THE BOLLYWOOD STORY
Ó Ramya Sarma 2008
This is an excellent guide to the history of Hindi cinema and Bollywood upto its current addiction to big stars.
It all began many years ago, in 1896. That was the year the Lumiere brothers came to India, to Bombay, as it was known then, with their moving pictures. They had been showing off their work in France and the United States, and had developed quite a reputation for the ‘magic’ that they carried in their little boxes. And the elite world in Bombay that was invited to watch the show was fascinated. And a very savvy business-minded few people realized that it was the perfect opportunity to rake in the money from the masses. It may have started on a very small scale, with the first newsreel (Return of Wrangler Paranjpye in 1901), but today the world of films in Mumbai (as it is now) is considered to be the largest production factory in the world.
Today that comparatively fledgling unit is a full-blown industry that has its audiences all over the world, not just with the Indian community. In 1990, over just one year, more than 800 films were released, finding viewers in the subcontinent, the Middle East, Britain, the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. And, not surprisingly, the viewers of these films make up the largest audience for films in the world. This industry is now globally known as ‘Bollywood’ even though some of its own stalwarts hate the nickname and refuse to use it – Amitabh Bachchan, for one, has been quite verbal about his objections. It runs primarily on the strength and star-power of an elite group of individuals who are part of the magnificent movie and money machine that produces some of the most extravagant and populist cinema ever seen, on the scale of a de Mille saga, perhaps. There is also life outside the big star-big studio system, a parallel cinema that is often rich with great acting, great stories and great potential, all on a very small budget with stars who do not shine as bright in the mass firmament. It is this ‘art-house’ or ‘offbeat’ world that is today gaining respect in the international market and attracting many more viewers than it did in the past.
It is this star system that runs Bollywood. From schedules to co-stars, from supporting casts to the various aspects of making a film, its soundtrack, its songs, its location, its set and costume designers, everyone, very often it is the star who calls the shots. This is not too different from the way Hollywood, for instance, functions. There are the big-name studios, the stars with clout, the directors who get their way no matter what they demand. But where Bollywood is more or less still an unorganized system, Hollywood has its unions, its cliques, its solidarity. Smaller films with smaller names get made more often, and find not just financial support, but promotional éclat as well. There is a parallel industry that may not churn out blockbusters, but has produced a number of well-made, well-received movies that feature star power, with actor, director and studio being adventurous, doing some experimenting and finding a market for the product.
Perhaps that is what Bollywood needs to do now – find the courage to step out of the established system of big stars, big films, big money and discover what good cinema is all about.
Ramya Sarma is Senior Assistant Editor with DNA, Daily News and Analysis, Mumbai, looking after the weekly arts section and working on the daily edit page. She also writes a blog and work on editing various book projects. For just over two years, she was the head of content for the Movies channel of Indiatimes.com. She did a Bollywood-based Internet Radio show for about six months and worked on various features for the portal. Before moving back to Mumbai in April 2003, she spent about 16 months working with various sections of the Indiatimes.com website in Delhi, as Lifestyle Editor and then with the Times Foundation. Just before that post, she spent four months as Editorial Consultant to QAI India / SoftwareDioxide.com in Delhi. She also guest edited for Manushi and wrote a six-days-a week column for Microsoft India’s Lifestyle site. Worked as the Delhi stringer for Verve and edited an issue of Interiors and Lifestyle India long-distance, too. She was also working on some book editing projects for Harper Collins, Oxford University Press, Roli Books and India Book House. From December 1999 to December 2000, she was Manager, Web Initiatives for India Today Group Online in Delhi. My purview included everything on the site except for news, and was in charge of conceptualizing and developing new projects for the site and also wrote a column (Snob Values) online for the site.
In addition, she has been writing and editing for various publications in India and abroad, including: The Times of India, The Independent, The Economic Times, Saturday Times, Sunday Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, 2001-Science Today, Femina, Filmfare, The Pioneer, Debonair, Interiors India, Sanctuary Asia, Khaleej Times, The International Indian Woman, Asiatech and The Financial Times (London) on a variety of topics such as science, dance, art, fashion, food, environment, nature, people, gems, travel, fiction, faction and amusement. She has also written for websites and edited Interiors and Lifestyle India and Interiors India Guide to Kitchens and Bathrooms and done the text for The Best of Interiors and Lifestyle India. In 2007, she edited Lights, Camera, Masala, a book on contemporary Bollywood published by India Book House.