“Bollywood” is a portmanteau word combining Hollywood with Bombay (former name of Mumbai, India’s largest city) that instantly conjures up images of bright, fantastic scenery and massive dance numbers set to wonderfully catchy tunes. But if that’s all you know about Bollywood, hold on tight, because here’s what you should know.
What makes a film ‘Bollywood’?
To call all Indian films “Bollywood” is like calling all American music “Motown” — Bollywood is a genre of film, not the whole of India’s film industry. Other regions have their own type of movies, from Calcutta to Goa to Madras. Bollywood is driven by music videos and huge productions. And Bollywood knows what its audiences want and gives it to them on a platter.
How big it is?
Chances are if you’ve seen a film made in India, it’s a Bollywood production. The U.S. accounts for 25% of total Indian film revenue. In India, it’s the most popular type of movie at the box office even though fewer are made than any other genre. India produces more movies per year than Hollywood does. Bollywood-style films make up a small part of their output but by far the majority of its international export — which is why Bollywood became synonymous with India’s film industry.
How popular is it?
Let’s break out the numbers. Indian filmgoers buy an estimated 2.7 billion (with a B) tickets each year, most of which are for Bollywood-style movies. Overall, on a level playing field, Indian cinema would far outsell Hollywood or any other film-producing country. But because of economics and math, Bollywood (and Indian cinema as a whole) pulls in a mere fraction of Hollywood’s annual take.
What do you mean?
Compared to the West, India has more people and smaller incomes. In the U.S., movie tickets can cost $12 and up. But in India, ticket prices cost a fraction of this, from 50 rupees on weekdays up to 300 rupees on the weekends… which is a range in USD somewhere between 70 cents and $4.50. In 2015, Forbes Magazine called Bollywood “a $10B business trapped in a $2B body.”
But aren’t they just movie-length music videos?
Only in the same sense that Broadway musicals are just “acted out cast albums.” The Bollywood genre revolves around dance numbers that are filmed by a different director than the rest of the movie, and actors lip-sync to prerecorded vocals and music. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of Broadway in that it is never sung live, and actor/singer combos are the exception rather than the rule. Although the dance numbers are plentiful, there’s plenty of non-singing acting involved.
How popular are the actors?
Chances are if you’re watching a Bollywood production, someone involved will have the last name of “Kapoor.” They are the premiere acting family, with at least 24 members of the family over several generations being big name draws. Think of popularity on par with the Kardashian clan, but with much greater acting chops. India’s celebrity media is every bit as big and wild as anything in Hollywood. And just like in Hollywood, their biggest stars can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized by adoring fans.
Are the singers as popular as the actors?
Not only are they popular, they have in some cases decades-long fans, giving voice to multitudes of dramatic characters over the years thanks to the power of lip-syncing. One of the most famous is Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, who began singing for films in 1942 and has recorded over 5,000 songs in over 35 Indian dialects.
What are these movies about?
Bollywood films cover all kinds of genres, from comedies to romantic fantasies to action/adventure… all set to music! They also have the benefit of being less violent and less sexualized than Western films, so they’re suitable for the whole family. Just don’t be surprised if at a tense dramatic moment a musical number breaks out, because that’s kind of Bollywood’s signature thing.
Is there much crossover with Western film/music?
As the popularity of the Bollywood genre continues to grow, there have been efforts to incorporate more Western influences into the productions. In recent years, Bollywood musicals have included contributions by American rappers Snoop Dogg and Pitbull, Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue, British boy band The Vamps, and former One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik.
How can I start watching Bollywood films?
Netflix has a huge catalog of Bollywood films on its streaming service. Don’t be afraid to just hit the play button and go!