With an output of about 1.000 movies per year and an audience spreaded in all the five continents, Bollywood film industry is nowadays one of the most lively participants in the cinema production system. Deeply rooted in the Indian subcontinent as it is, it is characterised by a unique aestethics, a peculiar way to deal with social issues, and a complex set of cinematic techniques that are not shared anywhere else. But, on the other hand, in the era of globalisation, open market, and quick exchange of informations through technology and the constant flow of people from one world area to another, it would be impossible for Bollywood not to be influenced by foreign filmmaking, especially that spreading all over the earth from Hollywood. Anyway, while watching an Indian movie it is undoubtedly evident that this influence has not yet eradicated traditional principles, as has happened in Italy, France, Germany and other countries that share with the USA the same western cultural background.
Indian people show an overwhelming passion for cinema that dates back to 1896, when Maurice Sestier, going to Australia on behalf of Lumière brothers, stopped at the Watson Hotel in Bombay and screened the first moving images ever seen in India (the series included Arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat and La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon, then very popular in Europe). That new form of art had immediately an enormous success, not only because it inspired awe and wonder in the public, but mainly because local culture had always relied more on visual than written communication.
From then on, cinema has been the major form of entertainment available to the mass and in its mainstream manifestations, except a few innovations and hybridisations, has not changed much in over a century. In fact, it was immediately perceived as something profoundly linked to traditional theatre (especially its ‘Parsi’ variation, a genre created in Bombay around 1850), so that filmmakers very often rearranged its stories and followed (and some still do) the rules set in the Natyasastra, a work on stage theories compiled between 200 b. C. and 200 a. C. The first work by Dada Sahab Phalke, today regarded as the true father of national filmmaking, was the reinterpretation of a very popular mythological Parsi play. The title was Raja Harishchandra (1912), and it immediately attained an unexpected success. From then on, scripts and visual aesthetics have been strictly connected to theatre, comprising many features that are still evident today, such as the importance given to music and dance, the intricate web of love affairs, the highly melodramatic tone of the dialogues, the recurrence of specific plots, the length of the films (usually at least three hours), and the lack of interest for realism.
This is now regarded by scholars and critics as a real and proper canon, which they call ‘masala cinema’ (masala being a common word meaning spice). As a result, cinema has been seen as a national product since its first introduction and, moreover, it has been given an important popular role to play, that is entertaining a wide, often non-literate public. That is why its stories have often been drawn from traditional literature and didactic mythological tales, and explains why the audience did not like the first foreign movies screened in the early Twentieth century: the characters they depicted and their lives were too different and incomprehensible to have a strong appeal.
Nonetheless, some influences from abroad began to be more evident since the 1950’s, when the golden era of Hindi cinema was running parallel to another huge phenomenon in cinema history, that is to say the age of grandeur of Hollywood, the dream factory. The best example of the similarities which connected the two continents was probably Raj Kapoor, who was greatly influenced by Frank Capra (whom he met) and directed some movies in which himself interpreted the role of Raju, a poor wanderer reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin (see Sri 420, 1955). Anyway, that was a very exceptional case, since most of the similarities between American and Indian cinema involved just the production of the films, while all the artistic issues were still dependent on local history and culture. Director Mehboob Khan, for instance, visited Hollywood, where he met and befriended Cecil B. De Mille.
From his American colleague he learned how to realise superb images by means of spectacular sets and hundreds of animals and extras, producing movies that might be labelled as Indian colossals. But that was all he borrowed from the American industry, since the themes and the concerns of his films were taken from local daily life and particularly from the human values and the bad living conditions in the rural areas of the nation (see, for example, Aan, 1952). As has been pointed out by Manjunath Pendakur, “major Indian directors in different languages borrowed heavily from Hollywood. This can be clearly seen if you compare two films in black and white made in the late 1940’s - Chandralekha by S. S. Vasan, the founder of Gemini Studios in Madras; and Humayun by Mehboob Khan, the founder of Mehboob Studios in Bombay. Vasan and Mehboob were keen observers of the trends and techniques of Hollywood films of the period.
They, however, modified what they borrowed from the outside to fit the Indian conditions, especially the audience expectations”. So, what they took from Hollywood were just set tricks, while the core of the movies (such as plot, acting, aestethics) remained profoundly Indian. The same can be said about the production of the other major artists of the period, such as Bimal Roy (director, in 1943, of an excellent documentary on the terrible famine in Bengal), Guru Dutt (who in 1959 directed Kagaz ke Phool, on the futility of fame and cinema itself), and Kwaja Ahmad Abbas (whose Dharti ke Lal, 1946, again dealt with Bengali famine and the social responsibilities of British Government and local nesters), all of whom put into their works the secular, socialist values of the then prime minister Javahararal Nehru, particularly concerned about social equality.
