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Bollywood 1, film critics 0

Why India’s largest film industry matters

Amidst their regular selection of newly released feature films, blockbuster and indie alike, Cinema du Parc is currently hosting a Bollywood retrospective, celebrating a century of filmmaking from one of Asia’s most prolific film industries. Featuring daily screenings and a total of 35 films, the retrospective includes an array of golden-age classics and contemporary blockbuster hits, commemorating Bollywood’s role as a lasting source of entertainment that spans beyond the Indian subcontinent.

India’s largest – but not its only – film industry churns out the largest number (read, hundreds) of films annually for the whole country. Films are mostly in Hindi, with increasingly common infusions of English dialogue, reflecting the official status of both these languages.

From the start, Bollywood cinema has been characterized by its housing of sub-genres within an overarching dominant genre: the musical. In other words, thrillers, rom-coms, melodramas, and others are mostly, if not all, subjected to the song-and-dance convention of the musical. The tropes of this genre are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of Bollywood cinema that the term ‘musical’ is hardly ever used to denote a distinct category. Accordingly, India’s music industry is closely tied to its main film industry, and a singer or composer’s shot at fame and odds of success are determined by their involvement in film; the bigger the budget of the film, the better.

In spite of the abundance of presumably distinct sub-genres, Bollywood films often follow a familiar structure. Hence, the oft-heard dismissal of Bollywood films as formulaic and cliché by those who might lay claim to more refined or experimental tastes. There may be truth to the claim that the industry’s formulaic melodramatic acting and cheesy dance sequences border on the ridiculous. A typical Bollywood plot more-or-less sticks to an over-the-top structure such as the following: orphan-turned-vagabond avenges a murdered loved one and rediscovers a long lost parent or sibling. To add to this winning formula, it is quasi-sacramental that Bollywood plots be infused with a romantic twist. In fact, characterizing a Bollywood film as a romance is just as redundant as calling it a musical – it is just another pillar of the genre.

In spite of their widespread popularity, Bollywood films can be hard to digest academically, with their commonly repeated plot formulas and lack of experimentation in form and structure. Given this seeming lack of substance, the industry is hardly given credit as an artistic medium by film critics. What scholarly minds may fail to notice, however, is the seemingly contradictory function of the industry. While they can serve as mouthpieces for traditional, conservative values, Bollywood films also have the capacity to challenge taboos. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Anari (1959) follow characters who undergo a revelation of their true selves – be it a obnoxious tomboy turned sari-clad potential wife such as in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or the acquittal of an honest man falsely accused of murder in Anari. Beneath the fantastical, escapist entertainment surface of the Bollywood ‘genre’ where actors often sing and dance outside the diegesis of the film, lies cinema’s pivotal role as a regulator of society’s values. Bollywood films often appear cheesy and melodramatic to the western eye, but the cheese and the melodrama function to produce the lulling effect that cinema as a whole has always been accused of. To its native viewers, the Indian film industry is much loved and prided for valid reasons. Amidst a history of political turmoil, widespread poverty and civil wars, emerges an artistic realm that reminds its society of the value of life. It projects this value on big screens across the nation, to impress, dazzle, and ultimately melt away the stress of everyday survival. While you may not be enlightened by the moralistic ending of a Bollywood film or provoked into analyzing its not so out of the ordinary cinematic techniques, there is no question that you won’t be veritably amused by it.

In other words, Bollywood cinema reflects and reinstates the importance of traditional culture while simultaneously exposing its cracks and fissures. This subtle critique of Indian society is an inherent philosophy within Bollywood, and the films included in the Cinema du Parc retrospective exemplify this, telling the stories of people who dare to deviate from the status quo.