The First Post

THE Bollywood ‘Oscars’ ceremony being held in Yorkshire this weekend marks an important moment in the history of what is now the biggest movie industry in the world. It means Bollywood is finally getting the recognition in the west that it has long enjoyed in the rest of the world.

For almost half a century, Bollywood movies — the Hindi-language films made in Mumbai, formerly Bombay — have been an essential part of the entertainment industry, not only in India but in much of the Middle East, eastern Europe, north and other parts of Africa and even south America.

Indeed, such has been the appeal of Bollywood that it has extended to Russia; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward included a reference to a famous Bollywood movie. President Yeltsin, like many Russians, liked what are called the Bollywood masala films.

Last year in Britain, 16 per cent of the new films released were made in Mumbai — only 13 per cent were made in the UK.

The great Indian film director Shyam Benegal once explained to me that a Bollywood movie is like an Indian meal. The west, he said, broke up everything: this is drama, this is comedy, and this is tragedy. Indians do not believe in such distinctions.

Just as in food, where the western divide between starters and main course does not apply, so Indian films have to have everything in them. The same film has both pathos and humour, crime and goodness. Indians do not like a film unless it includes a bit of everything.

It was fashionable at one time to say Bollywood movies were the Indian version of Hollywood’s Busby Berkeley musicals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are songs galore in a Bollywood movie, but they serve a very different purpose to the songs in a Western musical. In The Sound of Music or Grease, the songs take the story forward. In a Bollywood movie the songs act as a break in the narrative. They are detached from the plot.

The actors do not sing the songs. They cannot sing. They mime to songs that have been recorded quite separately. In the process Bollywood has created an entirely new filmmaking skill — that of the so-called ‘playback singers’.

They are well-known artists, the nearest India has to musical rock stars, who record the songs quite separately. It is the job of the director and his team to pull it all together.

Indians know their actors and actresses cannot sing but they happily accept the fiction as part of the special magic of Bollywood. The ‘Oscars’ being doled out in Sheffield on Saturday include important ones for playback singers.

The making and financing of a Bollywood movie is also very different to Hollywood where films generally start out with tightly written scripts based on novels or plays.

In a Bollywood movie, a director will narrate the story to a male star. If he can persuade him to agree to star, then he will use his name to sell the idea of the film.

The script, if it comes at all, comes very late in the making of the film. Which is why actors like Amitabh Bachcan, attending the Oscars in Yorkshire with his son Abhishek and new daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai — the ‘Brad and Angelina’ of Mumbai — are bigger worldwide than any Hollywood star.

© Mihir Bose


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