A Very Brief Introduction to Bollywood

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Art has the magical ability to transport us to another place and time. When looking at an Edgar Degas painting, one might be transported to Paris in the 1800’s. When reading the works of William Shakespeare an individual might feel as though they have stepped into the Globe Theatre, surrounded by men in fanciful costumers. But for me, one of the most transformative arts is…Indian Cinema, specifically Bollywood. Despite never visited the country, I feel as though my experiences with India are boundless, as I have observed the traditions, culture (sanskar), and people, and feel as though I relate to these aspects wholeheartedly. This might sound somewhat ridiculous to say, as surely one cannot understand a foreign country or culture by watching movies, but the pictures and sound played out on the big screen really can transcend the black square they were designed to appear on.

Bollywood made it’s debut in the silent film genre in 1913, with the movie Raja Harishchandra (translated to King Harishchandra). The film had many of the markers and tropes still used in Bollywood cinema today, including a royalty plotline. The market for films in India took off from there and exploded, progressively including the many hallmarks of Hindi cinema, such as playback songs, immensely popular movie album, and the inclusion of dancing actors.

Hindi Cinema, makes the most films of any movie industry in the world. Actors often simultaneously shoot 3-6 films a year, sometimes breaking out into other regional movie industries, of which India has many. Due to the diversity of language in India, often Hindi films are dubbed into other India languages for a pan-India release. In more recent times, Bollywood has acknowledged their global appeal to non-Hindi speakers by providing subtitles for the common languages of North American and European citizens.

My first foray into Bollywood came in high school, when I was browsing Netflix. I think at that point I had run out of movies and television shows that seemed interesting, and happened upon the foreign film category. A glamourous movie poster immediately caught my attention. The movie name was Happy New Year, and after reading the synopsis the plotline seemed interesting enough for me to give it a try. So after clicking on the English subtitles, I settled in to watch the three hour movie (long running times are typical in Bollywood movies). I was completely enchanted! The film had crime, dancing, intrigue, romance, and a particularly blatant brand of humor. I had never seen a non-musical film that featured singing and dancing, and I found myself wanting to watch more films that featured it.

Typically Bollywood films feature some kind of love story, even if the main plotline doesn’t have anything to do with the pinning couple. As a lover of romantic films, this is one of my favorite aspects of Hindi cinema. The interesting thing to note is that instead of more graphic forms of expressing love or lust, the hero and heroine, what the male and female leads of the movies are referred to as, express it through song and dance. Often just when a viewer thinks the couple is going to kiss, the hero and heroine have magically appeared on a Swiss mountain top, frolicking in the snow and singing to each other. This strange and quirky aspect is a favorite of Indian moviegoers, as most of their films are intentionally designed to be appropriate for all members of a family. There are even some popular male actors that have a strict “no-kissing” clauses in their films, despite working exclusively in romantic films, in order to retain a certain kind of image within Indian media.

Within the lighter subject-matter genres of Bollywood, there are many standout films. For those looking to explore Hindi cinema, here are some must-watches: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (translated to The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (translated to Something Something Happens), Jab We Met (When We Met), Queen, Swades (translated to Motherland), 3 Idiots, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (translated to This Youth is Crazy). While most of these films are more recent, from the 1990’s till now, they are often the best introduction to Hindi cinema for beginners.

However, since the 1990’s Hindi cinema has featured more gritty, action films, focusing on crime plotlines, or tragedy films that deal with real life cultural injustices – without the happy ending audiences expect. Some of these notable films include Devadas, Gangs of Wasseypur, Ittefaq (translated to Coincidence), Article 15, Thappad (translated to Slap), Andhadhun (translated to Blindly), and Pink.

So next time you are scrolling through Netflix or Amazon Prime, I encourage you to take a look at any Hindi cinema films perhaps jump into a brand new experience.