Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider

We recently started getting Hindi channels at home in the US. The other day I mentioned to another non-desi friend, that I had watched the Colors Screen Awards on my new channels.

Bollywood Female Actors at the Colors Screen Awards, January 2013.
Bollywood Female Actors at the 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards- January 12, 2013.

When I mentioned this, she asked me “Wow Jess, so do you know the actors and actresses enough to get all the nuances of an awards show?”
I replied, “Of course! You kind of HAVE to!”

As she asked this, I realized how much Bollywood matters to understanding modern culture of the subcontinent.

Bollywood is something that unites the nation. Indians from all over the country watch Bollywood- from Chhattisgarh to Chennai, Kashmir to Kerala, Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad in addition to their regional film industries. Bollywood brings together the many cultures and subcultures of India. To bring further unification, many stars even act in multiple cinemas (for example Ashwariya Rai’s work in Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi films, and Hollywood). The music of Bollywood represents many classical and fusion styles celebrated across the subcontinent. Sociocultural trends are addressed, and everyone from rich and poor pine for new spins on the classic “boy-meets-girl” love story that Bollywood does so well.

Bollywood is bringing together more international themes into stories, as the Indian diaspora is increasing in number across the world. The popularity of Bollywood across the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa has never been greater.

To contrast, in the US, if you don’t know who Orlando Bloom is, or Amy Adams, no one will judge you. It is perfectly acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have cable” or “I am more of a theater fan” and one is immediately excused from needing to know about Hollywood stars. While some people actually read People magazine and watch the Entertainment Channel, there is a large part of the culture that does not.

Unlike in India, if you confess to not knowing who Ranbir Kapoor is or Katrina Kaif, people will look at you as if you have a horn growing from your forehead. These actors are icons of success, beauty, wealth- and many Indians hold them up as icons to the world as national heroes. Nearly everyone in India has a TV, from rich to poor- and Bollywood is one of the major morsels of consumption via TV. Whether you like it or not, Bollywood actors serve as cultural icons.  They often set controversial cultural trends- inter-religious marriages, marrying someone much different in age, divorcing, deciding not have children. People watch Bollywood actors every move- and love to gossip and speculate on the lives of these cultural icons.

But if you admit that you don’t follow Bollywood, you are immediately labeled an outsider. And honestly, you kind of are an outsider. It is impossible to avoid the infiltration of the stars on every TV ad, billboards, blurbs of personal Bollywood star information on the national news, and in conversational topics as they take place in desi communities and homes.

If you’re interested in learning about Indian culture, don’t underestimate the power of film. Don’t risk being an outsider. Follow Bollywood.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider”

  1. Bollywood can be/has been used as a propaganda device in Indo-Pak politics, of course…but to add on to your theme of uniting people, Bollywood is definitely an area of common ground for many people across Indo-Pak lines. Every one knows Gabbar Singh, Mugambo, the Big B, the Khans, and so on. The evergreen classics are faves on both sides of the border, as are songs from those movies.

    I don’t watch Hindi films that often these days, but I do think just like in American culture you may not know the latest teeny bopper heart throb star but everyone knows The Wizard of Oz, Superman as Christopher Reeves, and stuff, definitely it gives you some cultural insight as a foreigner to know these cultural references.

    For me it’s also interesting to indulge in media literacy and hash out cultural views on things like class, gender, ethnic divisions, etc., as they play out on screen. Bollywood films are very telling on such issues, too. It’s one window into the culture.

    I only make an effort to watch a film if many many people have told me that it is good. Any recs for recent must-sees of 2012?

    1. Hi Fatima, Thanks for your insight. Like you, I try to focus on the films that unite rather than tear apart.

      Hmm..recommendations from 2012– you’re probably already aware of many of them: Barfi, English Vinglish, Kahaani. Skip Agneepath though.

  2. I think it is really interesting that none of those actresses in the image are wearing traditional Indian clothing. Perhaps it is just a fashion trend, but I think it speaks to the general move towards western culture in Bollywood cinema.

