Asia Life

Bollywood Cinema: Myth and Melodrama

On its 100th anniversary, it’s a good time to set the record straight about Bollywood’s place in Indian cinema.

This month has seen a wave of tributes to Bollywood cinema, in celebration of its 100th anniversary, from the BBC’s Bollywood 20 with Rajinder Dudrah to a ten-part series in The National.

Stories have documented all aspects of the world’s second largest film industry, worth an estimated U.S. $2 billion, from the losing battle with modernity being waged by talkies viewed in tents in rural Maharashtra to the industry’s greatest directors and its phenomenal growth over the past century. Iconic Bollywood villains, surprising facts and more than enough “best of” lists have taken up a large slice of bandwidth on the Subcontinent this month.

But in the midst of all this chatter, one simple fact often gets buried from view for all but aficionados of Indian film. In short, Bollywood – as we know it today and as it is being reported on heavily this month by media around the world – has only existed since the 1990s.

“The term 'Bollywood' is used to mean the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry in its post-liberalization phase. Economic liberalization came to India only in the 1990s,” Parichay Patra, a graduate student at Monash University who is co-editing Salaam Cinema: Representations and Interpretations – Celebrating 100 Years of Bombay Cinema, told The Diplomat.

As more wealth flowed into India’s burgeoning cities, the rise of a middle class propelled the transformation of what was before simply a film industry with a mixed reputation into a massive culture industry.

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“We refer to this film+culture industry as Bollywood,” Patra added. “The pre-liberalization cinema industry is still referred to as Mumbai-based Hindi cinema industry and not Bollywood. But for a lay reader, they are synonymous.”

While “Bollywood” may be barely scratching the surface of the true breadth of Indian cinema, Hindi cinema rooted in Mumbai has defined the tone that pervades much of India’s cinematic output. To be sure, there are numerous regional cinema industries that would seem massive by the standards of many nations.

“Some (of these industries) are as big and as prosperous as Bollywood,” said Patra, who listed Kolkata’s massive Bengali film industry, alongside others: Hyderabad’s Telugu industry, a Tamil one in Chennai, a Kannada one in Bangalore and a Malayalam one in Kochi, among several others. “Tamil films are quite popular among the diasporic Tamil audience in Malaysia and Singapore, Malayalam films are equally popular among the Malayali immigrants in Dubai. Tamil and Telugu industry are quite huge ones, and the gross annual turnout of these regional industries far exceeds that of Bollywood (in sheer number of films, at least).”

Dr Rajinder Dudrah, a senior lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, agrees. "Tamil cinema is huge is southern states; in some cases moreso than Hindi," he told The Diplomat, adding an important point. "Bollywood travels across borders. Bollywood is in the vernacular; Hindi/Urdu. It's understood by everyone, from street workers to the upper classes, regardless of whether Hindi is the first or second language."

It was this geographic reach, thanks to a built-in linguistic advantage, which allowed Bollywood to prevail as the dominant cinema on the Subcontinent. And the precedent can fairly be described as “epic.”

“Most Indian films (not the art films) tend to be three hours long, with at least five song sequences, heavily melodramatic,” Rochona Majumdar, associate professor of Indian cinema history in the University of Chicago’s Department of Cinema and Media Studies, told The Diplomat. “While the film business started with mythological (films), it soon gave way to ‘socials’.”

She continued, “Post-independence a kind of super-master genre evolved, often referred to as ‘masala’ that combined the elements of socials and action by bringing together family sagas, romance, action, melodrama.”

Dudrah seconds this assessment: “There is a lot of tradition. Indian films in general are steeped in it: Mythology, the founding pillars of Indian society. Many stars have acted in the roles of demigods and goddesses.”

He continued, “Melodrama and movement…singing and dancing are also important. They help break up the action and add new layers of depth to the story. Combined with the length, it takes staying power to sit through a standard Indian film.”

Melodrama and myth, gods and goddesses from an ancient, multitudinous faith that has produced epics like the Ramayana. Add to this one of the world’s most complex, diverse societies in terms of linguistics, race and religion; not to mention caste. With such dramatic terrain to cover, where does one begin?

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Next, we’ll try to at least begin answering this question with the help of more expert advice. We’ll take a look at the highlights from Indian cinema and attempt to offer a primer, a starting point, for those who would like to begin exploring the films of the Subcontinent.