How Bollywood conquered the world

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  1. ejazr

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    Siddiqui: How Bollywood conquered the world - thestar.com
    Haroon Siddiqui

    Long before India had information technology or outsourcing services or a booming economy, it had Bollywood — older and bigger than Hollywood.

    But when I was growing up in India, Bollywood was thought of as a purveyor of “pageant for peasants,” a view my parents shared. I got to see my first movie, surreptitiously, only in my late teens.

    Today, Bollywood is very much mainstream. Every day, an estimated 15 million people are in movie theatres partaking of its products, while millions more are doing so with TVs, CDs and videos in India and around the globe. No other form of entertainment, anywhere, commands such patronage, day in and day out.

    Bollywood now represents India’s soft power abroad. At home, it is the fulcrum of a growing glamorous celebrity culture that combines the worlds of films and fashion with that other national passion, cricket. The three bond in a multi-billion-dollar corporate galaxy bankrolled by a burgeoning corporate sector.

    When they get together, they throw a great party — as Toronto is about to find out.

    Bollywood glitz comes here next weekend for the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards, the newest of several annual award shows. Its cachet is that it showcases Bollywood internationally, marketing it to sponsors and audiences beyond the 25 million-strong Indian diaspora, of which more than 600,000 are in Canada.

    A cast of 850 nominees and performers is coming. All 22,000 seats at the Rogers Centre have been sold out for weeks, a testament to Bollywood’s long reach.

    Bollywood — named after its locale, Bombay, since renamed Mumbai — dates back to 1896. Now it makes the most movies in the world and enjoys the biggest audience.

    Bollywood was post-colonial India’s first major export. In the 1950s, it had a huge following in the Soviet Union, India’s major ally. When leading man Raj Kapoor, a Charlie Chaplinesque tramp, and his heroine Nargis went to Moscow, they were mobbed by fans who shouted lines of songs from their movies, without understanding a word.

    “Some years ago, when we started showing Bollywood movies in Toronto,” says Madeline Ziniak, vice-president of Omni-TV, “we were pleasantly surprised to find audiences in the Canadian Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech and Central Asian communities. We couldn’t believe it.”

    IIFA is holding a Raj Kapoor retrospective kicking off at a gala on Sunday, June 26, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the late actor’s three sons and a daughter-in-law, all stars themselves, will be present — Rajiv Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, and Rishi Kapoor and his wife Neetu.

    By the 1960s, Bollywood had penetrated the Middle East where Arabs would accost visiting Indians: “You Bombay? Mother India?” referring to a 1957 hit movie.

    In subsequent decades, Bollywood discovered the Indian diaspora in Africa, Britain, the Caribbean, Canada, the U.S., Fiji and the oil-rich Persian Gulf, especially Dubai.

    It also developed for them the road show, not just of musicians and singers but also actors and actresses shimmying onstage to lip-synch — like having Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt join a Céline Dion performance.

    Bollywood’s recent marriage to the $4 billion-a-year cricket extravaganza has seen Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, buying one of 10 Indian Professional League cricket teams. Another owner is Preity Zinta, star of Toronto director Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth. Both are expected in town for the Saturday awards show.

    Whereas Bollywood has become a synonym for the Indian film industry, it makes movies only in Hindi and its sister language Urdu. Lately, Bollywood has moved into Hinglish, a mixture of Hindi/Urdu and English, which author Salman Rushdie pioneered: “Yaar come, otherwise mai chala.” (Pal, come, otherwise I am off.)

    Many more movies are made in other Indian languages — Telugu (Tollywood), Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, etc. And they all have their following. Two leading Tamil and Telugu actors parlayed their popularity into politics, a la Ronald Reagan, becoming chief ministers (premiers) of two big states.

    But Bollywood is king, a unifying force in the diverse nation of 1.2 billion. It also represents the cosmopolitan face of India, with people of different religions, regions, castes and creeds working together.

    In the bloody sectarianism that followed the 1947 end of British colonial era, minority Muslim artists found refuge in Bombay. They took on Hindu names, just as some Jews in Hollywood took on Anglo-Saxon names. Times have changed since. Some of today’s megastars are Muslims, such as the above-mentioned Khan, or music maestro A.R. Rahman, the Oscar-winning music director of Slumdog Millionaire and composer of its hit song, “Jai Ho.”

    Bollywood is also the main reason why Hollywood failed to penetrate India. Unable to beat it, Hollywood is joining it. Hardly a month goes by without an announcement of an American studio or star making a deal — Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Viacom and Will Smith and Steven Spielberg.

    Only in financial terms is Hollywood bigger — at $9 billion a year vs. $2 billion. That’s mostly because of higher ticket prices — both in terms of the high value of the dollar and also because Indian ticket prices are kept low to make movies accessible to the poor.

    Just as Hollywood never goes bankrupt underestimating the intelligence of the masses, nor does Bollywood.

    As 1970s director Manmohan Desai said: “I want people to forget their misery. I want to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, no beggars and where fate is kind and God is busy looking after his flock.”

    Bollywood sticks to a proven formula — a simple story with a happy ending, interspersed with melodramatic dialogue, some fights and six or seven song-and-dance numbers featuring voluptuous, often drenched, women gyrating suggestively.

    Bollywood invented the modern music video long before MTV and YouTube.

    The music industry does not exist as a separate entity in India because it has been sucked into Bollywood.

    Movie music directors got to this happy state of affairs by tapping into the two major styles of centuries-old Indian classical music, northern and south Indian, a.k.a. Hindustani and Carnatic. Both feature dozens of hours-long ragas played either on instruments (such as by Ravi Shankar on sitar) or sung by vocalists. The genius of Bollywood was to shorten and lighten the ragas with faster beats.

    Bollywood playback singers, such as Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, recorded songs by the thousands — he 25,000 and she 30,000, which got her an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. She has been coming to Toronto since 1980. In a 1985 benefit concert for the United Way that packed Maple Leaf Gardens, the diva told me: “Music is my god. I live for it.” In 1995, York University conferred on her an honorary doctorate.

    Bollywood has since moved on to Indi-pop. Its most versatile exponent is Rahman, who even before Slumdog had been called the Peter Gabriel of India.

    None of this is to say that Bollywood does not make fine films. My first, Pyaasa (Thirsty), was a classic. The story of a struggling and drunk poet saved by a prostitute, it had melodic songs in exquisite Urdu poetry, written by the leading poet of the time, Sahir Ludhianvi.

    By a stroke of luck, I got to know him and other leading lights of Bollywood when I ended up in Bombay in the 1960s. There was nothing like being in the company of such stars as Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Madhubala, “the Venus of India,” whose translucent porcelain beauty left you speechless. Like Marilyn Monroe, she too was fragile, vulnerable and prone to bad judgment about men.

    The Bollywood of my time was an Indian phenomenon, looked down upon. Today, it’s a global brand that people and products pay huge amounts to be associated with.

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    Haroon tends to exaggerate a little here when he talks about "conquering" but that's because he's still a closet Indian living in Canada :p. In any case, an interesting read about Bollywood.
     
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