Bollywood Gets Ready to Take On Hollywood

Jan. 14, 2005 — -- The Golden Globes kick off the Hollywood award season this weekend. But for billions of movie fans around the world, it is not Hollywood, but Bollywood that produces the biggest stars and the biggest movies.

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Bollywood is the name given to the Hollywood of India, the huge film industry based in Bombay, India's movie capital. Some 1,200 films a year are produced in India, the vast majority of them in Bombay. They are a big draw not just in India, but across much of the globe -- though not in the United States.

"I would say what soccer is to sport, Bollywood is to entertainment," said Richard Corliss, a film critic for Time magazine and a self-confessed Bollywood fan. "That is to say, it's only a minority taste in the United States, but throughout the Indian subcontinent, in North Africa, the Middle East, Asia straight through to Indonesia, large parts of Eastern Europe, it's the most popular form of entertainment in the world."

Corliss added, "It's best to think of Bollywood films now and forever as Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s, where there was a huge industry disgorging 1,000 movies a year back then, as Bollywood does now."

A Musical Experience

So what, exactly, is a Bollywood movie? Well, they're usually long -- about three hours -- and chock full of plot lines, music, dance -- just about anything that can go in a movie. "It's designed as full-on, total entertainment for the Indian audience, for the masses," says director Mira Nair, who included a Bollywood dance number in her recent Hollywood film "Vanity Fair" with Reese Witherspoon.

"Satisfying everybody is the general goal of conduct with a Bollywood film," Nair said, adding that the genre's films must have "drama, car chases, huge amounts of romance, always great amounts of music, and preferably a little danger, a little villainy, to keep the balance going."

And, of course, no Bollywood film would be complete without several great dance numbers. It doesn't matter what the topic -- the political tensions over wartorn Kashmir (recent hits "Main Hoon Na" and "Lakshya"), melodramatic family sagas ("Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham"), or an E.T.-like alien befriending a mentally challenged boy ("Koi Mil Gaya") -- a Bollywood viewer is guaranteed great song and dance numbers.

The entertainment spans genres, too. "If you're a Bollywood dancer, not only do you have to know Indian classical dancing, Indian folk dancing, Indian contemporary dancing, but you also have to know Western styles, too," said Bollywood dance instructor Nakul Dev Mahajan. "You have to know hip-hop, you have to know jazz. You have to have some other worldly training, whether it's ballet or whether it's salsa."

The music is hugely popular in its own right. Bollywood's leading composer, A.R. Rahman, is reputed to be the biggest-selling artist of all time. "According to some standards, he has sold over 150 million copies of the albums of the movies that he writes the songs and the scores for, which would put him above the Beatles, any Britney Spears, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra," said Corliss.

Hrithik Roshan, one of Bollywood's superstars, is hugely popular across the globe and finds himself mobbed wherever he goes in public. He said Bollywood films are really a reflection of India's culture.

"All our films are musicals, music is a very big part of our culture, and everything that we do is somehow -- every emotion is expressed through song and dance," he said.

So Roshan doesn't think it's a little out of the ordinary for the terrorist he plays in "Mission Kashmir" to break into song before heading out on a murderous mission. "Why not?" he asked. "Every man, even though he's going through the worst possible stage in his life, has some space for music in it, at any given time."

Global Appeal

India has a population of more than a billion people -- plenty to support the world's most prolific film industry. But the legions of fans spread well beyond the borders of India and the South Asian subcontinent. Indian movies have become Top 10 hits in countries where the Indian diaspora has spread.

In the United Kingdom, which has a significant South Asian population, Indian movies routinely appear in the Top 10 box office lists. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghans are again enjoying the melodrama provided by Bollywood, whether in the cinema or on bootleg videotapes (video piracy is a problem not just for Hollywood producers.)

Heading West

A big moment for Bollywood was when the 2001 American film "Moulin Rouge" featured a techno-music remix of the hit Bollywood song "Chuma Chuma."

"It was like, 'Wow. We've arrived. We're coming,'" said Mahajan. "So it was really cool to see that."

Another turning point was when "Devdas," starring Rai, made a huge splash at the Cannes film festival in 2002. And in 2004, the Bollywood-themed Broadway musical "Bombay Dreams" brought a taste of the Indian genre to American audiences.

The exposure Rai received from "Devdas" -- as well as her stunning beauty and perfect English -- have made her the most widely known Bollywood actress outside India.

Time named Rai one of the most influential people in the world, and there are more than 17,000 Web sites devoted to her. But despite her worldwide fame, Rai realizes she's an unknown quantity in Hollywood.

That's likely to change next month with the opening of her next film, "Bride and Prejudice," which might be the crossover hit for Bollywood in Hollywood.

"It's a take on Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice,'" says Rai. "It's funny. It's still a love story. It still talks about families."

Hooray for Bollywood

Nair said America is poised to embrace Bollywood. "What's happening is that Hollywood is slowly waking up to the power -- the economic market power -- of an Indian subcontinental audience for their films," she said. "It's a billion people right now, and people who have been fueled and fed on movies as their only means of entertainment for more than 75 years."

Actress Preity Zinta said newcomers won't be disappointed. "You see, India isn't a country that is a rich country. We have a lot of people below the poverty line. For them, a film was a fantasy they wanted to go, it was their only sense of entertainment, where they would go and leave all their problems behind and they would go and see that movie."

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