It has been called an independent state of the Indian union, a domain with its own language, customs and codes. The claim is not exaggerated, for Bollywood is indeed an alternate reality far removed from the world we inhabit. It is a land populated with by luridly dressed heroes, leering villains, weeping mothers and simpering heroines; a world with infinitely more music, drama and spectacle than reality could ever accommodate.
Bollywood’s sheer size alone justifies the claim that it is a separate world. Cinema in India has a history almost as long as the history of Western cinema, and currently the country makes the most films in the world, twice the number produced by the United States in a year. The subcontinent’s cultural diversity is comparable to Europe’s: India produces films in 39 languages and dialects, of which at least five have industries larger than most national cinemas. What is generally referred to as Bollywood is the commercial film industry based in Mumbai, which produces films in Hindi, the langua franca understood by viewers across the nation.
Over the years, Bollywood has given birth to a famously hybrid form of cinema that mashes together Indian and foreign influences. For Western viewers accustomed to their own traditions of storytelling, the Bollywood narrative often seems a mere device to present extravagant song-and-dance numbers, high-strung emotion, comic interludes, fights and a host of other elements. This kind of film is commonly known in India as the masala film, after the Hindi word for a spicy mix. Bollywood has evolved many other uniquely Indian genres as well–mythological and devotional, which draw inspiration from the Hindu epics; socials, which are essentially urban melodramas; stunt films, which are an eccentrically Indian take on the American B movie; and so on.
All these genres feature songs, of course–it seems redundant to call Bollywood films musicals, since songs have been an integral part of almost every Indian film since Alam Ara (1931). While stars sang their own numbers in the initial years, the 1940s saw the introduction of “playback” singers, whose songs were mimed on-screen by actors. The Bollywood sound incorporates many eclectic influences; it has inspired filmmakers to develop their own lyrical styles of picturization and also to think up some decidedly strange song situations: actors have sung songs to pigeons, elephants, traded verses over games of badminton and cricket.
Music is only one of the features that enhance the “repeat value,” or drawing power of a Hindi film. The chief attractions in any Bollywood movie are the stars, who in India command devotion similar to that in the USA. Gossip magazines and national newspapers alike track their every move and every aspect of their personas, from their haircuts to their fluctuations in weight. Their loyal followers tend to watch their films again and again, which is why certain cult films such as Sholay (1975) have run for many years in theaters. For its obsessive fans, Bollywood’s escapist cinema is a highly addictive drug, a habit they can’t shake.
Movie mania runs deep in India. For decades, filmi music was the only pop music in India and the music industry condescendingly referred to non-film music as “private albums.” Today, Hindi cinema’s influence can be seen everywhere, from television, fashion, advertising and the very language of the streets. Its images pervade the visual culture of the subcontinent, leaving their mark on religious prints and street signs alike.
The visual strategy used by Bollywood poster artists to promote the films to mass audiences is dictated by the audience’s taste for paisa vasool entertainment (value for money films) that offer melodrama, comedy, romance and action all for the price of a single ticket. Some posters attempted to put every entertaining highlight from the film on display and to address as many segments of the audience as possible. Instead of searching for a strong, conceptual image, poster artists often throw in many elements as would fit within the space. This train of thought also led to a strategy in which divergent aspects of a film were presented across a set of publicity designs. “Variety,” as one publicist explained, “roused the audience’s curiosity and led them to believe they would get their money’s worth.”