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!