Free Film School #128: Hooray for Bollywood!

Bollywood splash

गुड मॉर्निंग, वर्ग! Welcome back to CraveOnline's Free Film School! Have you been doing your homework? No? Do you think you can bribe me with that apple? Because you can! That's what makes this school so great!

Did you know that America is not the world's largest film producer? For all the times we critics fling around the term “Hollywood” to represent the bulk of mainstream commercial films, we are blithely ignoring a slightly larger, equally well-moneyed segment of world cinema: Bollywood films.

Bollywood movies are the Hindi-and-English-language films that are produced in Mumbai, India. Mumbai, previously Bombay, has been the richest and most active center of Indian cinema since the inception of the form, and they haven't even gone through a comparative slouch in production, making hundreds upon hundreds of films every year. Bollywood films rarely get mainstream distribution in North America, so many American audiences tend to overlook their importance and ubiquity in the world market, but the sheer overpowering world popularity of the Bollywood form deserves a lecture unto itself.

The word “Bollywood” is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood, and was, I have recently learned, derived from an older term “Tollywood,” which was a portmanteau of Tollygunga (the film center of Calcutta) and Hollywood. It should be pointed out immediately that not all films made in India are Bollywood films, as India is vast (a reminder: it is home to 1.2 billion people), and film markets are varied and scattered throughout the country. Bollywood refers to a very particular type of Indian film, made – typically – in a very specific area of the country.

Bollywood girls

Bollywood films are, not to put too fine a point on it, SPECTACULAR! Bollywood films are almost unanimously musicals, and Bollywood singing stars are immensely popular all over the world. Even if a Bollywood star is only known for dubbing over other actors, they will often have their very own musical careers. And while each Bollywood film usually stays generally within one genre (romance, action film, historical epic), it will be typical for the films to stretch and twist to include several sequences of every genre. Each film will have a love story, a family drama, maybe an action sequence, a comic set piece or two… It seems to be the ambition of every Bollywood film to be all things to all people all the time. And while this may make Bollywood films sound scattered and chaotic, you'd be surprised at how well they cohere, and how glorious they are to behold.

Needless to say, Bollywood films are all shamelessly melodramatic. Sure, there is a realist movement in India (may I point you to the cinema of one Satyajit Ray, a director who may warrant his own Free Film School lecture someday), but Bollywood films eschew all realism for gigantic, flashy romantic musicals. They are dreamy, overwrought fantasies of the highest order. Imagine if The Avengers were a full 100 minutes longer (not counting the intermission), each character had a love interest, and each superhero had at least one song-and-dance number about how much they were in love, complete with their own subplot, and you might get an idea as to the tone of your typical Bollywood movie. Come to think of it, Bollywood Avengers would be the world's most successful movie ever.

How did this come to be? Some critics and film historians have pointed directly to the Great Depression as the key cause of Bollywood's overblown ethos. The Depression hit India very hard, and certain areas of India are still wracked with extreme poverty. What's more, the Indian Partition of the late 1940s (when they separated from England) also sent the country into upheaval. It was a turbulent place for decades.