|Tuesday 03 July, 2001
Bollywood… The Bad And The Beautiful
Every day in india, 10 million people go to the cinema. This passionate audience is sustained by Bombay’s film factory which churns out hundreds of movies a year. Now the rest of the world wants to get in on this lucrative act.
Our 4 part series Making Movies, includes insights into the Bollywood film industry.
| ||To find out when you can hear Making Movies (part of the Meridian Screen strand of programming) in your region, click on our schedules pages here. |
Bollywood, the Hindi film, the Bombay talkie - call it what you will - exists to define a nation’s dreams, to transport its people up, up and away, above the mundane struggles of a difficult reality.
Some 800 films a year are produced in India, far more than the current output of the USA. In demand actors sometimes work on up to ten films simultaneously. Bombay's film industry has a solid structure, including a dozen large, busy studios.
Prosperity at a Price
Bombay real estate prices are now the world’s highest. But Bollywood’s prosperity has a price.
Four years ago Gulshan Kumar, a multi-millionaire producer and director, was shot dead. It is thought he was the victim of a failed extortion attempt.
A few months later another film-maker, Mukesh Duggal, was killed by gunmen, and attempts have been made on the lives of others.
Bollywood has always had cash problems. Until very recently the Indian government refused to recognise the film world as a proper industry, which made it impossible for producers to get bank loans. Instead they had to turn to private finance.
Inevitably perhaps, some parts of the business attracted the interest and investment of the underworld, starting a relationship which the authorities left well alone. But not any more; the series of threats, extortion bids and murders of big Bollywood names has scared the film world - and led to a new clampdown on mob involvement in Bombay.
It was the attempted murder last year of one of Bollywood’s best known personalities, Rakesh Roshan, which sent the film glitterati scuttling for cover.
He’s a big player; as well as acting, directing, producing and writing, he is also the father of India’s current screen god, the green-eyed heart-throb Hrithik Roshan. Last January, Rakesh was shot six times as he drove away from his Bombay film company.
According to the police, the attackers struck after Roshan refused to give the lucrative overseas rights of his latest film to the ‘godfather’ of Bombay’s underworld, Ibrahim Dawood, who lives in Karachi.
Sixteen of India’s most famous film stars and producers were given round-the-clock security shortly afterwards, amid fears that Bombay’s underworld had stepped up its campaign of terror against Bollywood.
It seems the criminal activity that surrounds the production of these movies is often more eventful than the movies themselves.
The Bollywood Film Formula
Bombay-made films may serve a domestic mass market (India’s population is edging towards one billion), but they are so culturally specific that they can baffle foreign audiences.
The formula is inflexible. Escapist in tone, colourful, luridly lit, with a stilted quality to the acting. Films last three hours, and include something for everyone: drama, action, suspense, music and a love story.
|They have been called ‘masala movies’, after the Indian dish that contains a host of ingredients. |
The main story usually concerns two lovers who must surmount huge obstacles to be together.
|Love scenes are chaste; lovers’ faces may nearly brush, but they almost never kiss. Yet the actress may don a wet sari while mooning over her beau in a musical scene. This is considered naughty. |
Indians commonly go to see a movie ten to 15 times.
Most Bollywood movies have a sweet natured, innocent, modest quality - they feel somehow uncorrupted, untouched by modern life outside India.
All this is changing fast. Satellite television, spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, hit India a few years ago. The country is still reeling from the impact. Indian TV is now dominated by programming based loosely on MTV, not to mention channels running American films and soaps.
Bollywood is becoming international
There is plenty of evidence of a new internationalism in Indian films. For example Vinod Khanna who is one of India’s most enduring film stars. A 30-year veteran of 150 films, he is still at the pinnacle of India’s film industry - think of him as Bollywood’s Paul Newman.
Like many actors of his generation, Khanna heads a family dynasty - and his two sons will follow in his footsteps. It’s a good industry to enter; as Khanna says, a successful film which costs US$1million can recoup US$100 million.
His second son, Akshaye, a handsome young man, has just starred in his first film, Himalay Putra.
To this end, Akshaye will also star in another film produced by Khanna, with a decidedly international bent. Made In India tells the story of a British tourist girl who visits Bombay and falls in love with an Indian boy from an orthodox family. Earlier this year Khanna was in Britain, scouring the country for a suitable director and actors.
Bollywood Must Change
If Khanna wants to make a Bollywood movie in Bombay with imported talent, director Gurinder Chadha is going the other way. London-based and British-born, she was widely praised for her film, Bhaji On The Beach, about a group of Asian women from Birmingham who take a day trip to Blackpool.
She was in Bombay writing a script for a film called London. Actor-producer Sunny Deol asked her to make a Bollywood movie. 'I told him I would, but I wanted it based in Britain.'
Chadha thinks Bollywood must change. 'There have been several big flops recently - much of it to do with TV. People are being bombarded with sophisticated images and visual language. The world’s coming in on Indian TV, so people are rejecting movies that are cliché-ridden.'
She bestrides two worlds. 'I can watch a British, European or American film, knowing the language - then watch a Hindi film and be entertained by the clichés, but also appreciate the high emotion and melodrama, elements in Hindi film that Europeans can’t. These films may be naff to a Western audience, but they’re very affectionately made. If you see a good Hindi film, you just can’t beat it. So the challenge is to combine the two.'
The Bombay talkie, then, is changing even before Hollywood decides to tackle the Indian cinema market in earnest. A small number of US films are released in India, in dubbed versions. A few, notably action flicks like Rambo, have been very successful.
'I hear major Hollywood studios all want to get involved here in some manner,' says Khanna. This is surely true; a country with such a huge population cannot be overlooked as a potential market.
India's First Lesbian Film
The sweeping global changes affect not just Bollywood films aimed at the masses, but also India’s art-house cinema. Fire, director Deepa Mehta’s first film in her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water, was billed as India’s first lesbian film.
Although the love-making scenes in Fire are tame by Western standards, some Indian observers have been outraged. One newspaper columnist wrote, 'There are no lesbians in India. Such things are merely a corruption of the West.'
In defence Deepa Mehta has said, 'I don’t call this a lesbian film, it’s about human beings.'
Mehta had to confront controversy when Fire was released. Right wing extremists stormed theatres, ripped down posters, threw molotov cocktails at screens and staged violent skirmishes in the streets of New Delhi and Bombay.
An experienced film-maker, Mehta now admits that she was naive. 'I thought there might be some problems.' But certainly not violence.
Indian film has a vibrant and fascinating past and future, but it is hard to imagine the ordinary people taking Fire in their stride.
Therein lies India’s dilemma, perfectly refracted through the strains and tensions in its film industry: does it stay pure, modest and isolated? Or does it relax the strictures of its unique culture, embedded in thousands of years of history - and join the wicked world?
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