Silver Screen Silhouette

Bollywood has been one of the biggest passions of Indians. The industry, based in Mumbai, is also called the mayanagri – the enchanted land, conceivably for the reason that it holds within itself this wonder world called Bollywood. There is no other dream dreamt by so many yet realised by so few.For countless Indians, Bollywood has become a synonym for a way of life, of the wonders unseen and unheard of before. For generations of Indians, it has stood and still stands for packaged dreams, made and remade in movie studios, ready to be seen and consumed. Bollywood chases you all the time, peeping at you from billboards and hoardings, bristling angrily from T-shirts, competing for attention in the thousands of magazines devoted to it or literally shouting at you from everywhere – be it the very ritzy café to the chaiwala’s stall… blasting at full volume, the latest movie’s sound-track.

Bollywood has long been one of India’s largest and most internationally renowned industries. The name Bollywood takes root from the hybridization of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood. The term was coined by Amit Khanna, film-maker, scholar and former president of Film and Television Guild of India.

When Dadasaheb Phalke made the first Bollywood film Raja Harishchandra in 1913, he must not have envisioned the phenomenon he had pioneered. It grew from being a poor cousin of Hollywood to having a flavoured distinctiveness of its own. This industry, which can be said to be functioning from a single city, has its roots firmly reaching every corner of India. In fact, it can be called one of the many unifying factors of our country; a denominator which is common for most of the population. Right from the metropolitan teenager in the comfort of a swanky movie theatre to the villager watching his favourite Shah Rukh Khan starrer in a makeshift open tent, they all have Bollywood in common.

It would be really unfair on our part to see Bollywood in totality from the same tinted lens and generalising it as one big industry, which manufactures candy floss romances and feeds our imagination with a steady dose of a make-believe world. It would be naive and unjustified to reduce the definition of a Bollywood film to a combination of a romantic story line with soppy dialogues, lavish sets, never ending song and dance sequences and the ubiquitous happy endings.

There has been such a sea change in not only the quality and technique of movie making but also the content. In this country, with about 14 million movie-goers per day (roughly 1.4% of a billion), the number of off-beat films has increased in a marked and evident way.

Earlier, the films made on social issues were branded as ‘art films’, meant for the viewing and appreciation of a very miniscule portion of audience and the expectation of commercial success would be totally out of question. Today, an increasing number of film-makers are not only picking up subjects dealing with social problems, controversies and contentious topics but are also releasing these before mainstream audiences. Whether they are subjects dealing with gay rights to bomb blasts, riots to stock market crash or even the changing dynamics of patriotism or relationships, this new breed of movie-makers have touched them all with a fresh and niche perspective.

Being neither a critic nor a die-hard fan, but an unbiased observer, I would like to comment here that Bollywood, or for that matter cinema itself, serves as a measure to gauge the strides taken by the society and to observe the immense change in a nation’s outlook over time. A close observation of Bollywood productions of different times would show the gradual change in the Indian psyche and the change in our way of thinking. It might sound absurd to many, but the growth of our country from a struggling underdog to a confident, strapping global super-power is echoed in many ways in the movies made in recent years. The characters portrayed in our films are no longer downcast, demoralised or impoverished but are part of an economy growing at the rate of 9.4 per cent( 2006-2007). No longer do we see shady, dingy bastis in our movies but malls, designer showrooms and foreign cars.

Bollywood has proved to be a money churner for the people involved in it. It is an industry which makes sufficient financial and economic logic in order to attract more and more investors. The deregulation of banking, capital markets, theatre building along with the end of the monopoly of Doordarshan have combined together to provide the impetus necessary for the growth of this otherwise dormant industry.

The transition from a license-permit raj to a liberalised economy did not leave Bollywood unaffected. The illogical controls and regulations that had left this industry crippled for decades found the perfect antidote through the reforms. Before the changes, it was not even regarded as an industry, which meant that this ‘non-industry’ could not get funds from the nationalised banks. This non-availability of investment not only discouraged aspiring film makers from venturing into this business but also created a monopoly of sorts of a few big producers and stars. The finance came mainly from the underworld, primarily because during the 1970s and 1980s, the high income tax and wealth tax rates made making money legally, almost impossible. No wonder, Dawood Ibrahim and his ilk seemed like business partners rather than gangsters.

Financial liberalisation changed the face of this industry. Today, bank financing is easily available and the films are being funded legally. Perhaps, one of the biggest changes brought about was the cinema hall deregulation. When the stringent laws and curbs that required licenses for opening new movie halls were removed, it saw an explosion in the number of theatres. On an average, there are 10-15 multiplex opening every day which has led The Financial Times, London to call India the multiplex capital of the world. Removal of price control on ticket also led to increased revenue collection.

Bollywood is growing at an amazing rate of 12.6 per cent annually, making it one of the fastest growing movie industries globally. According to one estimate by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, an accounting and consultancy firm, India’s film business had an annual turnover of around USD 1.12 billion in 2004 and it is likely to double by 2009.

In terms of global viewership, Bollywood still has a long way to go. According to one estimate, despite producing 800 films per year, its share in global cinema review is a lowly 1 per cent, although revenue is expected to cross USD 3.5 billion by 2010. The films have increasingly been making their presence felt at international film festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin and even been appearing among the list of nominees at the Academy Awards. The trademark Bollywood style of film making complete with actors and actresses dancing on situational songs while lip synching to pre-recorded songs has not only captured the imagination of international audience; but, has also been followed and imitated by many distinguished international movie makers.