It is interesting to note that most of the professionals of the 1950’s were much more impressed by the aestethics of French ‘nouvelle vague’ or Italian neorealism (which dealt with Italian lower class characters trying to make a living after World War II) rather than that of Hollywood. Bimal Roy, for example, was literally captured by Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (1948), which was screened during the first Indian International Film Festival held in 1952, and took it as an inspiration for his Do Bigha Zamin (1953), awarded at the 1954 Cannes Festival. This notwithstanding, the most popular form of cinema in India was commercial, so that the public was more attracted by stories taken from mythical tales than experimentalism or innovation in visual language. Thus, Indian cinema still had much more in common with national theatre than to European or American film industry.
Later on, in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Indian filmmakers and producers seemed to be still interested mainly in local matters, since independence from the United Kingdom (1947) left the entire population alone to deal with two opposite but equally important problems: on the one hand, the desire to retrace and revitalise traditions and ancient values suppressed by British colonial policy, and, on the other hand, the necessity to work towards the innovation of the country, which comported a critical analysis of the existing socio-political dynamics. Thus, two different ways to approach cinema came into being and, subsequently, two different kinds of movies were contemporarily screened.
One was especially aimed at entertaining those who wished to preserve their religious and political roots, so that it usually continued taking inspiration from epic sagas (such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) and supported a set of values which were opposed by the Government, that sometimes looked at them as real and proper threats to human rights (for example to the dignity of women, or the attempt to limit arranged marriages and dowry). As a result, economic funds were established in order to promote the other kind of cinema that characterised the 1970’s. This one was much more concerned about issues arising from the problems of the urban population, as unemployment, poverty, and, above all, the disparity in living conditions due to social inequality. It was less commercial than its rival (in fact, it never gained a relevant success), but the governing elite thought it might be more helpful to make the nation acquire self-consciousness and look at the future ahead, rather than lingering on its own past.
The best items of this particular genre were made by the founders, in 1949, of the Navketan Studio company, the three brothers Vijay, Dev, and Chetan Anand (their most interesting work being Guide, 1965). Anyway, what people wanted was an easily accessible plot and awe-inspiring visual language, with a combination of social issues and action or comic sequences. Basically, the audience wanted to be involved in the film itself, take part in the story, rather than sit and watch silently. As reported by Manjunath Pendakur, “many viewers compete to recite the dialogue along with their star’s performance, dance, whistle, and clap. Some bring musical and even noise-making instruments to the theater to show their appreciation and to draw attention to themselves...
In effect, the audience actively transforms watching movies into a performative act. In other words, the cinematic experience and meaning-making by the audience is not idle, analytic activity but real engagement with the film. It is often taken to its extreme when the active audience in its excitement of a fight on the screen tears up the seats or gets into a brawl”. This comes as an explanation of the appeal that Hollywood action cinema had on part of Indian commercial production of the 1970’s. Due to dissatisfaction and disillusionment towards politicians and better social conditions that looked (and were) still far to come, the public was attracted by the kind of urban, avenging hero impersonated by actors like Charles Bronson, or characters like those found in western and Asian kung-fu movies (even their physiognomy changed in order to bear resemblance to foreign stars, so that slim, handsome actors were now privileged).
Therefore, violence was an essential feature in many hits of the early 1980’s, following the trend set in Hollywood by crime movies such as Michael Winner's Death wish (1974). But, exactly like in their American counterparts, violence was just a means to establish social justice and fulfil a sad but legitimate vengeance, so that the protagonists of the movies were not criminals but modern heroes, and their victims were not very different from the villains of Elizabethan drama. The most popular actors who came to interpret this role were Amir Khan, Sunil Shetty, and Bobby Deol, but the most loved of all was Amitabh Bachchan.
Among the many hits which featured him, there are Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973), the story of a policeman who decides to practise self-justice (thus forerunning Gene Hackman or Charles Bronson’s performances); Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), a huge hit that was screened in Bombay for five running years and represents an interesting example of Indian western inspired by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood (in fact, it was labelled ‘curry western’); and, lately, Tatinemi Rama Rao’s Inquilab (1984), a work similar to Zanjeer, in which the protagonist faces political corruption and at the end picks up a machine gun, murdering all the corrupt leaders. What is more, during the 1980’s foreign movies, especially American, were made widely available by two relevant changes: the spread of technology and an unexpected decision of the Government.
