Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan in arguably his best performance in cult classic ‘Swades’TWITTER/BOLLYWOODIRECT

It was during school that I first understood that, in the eyes of Western audiences, Bollywood was a laughingstock. Discussing the subject with a fellow South Asian classmate, my white, eavesdropping form teacher disbelievingly sputtered out the word “Bollywood” whilst attempting to contain his laughter, proceeding to comment: “You seriously watch that?”

Yes, I do. Despite general consensus that these films are trivial, exaggerated and lacking in quality, I would argue that this view is an extreme generalisation. Of course, it is undeniable that there are some Bollywood productions which pertain to those aforementioned qualities, but the same can be said of Hollywood and their subpar Hallmark productions. As is the case in Western cinema, a sub-genre should not define an entire industry. Bollywood forms just a part of Indian cinema, and this sweeping statement not only diminishes the skill of many members of the Indian film industry, but prevents the discovery of many quality films.

“Perhaps, then, a denunciation of Bollywood due to its supposed lack of philosophical sophistication or intellectual complexity is rooted in elitism and classism. ”

Throughout the subcontinent, Bollywood is watched by almost all. In a country rife with political and social divisions, Bollywood serves as a link which unites communities, regardless of class, gender or caste. Despite criticism of their apparent melodramatic and shallow nature, it is imperative that the context in which these films are produced is noted: a large portion of those watching Bollywood productions are of lower socioeconomic standing, as cinema, alongside sport, is the principal source of accessible entertainment in India. Perhaps, then, a denunciation of Bollywood due to its supposed lack of philosophical sophistication or intellectual complexity is rooted in elitism and classism.

Stunning cinematography of Bollywood: Karan Johar’s box office hit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie GhamTWITTER/GURDEEP_0701

Context aside, one aspect often overlooked with regard to Bollywood is the artistry involved in the filmmaking process of each production. As the industry grows and budgets increase, the films are prone to more extravagant features such as grand-scale dance sequences. Easily dismissed as unnecessary and ostentatious, these routines involve extremely complex choreography, and the vision of dozens of dancers performing in synchronised harmony creates a cinematic experience unlike any other. The skill, required in order to compose, train for, and actually perform these dances, is immense, and too frequently discredited in the name of frivolity. Additionally, the music featured within Bollywood films also reflects the creative capacity of the industry. Renowned for their original scores and soundtracks, these pictures showcase not only the caliber of Indian music, but the ingenuity of it, producing hit after hit, each simultaneously capturing the essence of the film which they were commissioned for while generating an inimitable sound. Finally, Bollywood films contain some of the most striking cinematography in the industry. Bursting with bold colour palettes, shots of picturesque landscapes and imagery of Indian art, each still presents eye-catching features, some of which are exclusive to solely this sector of film. And all this is merely scratching the surface of Indian cinema.

Not all song and dance: still from seminal director Satyajit Ray’s social realist classic Apur SansarTWITTER/FATIJAFAR2

Indian cinema is arguably as diverse as its anglophone counterparts, but due to insufficient exposure and subsequent misconceptions, this fact remains unknown by many. Despite the belief that the industry solely produces Bollywood films, throughout the history of Indian film the genres, styles and themes of these productions have been expansive.

“In a country rife with political and social divisions, Bollywood serves as a link which unites communities, regardless of class, gender or caste.”

When relating the topic of Indian film history, it is imperative that Satyajit Ray is mentioned. His filmography, which spanned from 1955 to 1992, including the eminent Apu Trilogy, can be classified as one of the greatest achievements in filmmaking. Opting to focus on the plight of the destitute and discriminated against, Ray’s films serve as a direct contrast to the misconceptions surrounding modern Bollywood and its vapidity. Pather Panchali, his first film and one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, introduced an entirely dissimilar tone from Bollywood’s trademark musicals and melodramas. It recounts the story of a young boy whose family suffers from abject poverty, yet the film still manages to affect a tone that is humorous and loving, aptly representing the disadvantaged by demonstrating their humanity rather than utilising them as a dramatic tool. Not confined to one social issue, Ray tackles the subject of gender roles and feminism masterfully in Charulata, a tale of a restricted housewife and her struggle to escape the confinements of the patriarchy through accomplishing her own ambitions. Shot predominantly in black and white, his films changed the face of cinema through his social realist narrative, earning him the admiration of countless Western filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan.

Cricketers fight the constraints of colonialism in Ashutosh Gowariker’s LagaanTWITTER/PIYUSHPARASHAR

In between these two contrasting aspects of Indian cinema exist a multitude of genres. Featuring the late Irrfan Khan, The Lunchbox is a charming minimalist film about romance through mistaken identity. Completely free from song or dance sequences, the film elects a more subtle and delicate tone, providing a poignant and heart-warming feel whilst also remaining understated. Lagaan, though yet again featuring romance, is a period piece which focuses on the rivalry between the British and Indians during the British Raj through the act of playing cricket. Featuring some of the finest acting, music, costume design and cinematography of the 21st century, this epic is unmissable. Perhaps most staggering to the predeterminations of Western audiences will be the viewing of Gangs of Wasseypur, a two-part dark comedy crime film often cited as India’s answer to The Godfather. Maintaining the boldness and music of Indian films, the picture also draws on influences such as Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, ultimately creating a filmic experience which blends the techniques of various film industries, resulting in a successful amalgamation of the greatest aspects of each different culture without losing its sense of being inherently Indian.

“Bollywood is not a source of derision, but rather a vital element of Indian culture, and thus to mock it is to ridicule the communities that cherish it.”

Ultimately, there is no denying that, like with any other film industry, India’s has its fair share of subpar quality. Why is it, then, that we choose to consistently focus on the negative aspects of Bollywood but are able to view Western industries as multifaceted? This industry, more so a cultural testament than a mere business, is filled with some of the greatest artistic talent in the world, and to ignore the creative output of an entire subcontinent due to a preconception is prejudiced. Believe it or not, Bollywood is not a source of derision, but rather a vital element of Indian culture, and thus to mock it is to ridicule the communities that cherish it. Furthermore, there exists a whole filmic output in India beyond Bollywood which deserves attention, so next time, consider it before criticising.


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World Cinema in 2020