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.