Posted by: Vikram | November 11, 2008

How badly is Bollywood losing the plot ?

Well, time to get back to the original purpose of this blog, informing India’s netizens what the scholars think about their country. Before I discuss anything, let me point out a few things that make Bwood quite unique and important. In a country, with the second largest English speaking population, Hollywood hasnt been able to make much of an inroad due to the enormous popularity Bwood has enjoyed since the early 50’s. This is quite remarkable, almost every country in the world has some sort of entertainment industry but only India and the US seem to have large, well established movie industries, India actually has atleast 6 well established film industries. In revenue terms though, Hwood dwarfs Bwood. But Bwood is enoromously popular and actually supports upto 6 million jobs in India! In recent days, Bollywood seems to be losing its audiences and Shakuntala Rao of the State University of New York, discusses the same in her paper on the ethnography of Bollywood fans.

Bollywood has been quite a dynamic industry, which is perhaps part of the reason for its enduring mass appeal. Early after independence, filmmakers had vastly different priorities than those in the 70’s, 90s and today, Rao says,

films such as Awara (1951), Bandini (1963), Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Jagte Raho (1956), Shri 420 (1955) and Sujata (1959), the filmmakers provided a narrative with a socio-political message.

Rao missed out Mother India (59) and Naya Daur (57), two of my favourites. For anyone interested, I would highly recommend Jagte Raho and Naya Daur, most of the themes are truer today than even in that time. By the 70s, as the idealism of the 50s faded, the angry young man appeared on the silver screen,

The hero was potrayed as a disaffected, cynical, violent, rebellious, urban/worker who was often seen single-handedly fighting rich businesses and ineffectual and corrupt politicians.

Zanjeer (73) is the classic example of this genre of Bollywood, which has survived in some form even today. Krantiveer (94) and Prahaar (91) are two examples from the 90s, and Rang De Basanti (06) from this decade. RDB is very different in one regard, in that the hero(es) were not poor urban laboures, but college going youth, marking a shift in whom the moviemakers perceive as their primary audience. Bollywood no longer looks at the ‘slum’s view of India’s politics’ but rather that of the ‘suffering’ middle-class.

Bollywood’s style and themes have changed markedly due to the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 90s. Bollywood is no longer simply a ‘movie industry’, it is in fact,

a more diffuse cultural conglomeration involving a range of distribution and consumption activities from websites to music cassettes, from cable to radio, from Delhi to New York ….. now films target small segments of primary filmgoers who constitute the paying public … [who] has disposable income and attracts advertisers.

Bwood produces fewer movies that do well both in urban, semi-urban and rural markets. Even a movie like RDB, failed to do well smaller cities and towns, Rao further notes,

Hits like Dhoom or Kal Ho Naa Ho, made close to 80 % of their profits from urban multiplexes in India and overseas.

The slum dweller has all but disappeared from the landscape of Bwood, Rao points out,

In the new Bollywood, it is the wealthy who are the heroes. Even the actor who personified the angry young man onscreen in the 70s and 80s films, Amitabh Bachchan, plays in recent films, a multi-millionaire industrialist (in Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum) and rector of a wealthy prep school (in Mohabattein).

These facts are probably well known to most readers, the major contribution of the paper is in documenting the reaction to recent Bollywood moves from a set of students at Punjabi University in Patiala, Punjab. I will first just repeat some of their statements verbatim.

About why movies are watched some times,

Some movies can be likened to kalpanalok [dreamworld] where life is absolutely unreal, beautiful, and problem-free. There are nymphets who live in this kalpanalok and we want to see them.

What the movies mostly show these days,

They move from set to set, from lavish homes to lavish offices and back. Have you noticed they never show the streets ? They never show the regular people like us who are walking on the streets or the beggars or the dirt ? Most of the time they are not even in India, they are in Mauritius or Vancouver. Their ‘legs are dangling in the sky’ [Punjabi phrase].

Whether there is any connection with the protagonist,

There is no connection-his clothes, the cars he drives, the houses, going off to Canada or Switzerland – I cannot relate.

In earlier films, it is used to be 80 % reality, 20 % fantasy, now it is 20 % reality, 80 % fantasy.

How the movies are often seen, to be contrasted with the ‘escapist fantasy’ perception of Bollywood prevalent in the West,

They are making a mayajal [web of desire] for us and we are stuck in it.

What the movies almost never talk about these days,

Where are the films about corruption, hatred, unemployment, criminalization of politics ? In its place, we have films like this Dhoom which is nothing but an advertisement for foreign motorcycles and expensive sunglasses.

