In Bollywood, every cliché is true. The script doesn't matter, only the proposal does. The song and dance is everything. Packaging counts and marketing delivers. Everything revolves around a handful of stars. Much of the funding is from unorganized and sometimes even questionable sources.
But Bollywood, a derivative name for the Hindi film industry that is a loose agglomeration of old style film families and newly established studios, of venerated stars and tough-talking directors, often defies the clichés it embodies.
Since 1995, a fantastic year which saw three different genres of cinema- Aditya Chopra's diaspora-meets-desis romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge; Ram Gopal Varma's ironic comedy Rangeela; and Mani Ratnam's contentiously political Bombay- three has been a tectonic cultural and commercial shift. A new breed of filmmakers has taken over, altering age-old artistic conventions and business norms. The three filmmakers are just some of the characters who walk in and out of the frames of this book. What drives- and how they drive- the multi-million rupee industry, whose impact on society in India is an wide as its influence among the increasingly vocal diaspora, is what makes this book the picture-perfect beginner's guide to current Bollywood.
About the Author
Kaveree Bamzai is Executive Editor of India Today, India's largest news magazine. A journalist for almost two decades, she has previously worked with The Indian Express and The Times of India. She has lectured on the media at various institutions in the country, chief among them being the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie; the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad; and the University of Pune's Educational Media Research Centre. A post-graduate from the Delhi School of Economics, she is a former Chevening scholar and film critic for the English language news channel, Headlines Today. She lives in New Delhi with her husband, also a journalist and two sons.
In the sprawling Yash Raj Films studio in suburban Mumbai, the nameplates on the doors of the plush guestrooms proclaim the names Kajol and Aamir Khan. Kajol, thirty-two, the archetypal traditional-heart-encased-in-modern-garb Hindi film heroine, is rushing through an interview to be in time to feed her four-year-old daughter, Nysa. Aamir Khan, forty-two, two strapping bodyguards outside his door, is peeling off his make-up after shooting a half-hour promotional for his new film. The man producing their film, Yash Chopra, the seventy five year old director with twenty one films behind him, is wandering in the studio, a gift promised to his son for making Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaynge (The Braveheart Wins the Bride), a 1995 London-meets-Ludhiana epic that showed NRIs (non-resident Indians) the way they wanted to look. His son, the reclusive Aditya (Adi) Chopra, in white shirt and Jeans, who has lost much of his hair since he made his first film, is still hard at work. He's chatting with his directors, Kunal Kohli and Shaad Ali Sahgal.
It's just another day at one of Mumbai's premier dream factories. Yash Raj Films, rated in 2004 as No. 26 among the world's top studios by the Hollywood Reporter, is still coming to terms with its spanking new surroundings, a far cry from the suburban house it used to occupy not far from Mumbai's populous, polluted Juhu beach. There are swish canteens for staff, a butler service for stars, a screening theatre and three sound stages. At any given moment, some of the finest creative minds of Bollywood can be found here sharing a game of table tennis or simply having coffee. Take Kohli and Sahgal- the former has directed three films, Mujhse Dosti Karoge (Will you be My Friend?), Hum Tum (You and Me) and Fanaa (Extinction) and the latter too has three films to his credit:Saathiya (Comanion), Bunty aur Babli (Banty and Babli) and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Swinging Together). Their pedigree is miles apart from the man they refer to reverentially as Adi. He is Bollywood royalty, part of a group of insiders who as children went to each other's birthday parties where dance competitions were judged by no less than superstar Amitabh Bachchan. They are outsiders- Kohli began his career in television and spent many years in television programming companies during the infancy of the satellite boom, while Sahgal, the son of (now divorced) on-off filmmaker Muzaffar Ali and CPI politician Subhashini sahgal, began by assisting his father. Kohli learnt at Bollywood pulp meister Mahesh Bhatt's feet, Sahgal at Tamil auteur Mani Ratnam's, whom he chased for over a year before the latter agreed to have him on the sets of Dil Se (From the Heart), a film better known to the West for its emblematic song, Chhiya Chhaiya, which featured on the credits of Spike Lee's Inside Man.