    Have you investigated the relationship between the impoverishment in the country and the people’s fanatic love for cinema? My perspective is that cinematic entertainment in India provides an escape for those who otherwise are struggling to survive–and the cliche love story provides a fantasy for the millions who are destined for arranged marriages. Heroes and heroines reflect the culture of the times. In the 90’s (e.g. Diwale Dulhania Le Jeyenge) characters reflected morals such as devotion to parents and their wishes, respect for elders, modesty, religious devotion, etc. I have not kept up with Bollywood movies lately, but I know there is a trend towards more “real issues” like divorce, adultery, or homosexuality — issues that we tend to associate with Western culture, but is it really western, or the evolution of a society?

    On a final note, I also think the culture of religious worship in India plays a role in the deference given to Bollywood actors. Some revere these actors as if they were gods, even offering pooja in theaters.

    I’m no expert – just my random thoughts.

    1. Art imitates life imitates art. I think that this one photo isn’t really enough to say that Bollywood is ‘moving toward the Western culture’ (a phrase that I really dislike anyway because which Western culture?) when you can find many photos of stars in Manish Malhotra or Satya Paul designer sarees at Filmfare and other award shows. (Also note how much you will see men in traditional wear vs. women).

      Bollywood has a tradition of escapist cinema and verisimilitude has not always been a priority until very recently, when Hollywood and other world cinema has become available to more people thanks to digital downloads and hundreds of television channels. Even now, you have the two tracks of “commercial cinema” which generally follows the Bollywood formula, and “parallel cinema” that is more for the artistic crowd and is more attuned to portraying reality.

      The movies of the 90s were shocking too. Wet saree scenes, stalkers, divorce, realistic portrayal of gangsters instead of simply comic villains. Choli ke peeche was a nationwide scandal. Yet today, all that is seen as so tame, but at the time it was considered scandalous.

      And yet nothing has actually changed. Think of the movie Cocktail that just released – despite showing lots of skin and drinking and stuff, the message was clear: the traditional girl will get the guy in the end, and the modern one is destined to a life of loneliness. Even Barfi had this subplot – if you are a woman strong enough to follow your conscience instead of doing what a man tells you to, you will end up alone in the end. I cringe to think that people will look back on Cocktail and praise it for its ‘moral values’ in twenty years.

      1. Andrea– Agreed we have multiple “Western cultures.” Just as there are multiple “Indian cultures.”. Multiple “Western cultures” is something that will take the outside world a while to understand. When people talk about the negative influence of Western culture, they think of Lady Gaga, Enrique Iglesias, our horrific pornography industry, etc. But what about the influence of George Frederic Handel, the thousands of NGOs Americans have started all over the world, the Amish, and schools which produce some of the brightest minds in the world? People take the negative aspects of culture and say “that IS the culture.”

        Indian films of the 90s were certainly shocking, and experimented in a way that was certainly ‘un-Western.’ People have got to stop blaming “Western influence” for every bad thing that happens in India.

        I hadn’t thought about Barfi’s message in that way, but I took it as “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” She rejected Barfi and then it was too late when she actually wanted him.

  3. You make a few great points. Even though movies promote stereotypes and unrealistic scenarios, they do still have a major impact on culture. The words younger people use, their ideals on life are based on things they see and hear in movies – both in the US and India.

    I don’t have cable. I don’t have satellite. It’s a waste of money for me. I know plenty of people who don’t have them either. I think it’s a growing trend in the US not to have them and instead to have streaming movies, FiOS or something similar. It’s much more efficient, cost effective and the “in demand” concept fits in well with the busy American lifestyle.

    1. Kristy, I didn’t know you were in the US now. 🙂
      I watch most of my Bollywood films on Netflix while I’m working out, and on the weekends when I’m peeling veggies, etc. So I guess that is more conducive to the “busy American lifestyle.”

      For me, I’ve had so many revelations since I started getting Hindi channels, and has brought up great conversations with friends regarding certain cultural issues. TV serials have a different tone to them and are more representative of the “average Indian family” with the family issues that are dealt with, the locations, the language used, and even the fashions portrayed on the shows.

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