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The case of Bollywood

The term ‘Bollywood’ was coined some 25 years ago to refer loosely to the cinema production in Mumbai that probably rivals Hollywood, both in terms of quantity of production (about 150 Hindi films per year) and audience (tens of millions of people).

It is interesting that the term Bollywood was quickly coined and became dominant instead of, say, Hindi cinema, Mumbai cinema, or Indian popular cinema.

Indeed, the term Bollywood is also used to symbolise the fact that Indian film production challenges the cultural hegemony of Hollywood. While it may borrow from the North American film industry some of the creative ideas, clichés, and characters, it remains culturally Indian in many ways.

Let us look at some economic and policy aspects. The Indian film and media industry underwent important changes in the 1990s through the liberalisation and transnationalisation of the media landscape, notably the arrival of satellite-distributed television, the expansion of cable television, and, in 1998, recognition of filmmaking as an industrial sector which meant it could receive government subsidies or credits.

The changes happened parallel to wider changes in the Indian economy and mirrored the shifting relationship between India and the world economy. Contacts between people living in India and family members in the diaspora became more intense and Indian elites adopted increasingly consumerist lifestyles that combined western models with an ‘Indian touch’.

Bollywood thus came to be part and parcel of this broader process of socio-economic change and has adapted to it by borrowing, using, adopting, appropriating, and eventually ‘Indianising’ new cultural products and cultural consumption habits related to music but also to film scripts, characters, ways of dressing, interiors depicted, and so on.

Thus for instance while in movies in the 1990s film heroines would wear a sari or salwar kameej for most of the film, today they are dressed for the most part in jeans and skirts.

Films used to be shot in Kashmir, Shimla, or Ooty (all in India) while today many scenes are filmed in Switzerland or also New Zealand, catering to an audience with a taste for travelling abroad and feeling connected to such faraway places.

Music and dancing have also changed. In the past, musical films featured traditional songs and dances such as mushaira, ghazal, and qawwali. Today films have shifted to pop and dance music. The lyrics of the songs now include a mix of Hindi and English words (Hinglish!) and there is even a mix of Salsa, pop, and hip hop.

Another important element of the transformation in Bollywood films has been their representation of emotions. Bollywood films pay more attention to kinship relations (parents, siblings, lovers, community) and related relational emotions such as love, anger or also sacrifice for loved ones. The representation of such emotions is not only more evident (through crying, anger, or fighting) but also pays more attention to the wider kinship relations of the characters (e.g. the parents of the main character will always be shown in the film) thus pointing to the importance of family within the Indian culture.

Interestingly these elements of Indian-ness that persist in Bollywood films – even if combined and adapted to more global consumer lifestyles and cultural templates – are especially appreciated by Indian audiences. Thus while one may see a certain level of MTV-isation of dance and music in Indian films, the ‘Indian touch’ of traditional music and dancing or of emphasising wider family relations remains. In some cases, distancing is created between ‘foreign women’ and ‘Indian women’ depicted in the film so as to reproduce both cultural connection and distance between Hollywood and Bollywood.

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultural Diversity and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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