The year is 2007 and I’m here for the first time in 20 years. Why? To meet strangers who are, in fact, my family. Not distant relatives thrice removed but aunts, uncles, and cousins with shy smiles and my nose.
We don’t know each other, so what should we do? The solution is simple: the glue that binds Indians together. How about the cinema?
And so my two younger cousins take my sister and I – “the Britishers” – to see a Hindi movie. Or, as it’s known outside India, a Bollywood film. We head to a multiplex, the kind that, since the late 1990s, has sprung up all over India’s major cities, offering back-to-back Bollywood with a globalised side order of popcorn and Coke.
My sister and I are flanked on either side by a cousin translating in whispers. It’s lovely but not really necessary. You don’t need to speak Hindi – or Hinglish for that matter – to know what’s going on in Bollywood. I can’t even remember the name of this one. What I do recall is a palace draped in gold leaf. Thwarted lovers with bouncing hair. Jewelled midriffs in meadows. And love declarations against a backdrop of mountains that makes the opening of The Sound Of Music look like that scene out of Trainspotting.
For some, Bollywood is the best kind of kitsch, a love letter to the greatest excesses of cinema, and the simple pleasure of seeing beautiful people gyrating in so much silk. For others it’s the worst kind of opiate, a dumbed-down, sanitised fantasia of India repeated ad nauseam that bears no resemblance to the dusty, difficult, and wonderful real thing. Either way, there’s no escaping the biggest film industry in the world. We’re talking about a screen machine – Bollywood, unlike Hollywood, is an idea, not an actual place – that churns out 800 films a year and sells 15 million tickets a day. The domestic audience alone exceeds a billion, while here in the UK Bollywood films play at more than 50 cinemas a week and regularly make it into the top ten.
Next month Bollywood celebrates its centenary. The term was coined in the 1970s and is still seen as derogatory by many in the industry who think it paints them as the poor relation of that other American behemoth. In 1913, a man called Dadasaheb Phalke made the first Indian film, based on a legend from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. By then India had been occupied by the British for more than 50 years. Two years later, Gandhi would return from South Africa to launch his liberation movement.
Despite the frippery of all those MTV-gone-mad musical numbers, Indian cinema had a political remit from the start. Indeed government and Bollywood have always been uneasy bedfellows: this is a world where film stars become politicians and power in both spheres is wielded by dynasties. The caste system, poverty, land rights – these were the themes of the cinema as India fought for, gained, and struggled with independence. Mother India (1957) is perhaps the most iconic example of this socially conscious cinema: a Brechtian parable about maternal love and strength. But as early as the 1920s, filmmakers were using the medium to resist the British Raj. Colonial administrators imposed censorship laws against anti-British messages. The filmmakers hid them in song lyrics instead.
Post-independence, India did some censoring of its own. This time licentiousness was the problem, a hangover from subjection to decades of Victorian prudery. The result is a Bollywood that even today remains curiously chaste. As recently as 25 years ago, kissing in a Hindi film was a no-no. Lovers might pucker up but the camera would quickly cut to something suggestive but tasteful. Like flowers touching in the breeze.
Still, just as India’s economy has rapidly expanded, so too has its cinema. Hollywood may have responded to globalisation by becoming ever more conservative, white, and safe, but Bollywood has gone out into the world, reeled in the Indian diaspora, and boomed. Think more money, faster cars, and bigger hair. The films of Yash Chopra – who died last year – heralded this change. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – known simply as “DDLJ” – is still Bollywood’s longest-running film. It played for 17 continuous years from 1995, was shot in London and the Lake District, and featured British Asians for the first time. It was Chopra who took Bollywood out of India, relocating his stars to the Swiss mountains – where a lake is named after him – and the Scottish Highlands, introducing wealthy, middle-class Indians to a new concept of tourism along the way. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) used locations such as Glen Coe, Eilean Donan, and Tantallon Castle. Brigadoon as Bollywood, if you like.
It’s not all escapism. In recent years, Bollywood has returned to its socially conscious roots. Directors such as Anurag Kashyap are making films that are not only about the real India but are actually shot there too. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the most successful crossover Bollywood film to date, was shot in the slums of Mumbai. And a new wave of Hindies – Indian indie films – with small budgets and big ideas continue to do the film festival circuit.
My parents never seemed to watch silly, glossy Bollywood films when I was growing up. I remember black and white Hindi movies that I found stern and interminable. I yearned for some nonsense, colour, a bit of romance and bling. In the end, being a second generation immigrant with a foot in either continent, I sated my Bollywood cravings with Rodgers and Hammerstein, Fred and Ginger, Judy Garland, and Irving Berlin. After all, the West has been gorging on escapism for a century too. Why else did everyone turn to the Wizard Of Oz in 1939 as the world was going to war? Thankfully, I ended up with both when years later, in a faceless multiplex in Bangalore, beside a family I had only just met, I found Bollywood in India.