Wednesday, July 27, 2005

8 Things About Bollywood You May Not Know

bollywood.gif[Cross posted at Sepia Mutiny]

Writing about Bollywood is incredibly difficult for an amateur fan. Many people are mainly interested in the latest filmi news and gossip, and watch current films to see whether they liked the heroine's outfits. Rani Mukherji's colorful outfits are scrutinized closely, but the quality of the film in which the outfits appear is somehow overlooked.

Then you have the retro-hipsters and nostalgists, who note the decline of the industry from its golden era in the 1960s and 70s, when both actresses and actors were impressively plump, and everything was fabulous, in that kind of “Amitabh's pants are way too tight, but the sequins on his orange vest are oh so bright!” kind of way. Yes, I concur: dishoom, dishoom.

Some retro-bollywood fans will even argue that in the old days the films were actually objectively better, which doesn't seem terribly plausible to me. There were of course some things that were better in the high-class productions from the old days. In particular there were beautiful song lyrics (many of the writers were professional Urdu poets) and the language -– one thinks especially of 'courtesan' movies like Pakeezah -- but often it was just as bad as it is today, and for the same reasons it is often bad today: very low budgets, hurried shooting, and the privileging of star-power and profit over artistic integrity.

That said, there have been some interesting changes in the Indian film industry in the last 10-15 years, which are in my opinion worth noting and appreciating. The industry is still far from perfect, but it is evolving.

If you can't please everyone with your opinions or judgment (and I'm pretty sure I can't), you can at least offer some information. Here, I'm going from Tejaswini Ganti's excellent Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, which was just published last year on Routledge Press. Ganti is by training an anthropologist, who teaches at a university in the U.S. When she researched this book, she did extensive interviews with many people in Bollywood, including producers, stars, art directors, screenwriters, choreographers, etc. In large part, the interviews are what guide her description of the industry, not so much other people's books. (Incidentally, excerpts from her interviews with people like Ramesh Sippy, Aamir Khan, Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, screenwriter Anjum Rabali, Pooja Bhatt, and Subhash Ghai, to name just a few, are included in the final chapter of the book.) The opening chapters of Bollywood set up the industry in general terms (history, general themes, important facts), while the later chapters get into the impact of key films and key figures (especially actors and directors). The book as a whole is quite readable, in contrast to many other recent books of "film theory" on Hindi cinema that have been coming out.

Here, then, are eight things I picked up in Tejaswini Ganti's Bollywood:

1.”Bollywood” vs. “India”. You hear again and again that Bollywood is the biggest film industry in the world, producing 800-1000 films a year. Actually this isn't strictly correct. It's the Indian film industry that produces that many films; Bollywood -– defined as commercial Hindi films produced in or around Bombay -– produces only about 150-200 films a year. According to Ganti, both the Telegu and Tamil film industries produce equal numbers of films (though I suspect budgets and audiences are probably smaller).

2.Taxation. Unlike in the U.S., where the film industry has always been treated by the government as a legitimate business, in India for many years, the film industry was treated as a vice, and taxed egregiously, at rates between 25 and 75 percent. This is so despite the fact that the film industry is the second largest in the country in terms of capital investment, and the fifth largest in terms of people employed.

Moreover, the tax is not just one tax, but a whole series of them, affecting the producers, distributors, and exhibitors of films. States use taxes to protect local language cinemas, and the Indian government waives taxes on films that are deemed to be especially patriotic (recently, films like Lakshya and LOC: Kargil were 'tax-free'. So the next time you see some uber-patriotic war film and wonder how Bollywood got so patriotic all of a sudden, keep in mind that there's a profit-margin in there.)

The tax situation has improved somewhat since May 1998, when the government finally granted the film industry the status of an actual “industry,” which means some alleviation of taxes, as well as smaller perks like reduced rates for electricity. However, taxes on films are still pretty high.

With all the tax, it's a wonder that the industry survived at all, especially during the deep recession in the early 1970s, when the government imposed a 250 percent tariff on imported film stock.

3. Flops. The success rate for Bollywood films is 15-20 percent a year. The vast majority of films are 'flops'. The industry survives because there is always some rich sap ready to invest in another film (see #6 below).

4. Number of Prints. The number of prints made for even big films is no more than 500 or so, including prints to be sent abroad. Compare to Hollywood, which releases big films on 3000 or more screens at once in the U.S. alone. One has to keep in mind, of course, that normal (i.e., non-multiplex) movie theaters in India are much larger than in America. A big movie theater in India can seat up to 2500 people.

5. Box Office totals. I've often wondered why we don't get precise box office totals for Bollywood releases the way we do in Hollywood. According to Ganti, while theaters at the main urban centers give quite specific box office numbers, the smaller centers (which also sometimes get films a little later) don't report their earnings accurately or consistently.

