Bollywood: The Communal Spirit of India

In 1971, India overtook Japan to become the world’s largest manufacturer of feature films. With 431 titles, it was the only Third World national cinema at the time to have a larger audience for indigenous cinema than for imported films (Rajadakshya 678). Even today, Indian cinema is the frontrunner in terms of annual feature film production, with films being released in over 12 separate regional offshoots in the country, each with their own language. However, the contemporary mainstream branch of Indian cinema, the Hindi film industry, has had the most pervasive influence in Indian cinema in terms of popularity. Around the globe, filmgoers hold the Hindi film industry, with its trademark use of song and dance sequences and exaggerated pantomimic style of acting, to be synonymous with Indian national cinema as a whole. Despite such popularity, not many people are aware of the mission behind this industry and the reasons why its films employ such an eccentric approach to filmmaking. Popularly known as Bollywood, the Hindi cinema is distinguished by its strong sense of nationalist pride and spirit of kinship, solidarity and social obligation, which are used not only to pull audiences but also as structuring devices within its films; Bollywood films have thus served as very effective unifying tools to spread the message of communal harmony throughout the country.

Early Indian cinema, along with its conventions and practices, was built with the intention to propagate a strong nationalist agenda, so that it could ease the excessive regional, religious and communal friction that scarred India’s early Post-Independence period. The films of this period set the foundation for Bollywood films, which were influenced to similarly incorporate this agenda. In 1947, when India attained freedom from the British rule, it faced the uphill task of trying to forge a new, independent nation, while facing the innumerable problems that came with the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Mass migrations to and from Pakistan, the resulting hatred between Hindus and Muslims, and unchecked urban expansion gave way to rapidly escalating religious and communal conflicts, which ravaged every part of the nation.

Three years later, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru decided to battle this communal intolerance with the medium of film. He appointed the S.K. Patil Film Enquiry Committee, which was independent India’s first freelance investment sector that would provide filmmakers with the funds they required to continue the production of feature films. (Rajadakshya 681) This Committee was instructed to encourage the production of films with a strong pan-nationalist agenda. In this way, the government hoped that films would instill a sense of brotherhood and solidarity into the masses, influencing them to cease the religious and communal conflicts. In lieu of any other dominant forms of financial support, filmmakers began to inscribe nationalist messages into their films to gain the support of the Committee.

India’s next large-scale cinema movement was the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which came to power in 1951 (Rajadakshya 681). This association served as a refuge for filmmakers who wished to use their art to unite India’s general populace in joint cultural enlightenment. Some of India’s most influential filmmakers at the time, namely Ritwik Ghatak, K. A. Abbas, and Guru Dutt, were the founding fathers of this organization, and they constructed its rules and their own films by “using the paradigm for ‘nation’ to define community, family, and sometimes the tribe, as principle of social legitimization and enfranchisement” (Rajadakshya 681). Thus, the IPTA and its films had the effect of inculcating strong nationalist and kinship values into the general viewer’s mind.

The IPTA then led an urban movement in the 1960s, where all of India’s smaller regional cinemas were united and began to converge to the big cities of Mumbai and Calcutta. The government-installed Film Finance Corporation then set about the process to standardize many of the narrative structures and conventions of this new, united cinema; the purpose behind all of this was to establish an ‘All-India film’, “a nationally integrative cultural-cinematic mainstream that took on a cultural leadership [reinforcing] some of the unifying tendencies in our social and economic changes” (Rajadakshya 684). The language of the masses in Mumbai and Calcutta, Hindi, soon became the official language of this new unified national cinema, which then developed into Bollywood in the early 1970s. As a result, Bollywood was born with the pre-existing mission to unify the masses in communal harmony, and thus, inadvertently built on strong nationalist and kinship values.

Throughout Bollywood’s existence, its films have been noted for their marked difference from those of other First World national cinemas. Bollywood films have many conventions that might seem alien to the Western viewer, and as a result, have often been subject to open criticism. Many critics, as well as general Western viewers commonly hold that its films involve a complete abandonment of realism, an excessive use of exaggerated, overdrawn dialogue with too much over-the-top emotion, very little regard for narrative continuity for the sake of song and dance sequences, and an overall preference for clichés and spectacles over dramatic substance. As a result, Bollywood films can often appear to be escapist and exploitative.

