I came to Bollywood having no background in Indian film or culture generally. In school I had studied some Indian history and was fascinated. Since then, I have studied it much more, even making it the focus of my master’s degree! But way back when, I knew nothing. Here are the basics for someone that is totally new to Bollywood.
Mainstream Bollywood is star-driven: You will see the same people in everything for a while, especially male actors. Bollywood has a nasty habit of pushing women actors to the side as they age, or even casting them as old from the start. Meanwhile, male actors play twenty-something romantic leads into their fifties. I’m not going to pretend that I understand all the decisions that go into casting but often Bollywood emphasizes the names attached to a film over the story or content. If you pay attention to Bollywood news you will see this immediately. A post on the essential contemporary stars to know is coming. There are some women in the industry who are doing some great things and making it more well-rounded and interesting female characters. I’ll discuss them as well.
Because it’s in Hindi, Bollywood dominates the North Indian film industry. The Bollywood industry is housed in Mumbai (or Bombay) in the central Indian state of Maharashtra. Hindi is the primary language of a few states across Northern India, including the capital Delhi. Bollywood is also a big deal in Punjab. South India has its own film industries that make thousands of films. I may even include a few here sometime!
It’s not all dance numbers, but those are important!
Often I have friends get confused when I tell them that not every single Bollywood movie has several song and dance numbers. This is because they think that “Bollywood” denotes a genre (musical) rather than a language and place of origin (Hindi, Bombay). Just like with Hollywood, you get all kinds of films. But it is true that many (maybe even most, I’m not sure) Bollywood movies integrate music and dancing. We could talk about the why of that for hours. For now, it will suffice to say that music and dance are incredibly important parts of Indian culture and the Bollywood industry is just as much a music empire as a film one.
Forget what you know about genre. Bollywood kind of defies typical genres as Americans think of them. Bollywood mixes styles and plots to make films that might be love stories in the first act, action flicks in the second, and tragedy in the third. This is often called a masala movie. When they’re done well, they’re a blast. Take what you like in movies already and you can find a Bollywood movie that probably has that and much more. That said, Bollywood loves romance. Even in an action or family drama centered movie there will be some sort of love story. So if you like those already you will need to think in terms of tone, the bright, typical Bollywood love story or some of the newer more realist ones? Netflix has tons. I’ll be doing a post soon on the Netflix options. Or just jump in like I did!
There’s (almost) always something to like: I think what keeps me coming back to Bollywood again and again is that you’re never done discussing it. When it’s good, there’s so much to like and you want to watch it over and over. But it’s almost more fun when they’re not. You can pick the movies apart, or let them stand on their own. But it’s never boring, at least not for me. There has only been one movie that I ever turned off in disgust. I’ll save that one for another day.
I fully expect that this list will expand and I would love to know what you think is important to know about Bollywood!