The name is a conflation of Bombay, the old name of Mumbai, and Hollywood, the center of the United States film industry. Though some purists deplore the name (they say it makes the industry look like a poor cousin to Hollywood), it seems likely to persist and even has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Bollywood is also commonly referred to as "Hindi cinema", even though use of poetic Urdu words is fairly common. (Linguists would call both Hindi and Urdu variants of Hindustani. This is a politically charged debate; please see the Wikipedia articles on the various languages/dialects.) There has been a growing presence of English in dialogues and songs as well. It is not uncommon to see movies which feature dialogues with English words and phrases, even whole sentences. A few movies are also made in two or even three languages (either using subtitles, or several soundtracks).
Bollywood and the other major cinematic hubs (Tamil - Kollywood, Telugu - Tollywood, Bengali, Kannada, and Malayalam) constitute the broader Indian film industry, whose output is the largest in the world in terms of number of films produced and in number of tickets sold. Bollywood is a strong part of popular culture of not only India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, but also of the Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, and among the South Asian diaspora worldwide.
Bollywood films are usually musicals. Few movies are made without at least one song-and-dance number. Indian audiences expect full value for their money, with a good entertainer generally referred to as paisa vasool, (literally, "money's worth"). Songs and dances, love triangles, comedy and dare-devil thrills—all are mixed up in a three-hour-long extravaganza with an intermission. Such movies are called masala movies, after the Hindi word for a spice mixture, masala. Like masalas, these movies are a mixture of many things.
Plots tend to be melodramatic. They frequently employ formulaic ingredients such as star-crossed lovers and angry parents, love triangles, corrupt politicians, kidnappers, conniving villains, courtesans with hearts of gold, long-lost relatives and siblings separated by fate, dramatic reversals of fortune, and convenient coincidences.
There have always been films with more "artistic" aims and more sophisticated stories (for example, many of the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Gulzar among others). They often lost out at the box office to movies with more mass appeal. However, Bollywood is changing. Current films are increasingly likely either to break the mold or to ironically subvert it. There is now a significant audience of young, educated, urban Indians who want to watch Indian films, but demand a different presentation.
It should also be said that a fair number of films with mass-appeal are either estimable simply as well-crafted amusements (which is no small matter in an anxious world) or even artistic achievements in their own way. Any fan of Bollywood movies will be able to list films that he/she regards as transcending the run-of-the-mill masala movie.
Bollywood song and dance
While most actors, especially today, are excellent dancers, few are also singers. Songs are generally pre-recorded by professional playback singers with actors lip-synching the words, often while dancing. One notable exception was Kishore Kumar who starred in several major films in the 1950s while also having a stellar career as a playback singer. K. L. Saigal, Suraiyya and Noor Jehan were also known as both singers and actors. Of late, a few actors have again tried singing for themselves. Amitabh Bachchan, who started the trend of non-singing stars at the mike with the runaway hit "Mere Angane Mein" in "Lawaaris" in the mid-80's, continued his toe-dipping in singing with turns in "Silsila", "Mahaan" "Toofan" and more recently in the movies Baghban and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, as well as doing a duet with Adnan Sami in the song Kabhi Nahin (Never). Aamir Khan took a turn singing "Kya Bolti Tu" in Ghulam but only because "the character had attitude that only Aamir could do justice to", according to director Vikram Bhatt. These forays, while well-received at the time, have not led to real singing careers for either actor.
Playback singers are prominently featured in the opening credits and have their own fans who will go to an otherwise lackluster movie just to hear their favorites. One of the most recorded of these playback singers is Lata Mangeshkar, who through a career spanning several decades has recorded thousands of songs for Indian movies. Most of the female songs in films from the 60's and 70's are sung by Lata. The composers of film music, known as music directors, are also well-known. Their songs can make or break a film and usually do.
