Bollywood is one of the biggest film industries in the world but until recently, unless you had grown up watching the films, the word Bollywood would not mean anything to you. Even this reporter did not know of this genre until just a few years ago. Slowly, the Hindi film industry has gained worldwide exposure and in the US, Bollywood is becoming quite popular, with many movies doing very well, sometimes better in the US than in India.
Bollywood is a different genre than most Hollywood movies, and describing a film to someone who has never experienced one can be difficult. In India, audiences expect large song and dance production numbers that pay lots of attention to costumes, lyrics, and choreography. It is part of what makes Bollywood, well, Bollywood, making it the only major film industry that has kept these brilliant and entertaining numbers in the films. In fact if there is not a song within the first 10 minutes people start to get antsy waiting for that first song.
However, the leads of the film suddenly bursting into song is not something many people in the US are used to. Although for many people (myself included), this is why they want to watch more and more Bollywood after their first film. This is a surprise to many of my Indian friends who say to me, “Oh but I thought that song and dance numbers would turn people off or that they would think they are weird.” To some I suppose yes, but to those of us who love musicals, be it old Hollywood films, Broadway, or the new musical films, it is like we have found our perfect movie, because Bollywood has all the delightful aspects of these rolled into one.
Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s and 50s were filled with fantastic songs and great dance numbers. The songs were hits on the pop charts and many of these musical classics were the number one film of the year. Several of my non-Indian and fellow Bollywood fanatics have said that the love of old Hollywood musicals was one reason that they became fans of Bollywood so quickly. We were taken back into a world filled with song and dance along with a love story, and what could be more perfect than that. Also, people who have seen or grown up watching musical theater, be it Broadway, the West End, touring productions or local theater are also drawn to Bollywood films. To those of us who have seen Les Miserable or Phantom or any of the other brilliant plays over and over again, it is nothing new to see a character bursting into song and a chorus of dancers coming out of nowhere. So, when the group of men and women singers along with SRK and Kajol start dancing and singing on the roof in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, it seems just right and not strange at all.
By the end of the 1960s films with music and dance were no longer popular. In the past 40 years or so if a director or studio decided to try making a musical, only diehard musical fans and the curious would see it. However, in Hollywood today, the musical as a feature film is no longer unheard of and they are making a big comeback. One film that changed people’s perception and got people to the theater to see a musical film was the smash hit Chicago. It became the number one film in America, broke box-office records, and later that year went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars as well as many other awards. The musical was back. Since then both Dreamgirls and Hairspray have been adapted for the screen, have done extremely well at the Cineplex, and are loved by people all over the US and the world.
For kids and those who are kids at heart, children’s films have always had songs as part of their story. Think Cinderella, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. These and the very, very, popular Barbie films are just animated musicals for kids. Kids love them (as I very well know because I have watched Barbie’s Princess and the Pauper at least 10 times with my niece). There have of course been live action films as well and they have all been very popular. Recently, there was one film that made kids (and some adults like me) fall in love with a film that has song and dance, High School Musical. When I first saw High School Musical I thought this is a Bollywood movie just in English. It has the boy meets girl — check, song — check, boy loses girl but finds her again — check, songs with friends that have great choreography — check, trials and tribulations — check, sad song – check and then more dancing, more singing while falling in love — check, happy ending – check! (Only thing missing was the barsaat song!) So nowadays kids are very used to a character breaking into song and perhaps dancing and not consider it weird at all. High School Musical and its sequel High School Musical 2 were super duper out of this world hits and a third one is being planned. (As a side note, High School Musical is being remade with Indian cast.)
So, with the rise of musicals being made in Hollywood more and more people are being exposed to a scene of a girl suddenly bursting into song, and so if they go see a Bollywood film it will be nothing new. Because of this Bollywood will be even more readily accepted and will continue to be a genre that many people will come to love. Actors and actresses suddenly being in Switzerland in the snow and singing may still take some people a little time to get used to, but part of the joy of watching films is to be taken to another world.
Recently a friend and I were laughing because, though we know this is good for the industry we kind of liked it when Bollywood was our “special thing”. Of course, we are responsible for spreading the word to everyone we meet and all our friends so partly we are to blame! My only worry is that with Bollywood becoming more popular both Bollywood and Hollywood will try to make films pleasing to the larger audiences. Usually that means that the story is dumbed down, glossed up, and will lose what I feel makes Bollywood special. But that topic is for another article….
Bollywood is unique in its ‘Indianness’ of course, but also that the songs and dance sequences are such an integral part of the story. I hope that they will always be part of this wonderful genre and know that many will come like me to love these magical films.