To many, the term 'Bollywood’ defines the Indian nation’s indigenous cinema. But, as with most generalisations, that truism is filled with inaccuracies. Those who have dipped their toe in the extraordinarily rich film culture of that land understand that the term is a misnomer, refering mostly to the traditions of the Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry (supposedly coined by English-language journalists in the early 1970s, when the bustling metropolis was still called Bombay) and largely ignoring the traditions of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Mahrathi, Gujurati and Bengali regional cinema. If the term rankles a great many within the vast Indian sector (and it does), it is nevertheless accepted as the collective noun by which international audiences know the nation’s film output.
The works historically adhere to elements that celebrate romanticism, both narratively and aesthetically. They soar to the strains of vibrantly choreographed song and dance; indulge in lavish melodrama; espouse grand production values (Bollywood crews are some of the most technically proficient in the world); and, perhaps most importantly, worship their charismatic stars.
Audiences adore real-life lovers paired on-screen, overcoming hardships to attain a pre-destined deeper understanding and emerge more in love than ever. The most famous modern on/off-screen couple are the superstar Aishwarya Rai and her A-list husband, Abhishek Bachchan.
The films of Bollywood have travelled so well to foreign shores because they exude a love for the magic of film; since Hiralal Sen filmed The Flower of Persia, circa 1900, the artform’s power to enthral has been revered by audiences and filmmakers alike. Such desire fuels the busiest film production centre in the world – more than 1000 films a year for most of the last decade. Correspondingly, the business is every bit as ambitious and profit-driven as its American namesake – in 2011, Ra.One starring renowned actor Shah Rukh Khan became the most expensive Bollywood film ever, with a budget of AU$23.1 million.
Bollywood is still not everyone’s cup of tea; there are those who cannot see past the kitschy, 'screw-in-the-light-bulb/pat-the-dog’ dance numbers. But one constant defines the mocking detractors; very few have ever watched a Bollywood film. For watching these exuberant works of cinematic energy is to experience something joyous. Once in their thrall, you’ll discover an intellectual resonance to many of the works, but Indian movie-making (Bollywood, if you must) is first and foremost popular cinema of the most unabashed kind, made for audiences who are exhilarated by the medium.