6. Financing. Bollywood movies are produced and financed in a completely chaotic way. Here are two paragraphs from Ganti on the decentralized, flexible Bollywood system:

The industry is neither vertically nor horizontally integrated in the manner of the major Hollywood studios or multinational entertainment conglomerates. 'Studios' within the Indian context are merely shooting spaces and not production and distribution concerns. Though there has been a move toward integration and points of convergence . . . these instances are not systemic and do not preclude others from entering the business. Essentially, the 'industry' is a very diffuse and chaotic place where anyone with large sums of money and the right contacts can make a film.

Although both the Western and the Indian press use the metaphors of factories and assembly-line production to characterize the Bombay film industry, i.e., 'Bombay's dream factories churn out hundreds of films a year,' in reality the industry is extremely decentralized and flexible and a more apt comparison would be to a start-up company financed with venture capital. Each Hindi film is made by a team of people who operate as independent contractors or freelancers and work together on a particular project rather than being permanent employees of a particular production company. Films are often financed simply on the basis of a star-cast, the germ of a story idea and a director's reputation. . . . Power resides in the stars, directors, and producers. The industry contains very few non-value-added people such as executives, lawyers, agents, professional managers, i.e., the 'suits,' who do not contribute to the actual filmmaking process. There are also no intermediaries such as casting agents, talent scouts, or agencies like ICA and William Morris.

In the absence of lawyers, Ganti notes (and Suketa Mehta corroborates much of this in his book Maximum City, which is also largely based on personal experience with prominent figures in the industry), large deals are often sealed on the basis of verbal agreements between trusted partners. The informal nature of the system also makes it a convenient haven for 'black money' –- cash investments by gangsters, who need to hide their earnings from tax collectors.

7. English. These days, many Bollywood screenplays are written in English originally. The reasons for this are many and overlapping. Here is how Ganti explains it:

While the narration of a [Bollywood] script is in Hindi or 'Hinglish' – a mix of Hindi and English prevalent among urban elites, many contemporary screenwriters first write their scripts in English and then translate the dialogues themselves into Hindi or work with a dialogue writer who is more proficient in the language. The specifics of a screenplay such as location, time of day, scene descriptions, and camera movement are always in English. The presence of English as a language of production may surprise readers, but is testament of the cosmopolitan nature of the Bombay film industry where people come from every linguistic region of India, and are not necessarily native Hindi speakers. . . . This reliance on English by screenwriters is a recent phenomenon and also signals a shift in [the screenwriters'] background. In the earlier decades of Hindi cinema, screenwriters were often Hindi or Urdu poets, playwrights, or novelists who supported their literary endeavors by working in the film industry. Today, the majority of screenwriters come not from such literary backgrounds, but from a wide range of professional as well as film industry backgrounds. (69)

The change in the kinds of people who write the films might explain why some people feel the films today are not up to the par set by the 1950s and 60s. It also explains how the Hindi dialogue in more 'urban' themed films (like Dil Chahta Hai) sometimes seems a little forced, as if everyone would be more comfortable doing the whole thing in English.

8. Synch-sound. The vast majority of Bollywood films are still dubbed. The industry is still generally using older cameras, which produce camera noise, and has never invested in creating sound-proof shooting conditions in their studios. As a result, it's still easier and more efficient for actors to dub their voices in studio after shooting. This state of affairs is unfortunate, as dubbing is sometimes adversely affects the quality of the acting and the 'production values' more generally.

This set-up also helps non-Hindi speaking actors (like the Tamilian superstar Kamal Haasan) to enter into the Hindi film industry. Conversely, it allows Hindi film actors to get into non-Hindi film industries, even if they don't speak the language. The weirdness is that in some cases, if the actors concerned can't quite get their lips around the language in question, other actors' voices might be over-dubbed for their lines. Thus, the actor who is physically on screen may have his lines vocalized by someone else, while the songs in the film are sung by yet a third person!


Blogger RajpaL said...

Great Post Amardeep ! I have also posted it on my Blog as well.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


Thanks, but I would request that you just post an excerpt from my piece on your site, not the full thing.

It's generally considered bad blog etiquette to copy whole posts...

Anyway, glad you enjoyed it.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Jabberwock said...

Very informative, thanks. Never realised the tax scene used to be that bad.

11:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A marvelous post!

Amardeep, I recently discovered your blog (through Chuck T.) and have been enjoying it a great deal.

5:30 AM  
Blogger chappan said...

Awesome review Amardeep. Now only if Salman could stop shooting his mouth off...


9:39 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...



Yes, Salman Khan seems to be perennially in trouble. This current scandal looks bogus to me, though. I'm very suspicious about any 'discovered' recording that is that old.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous kg said...

As a newbie to Bollywood fare, I was wondering whether anyone has discussed Indian movie titles. Why are the titles not translated into English, when distribution is intended for non-Hindi or international audiences? They are nearly always transliterated into English phonetically -- which is useless for non-Hindi speakers. This practice appears to be peculiar to Indian films. For example, compare other foreign films like "Seven Samurai" or "Bicycle Thief" vs. "Dil Chata Hai" or "Lakshya". Any theories ?

