July 16, 2010

Summer Friday: Namaste Bollywood -- An introduction to Hindi Films & Music

Every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day I'm going to be featuring guest bloggers as a part of my "Summer Fridays" series. This week's post comes from everyone's favorite music master Ru B. who shares an intro on all things Bollywood.

India has one of the largest film industries in the world, producing over 1,000 films a year. Bollywood (As the Hindi Film Industry is affectionately called) produces about 200 films a year. Over the past decade Americans have seen Bollywood influence many aspects of pop culture including our soap operas, music, Broadway and even our reality programming. However these are mere glimpses of what Bollywood has to offer.

intro to Bollywood

The Bollywood audience reaches far and wide, from Mumbai to Moscow to Michigan and every rural village and city in between. Going to the movie theater is a family event. Therefore almost every Bollywood film has something for everyone: the romantic storyline is usually the main story, but action is provided for the boys, cultural "festive" events for the older generations, as well as comedy for the children. Naturally, to include all of that in one film and the musical numbers, the average running time of a Bollywood movie is over 2.5 hrs! This can easily test the patience of your average American viewer but my hope is after reading this intro you'll be excited to dive right in and experience it for yourself. (Note: Slumdog Millionaire is not a Bollywood movie.)

The most important thing one has to remember when viewing Bollywood films is that these films are going to be different from what you usually expect -- and it's not just because there is a lot of singing and dancing. Of course, when anyone thinks of Bollywood they immediately think of the musical numbers associated with it. Most of the time a film’s soundtrack is the main marketing tool used to promote the film. Interestingly enough, actors generally do not sing themselves but instead lip-sync to a playback singer. At any given time there are about 5 to 6 playback singers that dominate the industry. So it’s not uncommon that one will watch a film where two actresses have the same singing voice. This may seem weird to you but Bollywood audiences are okay with it.

But truly, Bollywood's uniqueness stems from the spectacle and glamour that it provides to its audiences. It's escapism at it's finest. Most of the time, you check your brain at the door as these are truly meant to be "popcorn flicks." Surely the lavish musical numbers, where hundreds of synchronized dancers appear out of nowhere are a treat to watch but are by no means rooted in reality. Although these songs generally do move the story forward, they are not necessarily integral to the plot. So why have them? Well, India not only prides itself on its musical prowess and will showcase it almost anywhere but additionally since the movies are so long the audience also needs a break to check out of the story and just enjoy. Check out this number from Mohabbatein:

Building on that spectacle, there is a type of song that has become popular over the past decade; the infamous "item song." This trend started when directors would hire a superstar actress to perform only one song in the film. That’s right, her character didn’t have a name or lines, she simply was there to dance and attract a crowd. This phenomenon drove audiences wild and they were soon clamoring for more. Bollywood directors would boast when they were able to rope in big ticket stars to perform in their films and it turned into a game of one-upmanship. Over the decade this item number has evolved to include popular male stars, and even foreign celebrities (ABlogAboutThings.com favorite Kylie Minogue perfomed "Chiggy Wiggy" in the film Blue. ). Nowadays almost every film has an "item song" and its usually the catchiest song on the soundtrack.

Almost just as important as the item number is the introduction song. While male leads (referred to as the hero) may be introduced in a film with little to no fanfare, the female lead (or heroine) is generally showcased from the outset. With first impressions being so important an introduction song is the safest way to ensure the audience will fall in love with the heroine right away. It's interesting almost every film is the same, one generally doesn’t get a full view of the character’s face until the first note is sung, at which point the appropriate audience reaction is either awe, or catcalls!

Of course there's more to Bollywood than just the music. Tradition and morality are strong themes in Bollywood and it would help if you had a loose understanding before you watch a film. For a list of cultural references and mores I recommend checking out BollyWhat.com, there you will find lyric translations, plot synopses, as well as a forum for non Indian Bollyfans.

So, you think you’re ready to dive in and experience what Bollywood really has to offer? Below are 5 of my favorite films. These films are a must –see for any Bollywood fan and are a perfect introduction to the genre. All of them are available on DVD with English subtitles. You may find them at your local Blockbuster (I have) or on Netflix.

1. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) - Anjali is a tomboy and in love with her best friend Rahul. But Rahul falls head over heels for Tina. Now what? Drawing elements from Archie Comics, director Karan Johar provides a unique twist to your typical Bollywood love story when Rahul's daughter tries to reunite him with his college love.

2. Devdas (2002) - After his wealthy family prohibits him from marrying the woman he is in love with , Devdas Mukherjee's life spirals further and further out of control as he takes up alcohol and a life of vice to numb the pain.

3. Lagaan (2001) The people of a small village in Victorian India stake their future on a game of cricket against their ruthless British rulers.

4. Dil Se (1998) The clash between love and ideology is portrayed in this love story between a radio executive and a beautiful revolutionary.

5. 1942 A Love Story (1993) - A young Indian couple, both from wealthy backgrounds, find themselves caught up in the 1940's Indian revolutionary movement against their families whom are under the thumb a sadistic British general.

Also, if you are more interested in just listening to some fun bollywood tracks I've provided some links below to previous Ru-Mixes like Heartbeats for Discowaale and Thoda Kachcha Hai.

Now that you have the tools go ahead and enjoy -- soon enough you'll be singing "Balle Balle Bollywood!"

Great glimpse into the world of Bollywood films, Ru! Will have to add some to my Netflix queue. If you want more good stuff you can download more versions of The Ru-Mix, join his Facebook group or read all of the Summer Friday entries.