However, the mistake behind such criticism is that these films are being evaluated in terms of a Western audience’s position, expectations and needs. Bollywood films situate their viewers in a very different way, such as they can fully experience their communal solidarity through enhanced emotional interaction with the characters on screen, and more importantly, with the other members in the audience. They have a much deeper task of not only entertaining, but also linking members of the audience to each other. This is because, for Indian filmgoers, Bollywood films are almost a form of community bonding, as they expect to experience the film alongside the many other people in the theater who are watching it with them. The Bollywood film theoretician, Rosie Thomas, explains that for Indian audiences, “involvement in films is intense and audiences clap, sing, recite familiar dialogue with the actors, throw coins at the screen (in appreciation of the spectacle), ‘tut tut’ at emotionally moving scenes, cry openly and laugh and jeer knowingly” (129). Therefore, in order to get such a reaction and stimulate such audience interaction with the film, Bollywood movies make excessive use of spectacles and emotions.

In a 1981 interview, Bollywood screenplay writer, Javed Akhtar stated that “[t]he difference between Hindi and Western films is like that between an epic and a short story. Not only is a film expected to be two-and-a-half to three hours long, but it is usual for the plot to span at least two generations, beginning with the main protagonists’ births or childhoods and jumping twenty or so years to the action of the present” (Thomas 123). In this way, audiences are exposed to every part of the protagonist’s life, and are thus more emotionally invested in his/her character than Western audiences would be with their protagonists. Bollywood’s employment of stylized, pantomimic styles of acting, with frequent displays of tears and laughter, further enhances the emotional impact of these films on its audiences. Through this collective emotional connection, Indian audiences thereby develop a sense of solidarity among themselves while watching the movie. Once this has been established, Bollywood films then use their many spectacles to keep the audiences involved and help them experience the film as a collective rather than as individuals. Overblown dialogues are popular because they are clapworthy. Unbelievable stunts and out of place dance sequences, all at the expense of realism, are appreciated and accepted as the norm because they draw a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, and thereby stimulate direct audience engagement. Thus, Bollywood films willingly sacrifice verisimilitude in order to give audiences a shared, participatory emotional experience. This experience can entertain them and bring them together through its enhanced ability to affect rather than simply tell a story.

Bollywood films also diverge from those from other First World national cinemas in the way that they are structured along the lines of a moral universe, which gives precedence to the values of kinship, duty, and social obligation over anything else. Most Bollywood films cannot fall into any of the traditional Hollywood genres, such as ‘comedy’, ‘drama’, or ‘musical’, but overlap over all of these types. Every Bollywood film involves a love story, several musical numbers, comical gags and sub-plots, as well as a decent amount of action. This is all, once again, in order to use spectacle and emotion to draw in audiences to what is happening on screen. Without any fixed set of conventions or patterns, which come with genres, to base their narratives on, Bollywood turned to an alternative structuring foundation, namely a unique moral universe. In her magazine article, “Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity”, Rosie Thomas explains this practice:

“Analysis of [these] films’ narratives suggests that the discourses which structure them are those of kinship (the blood relationship and bonds expressed in its idiom), ‘duty’ and social obligation, solidarity, trust. Order, or equilibrium, is presented in a state in which humans live in harmony with fate, respecting social obligations and ties of friendship or family. Disruption of this order is the result of selfish greed, fate, and heterosexual desire.” (126)

This moral universe that Bollywood uses to give narrative structure to its films places ‘traditional’, ‘social’ and ‘Indian’ values on the same ground as good morality, and ‘non-traditional’ and ‘individualistic’ values on the same ground as evil. As a result, a protagonist is required to respect the values of dostana, the Hindi word for friendship and kinship obligations, as well as place all national and social obligations over his/her own needs and desires if he/she is to remain moral (Thomas 126). It is fairly common to see a Bollywood hero choose his best friend or the nation’s well-being over his romantic interest or any other temptations, as the values of kinship and friendship must be his first and foremost priority. Possibly the most popular Bollywood film of all time, Sholay (1975), directed by Ramesh Sippy, exemplifies this assertation, as its narrative and its central theme are both built on the concept of dostana, to the level that its two main protagonists often sing about their unwavering commitment to their friendship. At the end of the film, one of the protagonists, Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), eventually kills himself to save his friend from any harm, and this act is known to be one of the most touching sequences in Bollywood film. Thus, it can be seen that this moral universe not only serves as structuring device for these films, but also impacts the common viewers in a way that promotes a sense of communal solidarity, strong patriotic values and an unparalleled sense of respect and love for one another.