1:14 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


Interesting question. Certainly, Tejaswini Ganti doesn't discuss this issue much.

I can only guess -- maybe it's that the titles often end up sounding either banal or ridiculous in English? "Dil Chahta Hai" translates to "The Heart Desires," and maybe you could make it spicier with something like "The Heart Wants It." Still, it ends up sounding pretty uninspiring.

And a classic film like "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" gets translated as "The Braveheart Will Take the Bride" (an Indian film festival actually translated it this way just last year) which sounds pretty goofy.

But there is a whole paper (or blog post?) that could be written on the peculiar logic in the titles of Hindi films. Hm...

2:18 PM  
Blogger sanjay said...

Actually, the entire business/ economic side of bollywood, indeed the indian entertainment sector in general, is expanding rapidly.

1. In 2004 for the first time, more people globally watched bollywood (indian?) than hollywood movies - 3.8 billion vs 3.6 billion. Paul Brett, Head of The Cinema Services division of the British Film Institute (BFI), United Kingdom, was prescient back in January 2003 when he said
'' Bollywood will bulldoze the British film industry. I can confidently predict that five years from now, Bollywood would account for nearly 70 per cent of the UK box office revenues and British films will only take 10 per cent!''

2. The industry is growing at 20% annually & will hit $10-12 bln by 2009. According to Amit Khanna, President, Indian Film Producers Council, the industry could tap 12% of the global entertainment market by 2008. Interestingly, this indicates that India and Indians seem to be exporting their pop culture -- art, entertainment, food, culture -- to the rest of the world with success. The Harvard School of Government would would call this phenomenon India's "soft power".

3. The Indian entertainment industry is also a lot more inclusive of foreigners - whether it be in leading roles, behind the camera or making cross-over movies. Nor is this inclusiveness limited to individuals. The Adlabs-promoted Entertainment One has already produced ‘Marigold’ in association with the US-based Hyperion Pictures starring Salman Khan. Sahara India Entertainment Management Company is setting up base in Hollywood & tentatively announced three Hollywood projects at an investment of over Rs 200 crore.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous DesiDancer said...

There aren't enough words for how much I am enjoying and learning from this book.

I had no idea that "Lagaan" was the first movie shot in sync sound. Strange, as it wasn't very long ago... As an audio engineer, I also think of the boom in location work for engineers & technicians.

Thanks again for recommending this book!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Puneet said...

i agree with your answer on how the industry doesn't name their titles in English too. But why could just originally come up with the title in english in relation to the film because translating does sound very strange and uninspiriing as you say.

i enjoy reading your blog very much! so varied it is...i would definitely like to check this book out sometime!

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Amardeep It is amazing to see that your effort has really made a difference.... People are better about or film industry... I have a request for you.. Can you send me the musical notations of all songs of DDLJ and Hum Aapke Hain Koun... It will a favour and your help will be greatly mail id is



8:02 AM  
Anonymous dev said...

Wonderful succint summary. Great reading.Agree especially with the decentralised bit , having lived in South Bombay for a couple of years. Perhaps its this nature of the industry which attracts buccaneers of all sorts but also allows an occasional outsider with low budget to make a sizzling movie which otherwise wouldn,t have been possible within the rigidity of a Hollywood studio.



2:37 PM  
Blogger sanjay jha said...

nameste amardeep.
i have linked this blog article to my blog as beth has done it.
i have also read the book,felt very happy when i discovered the article.
great blog,cheers!!!
i also invite you to visit my blog.

6:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool guestbook, interesting information... Keep it UP

3:28 AM  
Anonymous bollywood said...

Great post again this days gov is giving loans to film producers keeping film only to reduce hold of underworld on bollywood

2:00 PM  
Blogger Chimera said...

amazing insights to the otherwise familiar terrain...

11:22 AM  
Anonymous M.d Tabish Faraz said...

Thank you so much for this informative posting, Amardeep. And thanks to you too, Sepia, for the cross posting.

Being a trained screenwriter from online version of Hollywood, I've always wondered how come in Indian film industry there is a screenplay writer and then there is a dialogue writer for the same screenplay.

In Hollywood entertainment industry, the concept of a separate dialogue writer for a screenplay is vague, or better, unimaginable for the most part, since a screenwriter is the one whose job responsibilities obviously include dialogue writing as well.

Thanks to your extremely informative article, I am cleared now that since in Indian film industry most screenwriters are not enough fluent in Hindi to write Hindi dialogues, the screenwriter sits with one who is fluent in the language and so there is a screenplay writer and there is a different dialogue writer for the same screenplay.

6:39 AM  
Blogger stella said...

Amazing to read that the films are firest scripted in English, then translated back into Hindi. Makes me wonder all the more why the subtitles are so God-awful. Misspelled, innapropriate, incomplete, etc. In the new Umrao Jaan, the greeting "Adab" was subtitled as "Hi." I have always wanted to retire to India and get a job correcting film titles so they would make sense in English.

2:32 PM  
Blogger uddhav said...

Great Article..

8:32 AM  

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