Beyond Bollywood: the art of Indian films

Films, one of India’s many rich artistic traditions, are far more sophisticated, creative, and self-aware than the “Bollywood” moniker implies.

Ajay Sinha, a professor of art history and an expert in the arts of India, particularly film and photography, explores questions of diversity and cross-cultural connections that have historically shaped the worlds in which art is produced. 

Sinha, who also teaches in the film studies and Asian studies programs, studies how works of art reflect political and social formations, embody cultural values, and make visible the historical relations between local Asian cultures and global networks, religious beliefs, and past and present secular life. He also has written extensively on historical and contemporary Indian art and architecture and is writing a book that includes over 100 photographs of an Indian dancer taken in New York City by an American photographer in the early twentieth century. Here, he discusses the arts in India, and Bollywood films in particular.

What gave rise to India’s enormous, continuous history of art, literature, architecture, and music? 

Partly it’s the location of India. It has been, geographically, quite central to a lot of world traffic. The Romans traded in India for a very, very long time. Buddhism travelled from India to other parts of Asia. The Arabs came into India in the eighth century. The peninsula of India benefitted from an enormous maritime trade traffic between Arabs and Europeans, and the sea route brought the French and Dutch and Portuguese and English to India. 

This place of India at the center of the larger movements across Asia—if not the globe—left imprints of various cultures in India over time. It’s this layering, these waves that wash across India and leave traces there, that may be the reason it has such a rich tradition of art, literature, as well as religious and cultural practices. 

There is no single, essential idea of India. But the particular form different cultures of the world took in India is quite distinct. It seems India drew out another, unknown, and distinct dimension of world cultures in a way that you don’t see realized elsewhere.

Bollywood is a term for Indian film made in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, but the term can be offensive because it suggests the Indian film industry is a derivative of Hollywood. In fact, Indians have been making films since the end of the nineteenth century, just like Americans. What are the defining characteristics of so-called Bollywood films? 

Recent scholarship has turned its attention to the inner logic of these films in relation to their own audiences. While Hollywood has distinct genres, such as the film noirs, the musicals, the dramas, and the adventures, in India one finds a mixture of genres all in one movie, and this mixture distinguishes Indian film. You shift from a romance to people killing each other, into a chase on the street, and back to some comedy, and again romance, and one more song—all in a single film. But if genres mean a set of conventions of filmmaking that have developed based upon audience expectations, we have to ask what kind of narrative structure does this mixture create, and to achieve what purpose? 

The tradition of including music and dance is an old one in Indian film. Unlike Hollywood musicals, using songs becomes the mainstream mode of making films. Song becomes a medium of economically communicating certain ethical and philosophical dimensions of the plot that might take longer to tell in a linear, narrative form. A big chunk of the production budget goes to making the songs.

Since the beginning, Indian filmmakers have been aware of their location as a global industry, unlike, say, Japanese or Brazilian films. Those films are defined as national films and not in terms of a global market. Bollywood has always had a global market. Sometimes it beats Hollywood, which controlled its markets strictly through a network of distributors and theaters that could afford the high prices, while Indian films circulated in Asia, Africa, and South America through informal and cheap ways including pirated videos.

As I teach my history of film course, I look for films that indicate in their making an awareness of their global context. Many films consciously play on the audience’s knowledge of world cinema.

What is it about Bombay that gave rise to such a significant film industry?

Bombay was not the only place where film developed. In greater India before the Partition of the 1940s, you had Lahore, Calcutta, Madras. All were colonial cities, so the relationship between film and colonialism is something to be considered.

What happens through the ’30s and ’40s is that the economic systems on which those industries were based got disrupted. A lot of people from Calcutta and Lahore came to Bombay, bringing along the Bengali as well as the Lahore-Punjabi traditions to enrich the Bombay industry. Bombay, which was already an industrial and commercial city, became an energy hub and a dominant center for filmmaking. There are still films produced in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the region’s Bengali language. Madras (now Chennai) remains its own distinct producer of Tamil films. But Bombay (now Mumbai) became a multicultural film city enriched by immigrant talents.

What would you recommend as a good introduction for someone unfamiliar with Indian films?

Sholay, made in 1975, is a must-see. For the first time, an Indian film consciously experiments with the Hollywood western genre, and doing it very self-consciously—and quite well, I may say. There are books written on it. 

One of my favorites is a 1995 film called Rangeela, which simply means colorful. The story is about a young woman who is a studio extra. She dreams of becoming a film star. The film is about cinephilia, in which a romance is portrayed as a triangulated love affair between the two lead characters and their mutual love of film. Students in my class enjoy it.

The 1971 film Guddi takes on the question of audience obsession with cinema. A high school girl is obsessed with film and infatuated with a film star. In order to demystify the glamorous screen hero for her, the family elders take her—and us—on an elaborate journey through movie studios, showing what happens behind the scenes and the labor involved in filmmaking. Somewhat like Singing in the Rain, the film thus turns on the film industry itself. 

Toward the end, however, Guddi becomes not so much about demythifying films, but suggesting a way for us to reattach ourselves to cinema in a new, self-conscious way. I love that. It becomes one of my favorites and a very teachable film.