100 years ago today, the first all-Indian black-and-white silent film, Raja Harishchandra, screened in then-Bombay. Since then, Bollywood has exploded into the largest film industry in the world, only recently eclipsed by Nollywood in Nigeria. Notoriously prolific, and often accused of swapping quality for quantity, Bollywood has gone through several phases, starting out as a medium for depictions of Hindu stories, then morphing into a grittier entity more concerned with social issues, and now presently enjoying the success that comes with providing endless escapism through unbelievably overblown love stories, no matter how absurd. This is basically a magical potion for film success anywhere in the world, but Bollywood movies prove that if you add in a little song and dance and approximately another hour and a half of running time, you can win over just about anybody.
I’m a firm believer of the value of escapism through film, which is something I actually learned to love through Bollywood. The mainstream films I’ve seen are pretty bad at tackling social stigma that India, as a nation, hasn’t really dealt with yet with a meaningful public dialogue (example: the clumsy take on a bi-racial couple in Salaam-e-Ishq), but expertly portrays the social issues that plague India on a larger scale, often with the sympathy and sorrow that can only come from familiarity (example: a romance buried under class tensions, and the tremendous price paid, in Devdas). Let’s not discount Indian cinema regarding social issues, though. If you want to see some beautifully made, socially-conscious film-making, watch Water.
One thing that I think isn’t really mentioned enough when people discuss Bollywood is how proud everyone is to be Indian without being offensive about it (most of the time). This is a craft American directors haven’t figured out yet (Michael Bay, I’m looking at you). To be a very clear-cut “patriot” in American films is to posture yourself against an enemy of the entire nation, not to take any tongue-in-cheek appreciation of what really makes America great (like the restaurant chain Waffle House, which will be the subject of my first, and only, documentary). Bollywood’s Veer-Zaara is tremendously critical of the Pakistani-Indian divide and the resulting social fallout (but the Indian democratic process gives all parties hope again); Kal Ho Naa Ho exposes the difficulties not just of being a single mother, but being a single mother that’s also expected to adhere to Indian social norms (the biggest challenge seems to be taking care of her mother-in-law, since she’s an unforgivably horrible human being) while running a (failing) business, but an extremely Indian marriage (and a hilarious and embarrassing song by the groom’s parents) brings everyone together.
That’s not to say it’s without flaws. On the contrary: it can be tremendously sexist- such as one of the ending scenes in Salaam-e-ishq, where Priyanka Chopra’s character, a diva actress hell-bent on fame and fortune, stops being a vain, stuck-up bitch long enough to fall in love with a man, but it’s not really good enough just to be in love with him- she has to sacrifice her stardom and the one thing she wants the most throughout the entire movie- to be in a Karan Johar film- in order to show her devotion. Sorry, but that’s pretty fucked up. You make that money, girl, and never let a man stand between you and your dreams. Then there’s the creepily “patriotic” (but like… the aforementioned over-the-top American type of patriotism) movie Fanaa, where Kajol- playing a blind, virtuous, patriotic young lady- sleeps with Aamir Khan (playing kind of a sleazy tour guide) and coincidentally has surgery so she can finally see, but he’s nowhere to be found because he’s taken off to go be a terrorist somewhere. And obviously, because she was unmarried and had sex, she has a baby. And obviously, because she was unmarried and had sex and then a baby, she lives in isolated, snowy mountains with her father instead of living somewhere where her kid can maybe interact with other kids, because, y’know, shame and all that. Also… Waqt: The Race Against Time, which is basically one big ball of fail.
To the TL;DR crowd: happy birthday Bollywood. Here is something lovely: “Dola Re Dola,” from Devdas, starring Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit. Madhuri was knocked up for like half of this movie and powered through it, choreography and all, because she’s a boss. Aishwarya Rai got the blood of a decapitated crewman on her, but powered through it, because she is also a boss.