There is no film industry in the world that is more prolific than that of the Indian cinema. Each year, upwards of a thousand films are released in India. Unlike Hollywood, Indian cinema encompasses different languages from a swath of regions, the largest of which is those of the Hindi-language from what we now refer to as “Bollywood.” But what is Bollywood? Is it just the Hindi-language sector of India’s movie industry, or is it something more?
We’re going to look at the world of Indian cinema with a special focus on Bollywood, first by defining the industry, then by breaking down some actors, films and directors.
India’s movie industry is thriving
Bollywood is bigger today than ever before, but how did it rise to such incredible heights? Before we look at some key films, let’s define what Bollywood is!
What is Bollywood?
Bollywood is the Hindi-language sector of the Indian film industry. There are several other film sectors within India, such as those of South India and Tollywood, but none are as big as Bollywood.
Where is Bollywood actually located? The epicenter of Bollywood is in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
Why is it called Bollywood? The term Bollywood is a riff on Hollywood + Bombay, much like other global film markets such as Nollywood and Chinawood.
Bollywood style is defined by expressive visuals and elaborate song and dance routines. But over the years, Bollywood has become an industry with diverse stories with global appeal.
Notable Bollywood Movies
- Mother India (1957)
- Pyaasa (1957)
- Mughal-E-Azam (1960)
- Sholay (1975)
- Deewar (1975)
- Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)
- 3 Idiots (2009)
- Dangal (2016)
- Pink (2016)
What is Hindi-Cinema?
So is Hindi-cinema and Bollywood the same thing? That’s tricky to actually say. In strict technical terms, yes, but it’s hard to ignore other subjective factors, such as Bollywood’s pervading association with star power, Masala films and musical numbers.
Nowadays, most film scholars refer to Hindi-cinema and Bollywood as separate entities. But if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that the sheer quantity of films in India, whether it be in the Hindi-language or otherwise, are enough to satiate even the most ardent of movie fans.
Bollywood vs. Hollywood
We’ve defined Bollywood as the Hindi-language sector of India’s movie industry, and shown a few examples of some of its most popular films, but there’s a lot more to Bollywood than just language.
Most Bollywood movies share themes, narrative structures and visual motifs. In many ways, Bollywood and Hollywood are alike, but there are some key differences that set them apart at a structural level.
Here’s an excellent video on the differences between Bollywood vs Hollywood and how they work.
To fully understand where Bollywood is today, we have to look back at where it started. From 1858 to 1947, India was under British rule, as such, Bollywood was heavily influenced by Western culture.
That isn’t to say that Indian film was explicitly westernized prior to 1947, because it wasn’t. In fact, there have been Indian films about the ancient sanskrit epics, The Mahabharata and the Ramayana since 1920. But it wasn’t until 1947 when Great Britain partitioned the country into India and Pakistan that the landscape of Indian cinema solidified as a whole.
India’s Movie Industry History
Indian Cinema as Culture
The partition of India gave independence back to the people, consequently liberating the creativity of an entire culture. In response to the partition, Indian cinema exploded into a scatterplot of different directions. The Bengali film industry veered into a perspective on realism, which was made famous by writer/director Satyajit Ray.
On the other hand, Hindi-language films became popular in the mainstream, with stars such as Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar becoming major celebrities. This next video shows the lasting impact Dilip Kumar has had on India’s movie industry.
Kapoor and Kumar, among other stars of the time, were so famous that their association with a film could cause it to “sink or swim” at the box office. Just like Hollywood, Bollywood thrives on star power.
The importance of star power for Hindi-language films only continued to grow in the years following Kapoor’s and Kumar’s works. Today, many would argue that movie stars in Bollywood are more important to their film’s financial success than anywhere else, including Hollywood.
Bollywood and Tollywood
Hindi-language films and Bengali films continued to grow apart from one another until the 1970’s when they split altogether, and solidified as Bollywood and Tollywood, respectively.
In addition, smaller film sectors began to take shape, such as the Telugu and Tamil markets in South India. Films across India started to re-release in different regions with dubbed vocals to widen their appeal.