As summed up by Lalitha Gopalan, “the arrival of video shops in India also exposed the film-going public to world cinemas, an opportunity previously afforded only by film festivals and film societies. Suddenly films from other parts of Asia, Europe, and America were easily available to the film buff. Filmmakers were also very much part of this video-watching public, freely quoting and borrowing cinematic styles... In addition to video and satellite saturation of the visual field, American films (sometimes dubbed in Hindi) started reappearing in Indian theatres after a new agreement was signed between the Government of India and Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. (MPPDA) in April 1985, ending the trade embargo that began in 1971”.
Anyway, in a land of contradictions such is India, this keen attention to Hollywood’s production could not exist alone and monopolise the whole film industry: in fact, during the same period there was a quick return to traditional values and aesthetics prompted by some political parties, that were extremely aware of the propaganda power which might be exerted from the screen on an audience that for the first time in history got to know what the rest of the world was like. So, as has been stated by Deepa Gahlot, there has been a resurgence of “back-to-roots traditionalism in Indian society, reflected in the phenomenal popularity of religious and mythological serials on television and films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge and Pardes, which focus on the traditional Indian family, ancient rituals and patriarchal values.
There is doubtless a commercial element involved - everything ultimately turns into a marketing tool - but the Hindi movie is fulfilling a need to cling on to something familiar in a fast changing world which is sweeping away cultural contrasts and demanding uniformity (and conformity) in the name of globalisation. It has perhaps become imperative for Indian films to depict what is in the Indian mind - an urgency to accept the global, but retain the traditional”. In 1989, for instance, the Bharata Janata Party (BJP) formed a coalition with some other parties and won the elections. Because of its nationalistic principles, deeply linked to Hindu religion, both inner and foreign policy of the country were changed in order to reshape national identity, thus dismissing many of the democratic and secular values established after independence and those set by Javahararal Nehru.
Thus, India was swept by a wave of religious fundamentalism, thanks to the generalised low level of education and to the harsh economic liberism that, since 1991, has been adopted in order to receive financial help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A policy that among its many effects had that of widening the gap between the highest and the lowest ranks of society. Since the news and the informations offered by the press were (and still are) far from being fully available to non-literate Indians, the BJP realised that television and cinema were perfect instruments to communicate ideas and influence the opinion of the population.
So the party financed a large number of movies to re-establish the traditional social and religious system by means of melodramatic stories which depicted a nation still subdivided into castes but where everybody was happy in that way (see, for instance, Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, 1994), furthering the fatalistic philosophy that is even today so typical of the subcontinent. Anyway, it must be noted that the mixing of politics and cinema has been practised by all parties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), for instance, has always used it to gain legitimacy with the masses, and in 1952 financed Krishnan Panju’s Parasakthi, a work characterised by critiques of social evils such as caste, superstition, idolatry, black marketing, and class domination. But the most nationalistic and conservative factions have been the ones most attracted by this persuasive power, and regarded it a powerful propaganda instrument to prompt the population to rebel during British colonisation.
It is interesting to stress that it was during that period that female characters were given the highest attention and psychological introspection they ever gained in the history on national cinema. In fact, women (especially mothers and ‘amazons’ like Fearless Nadia) were taken as symbols of India itself, fighting to survive and attain freedom. Nowadays, these political movements promote even films featuring some of the issues arising from the clash between the Hindu and the Muslim community, such as the explosion of violence that in some areas of the country end up in uncontrollable riots. This does not mean that filmmakers and producers want to help to subvert the status quo, but it is clear that they are perfectly aware of the impact of movies on their specific audience. This attitude has obviously led to the rejection of the life style and some messages communicated by Hollywood cinema and consequently to a sometimes limited circulation of the movies.
Indeed, Bollywood films that are deeply rooted in Indian cultural milieu have in some occasions taken over the role played by their American counterparts, as has happened in those regions of the world which are highly populated by Indian immigrants. In fact, Manjunath Pendakur states that “in Africa, if there is any competition to Hollywood imports, it is not from the British or the French films but films imported from India... In the colonial period, when Indian workers migrated to the West or to Africa, they seldom kept in touch with India. They did not have the luxury of modern communications such as telephones, tape recorders, video cameras, and relatively inexpensive air travel...
These immigrants have now reached middle age and are nostalgic about their homeland. As may be expected, films that rekindle or capitalise on that nostalgia do well. In fact, some of the films are beginning to pick up on this idea and are exploring this duality of living in two cultures and longing for a past that just does not exist anymore. For instance, the issue of bringing a bride from India to ‘keep all that is good in Indian tradition’ or ‘to make sure that a son is not lost to all the negative values of the West’ is explored in Subhash Ghai’s Pardes (1997)”.