However, many hold that Indians are far from feeling any nationalistic pride or communal bond when viewing Bollywood films, but are instead, actually quite embarrassed about Bollywood conventions and practices. The director, Gurinder Chadha, who has worked extensively in both Hollywood and Bollywood, stated in her interview that columnists and film critics have always been particularly self-loathing in terms of their national cinemas and consider their approach to filmmaking to be ludicrous (1). Every year, the number of negative reviews for Bollywood films increases. The famous novelist and celebrity-watcher, Shobhaa De has been particularly critical of India’s mainstream cinema, saying its films “employ the worst pre-packaged clichés” (Chadha 2). However, it should be noted that most of these sentiments are held by those elite members of society, who have access to and understanding of Western films and their conventions, and thus evaluate Bollywood films by comparing them to these films and conventions. Such elite members of society instead support the Indian art cinema movement, led by Satyajit Ray, which does conform to many conventions and practices of Western national cinema. Rosie Thomas addresses this phenomenon in her paper, ‘Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity:”

“Art films serve mostly to confirm the inadequacy of popular cinema to match what are presumed to be universal standards of ‘good’ cinema – and even of ‘art’. Western critics are perhaps not completely to blame, for they take their cues from the Indian upper-middle class intelligentsia and government cultural bodies, who have a long tradition of conniving at this denunciation and, somewhat ironically, themselves insist on evaluating the popular films according to the canons of European and Hollywood film-making.”

Hence, Bollywood’s harshest Indian critics invoke the earlier stated problem of wrongly evaluating Bollywood conventions by keeping the Western viewer in mind, rather than considering the effect and popularity it has on its domestic audiences. However, it should be understood that these elite upper-middle class critics are by no means the targeted audiences of these films. Instead, Bollywood films are aimed at the middle and lower class Indians, who undoubtedly compose the substantially larger percentage of domestic audiences, considering that India is, after all, a Third World country. It is these audiences who can fully comprehend the emotional depth, communal values, and moral universe that Bollywood films present. The screenplay writer, K.K Shukla supports this view in his interview with Rosie Thomas:

“Kinship emotion is very strong. It doesn’t work so well with educated audiences who go several days without seeing their families, but it works with B and C grade audiences who get worried if they don’t see a family member by 6:30 p.m, whose family members are an important part of themselves and their experience of the world.” (Thomas 126)

Therefore, even though the elite members of the Indian populace may be ashamed of their national cinema, the masses are still held together by their mutual pride and support for Bollywood. This can be proven by its high domestic success rate. India’s national cinema produces approximately 1000 films every year, which is double Hollywood’s output, and 14 million Indians go to these movies on a daily basis (Kearney 1). In 2008 alone, Bollywood films sold 3.1 billion cinema tickets and grossed nearly $10 million to put up a figure of 84% of revenue from the box office (Patel 2).

Another factor of Bollywood films that promotes a strong nationalist and cohesive image of ‘Indian-ness’ is its inclusion of song-and-dance numbers; these Indian film songs are conceptually and structurally built according to the ideals of emotional appeal and the film’s moral universe, which we have already established to be very important in spreading a sense of togetherness and communal bonding. Bollywood’s extravagant song and dance sequences were primarily influenced by the Urdu Parsee theatre of the 1930s, which used music to create a heightened mood that dialogue could not achieve (Kabir 41). In her analysis on the evolution and structure of these Bollywood film songs, the NYU music professor, Natalie Sarrazin explicates how these songs developed from this theatre as well as classical Indian music tradition, and invoke classical music’s trademark expression of one or more of the nine moods or rasas in a way that could enhance their emotional appeal as much as possible; for this reason, the singers of these film songs almost always only used their deep chest voice and not their high head voice (27). The emotional strength of these Bollywood songs strongly encourages audience engagement and participation. In lieu of other dominant forms of popular music, Hindi film songs are played at weddings and parties, and give the overall feel of solidarity and fellowship by collectively relating the people outside the film to the characters inside the film. Also, it should be noted that, save for a very small number of exceptions, the villains of Bollywood films never sing. This points at the fact that these song and dance sequences have a humanizing effect and support the moral universe that Bollywood films employ (Thomas 126). As a reward, only those who obey the moral universe with its patriotic and kinship values have the privileged ability to sing and dance.

