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The culture that Bollywood creates

Shoma A Chatterji |

The concepts of ‘Bollywood’, “Indianness” and “Globalization” are that in most countries beyond India, the term “Bollywood” is not equated with Mumbai cinema made in Hindi but also to regional cinema made across the country, mainly the Southern states where the total output of film production reportedly exceeds the output from the rest of India, including Mumbai. In 2001, “Bollywood” entered the portals of the Oxford English Dictionary. The 2005 edition defines it as:

“A name for the Indian popular film industry, based in Bombay. Origin 1970s. Blend of Bombay and Hollywood.”

OED acknowledges the strength of a film industry which, with the coming of sound in 1931, has produced some 9,000 films. In 2002, the term entered into the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. In 2003, the term stepped into the new illustrated Oxford Dictionary. This takes away the rather pejorative implications “Bollywood” earlier carried on the world map including India so much so that celebrities from Indian and Mumbai cinema did not like the free and fluid use of the term in serious discussions on Indian cinema.

Bollywood not only signifies the large number of films made and viewed in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), but also involves the distribution, subtitling, dubbing and watching of these films across the world. Bollywood films in Hindi are subtitled/ dubbed into Asian and European languages that do not apply to Indian films made in other regional languages. Bollywood cinema draws audiences across all of South Asia, Africa (including the Maghreb countries of North Africa), South America, Eastern Europe and Russia.

These films are also imported into all major metropolitan cities with a sizeable Diaspora South Asian population. For decades, Hindi films have alluded to transnational identities to keep up to certain preconceived and fixed notions of ‘Indianness.’ But notions began to change and a much quoted song from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955) comes up perhaps as the earliest and most symbolic example used by recent film analyses that suggests fixed notions of “Indianness” call for a change and for some mobility of thought and ideas.

The most popular song from the film (hugely successful in India and the Soviet Union), goes as follows:

“My trousers English,

The red hat on my head is Russian,

But my heart remains Indian”

The song, lip-synced by Raj Kapoor merrily strolling down the road with a backpack, became a symbol for classic Bollywood; i.e. “assert[ing] an Indian identity in the face of global consumerism.” By foreshadowing the widespread economic shifts to come in later decades, the song became a “narrative about the production of nationalism through its intricate entanglement with the global that though the Indian nation is swamped with all kinds of foreign influences on products, this does not need to undermine the strength of patriotism.”

The late 1970s and early eighties continued to reassert the negation of the West in the form of angry heroes fighting against government and societal corruption, and trying to adjust India’s role in the changing dynamics of global politics. Bollywood in the ‘90s saw a string of big budget melodramas aimed at both the burgeoning Indian middle class and the diasporic Indian audiences, who the producers quickly recognized held the potential to make the film industry bigger than it already was. This new breed of films termed “urban tales,” “diaspora films,” or “NRI films,” were “glossy, consumerist fantasies featuring middle-class worlds and transnational lifestyles” that “captured the imagination of audiences within India and abroad.”

Soon, the biggest producers began financing films focused to some extent on the NRI. The air and the ambience were simmering just beneath the Bollywood surface to find concrete shape that would spell a beautiful and happy marriage between Indian values and Western lifestyles of the resident Indian and the Indian diaspora where tradition wins even in the West over running away like the lovers of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.

Filmmakers were looking for this new brand of “Indianness” in terms of plot, story, theme, music and cast. In 1995, Aditya Chopra, son of producer/director Yash Chopra and heir to the Yash Raj Films empire made his directorial debut with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. This youthful love story follows Raj, a rich and spoilt British Asian boy who falls in love with Simran, a modern British Indian girl who is still firmly rooted in her traditions, on a tour across Europe. Realizing that she is betrothed to her father’s friend’s son back in India, he follows her back to her native Punjab to win over her family.

Chopra shows that despite the male protagonist being a NRI, he respects Indian family values and shuns the idea of eloping with the woman he loves. The popular theme of countless romantic films prior to DDLJ had involved the lovers rebelling against their families to be together. Chopra, in an attempt to add a new twist to this Bollywood formula and NRI characters, created a very westernized hero for whom parental consent is vital for the success of his relationship with the woman he loves. With this reformed portrayal of Bollywood lovers, and NRIs at that, Chopra created a film that was young and universal in its appeal, yet with very traditional roots and values.

The film released to unprecedented hype, and became one of the biggest grossing and the longest running films in Indian cinematic history. As of 13 April 2007, DDLJ entered its 600th week of continuous run in theatres, a record perhaps unmatched anywhere in the world. Bollywood cinema extends to other areas of cultural products directly linked to the films reinforcing and almost institutionalising the Bollywood culture among the masses in these countries.

The viewing of Bollywood films also entails the consumption of other related cultural products which are mass produced in demand to the popularity of the Bollywood phenomenon. These direct market extensions include (a) film music albums sold in hundreds and thousands the world over; (b) readership of international film magazines such as Cineblitz, Filmfare, Movie and Stardust with film reviews, gossip and star profiles; (c) film posters and postcards; (d) the countless number of electronic pages on the world wide web with Bollywood pictures and texts that incorporate fanzines for the adoration of favourite films, actors and actresses.

Indirect inclusions are – (a) beauty parlours and hair-cutting saloons using stars as a marketing strategy to boost their sales and attract clients, (b) star endorsements of every imaginable product from paan masala to diamond jewellery, (c) reality shows anchored, judged and conducted by big and small stars that pushes up the TRP ratings of these programmes and so on. Globalization and the convergence of various forms of media and new information technologies have fuelled the widespread and rapid promotion of ideas and values at the local, national and global levels in a scale and intensity never experienced before.

Filmmakers, actors, technicians, distributors, exhibitors and the advertising world are constantly exploring how this redefined and reworked definitions of ‘globalized Indianness’ can be catered to for the Indian and the diaspora audience. As a powerful socialising agent, cinema is an important tool as well as site of struggle for Bollywood filmmakers to find a way out through subject explorations that would fit into the constantly changing parameters of phrases like “Bollywood”, “Indianness” and “Globalization”.

On the other hand, the widening parameters of these concepts and ideologies also open up new windows of exploration that spread out the borders of these phrases to invite, welcome, acknowledge and affirm multiple areas, subjects, budgets and genres of cinema. The possibilities are infinite, pervasive and ever-changing. B-schools have been organizing topics in their syllabus to find out how Bollywood contributes to different theories and principles in management. Examples of films taught are – Lagaan, Chak De India and Swades.

It is interesting to point out that the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, had organized an International Conference entitled Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood from 30 September to 2 October 2010. The Vienna conference was unique in focusing on Khan as a point of departure for interdisciplinary discourse.

“The actor and his significance as protagonist for diverse dimensions of the globalization of Indian cinema constitute the prism through which the dynamics of global Bollywood are analysed from a multitude of directions,” said the brochure, adding, “He offers possibilities of identification and belonging in diverse cultural contexts; this mediating and inter-connecting function as well as his strong, emotional performance is the origin of the star’s worldwide success.”

It would be apt to conclude with Benedict Anderson’s argument. Anderson writes, “nationality, or as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism are cultural artefacts of a particular kind.

To understand them properly, we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”

(The writer is a veteran film critic.)