To debunk the misplaced notion that showing scantily clad woman on TV will change the attitude towards women,

There is never any emphasis on progressive change. [female student]

Contrasting the older movies with the newer ones,

Raj Kapoor’s films in the 1950s showed poor people living in Bombay’s chawls [slums]. Those people are still there but are not in films any longer. Only when they have to show violence or terrorism, they will show the slums.

One very important aspect of the new Bwood is the representation of the NRI,

NRIs are shown as more patriotic, more knowledgeable about Indian culture. In comparison, Indians are shown as more irritated, more dogmatic, they are not as concerned with the society. Everyone here is unhappy, everyone there is happy.

This is part of the broader problem of NRI’s ‘best of both worlds’ illusions which ultimately results from their flawed notions of Indianness (rooted in ‘culture’), Rao says,

Ultimately, such representation of the NRI problematizes the identity of the Indians living in India. While valorizing the life of the NRI as materially happy and spiritually fulfilled, the films alienate the subjects who feel “left behind” …. suggesting that the NRI are all rich but also more “Indian than us”

Needless to say, such representations are rejected by all the interviewees, as they probably are by most of Bwood’s audience.

It is quite clear that the ‘new’ Bollywood is not connecting with its audiences and not addressing their hopes and fears. It seems little more than a glorified foreign tour’s agency for the most part. Bollywood needs to combine its new technical capabilities and financial muscle with good, meaningful scripts and engaging themes to not only win back its main audience, but also remain the integral part of the Indian story that it has been so far. Aamir, Mumbai Meri Jaan, A Wednesday were interesting, thought provoking and well made movies, that I may not personally completely agree with but did lead to some debate. I leave you though, with a classic from Jagte Raho,


  1. @ Vikram : Of all the hindi movies that I have seen lately and to be honest I see very few the one that I liked the most was Khosla ka Ghosla. I wonder if you have seen that one. As for the rest they do give you a formal warning at the beginning of the movie regarding everything being fictitious and made up. So to be fair to them they are letting you know that you should not expect any reality whatsoever :p

    Yes, Khosla Ka Ghosla was good. You see the audience may not be as detached from the movie as to just say ‘oh this is fiction’, films do represent reality some times and the problem is a lot if the new Bwood does not do so well.

  2. Excellent post…nice journey through Bwood’s decades. Today’s cinema has indeed largely got disconnected from real India. One reason certainly is that money is quickly recovered from overeseas screenings etc, leading to a rash of films which are more NRI than Indian.

    There is an important aspect, however, which has probably been missed by the researchers. The first generation of film people had rural roots; thus we had films based in villages. Then came those who had greater exposure to and experience of urban India as ordinary individuals who had lived in chawls and could therefore base stories there.

    Now we have the third generation which is rich and living in a ‘different’ world in cities, and which has a healthy dose of international exposure as students, tourists etc. First hand experience of the lives of ordinary Indians in chawls or villages is missing from their lives. Therefore, they capture on celluloid the world they know.

    If you have watched say Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan, you would have noticed that their normal facial expressions and mannerisms are completely western. These guys will have to work very hard to look like real, poor villagers! It is due to this palpable disconnect that Amir Khan had advised his nephew, Imran, to spend two years, yes two years, travelling as an unknown from Kashmir to Kanyakumari as necessary preparation, if he wanted join films.

  3. […] Vikram looks at a paper that examines how Hindi films have changed over the last two decades: One very important aspect of the new Bwood is the representation of the NRI, […]

  4. Even Kannada movies seem to have the same problem! My in laws want to send me some Kannada movies, but they noted that most are now filmed in Europe, N. America or other places that are “exotic” to people in Karnataka. We are all disappointed about that trend. Guess all the Indian film industries are following the same trend.

    I liked Vinod’s comment about the different generations of actors and actresses. Could be very true as many of them do come from well connected dynastic film families. If that is one of the problems, perhaps the answer is to help open the industry up to those who are outside the mainstream. How that would be done, I don’t know–independent film festivals, film studies programs at universities?

    I never thought of facial expressions as being specifically Indian or Western. Mannerisms, yes but not facial expressions. What is an example of an “Indian” facial expression? Just curious.

  5. Very interesting post.
    I read it somewhere that running successful film industries is all about having the stars who make people open their wallets and shell out top dollar (or rupee or whatever is your preferred currency) to watch their films and only three film industries have managed to do that, you have mentioned two; i.e. H’wood and B’wood, the last one is Hong Kong based Chinese film industry that has given us stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chen

  6. MmeetsK, nepotism is a major problem in India, particularly in the film industry. There are well established film clans in Bollywood, in almost every aspect of film making, although all through the years non-clan actors/actresses/musicians did come in. Examples include Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and AR Rahman.