Historically, these Hindi film song and dance sequences have always had a strong emotionally unifying effect within the Indian community. The film theorist, Nasreen M Kabir states “these songs, with their inventive Hindi/Urdu lyrics have long been a bonding force in the Indian diaspora, re-creating a familiar world of images and emotions and linking millions of people to their homeland” (41). For example, in the film, Anmol Ghadi (1945), directed by Mehboob Khan, the song ‘Awaaz de kahan hai’ was a sung to represent the feelings of those people who had been separated from their loved ones during the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. In a cruel piece of irony, its singer, Noor Jehan was later forced to migrate to Pakistan on account of her Muslim heritage, after which the song became an anthem for displaced people who used it to communicate with their distant relatives and lovers (Kabir 42). In this way, several Hindi film songs have been used to reflect and represent various social and cultural issues, but more importantly, their emotional strength has often been used to convey a sense of communal harmony and ‘Indian’ togetherness.

The film, Bombay (1995), directed by Mani Ratnam, serves as a firm example of how Bollywood films have been used as potent weapons against cultural, religious and political disparity within the larger Indian community, by effectively putting into perspective and help heal to wounds of actual acts of communal violence. The film, Bombay, evokes the traumatic events that rocked the city of Mumbai after Hindus and Muslims started rioting against each other in 1992-3. Mani Ratnam, charged with the mission to restore the city’s secular ideals, released this movie two years after the riots took place, while the city was still reeling from the aftershocks of communal violence. The two main protagonists, Shekhar (Arvind Swamy), a Hindu man, and Shaila (Manisha Koirala), his Muslim wife, are placed at the center of the moral universe, as they constantly try to spread the message of communal love to instigators of all the hatred. Thus, Ratnam does not privilege the Hindu or the Muslim side, but instead gives the viewer two protagonists of each religion, who are heroes purely because they endorse the kinship values and communal harmony of the Bollywood moral universe (Gopalan 17). As Shekhar and Shaila’s loved ones are killed, their emotional reactions to the violence, supplemented by A.R Rahman’s poignant soundtrack that echoes their desperation and emotional turmoil, show audiences the consequences of such hatred within the Indian community. At the end of the film, Shekhar, in sheer desperation yells “Stop it! Can’t you see we are all Indian?” Indeed, audiences were so moved by the protagonists’ pain, which reflected their own losses, and the film’s strong nationalist message, which practically yelled out for communal harmony, that the film eventually served to reduce many of the reverberations of the riots and spread a general air of cultural understanding.

Based on the nationalist agenda that spurred the formation of post-Independence Indian cinema, Bollywood surfaced as a weapon against communal intolerance. It emerged as an entity uniquely oriented towards a moral universe that encouraged kinship values within a country that was physically united but culturally splintered. Its conception directed the currents of Indian movie themes towards emotional ebbs and flows that supplemented audience solidarity. Though many would deem Bollywood to be an escapist and exploitative medium, what is overlooked here is that these films are targeted towards inspiring the masses and instigating communal harmony. The songs and dances of these films only emphasize the general sentiments of cross-cultural fellowship that their films promote. This promotion of unity is so strong that films have successfully quelled communal tensions in the past. When it comes to Bollywood “it is obvious, a key component has been that of ‘nation’: and indeed, it is virtually impossible to speak of the Indian cinema without bringing somewhere into play that crucial cultural movement of Indian nationalism.” (Rajadakshya 678).

– Neale Hemrajani

Works Cited
Chadha, Gurinder. “Being embarassed about Bollywood is a disease in India.” Interview. India Abroad Feb. 2005.
Gopalan, Lalitha. “Bombay.” BFI Modern Classics (2003).
Kabir, Nasreen M. “Playback Time: A Brief History of Bollywood “film songs”” Film Comment 2002.
Kearney, Milton. “Bollywood Statistics.” India Today International Edition (2007). SearchIndia.com. 1 May 2009 .
Patel, Lola. “Bollywood Statistics.” Redhotcurry.com. 01 May 2009 .
Rajadakshya, Ashish. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Nowell Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Sarrazin, Natalie. “India’s Music: Popular Film Songs in the Classroom.” Music Educators Journal (2006).
Thomas, Rosie. “Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity.” Screen Magazine May 1985.

Careers in Screenplay Writing

A career in scriptwriting is not a sedentary desk job, as most would imagine. Although the seed of the film is planted in the script, the Scriptwriter, like a gardener, tends to the germination and eventually the full flowering of the plant. She becomes a dynamic member of the filmmaking team and is often required for consultation in preproduction, production and postproduction.

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