The dancing in Bollywood films, especially older ones, is primarily modeled on Indian dance: classical dance styles, dances of historic northern Indian courtesans (tawaif), or folk dances. In modern films, Indian dance elements often blend with Western dance styles (as seen on MTV or in Broadway musicals), though it is not unusual to see Western pop and pure classical dance numbers side by side in the same film. The hero or heroine will often perform with a troupe of supporting dancers, usually of the same sex. If the hero and heroine dance and sing a pas-de-deux (a dance and ballet term, meaning "dance of two"), it is often staged in beautiful natural surroundings or architecturally grand settings. This staging is referred to as a picturisation. Switzerland has become a popular setting for these picturisations, largely because its Alpine valleys are reminiscent of Kashmir. Though considered by many to be India's most beautiful regions, Kashmir has been generally off-limits for quite some time due to violence.
Songs typically comment on the action taking place in the movie, in several ways. Sometimes, a song is worked into the plot, so that a character has a reason to sing; other times, a song is an externalization of a character's thoughts, or presages an event that has not occurred yet in the plot of the movie. In this case, the event is almost always two characters' falling in love.
Dialogues and lyrics
The film script (frequently credited as "Dialogues") and the song lyrics are often written by different people. The dialogues are mostly written in Hindi, with use of Urdu in situations which require poetic dialogues. Contemporary mainstream movies also make great use of English. Dialogues are often melodramatic and invoke God, family, mother, duty, and self-sacrifice liberally.
- In the 1975 film Deewar, a dialogue between the gangster brother Vijay and his policeman brother Ravi:
- Vijay: Hum dono ne ek hi jagah se apni zindagi ki shuruwat ki thi—aaj main kaha hoon aur tum kahan ho. Mere paas gaadi hai, bungalow hai, daulat hai—kya hai tumhaarey paas?
- We both started our lives from the same place—look where I am today and where you are. I have cars, bungalows, wealth—what do you have?
- <short pause>
- Ravi: Bhai, mere paas ma hai.
- Brother, mom is with me.
Music directors often prefer working with certain lyricists, to the point that the lyricist and composer are seen as a team. Song lyrics are usually about love. Bollywood song lyrics, especially in the old movies, frequently use Urdu or Hindustani vocabulary which has many elegant and poetic Arabic and Persian loan-words. Here's a sample from the 1983 film Hero, written by the great lyricist Anand Bakshi:
- Bichhdey abhi to hum, bas kal parso,
- jiyoongi main kaisey, is haal mein barson?
- Maut na aayi, teri yaad kyon aayi,
- Haaye, lambi judaayi!
- We have been separated just a day or two,
- How am I going to go on this way for years?
- Death doesn't come; why, instead, do these memories of you?
- Oh, this long separation!
Another source for love lyrics is the long Hindu tradition of poetry about the mythological amours of Krishna, Radha, and the gopis. Many lyrics compare the singer to a devotee and the object of his or her passion to Krishna or Radha.
Cast and crew
Bollywood employs people from all parts of India. It attracts thousands of aspiring actors and actresses, all hoping for a break in the industry. Models and beauty contestants, television actors, theatre actors and even common people come to Mumbai with the hope and dream of becoming a star. Just as in Hollywood very few succeed.
Stardom in the entertainment industry is very fickle, and Bollywood is no exception. Popularity of the stars can rise and fall rapidly, based on single movies. Very few people become national icons, who are unaffected by success or failure of their movies, like Amitabh Bachchan. Directors compete to hire the most popular stars of the day, who are believed to guarantee the success of a movie (though this belief is not always supported by box-office results). Hence many stars make the most of their fame, once they become popular, by making several movies simultaneously.
Bollywood can be clannish, and the relatives of film-industry insiders have an edge in getting coveted roles. However, industry connections are no guarantee of a long career: competition is brutal and if film industry scions don't succeed at the box office, their careers will falter. Some of the biggest stars, such as Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, and Shah Rukh Khan, have succeeded despite total lack of show biz connections.
