With the global success of the Baahubali epic two-parter, Bollywood is on the verge of breaking free of the stereotypes that have previously prevented American audiences from seriously exploring the films that India offers.
If you are new to Bollywood, here are five lessons learned (or reinforced) from watching hundreds of Bollywood films over the last four years.
1. This is Not Your Grandmother's (or Mother's) Bollywood.
If you are new to Bollywood, you must put aside any preconceived notions about Indian film. India is a country living in several centuries simultaneously and Indian films reflect this rich diversity of lifestyle, culture, landscape and community in creative ways.
Technological advances in filmmaking along with more creative storytelling put many recently-released Indian films on equal footing with Hollywood films. While Indian film locations are used extensively, some films take you to sites in countries beyond India including the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Iceland, Cuba, Turkey, the Czech Republic and even the United States.
The rise of the Internet has expanded the marketing and distribution channels, enabling Indian films to truly reach global audiences. Indian actors have reached superstar status and have multi-million member fanbases throughout the world. What's even more striking is that Indians seems to know more about American culture than Americans know about Indian culture - and this is often reflected in Indian films in subtle ways.
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2. Indian Cinema Goes Beyond Bollywood.
While most people are familiar with Hindi films produced from Mumbai studios, there are vibrant Indian film industries in other languages (and locations) around India including Tamil (Chennai), Telugu (Hyderabad), and Malayalam (Kerala), just to name a few. Each of these film studios has their own style and they celebrate their own films and cinematic superstars as uniquely theirs.
In some cases, Indian actors are fluent in multiple languages and their filmography includes films in a variety of industries around the country. Some really creative stories originate in the film studios outside of Bollywood. When a film is successful in one regional studio, the film may be recreated by another studio in their own language, style, and with their own actors.
We are also seeing studios simultaneously release their big budget films in multiple languages to reach multiple markets.
Unfortunately, not all regional films are available in the global marketplace but hopefully that will soon change.
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3. Film Language Reflecting Unique Culture and History.
There are more than 22 officially recognized languages in India with Hindi and English being used for official purposes. While most Indian actors speak fluent English, Bollywood films primarily use Hindi with perhaps a few English words or phrases scattered throughout.
American viewers should be aware that subtitles in Indian films are not always word-for-word translations. Indian or filmy cultural references (Bollywood is often self-referential) may be revised to something more westernized. English profane exclamations may be translated as "Oh no!"
Then there is the overall sentence structure and style of the Hindi language which is very different from English, so the subtitles reflect more of the idea of what is said than the actual words. Sometimes Hindi words are anglicized (though not consistently) because those not familiar with written Hindi can't decipher the Devanagari script.
Going a step further, the more tongue-twisting languages of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and others celebrate histories that also define who they are. For example, the Tamil language is the oldest written language that is still spoken today and Tamil films, in particular, may include a reference to Tamilian pride.
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4. India Cinema Presents Music and Dance Performances That Impress.
For those who grew up watching American musicals such as Grease, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof, musical theater is nothing new. American interest in the musical film genre can be felt in the power of Disney musicals like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast which became live action stage productions. The Indian musical film - a genre that is popular throughout the industry - is very similar to these.
Indian film music permeates the culture and is just as important as the film itself, so soundtracks have their own special launch dates prior to the film release dates. Music videos from films are posted on youtube.com prior to and after film releases to generate audience interest. It is not unusual for choreographed numbers to have tens or hundreds of dancers performing in the background, accompanying the stars in their dance steps.
Indian film composers, background singers, and choreographers are just as famous as film actors and directors because Indian film offers melodies that resonate and entertaining dance moves that encourage viewers to shake a leg (or a shoulder). there are many outstanding actors who deliver awe-inspiring dance performances and watching them convinces you that anyone can (and should) dance.
Lack of language skills isn't a deterrent to enjoying Indian musicals - sometimes the richest experiences can be found beyond the lyrics solely in the emotion of the musical composition.
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5. Indian Cinema Offers Stories That Broaden Your Horizons.
The simple yet powerful storytelling of Indian films captures the imagination through uniquely Indian narratives accompanied by a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
While some may complain about the longer length of Indian films (generally 2 hours 30 minutes or so), there are many films that offer a well-crafted story that keeps your attention.
More importantly, the stories are told from an Indian viewpoint, exposing western audiences to narratives and new ways of understanding the world. Geopolitical and religious struggles are sometimes highlighted, providing fresh insight and opinion about the world as we know it.
With epic narratives that include the Mahabharata and Ramayana along with a regional history dating back thousands of years B.C., India has much to draw from. Indian film also offers a bridge between eastern and western thought.
The stories told through Indian film may lead you to learn something new and sometimes even challenge your worldview.
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The following playlist features trailers for each of the films pictured above.
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