Bollywood being the dream world that it is, there are many who have carved fantastic success stories in here, but there are also those who stumbled and fell. Many others shone momentarily and then faded away, never to be seen again. And then, there are the invisible ones – the people behind the scenes, living unknown, unsung lives of anonymity. These are the people whose lives are far removed from the make-up and ‘rouge’ lifestyles of Bollywood superstars, but they are part of this industry nevertheless.

Being in a Bollywood film is a lifetime dream for many. People throng to Mumbai every year in thousands in order to try their luck in this film city. Some lucky ones succeed but for most of these ‘wannabes’, there is nothing except disappointment and failure. Many return home dejected, some end up in the murky corridors of producers making cheap, B-grade and C-grade movies, while many others are absorbed in the unnoticed but omnipresent group of movie extras. The big Bollywood dreams of many young aspiring actors have died unlamented deaths in the dark, dingy office of the Junior Artist’s Association, situated in central Mumbai. The people with dreams of becoming the faces to grace the hoardings of films by big production houses end up being part of the huge faceless mass in a crowd scene of some movie. For these extras, a good day’s wage would be USD 7, barely enough to subsist; pushing them to penury, forcing them to live out of shacks and pavements. To add to their woes, film-makers today want their movies to exude a very urban chic look, which cannot be given by these poor extras mostly hailing from small towns and villages. So the work for extras ends up going to kids in search of pocket money or aspiring models. For these junior artists, there is no choice but to join the association and keep hoping for their stroke of luck in spite of being at the mercy of corrupt agents and having to part with the hefty membership fees.

Lately, a very interesting trend that has been noticed in Bollywood films is the presence of foreign extras. Most of them are tourists sourced by agents from tourist hotspots like Gateway of India, places around Colaba and even from neighbouring Goa. They are used to pass off some bar or retreat in India as some foreign locale. In fact, most of us would be surprised to know that there have been instances of travel agencies combining offers to work as extras in their travel packages, hoping to woo tourists, primarily from Europe. Working as an extra in a Bollywood film holds plenty of attraction for these foreigners as they see it as an opportunity to make some extra money and also as a way of enjoying a true Bollywood experience.

In this industry, where the lead actor and actresses are paid anything between INR 50 lakh to INR 5 crore per movie, the lives of spot boys, light men and sound technicians exist as a sharp contrast. These people barely make enough to keep their body and soul together. In any movie set, you are likely to find light and electricity technicians moving about on the wet floor wearing only rubber slippers, in spite of the broken sockets and exposed wiring. Whether it be bearing with the tantrums of stars with big egos or running about doing thankless jobs, these people are given a raw deal.

The plight of Indian stuntmen is no better. Stunt doubles are used to do the stunt scenes in the countless action movies made in Bollywood; whether it be jumping from the top of a building or fighting on top of a moving vehicle. Even though the risk associated with this job is gargantuan, the safety measures and precautions taken during the filming of these scenes in minimal. In a shocking revelation, the stunt doubles in Bollywood still use wet jute bags instead of fire suits, collapse into cardboard boxes and fishing nets instead of airbags and crash through glass with little or no protection. There have been numerous instances of stuntmen being gravely wounded or even losing their lives while doing these high risk scenes. A well-known stunt-artist in Bollywood earns about Rs 1500-2000 a day depending upon experience and risks involved. The Stuntmen Association of India was formed by them in order to ascertain that at least their lives are insured (insurance companies generally shy away because of the risky nature of their jobs) and they get a platform for voicing out their demands of better wages and work conditions.

In more than one instance, the Indian judiciary has shown that most of the famous film personalities manage to walk away scot-free even after committing crimes punishable by law. Some of the crimes allegedly committed by some famous Bollywood stars and starlets in recent memory include illegal gun-possession, accidental crushing of people sleeping on a pavement which led to death and injury, possession of banned substances and illegal hunting of animals of endangered species.

Charges of plagiarism are also very common here, though vehemently denied by the accused party; yet the audiences are often presented with movies having similar storylines, released simultaneously. It is usual to see shameless rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters complete with similar plots, scenes and even dialogues.

Indian movie fans have the inclination to see their favourite actors and actresses as infallible human beings, equating them with the protagonists they portray on screen. Instances of temples made in honour of film stars like Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, sound absurd but are not unheard of. Not surprisingly, one physical ailment or injury of a star leads to their fans flocking temples, mosques or any place of worship. A personal event like a marriage manages to overshadow and overtake all major news of the country, while grabbing prime-time slots on all news channels and getting the cover page in newspapers.

So we can see that to try to peel the different layers off of this industry is a mammoth task. I cannot expect any such success in the course of this short article when my betters have failed to grasp it in its entirety. If ever a movie is made on Bollywood, it would be a film about survival, adapting to change, the powers of imagination; a story of ideas and thoughts that set millions of minds on fire and a story of countless tears and unfulfilled wishes buried beneath a glamorous façade. The ability to make others dream is extraordinary and unusual; Bollywood has done that for millions of us and perhaps, it is for this reason that it is and will remain an imperative part of our lives.

Pronoti Balgary

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