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The Things You Need to Know to Get to Grips with Bollywood

You've seen the dancers, the costumes, and herd the singing - but what is Bollywood really about?

Incarnations on Radio 4 explores the lives of 50 great Indian people, so to celebrate series two, we look at India’s incredible film industry.

Bollywood beginner? No problem. Here's what you need to know:

What IS it?

Bollywood is wrongly used as a catch-all term for all Indian film – in actual fact Bollywood refers to the Hindi language film industry, based in Mumbai. The word itself is obviously a conflation of Bombay-Hollywood.

So it’s a smaller Hollywood?

Wrong! It’s often slightly sneered at as a little brother to the US film industry but actually it’s the biggest in the world. 3.5 billion tickets were sold for Bollywood films in 2011,which is 900,000 more than Hollywood. Mumbai churns out 1041 films annually. No time for diva tantrums here – next!

What are the Bollywood hallmarks?

Basically it’s a showbiz fest of melodrama, romance, action, comedy and dance that takes place over three hours with no break. Successful Bollywood films are described approvingly as ‘masala’, meaning a mixture of spices. Western cinema is all about cloaking the camera, but Bollywood glories in artificiality – bright colours, over the top action, heroes single-handedly fighting off hordes of villains and whole villages bursting into song at the drop of a hat.

What are its origins?

Bollywood films are often based on stories from the Mahabharata and involve intricate sub-plots. They also involve Sanskrit dance-dramas, folk theatre, Parsi theatre which introduces the element of dazzling stage craft, and of course Hollywood.

The BBC Proms 2009: Alison Balsom and Bollywood dancers from Honeyís Dance Academy.

So who’s who?

Male stars like Shahrukh Khan are the current heartthrobs, but the multi-award winning Raj Kapoor, who died in 1988, was the original leading man. Nicknamed ‘The Show Man’ and the Clark Gable of Bollywood, he modelled his screen persona on Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. In typical Bollywood fashion he frequently wrote, acted in, produced and directed his films, and often even handled the marketing. Bollywood’s leading women include Sarah-Jane Dias, born in Oman, whose looks for each film are dissected on blogs like and feverishly copied.

Any interesting facts?

Heaps. Bollywood films are particularly popular in the former Soviet Union. They’re filmed all over the world now, including the UK, not just in Mumbai. Indian banks used to be forbidden from investing in movie studios, so product placement was used as a method of funding. And it's thought that the 1975 film Chhoti Si Baat inspired 2005’s Hitch. Which in turn inspired the Bollywood film Partner, in 2007. See?

Raj Kapoor: The compulsive seducer who brought romance, sexuality and song to Indian socialism.

Do say…

Of course it’s all quite Shakespearean, you know, the long-lost relatives, identical twins and coincidences.

Don’t say..

Hang on…if they’re being chased by kidnappers, why have they just stopped to sing?