Notable film clans:
- the Kapoors (Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Rajiv Kapoor, Babita Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Karisma Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor)
- the Samarth-Mukherjee connection (Shobhana Samarth, Debashree Roy, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Joy Mukherjee, Deb Mukherjee, Sharbani Mukherjee, Nutan, Tanuja, Mohnish Behl, Tanisha, Kajol, Ram Mukherjee, Rani Mukherjee)
Bollywood budgets are usually modest by Hollywood standards. Sets, costumes, special effects, and cinematography were less than world-class up until the mid-to-late 1990s. But as Western films and television gain wider distribution in India itself, there is increasing pressure for Bollywood films to attain the same production levels. Sequences shot overseas have proved a real box office draw, so Mumbai film crews are increasingly peripatetic, filming in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, continental Europe and elsewhere. Nowadays, Indian producers are drawing in more and more funding for big-budget films shot within India as well, such as Lagaan, Devdas, and the recent production The Rising.
Funding for Bollywood films often comes from private distributors and a few large studios. Indian banks were forbidden to lend money to film productions, but this ban has been lifted recently. As the finances are not regulated properly some of the money also comes from illegitimate sources. Mumbai gangsters have produced films, patronized stars, and used muscle to get their way in cinematic deals. In January of 2000, Mumbai mafia hitmen shot at Rakesh Roshan, film director and father of star Hrithik Roshan; he had rebuffed mob attempts to meddle with his film distribution. In 2001 the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's national police agency, seized all prints of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke after the movie was found to be funded by members of the Mumbai underworld.
Another problem facing Bollywood is widespread copyright infringement of its films. Often pirated DVDs arrive before the print for the picture. Factories in Pakistan and India stamp out thousands of infringing DVDs, VCDs, and VHS tapes, which are then shipped all over the world. (Copying is particularly rife in Pakistan, since the government has banned the import of Indian films, leaving piracy as the only way to distribute them.) Films are frequently broadcast without compensation by countless small cable-TV companies in India and Asia. Small Indian grocery-spice-video stores in the U.S. and the U.K. stock tapes and DVDs of dubious provenance while consumer copying adds to the problem. The availability of illegal copies of movies on the Internet also contributes to the piracy problem.
Satellite TV, television and imported foreign films are making huge inroads into the domestic Indian entertainment market. In the past, most Bollywood films could make money; now fewer do so. Balanced against this are the increasing returns from theatres in Western countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, where Bollywood is slowly getting noticed. As more Indians migrate to these countries, they form a growing market for upscale Indian films. 'Foreign' audiences—in Asian and Western countries—are also growing, if more slowly.
For an interesting comparison of Hollywood and Bollywood financial figures, see this chart: . It shows tickets sold in 2002 and total revenue estimates. Bollywood sold 3.6 billion tickets for $1.3 billion (USD), whereas Hollywood films sold 2.6 billion tickets for $51 billion (USD).
Accusations of plagiarism
Constrained by rushed production schedules and small budgets, some Bollywood writers have been known to borrow the plots or even the scenes of hit Western films; some music directors have been known to copy tunes or riffs, from Western hit tunes (as well as Pakistani hits, Tamil language movies, their own older tunes, etc.). The copyists could copy Westerners with impunity since the Bollywood film scene was largely unknown to most people in the West; in addition, many in the Indian audience were unfamiliar with Western films and tunes. How much plagiarism now exists in Bollywood movies is hotly debated. Some would say that it's sporadic; some that it's frequent.
In 2005, India TV's tabloid show India's Most Wanted ran an exposé that accused several Bollywood figures (including Shakti Kapoor and Aman Verma) of extorting sex from young actresses. The show claimed that the actresses were told that they would not get any movie roles unless they "cooperated". This ploy would not be, of course, unique to Bollywood moguls; film industry figures worldwide have long been rumored to subject actresses to the casting couch. Those accused by the tabloid show have vehemently denied these accusations, and most of the Bollywood establishment has supported them. Surprisingly, the exposé resulted in insignificant public outrage. The casting couch seems to be an open secret as far as a cynical public is concerned.
