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by Danny Bowes
July 10, 2013 11:19 AM
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10 Things You Should Know About Indian Cinema

Recent Bollywood hit "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani."

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."

READ MORE: Queue It Up: The Five Indian Films You Must See on Netflix

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.

"Raja Rajinikanth," the first Indian feature film.

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.

Next: Songs!


  • Jennifer Stevenson | October 15, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    I would love to have read this article in its entirety. No, I don't know the author personally. But I can tell when good stuff has been deleted. Please, show us the whole article! This is great, but I want more.

  • Mansi | September 22, 2013 6:52 AMReply

    I like how you've pointed various themes that are inherently Bollywood, from the song and dance routine, to the family culture. Today, however, we're going beyond the regular mainstream masala, which the westerners still overlook. Films like Wake Up Sid, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Chahta Hai reflect an equally "Indian" (urban) culture that resonates with a large part of the audience here. The last decade has witnessed that turnaround. There are countless others, that do not adhere to that routine format. Guess it will take some time before we're recognized for those. ( Lunchbox, English Vinglish, Paan Singh Tomar, Ship of Theseus etc.) :-)

  • Rajesh kumar Pathe | August 7, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    The tag on pic says ""Raja Rajinikanth," the first Indian feature film." Couldn't stop laughing... It is Raja Harishchandra not Raja Rajinikanth....

    Actually Rajinikanth is such a star power today from Southen India that his presence can be seen very well everywhere... So I guess his name appears in first ever movie in Indian Cinema is likely to be accepted by blind people and media .. gosh!!

  • Qasim Virjee | July 10, 2013 5:00 PMReply

    Nice overview of Indian cinema Danny! Whilst Bollywood is larger than ever, it still doesn't produce the majority of feature length content from the region; established Telegu, Tamil, Marathi, Gujurati, Bengali and other cinema cultures are also growing and have been producing a wealth of titles for nearly as long.

    This is something we're working hard on representing at GetFilmi ( - a member subscription service I run which curates a selection of titles and gives members unlimited access to our growing catalog.

    One note on 'Parallel cinema' - the modern independent movement in India is producing some excellent short and feature length films (we have some exciting ones from people like Bengali producer 'Q' coming online soon) and its a phenomenon which will only get more popular - both for people seeking affordable means of producing films as well as audiences; as they become used to digital aesthetics etc...

  • Madhav | July 10, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    This is so gross. There is not even a single mention about malayalam film industry any were. it's contribution to Indian Cinema is not any less. Its unreasonable when a site like indiewire makes a huge mistake like this. This so unprofessional and unethical

  • Grammar Nazi | July 10, 2013 11:24 PM

    Why you being such a pimp, do you even know whats unethical? Doosh!

  • Nikky | July 10, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    Great article. Honestly, when I saw this pic from Ye Jawani Hai Diwani in my newsfeed, I thought this is going to be another condescendingly written piece talking about the usual dance & music routine. I was pleasantly surprised that the writer mentioned that there is more to Indian films than just Hindi films.