From the 1990’s some directors have begun looking at Hollywood again, some simply to remake its hits with local actors, some to capture its cinematic language to produce original works of art. The former group does not do anything new, since remaking has always been common in Indian cinema, but success is everyday more difficult to reach since, as has been stressed in The Hindu, one of the most popular newspapers of the country, “it is time that Bollywood and the rest of Indian cinema begin to look at European or other Asian films for inspiration. France, Italy, Spain, Japan, China and Iran are creating mesmerising cinema that is hauntingly unconventional and gripping even to someone like this critic so used to the Hollywood pace and style.
So, innovation, not duplication is the call of the day. A good story, a neat script, imaginative direction need not mean boredom”. On the other hand, even though the second group tend to borrow narrative techniques (sometimes affecting even an essential element like music) and devices such as new shooting angles or montage styles (Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela, 1995, and Daud, 1997, remind of those popular among MTV’s public), the content of the movies is often still rooted in its countrymen’s reality, both in India and abroad (see, for instance, Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge, 1995; Kundan Shah's Kya Kehna, 2000; and Fahran Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai, 2001). But, rather than concentrating on traditional culture and values, these directors prefer to analyse how they are bypassed by immigrants or new generations in order to cope with insurgent problems arising from globalisation, migration, human rights, and all the other aspects of contemporary life.
The reason of this new trend (which has been labelled 'middle cinema') is due to the fact that such filmmakers often live or have studied abroad, so that they have a more broad cultural background, and their artistic horizon is not just limited to their native land. Among the most popular and internationally recognised, there are Manish Jha, who has directed two films on the condition of Indian women (A Very Very Silent Film, 2002, which has been highly acclaimed at Cannes Festival, and Matroobumi. A Nation Without Women, 2003); Dev Benegal (see English, August, 1994, about the difficulties of going back to a rural village after a long time spent in the city, and Split Wide Open, 1999, a portrait of the bourgeoisie living in Bombay); Rahul Bose (author of Everybody Says I'm Fine!, 2001, highly acclaimed in USA and Canada); and Ram Madhvani (whose Let’s Talk, 2002, deals with extra-marital love relations).
But the filmmakers who have attained the highest commercial success are Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, both experimenting a new interpretation of Bollywood clichés with an eye to Hollywood blockbusters. The former moved to Canada in 1973, where she met many other immigrants from India whose stories she narrated in Sam & Me (1990). International praise came with the trilogy Fire (1997, about arranged marriage and women’s difficulty to oppose it), Earth (1998, on the rivalries between her homeland and Pakistan), and Water (completed just a few months ago, it deals with widows living in the holy city of Benares). But the most famous of all her works is Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), where she took inspiration from Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) to show with pungent irony how American romantic comedies are not very different from the melodramatic films produced in Bollywood, and at the same time to mock Indians who are still fascinated by a cinematic genre that has not changed much in over a century.
Mira Nair left India three years later, in 1976, to study sociology at Harvard University. In 1985 she made India Cabaret, an interesting example of ‘cinéma vérité’ about night club dancers. But her most important works are Salaam Bombay (1988, awarded with the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes Festival), about kids living in the streets in precarious conditions; Mississippi Masala (1991), on Indian immigration; and Monsoon Wedding (2001), a blend of Hollywood and Bollywood comedy style which deals with the problems of the new generations squeezed between western way of life and traditional values imparted by their parents.
Finally, it must be taken into consideration that in the next future Bollywood will be looking at Hollywood in a new, never experienced before way. That is to say as a client or, better, a commercial partner that might find in India inexpensive but highly professional studios for post-production services. As has been clearly explained by Siddharth Srivastava, a pre-eminent New Delhi journalist, “with Hollywood movies as well as international television networks witnessing an increasing confluence with information technology (IT), given the high dose of special effects, animations that pepper any script, India with its huge IT manpower and technical expertise is being seen as an ideal destination...
Till now, post-production of movies from the US have been outsourced to locations such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea. India is the new entrant. As a matter of fact, Asian countries, too, are passing their work on to India, given the enormous savings involved. Going by the money saved, it is not hard to see why India will make it as a BPO base for digital content, special effects and animation. According to estimates, the cost of outsourcing one hour of animation work to India is estimated to be close to US $ 60,000, versus the $ 160,000-200,000 that other leading animation centers in Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines in Asia charge. In the US, it would cost between $ 250,000-300,000 to produce one hour of animation.
Though CNN and movies such as The Matrix are not yet being produced in India, inquiries are pouring in. Global entertainment and media giants such as Walt Disney, Fox Entertainment and Time Warner are looking to tap Indian resources”. This means that not only is Indian cinema (or at least part of it) trying to mix new and old solutions, contemporary and traditional thought, but it is probably going to reassert its position in a global scale, both by the production of films addressed to a world public and by a financially convenient contribution to the output of its American counterpart.
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