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by Phurba Gyalzen

Bollywood: the mere word conjures up colorful and vibrant dream-like versions of reality. A reality far from the truth but which represents a cultural stereotype of Indians held by firangis (foreigners) and, unfortunately, a fictitious culture that most Indians themselves intimately identify with. To understand where these stereotypes originate and why these illusions are a big part of Indian culture is to get to the core of Bollywood. The word itself is, of course, a play on the word Hollywood, representing Indian cinema's equivalent commercial production output.


There has always been a bit of derision associated with the word Bollywood. At some time or another almost everyone has probably eyed snippets of this cinematic world at Indian restaurants or grocery stores and maybe even delighted in the images of men in tight faded jeans and chest-hugging tank tops and women in ornate costumes dancing atop trains and playing peek-a-boo around trees. But even if you're unable to understand what is going on, you can't help but wonder; you can't help but be taken in.

Those snippets actually represent a mere fraction of an Indian film. In order to fully appreciate a Bollywood movie, you have to be ready to settle in for the long haul because each movie is typically three to four hours long. If you were to spend all your waking life watching just newly released Bollywood films, you would not be able to keep up with all the movies that are churned out. This is because Bollywood makes well over a thousand movies a year. The assembly-like production constitutes more than a quarter of the world's films and generates more revenue than Hollywood.

So what makes a film uniquely Bollywood? In the course of spending practically the whole evening watching one to find out, you'll notice some distinct characteristics.

The sheer richness of the films' "masala" (a term used to describe a mix of several herbs and spices) style makes Bollywood one of the most unique genres of world cinema and allows the directors plenty of creative leg-room to invoke energy, pleasure and emotional response from as large an audience as possible. While Hong Kong cinema is known for its radical compression, Bollywood films stray in all directions. The basic story formula revolves around boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love and struggle for family approval. But the central storylines almost always branch off into a number of subplots of varying relevance. A catch-all heterogeneous structure is adopted in which several conventions - a love story, a comedic segment, some violent action, the infamous song/dance sequence - are amalgamated to the central braid of interwoven narratives.

Another feature unique to Bollywood are the numerous song and dance sequences in every film. The movies leave little to the audiences' imagination and consequently their intellect by literally vocalizing every scene and narrating almost all situations. Anything that can't easily be acted out - for example, themes of love and sexuality - will be played out in song and dance.

Until recently, the movies never even showed kissing (Amit Saxena's very recent Jism being one of the few exceptions), an act considered sexually tame by Western standards but seen as sinful by Bollywood censors. Nevertheless, this wholesomeness is sometimes overshadowed by song-and-dance sequences that often elicit a much more provocative and sensual feeling. Lovers in the movies rarely get beyond hand-holding, yet water scenes are very popular as leading ladies sing and dance in a river or on a beach and (though fully clothed) leave little to the imagination.


Just as "Hollywood" describes both the film industry and the city in which it first thrived, "Bollywood," too, is named after a city. Journalists unofficially invented the term in the 1970s in connection with the city where the majority of the production happens: Bombay, India. (Since then, the city has officially been renamed Mumbai, although the term "Mollywood" just hasn't caught on.) Bollywood, however, doesn't represent India's entire cinema output. Bollywood produces primarily northern Indian films, mostly in Hindi. In the southern parts of India, mainly Tamil Nadu, distinct film industries churn out films in languages such as Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Marathi. But there is no denying that Bollywood represents the largest film industry and has the widest audience within and outside of India.

Currently, there are around 12,000 movie theaters in India, ranging from small ramshackle neighborhood screening rooms to overly extravagant movie halls. Compared to the roughly 37,000 screens in the US, it's hard to believe that Indian theaters can cater to a population of over a billion people. Every theater follows the same format when screening films. Unlike here in the US, people don't get their snacks before the movie but rather have a 15 to 30 minute intermission when they are able to grab their munchies and discuss what they've seen so far. For most Indians, these movie halls are the only major source of entertainment, so for the more than 20 million daily moviegoers, going to the movies is as much an event as the film itself. This often makes watching a film a whole day's affair.


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