The Indian screen magazine Filmfare started the first Filmfare Awards in 1953. These awards were to be Bollywood's version of the Academy Awards. Magazine readers submit their votes and the awards are presented at a glamorous, star-studded ceremony. Like the Oscars, they are frequently accused of bias towards commercial success rather than merit.
Other companies (Stardust magazine, Zee TV etc) later entered the award business. Some of the other popular awards are:
They all sponsor elaborately staged award ceremonies, featuring singing, dancing, and lots of stars and starlets.
One recent entry in the awards category is the IIFA Awards. The IIFA Awards ceremony is always held in a major city outside India, where it can attract overseas Indians and foreign audiences. Recent ceremonies have been held in Amsterdam, Singapore, London and South Africa.
Since 1973, the Indian government has sponsored the National Film Awards, awarded by the government-sponsored Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF). The DFF screens not only Bollywood films, but films from all the other regional cinemas and independent/art films. These awards are handed out at a ceremony presided over by the President of India and hence are coveted by all.
Cinema first came to India in 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematographe showed six short films in the Watson Hotel. Three years later Harishchandra Bhatvadekar shot and exhibited two short films. Following that, there were several attempts to film staged plays and imported films were shown in the first decade of the 20th century. The first indigenous silent feature film was produced by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, also known as Dada Saheb – the father of cinema. The cinema industry was well established by 1920, producing 27 films per annum.
By the 1930s the industry was producing over 200 films per annum. The first Indian sound film, Ardeshir Irani's 1931 Alam Ara, was an all-India super-hit, even though the dialogue and songs were in Hindi. There was clearly a huge market for talkies and musicals; Bollywood and all the regional film industries quickly switched to sound filming.
The 1930s and 1940s were tumultuous times: depression, World War II, Indian independence, Partition. Most Bollywood films were unabashedly escapist, but there were also a number of filmmakers who tackled tough social issues, or enlisted film in the struggle for Indian independence.
In the late 1950s, Bollywood films moved from black-and-white to color. Lavish romantic musicals and melodramas were the staple fare at the cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s, romantic confections made way for gritty, violent, realistic films about gangsters and bandits. Amitabh Bachchan, the star known for his "angry young man" roles, rode the crest of this trend. In the early 1990s, the pendulum swung back towards romantic musicals with the success of such films as Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).
As Ganti points out in his 2004 book on Bollywood, the Indian film industry has preferred films that appeal to all segments of the audience and resisted making films that target much narrower audiences. It was believed that aiming for a broad spectrum would maximize box office receipts. However, filmmakers may be moving towards accepting some box-office segmentation, between films that appeal to rural Indians, and films that appeal to urban and overseas audiences. The urban and overseas segment may be smaller, but it has more money to spend.
List of popular movies
Foreigners interested in sampling Indian cinema may wish to consult this List of popular Bollywood films. These are not necessarily the best films produced by Bollywood; even attempting to make a list of the 'best' would be controversial. Popularity is less open to debate. For lists of the best, consult the various web sites devoted to Bollywood, where critics list their choices or readers vote for their favorites.
- Cinema of India
- History of Indian cinema
- Indian film directors
- Indian film music directors
- Indian playback singers
- Indian movie actors
- Bollywood and the portrayal of the economy of India
- Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood, Routledge, New York and London, 2004.
- Kabir, Nasreen Munni. Bollywood, Channel 4 Books, 2001.
- Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Willemen, Paul. Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, Oxford University Press, revised and expanded, 1999.
- General guides
- Upperstall - Film history and reviews
- Bollywhat? - The Guide for Clueless Fans of Bollywood Films
- IMDB - A database for International Movies
- Bollywood for the Skeptical - Annotated mix CD of Bollywood music
- Giitaayan - Hindi lyrics archive
- Down Melody Lane