    I think the perception in India is that white actors are generally quite emotion-less, ‘stone-faced’ is a term I have heard used. This is possibly because among the few Hwood movies that do get popular in India, almost all are action/violent movies. Also, traditional Indian theatre usually incorporates a lot of facial expressions (atleast the varieties I have seen).

    Tazeen, Bwood is successful. But over the years it has been much more than a movie-making business for Indian people/ esp. North India and Mumbai. It was something uniquely ‘Indian’, it often talked about India and situation of contemporary India. I guess a lot of the appeal to a certain demographic was just the stars, but the real appeal was the entertainment and discourse on social issues. People either became stars because they were loved (Aamir Khan, Salman Khan) or because they were admired (Nana Patekar, Kajol) But now, the news stars come pre-packaged and do not develop their own identity.

  7. Vikram I wrote a post about how I prefer cinema today to that in the 70s and 80s, but I completely agree with you here, 70s onwards we had movies suited to make money through the ‘angry young man’ image of Amitabh Bachchan, and it made sense for the film makers, to get a large, lower middle class or the rural audience in India to come and watch his movies. Today they are making movies for the multiplexes, for the overseas audiences and the urban middle class. I completely agree with Dhoom kind of movies being pure lighthearted entertainment (or advertisements), but even a movie like that shows a heroine who does not switch to sari and temple visits when she falls in love, and married heroine don’t just cook wearing perfectly ironed sarees, you see men are also no longer molded in a macho mold, as in Abhishek Bachchan cooks, has no hassles with his un-traditional wife’s friendship with a man – contrast this with Kumar Gaurav and Vijeyata Pandit’s super hit ‘Love Story’ (80s?) where the guy sings ‘mein jo kahoon haan to haan, mein jo kahoon naa to naa’ after being really upset because he does not like other men looking at his girl friend.

    I agree with you that most movies, without intending it, do give some message.
    Family life is projected more realistically in ‘Jane tu ya jane naa’, where the mother and son who live alone take turns to cook! This is true of single mothers (generally widows amongst the poor) who live alone with their sons, I was surprised when I first saw this happening, but Bollywood had me believing that men never entered the kitchen amongst the poor in India! In rural area I still doubt if they do, but in the slums and in nuclear families, even amonst the very poor, they do.

    I did not like the violent ending in ‘Rang De Basanti’ but loved the movie for it’s realistic portrayal of urban middle class, and student life in today’s India. And for the message it did manage to convey, that the youth can make a difference, but obviously the movie was not made as a money making project not as a tool for bringing any change.

    ‘Honey Moon Travels, Pvt Ltd’ was one film that was made to make a difference! It spoke against forced marriages, it explained what life for gay rights and inter-religion marriages, for tolerance, against joint families, about children from unhappy homes, loneliness in senior citizens lives … it was a bold movie, made very lightly.

    Another brilliant one with a strong message was ,I think it was called ‘Tamanna’ by Pooja Bhatt, about a eunuch raising an abandoned girl baby, in this movie a murderer refuses to leave his sick daughter alone, to take supari for killing a millionaires unwanted daughter …
    Tare Zameen Par was also good.

    Brilliant post, made me take a fresh look at our movies :))

  8. You have been tagged 🙂

  9. Bollywood seems to have seriously lost the plot…classic one would be golmaal returns being declared a run-away hit. huh??? while a movie like dasvidaniya as of now has sunk badly. at the cost of sounding biased…i would say that I think Aamir khan is one of those few actors who make/act in movies that are commercial success+have some relevant social message.

    It seriously has. I didnt even bother thinking about golmaal. But, Dasvidaniya sinking badly, breaks my heart. Vinay Pathak is one good actor, he was good in Mithya as well. I hope he gets more chances to show his talents.

  10. […] ignorant at best. Indeed in recent times, the rich have become the heroes in Bollywood, as I have discussed earlier. But slumdogs were the principal protagonists of Hindi movies throughout the 70’s and […]

  11. The public response to watching movies in theaters is going down (with increasing piracy and read-made satellite channels), hence the need of Bollywood to cater to their other audience i.e. NRIs. An then the customer is always right, hence the NRIs are more Indian than us.

    Yes, thats particularly true in urban areas and is something the author of the paper talks about quite a bit. You have raised a very good point. At the end of the day, Bollywood is a business, it has become more important to serve the niche but economically important part of the audience than the mass it seems.

  12. A lot of bollywood today would make most everyday family audiences feel extremely uncomfortable. I cannot imagine bringing my family to see these movies anymore; item dances, love scenes, constant skin show…Bollywood should be called Indian hollywood these days..

    Even everyday Europeans and Americans do not enjoy the same type of lifestyles that these characters enjoy in these mindless movies.

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