Behind the Scenes
Screenwriting in Bollywood
We’ve talked about how stars of Indian cinema have long been major selling points for audiences. It started with actors like Kumar and Kapoor, then continued with new generations of actors, including mega-star Amitabh Bachchan who debuted in 1969.
But Bachchan’s generation of Bollywood set a precedent that movies were more than just their stars, a point proven by the considerable fanfare behind the works of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, two screenwriters who revolutionized Bollywood in the 1970s.
The screenwriting duo, widely referred to as Salim-Javed, shifted the traditional story structure of Bollywood cinema from the sensational musicals of yore into more gritty crime-focused stories. Their most famous film is perhaps Deewar, a tale of two brothers caught on opposite sides of the law. Deewar stars Amitabh Bachchan and is directed by Yash Chopra, a legend of Bollywood cinema.
A New Genre Emerges
When asked "What is Bollywood?" many Westerners have a preconceived notion of Bollywood movies as bombastic, musical and romantic. This is due to the widespread popularization of Masala, a film movement in Bollywood that mixes genres for sensational effect.
The first Masala film Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) was written by Salim-Javed and directed by Nasir Hussain. Audiences flocked to theaters to see the film and the fervor for the genre-mix hasn’t stopped in the near-fifty years since its release.
Recent Bollywood Movies
India’s movie industry today
Now that we’ve broken down the history of Bollywood, let’s look at where the industry is today. This infographic from Forbes (2014) does a great job of showing the industry in visual terms.
According to business data platform Statista, India’s movie industry has been on a “consistent growth curve in terms of the number of feature films produced and distributed” per year. In 2018, Statista reports that there were over 1,800 films distributed throughout India.
What is Bollywood? According to these statistics, Bollywood is a powerhouse industry showing no signs of slowing. In the debate between Bollywood vs. Hollywood...there's just not much debate.
Here’s a video of some Indian film industry insiders and filmmakers discussing the state of the business today.
Bollywood is still very much dominated by stars: actors first, then writers and directors. The biggest actors in Bollywood today are the three Khans: Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.
Although they are known collectively as the three Khans, they aren’t biologically related. However, it is worth noting that Salman Khan is no stranger to Bollywood fame as his father was the great screenwriter Salim Khan.
Amitabh Bachchan is still one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, similarly to how Robert De Niro is still one of the biggest names in Hollywood. One of the most renowned directors in Hindi-cinema today is Anurag Kashyap, whose films have helped India's movie industry transition away from Masala.
It’s clear that Kashyap is a scholar of film history, which is evident in his work. Moreso, Kashyap is a sort of symbol for a modern renaissance of Hindi-cinema. Bollywood is still dominated by Masala films and epic stories of Indian culture, but the 21st century has also made room for more intimate stories in the Hindi-language as well.
Bengali cinema, or Tollywood, has long been associated with art films. In the 20th century, the move towards stories of realism was termed The “Parallel Cinema Movement,” because it paralleled the realism movements of cinema in Italy and France.
However, Tollywood Parallel Cinema, although largely critically acclaimed, struggled to find financial success. Whether Bollywood will have more success with a shift to realism remains to be seen.
Bollywood is clearly in the midst of an industry change. More films are addressing social themes, such as feminism and wealth inequality. Zoya Akhtar, daughter of the great screenwriter Javed Akhtar, is one of several prominent female directors working today in Bollywood.
The 2016 Bollywood film Pink became internationally famous for its depiction of women’s rights.
Pink is just one film that is changing the landscape of Hindi-cinema though, others include: Pad Man, Well Done Abba and Antardwand, all of which won the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues.
What is Nollywood?
We've covered "What is Bollywood?" but there's entirely different "wood" that is equally prolific. The Nigerian film market ("Nollywood") is the third highest producing cinema industry in the world, per year. But how did Nollywood become such a movie juggernaut? We look at its history and how its most iconic films inspired generations of Nigerian artists.