Film is massive in India. The country produces around 1200 movies annually, half of them in the studios of north Mumbai. Known as “Bollywood”, the home of the All-India cinema industry has experienced a sea change over the past decade, as its output has started to reach mass audiences of expat Indians in Europe and North America. The resulting global revenues have financed much higher production standards and a completely new approach to plot, acting styles and scripts – rendering redundant the old cinematic stereotypes of the so-called “masala format”, which dominated Indian film for decades. Big song-and-dance numbers still very much have their place in the modern Bollywood blockbuster, as does melodrama. But the overall tone these days tends to be much more sophisticated, with glamorous foreign locations, more plausible story lines, cutting-edge camera work and even state-of-the-art CGI deployed to wow cinemagoers at home and abroad.
Whereas in the past, hit movies tended to incorporate a bit of everything – romance, laughs, fight scenes, chases, lurid baddies, a set of instantly recognizable stock characters and convoluted plots that emphasized traditional values – now the industry is making big bucks from more nuanced genre flicks. The four highest grossing movies of the past decade were a feel-good comedy (3 Idiots; 2009), a dark psychological thriller (Ghajini; 2008); an action movie (Don 2; 2011) and a sci-fi superhero blockbuster (Ra I; 2011) – all radical departures from the Bollywood mainstream.
Some elements, however, remain consistent. Not even the most serious Indian movie can do without at least two or three “item numbers” – the set-piece song-and-dance sequences that give all hit films their essential anthems. And the cult of the Bollywood star shows no sign of abating. A-listers in the industry enjoy almost god-like status (only the country’s top cricketers come close to matching their exalted mass appeal). Images of the current heartthrobs appear everywhere, from newspapers to cheesy TV ads.
At the top of the heap stands the veteran, white-bearded eminence grise of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, whose record-breaking career as a screen hero saw a startling revival in the 2000s after he came out of de facto retirement to host India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, called KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati). Only a notch behind him comes rival Shah Rukh Khan, the smouldering lead of countless romantic blockbusters and the man the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the world’s biggest movie star” in 2011. In box office terms, however, neither the Big B nor SRK can these days claim the appeal of Aamir Khan, the actor-director-producer behind hits such as Lagaan and 3 Idiots – the latter the highest grossing Indian movie of all time. Other leading men of the moment include John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan and Bollywood bad boy, Salman Khan.
Not surprisingly in such an image-obsessed industry, female leads tend to have a shorter shelf life than their male counterparts, although contemporary starlets such as Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor are tackling increasingly demanding roles in an attempt to prove themselves as serious actresses.
Even so, their off-screen antics and romantic dalliances continue to capture more attention than their acting skills, as do any public appearance of India’s biggest celebrity couple, star actor Abhishek Bachchan (son of Amitabh) and his wife Aishwarya Rai. A former Miss World whose extreme beauty and svelte figure are often credited as spearheading the crossover of Bollywood into Western cinemas, Aishwarya has maintained her great popularity despite having had her first child in 2011. The career trajectory of Bollywood actresses has tended to be downwards after marriage (the assumption being that Indian audiences aren’t prepared to accept a married woman, or even worse, a mother, as a romantic heroine). But with two other Bollywood queens – Madhuri Dixit Nene and Karisma Kapoor –making comebacks after starting a family, the times may well be changing.