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. Much of it is now developed in-house, helmed by VFX studios like Red Chillies.
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 highest grossing movies of the past decade were a cross-border comedy drama (Bajrangi Bhaijaan; 2015); a sci-fi comedy satirizing religious dogma (PK; 2014); a caper (Dhoom 3; 2013); an action flick (Ek Tha Tiger; 2012); and a love story (Bodyguard; 2011) – radical departures from the Bollywood mainstream. Though “commercial” film-makers like Karan Johar and Rohit Shetty continue to churn out tried-and-tested formulaic films, a crop of directors like Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap are unafraid to experiment with themes.
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 éminence 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. SRK has great overseas appeal, and the Khan trilogy is completed by Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, the actor-director-producer behind hits such as Lagaan, Ghajini, 3 Idiots and PK. Other leading men of the moment include action stars Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan, dancing sensation Hrithik Roshan, newcomer Ranveer Singh and talented Ranbir Kapoor who represents the fourth generation of the illustrious Kapoor clan, India’s first family of cinema.
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, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma and Kangna Ranaut 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 several other Bollywood queens – Madhuri Dixit Nene, Karisma Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan –making comebacks after starting a family, the times may well be changing.