version of Chuck Norris jokes, owing to Rajinikanth’s similarly titanic dominance over all forms of cinematic villainy.
2013 Marks the Centennial of Indian Cinema (Or Close Enough)
The centennial of Indian cinema is being observed this year because of the 1913 feature-length “Raja Harishchandra,” an adaptation of Sanskrit epics. From there a rich cinematic tradition emerged, with Indian films being recognized for their global commercial appeal as early as the twenties, and through on to the present day.
Political influences (see the next point) led the Indian film industry — which is not to say filmmakers themselves — to evolve in direct but discrete parallel to their Western counterparts: The Golden Age of production was roughly concurrent with the various New Waves in Europe, the rise of blockbusters in the 1970s coincided with the time they took off in America, and so on. Increasingly in the 21st century, there’s been a tendency, particularly in Bollywood, to emulate American and European films (shortening running times, cutting musical numbers, etc.), though this has yet to carry over to the regional cinemas, which still proudly flaunt their idiosyncrasies.
Know Your Indian History
A great deal of the creative isolation of early Indian cinema, and the development of its own set of rules largely separate from those of the other world cinemas, dates back to regulations the British government established to promote British films over American ones (in the days when Britain ruled India). After winning political independence from Great Britain in 1947, the national film industries, already aesthetically independent, remained that way.
Beyond the aesthetic impact of politics, the thematic content of many Indian films naturally reflects Indian history and politics. Countless films deal with rebellions against the British, or remember rebellion against the British fondly. The partition between India and Pakistan is a frequent subject as well, with political tensions between the two countries providing stories for everything from Cold War-style espionage between the two countries to doomed romances between an Indian boy and a Pakistani girl, to — this being India — both at the same time.
Even a cursory, surface-level understanding of events like this can help greatly in understanding the context of Indian films — not because they’d be incomprehensible without it, but because they are made, for the most part, for Indian audiences familiar with all these events, so occasionally details are elided to avoid over-explaining. It’s not that one can’t “get” Indian films without that, it just helps one get them in a different way.
Masala: What Is It and Why Is It So Awesome?
Not all Indian films are masala films, but masala films are uniquely Indian. Masala films are the cinematic equivalent of the melange of spices used in Indian cooking that provide the name. Every conceivable genre is thrown into the pot — meaning the screenplay — and cooked up by the director. It makes perfect sense: In making a movie for the whole family to see, what Hollywood calls a four-quadrant blockbuster, why not throw every existing film genre into the mix?
With multiple genres happening simultaneously — let’s say, a romance subplot, a comedy subplot, and a melodrama subplot all alternating under the auspices of an action adventure main plot — there are, invariably, tonal shifts that can take some getting used to. Everything is heightened: the hero’s heroism, the heroine’s beauty, the villain’s evil.
Another, simpler way to look at masala is as you would approach Shakespeare, or any classical dramatic literature: sudden thunderstruck true love next to low comedy next to high drama next to history. And, when necessary, sword fights.
In 2009’s “Wanted,” hero Salman Khan saunters into a warehouse full of bad guys and proceeds to very thoroughly beat the crap out of every last one of them, single-handedly. He then saunters back out of the warehouse and lip-syncs a song about what a badass he is, with dozens of backup dancers, bright colors, and a drop-in by fellow movie star Anil Kapoor (who doesn’t appear at all in the rest of the movie, he’s just coming by to say hi). At the end of the song, Salman Khan is successfully established as The Star.
Songs in Indian cinema don’t necessarily have anything to do with the story, though they can, but they’re usually just there because…well, who doesn’t like music and want to see stars dancing? A special subset of this is the item number, a showcase for a particularly attractive female performer who may — but more often may not — appear in the rest of the movie. These are mainly for marketing coups for certain music labels, but when done well can be works of art in themselves.
Contrary to the trend in Western musicals, where great care is taken to have the actors themselves sing — regardless of whether they actually can — Indian films have not only never made any effort to hide the fact that nearly all of their songs are lip-synced (with rare exceptions made for stars who actually can sing, or are famous enough that their desire to is indulged).
