Bollywood is a force for good in India, gently softening the values of a conservative nation.
The financial size of the Indian film industry is $2.5 billion, puny compared to America’s $40 billion. But Bollywood doubles in size every five years and its cultural influence is greater than its numbers.
Ticket sales in Bollywood represent only 0.7 percent of the world’s entertainment business. In 2011 this will become 1.3 percent, according to a report by the Confederation of Indian Industry and AT Kearney. The Indian animation industry did $285 million dollars in business last year. It’s growing at 35 percent. The gaming industry is growing at 70 percent and will be $300 million next year.
Four things are accelerating the size and power of Bollywood. The addition of hundreds of cinema screens across India every year, especially in malls and multiplexes (India has only 12 screens per million people compared with the USA’s 117); the improvement in the quality of cinema halls which has encouraged middle-class families to leave home; the rise in the price of tickets, which are rarely less than Rs100; and a growing global appetite for Bollywood that’s not just from South Asians.
The content of Bollywood’s movies has also changed. Through the 90s, Bollywood split into two. One part still addresses the old audience, which wants to cheer angry heroes who bash, slash and shoot their way about while avenging their raped sisters and slaughtered brothers.
Dharmendra and Mithun Chakraborty still make films that service this audience –rural North India – that cherishes honour. Even if everyone in the movie dies, it’s OK as long as the hero’s honour is intact. These are films cheaply made and not released in multiplexes. As Bollywood eases out of this category, it is being taken up by regional cinema, such as Bhojpuri.
The other, call it modern, stream of movies is what is now dominant in Bollywood, and it comes from the biggest production houses of Bombay, like Yash Raj Films of Yash Chopra and Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions.
This kind of film has a hero who is less violent, more thoughtful and unlikely to sacrifice his family for his honour. It might even have a hero who plays a homosexual (Dostana – out next month), illegal in India, or sympathise with a wife who has strayed (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, 2006). A debate in India is currently on between Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, who wants to make homosexuality legal, and Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who wants it to remain a crime. Patil might represent the majority view, but Bollywood sides with Ramadoss. If not now, very soon, Bollywood will prevail: it always does. Only one city could have produced Bollywood and that is Bombay: not Delhi, not Lahore, not Karachi.
Bombay does not speak Hindustani naturally – or even well. But three centuries of trading have gifted it a liberal, pragmatic culture that no other city in South Asia can have. This has opened up the space for Bollywood to be creative and challenge the consensus. The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: Punjabis and Urdu-speaking Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, inheritors of our Indo-Persian culture.
The Kapoor clan of Peshawar and Lyallpur, Prithviraj and three generations after him, is the first family of cinema, active for 80 years. Decade after decade, the family produces great actors in an unbroken chain: Prithviraj, Raj, Shammi, Shashi, Rishi, Randhir, Karisma, Kareena and Ranbir. No other family of actors anywhere in the world can match the Kapoors of Bollywood.
But Bollywood is not entirely about lineage. The biggest star in cinema is the King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan.
Shah Rukh Khan came to Mumbai from Delhi in 1988 at the age of 22 with nothing in his pockets, like the Baazigar he was to play in 1994. Twenty years on, he has made himself the most powerful man in entertainment, genuine Bollywood nobility – the Gandhis dine at his mansion, Mannat, when in Bombay.
He gets mobbed across the world. His company produces movies, runs an animation studio and owns the cricket team that employs Shoaib Akhtar.
His taxed income last year was a billion rupees. He paid income tax of over Rs300 million for 2006-2007.
India’s best film critic, Mayank Shekhar, says Bollywood movies “are not about filmmaking.” People go to the cinema, he says, to watch their favourite movie star “act like himself.”
People go to a Shah Rukh Khan film to see Shah Rukh Khan, not the character he’s playing. The only exception in Bollywood, says Shekhar, is Aamir Khan, who builds a character personality for different roles. What makes a star is whether the audience likes and admires the qualities the star represents: Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest star in Bollywood because he can best represent Indians.
Pakistanis who are irritated by why the character of the hero in the Bollywood movie is Hindu and the heroine Muslim have it backwards – the audience would rather see Salman Khan play Salman Khan and not Sandeep Kapoor.
Fifty years ago, Muslim actors thought they had to change their names to be accepted. Yusuf Khan of Peshawar became Dilip Kumar and Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari. Today, it could be said that a Muslim was more likely to succeed in Bollywood. But that is wrong.
The stars of cinema are popular through merit alone. Entertainment is the most meritocratic profession of all: every ticket is a vote of approval.
Three nations have a star system, and they are the only three nations that have a movie industry: Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong. Seven stars dominate Bollywood, and their presence in a movie will guarantee it funding, publicity and distribution. The seven are:Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Sanjay Dutt and Hrithik Roshan.
In output, Bollywood is king. India made 1,041 movies in 2005, compared to the United States’ 699 and all of Europe (937).
Along with lots of rubbish, Bollywood has the ability to produce work of quality that is yet popular. An example is the poetry of Sampooran Singh Kalra of Jhelum, famous as Gulzar.
Lines woven casually into a fun song (called “Chhainya Chhainya!”) that many more have heard than have Iqbal’s Shikwa or Faiz’s Subh-e-Azaadi – and just as good. Partition was a disaster for Pakistan’s actors, singers, directors and writers (except for one) because only Bombay gave them the freedom and the money their talents deserved.
Everything is celebrated by Bollywood: Eid, Ganesh Chaturthi (Sholay’s writer Salim Khan and his actor sons – Salman, Sohail and Arbaaz – keep an idol at home), Navratri, Christmas.
When Muslim actors die in Bollywood, it is common to see their janaaza being shouldered equally or even entirely by Hindus with covered heads, reciting the Kalma in conviction.
Hindus have ceased to be Hindus and Muslims have ceased to be Muslims in Bollywood. Bollywood is better than India – but it is what India will become: Bollywood always prevails.