That's new Bollywood, a mix of old and new, convention and audacity, feudalism and fearless risk-taking, nepotism and neo-corporatization. It is an industry, a status given as late as 1998 to a loose agglomeration of filmmakers whose movies grace 12,500 single screens and over 250 multiplexes in India every year. It is industry which makes almost 200 movies a year, selling an average of $2.5 billion worth in tickets with worldwide revenues of over $1 billion (less than the box-office revenue of the topmost Hollywood movie of all time, Titanic). In comparison, Hollywood produces over 700 movies a year, selling over $3.5 billion worth tickets a year with global revenues of over $50 billion. Yet, Bollywood is India's magnificent obsession, rivaled only by cricket. It is a national fascination which sells magazines and newspapers, makes news channel headlines and is used to promote everything, from sensual dreams to fabric softeners, from national integration to patato chips. In what the late American movie critic, Pauline Kael, would have called its trashy shameless heart, lie a thousand stars and many more stories.
Bollywood, which released its first film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913, is certainly less organized than its California cousin. There are a handful of individual producers (not more than ten) who like to flatter themselves by calling themselves compnies, a clutch of stars (not more than fifteen big ticket names, male and female), and even fewer directors who are recognized by audiences, which are as diverse as they are exacting, extending from ramshackle single-screen theatres with faulty projects in tiny towns to swish longes in metropolitan multiplexes where a movie can be enjoyed along with a drink and a hot meal. All of them want to be enjoyed along with a drink and a hot meal. All of them want to be entertained with a homegrown mix of song and meal. All of them want to be entertained with a homegrown mix of song and dance, powerful dialogues and usually moral values. Studios here mean shooting floors where anything can be recreated, be it a disco in Manhattan or a dance bar in Mumbai. Make-up rooms are usually in Mercedes vanity vans owned by stars, and come equipped with DVD players, a bed and a makeshift table where lavish meals from home are served by silent valets. Stars are usually an SMS away from journalists, and their salaries are paid for by a curious mix of money advanced from selling distribution and music album right, as well as array of glamour-struck financiers whose source of real income could range from death threats to diamonds- in Bollywood's volatile reality, it could be both. Movie marketing, perfected into a science by Hollywood, is still largely a hit-and miss game in Mumbai, the result of partnerships struck by producers and stars with consumer goods companies looking for a glamorous rub off. There are spectacular songs, with actors who lip-synch to playback singers and chorus dancers from professional troupes or Bollywood's junior artiste association ( a low-rent equity guild which provides extras who are paid by the day).
Despite its growing presence globally, Bollywood also remains essentially a homespun industry with traditional beliefs. Walk into the fourth-floor office of a company fancifully called Vishesh Films, and you will find its two stalwarts in the two-roomed studio (apart from a large reception area which is dominated by garishly made-up girls willing to lose their inhibitions in their high-on-sex movies). Director Mahesh Bhatt lies recumbent on a sofa, lecturing someone on the phone even as he counsels a soon to break out novice actress Mallika Sherawat, while his brother, Mukesh, the financial whiz behind the low budget-high returns movies, is in the other room checking up on his film's opening weekend figures. Step outside their office and go into another world, the spiffy interiors of Karan Johar's second floor office, as the director digs into some vile-looking soup, part of a new General Motors diet, even as he jabs on his speed dial - Bollywood's A-list from Shah Rukh Khan to Rani Mukherji is merely a number away. He's in the midst of getting ready to release his third film, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never say Goodbuy), set in New York among rich NRIs who wear Chanel gowns, sport Prada bags and discreetly display Tag Heuer watches. In another second floor office down several potholed roads, Ram Gopal Varma, whose cinema is as gritty as Johar's is perky, is neck-deep in an ambitious new project, a remark of the 1975 classic Sholay (Embers), which he saw twenty-seven times as a student in his native Hyderabad.
These are just a few of the colorful characters who inhabit Bollywood, as different from each other as their movies can sometimes seem similar. They are ones who convince stars to do movies- very few in Bollywood actually decide movies based on the script and take them on for reasons ranging from the emotional to the mercenary (for instance, the movie may be produced by the star's secretary or the star needs to move into a new house, enough reasons for the star to accept a film). These stars and filmmakers, who sell dreams, are also now selling reality, increasingly becoming part of the celebrity machine, a monster that the media has created and constantly fuels. Bollywood dominates the Indian landscape as well as the imagination, making news 24x7, whether it is the engagement of two stars, the hospitalization of a superstar or the television debut of another icon. The days when fans worshipped the stars from afar, reading about their tragic, stormy or fantastic lives in fanzines and then watching them thunderstruck in hushed halls, is gone. Bollywood is always on now, and the tabloid reality of the filmmakers is sometimes a poor second to the fantasy it produces. We will come across this mix of the real and reel again and again, in the new narrative of emerging Bollywood.
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