The artists, called playback singers, who provide the stars’ singing voices — like Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, or Sukwinder Singh (to name but a tiny fraction) — are as legendary as the faces on the screen. There is no question of “settling” for a career as a playback singer, but it can be every bit as prestigious as acting.
What Makes A Bollywood Star A Star?
One of the ways in which the Indian film industries, and in particular Bollywood, resemble classic Hollywood is in their systemic manufacture and cultivation of movie stars. Like Hollywood, the history of Bollywood is rife with failed star launches.
On the other hand, when it works, it really works. This is partly because of the heightened nature of so many Indian movies, but also in part due to the institutional support they receive in maintaining their glamor and larger-than-life image. Indian movie stars really feel like movie stars. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, The Three Khans (Aamir, Salman, Shahrukh). Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Shamila Tagore, Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukerji, Kareena Kapoor.
Stars, even more so than in the West, essentially play themselves; heroes will be introduced in dramatic low-angle shots to make them look thirty feet tall, heroines lit glowingly as divine visions. Some films lay it on thicker than others, but there’s never any question about who the stars are.
The Release Schedule Has, Let’s Say, Some Quirks
Some aspects of the release calendar may look familiar to American audiences: Big holiday blockbusters come out on Eid (the holiday commemorating the end of Ramadan), sort of like the way they do during U.S. holidays. Less familiar is the way Bollywood in particular basically shuts down during cricket season. While the Indian Premier League is on, very few releases of any consequence hit theaters, a dry period comparable to January in the American film industry.
The Hindi industry’s version of the Oscars, the Filmfare Awards, skew slightly more populist (which would delight all the authors of “the Oscars are out of touch with popular taste” thinkpieces that raise everyone’s blood pressure each year). More importantly, the Filmfares give out an award for “Best Action,” which is just wonderful.
Parallel Cinema: Indies and Arthouse Cachet
Ironically, a lot of Western film lovers have an easier time with Indian arthouse and indie fare, both of which are known as “parallel cinema” in India. (That’s an ironic title given the parallel evolution of the American and Indian film industries.) These titles favor naturalistic/realistic approaches. Some filmmakers known as parallel cinema filmmakers will employ elements of pop cinema, like songs and movie stars. One such example is Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film “Dil Se,” which starred Shahrukh Khan, and blended serious political commentary with a lyrical romantic tragedy.
The most famous name in this movement is the great Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray, one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world, let alone south Asia. The height of Ray’s career coincides, by no accident, with the Golden Age of Indian cinema, stretching roughly from independence until the 1960s. Indian art cinema today often recalls American “Indiewood” films of the late 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s: a hybrid of arthouse and pop, backed by the industry itself but maintaining distance from mass-market blockbusters. Like their American counterparts, some are better than others, with the best quite good and the worst not very.
It All Comes Down to Family
In too many mainstream Hindi films to count, the big tough hero who can throw cars with his mustache and is master of all that he surveys comes home to find his mother yelling at him about his lack of responsibility, his need to get married and other pedestrian concerns. It’s not just something that’s played for laughs, either.
Generally (in mainstream films at least), in a choice between an individual and either a literal family or a group standing in for one, the moral point of view expressed is that the family/group should come first and nearly always does. For Americans, maybe the most individualistic people in history, this is occasionally a tough pill to swallow — but more than any of the other items on this list, it’s essential that one understands the source of this ingredient before approaching these films.
For American audiences, Indian films offer a cultural challenge unlike others posed by different foreign cinemas. Because of the relative isolation of the Indian film industries with regard to the West, since it took almost a century before any broad tendency to emulate other film cultures arose, India occupies a unique place in film culture, one every cinephile should explore. With the right mindset, immersion in these waters can be a wonderful experience indeed.
Special thanks to Filmi Girl and Beth Watkins for their expertise and their help in getting names and facts right in this piece.