November 23, 2006


With a song in their hearts a review of BOLLYWOOD: A History by Mihir Bose (TARQUIN HALL, Sunday Times of London)

[B]ose’s account of the rise and rise of Bollywood is long overdue. It is an insightful and often hilarious account of how Indian cinema moulded itself into such a unique phenomenon. His ability to place the genre in cultural context and trace how ancient traditions and taboos nurtured its evolution provides an enlightening perspective into why Indian cinematic tastes are so wildly different.

Bose’s punchy narrative recounts how, in the early 1900s, the die was cast by India’s first professional film-maker, Dadasaheb Phalke. An artistic and entrepreneurial pioneer, he took his films and projector across India by bullock cart. But he faced stiff competition. From time immemorial, travelling theatres had entertained the masses with Hindu epics. Audiences were accustomed to six-hour performances combining action, tragedy, betrayal, comedy, love and, of course, music and dance. By pandering to these tastes, Phalke gave his audiences their money’s worth. Thereafter, Indians flocked to his makeshift cinemas in vast numbers “to see their gods brought to life, albeit on film”.

The age of colour and sound completed the impact of this spectacle. Elaborate sets tantalised those seeking an escape from poverty. Meanwhile composers created a new genre of popular music, the “filmi song”, a blend of Indian, Middle Eastern and European forms. To this day, Hindi songs usually make or break a film. They are sung not by the onscreen stars, who merely lip-sync, but by so-called “playback” singers, many of whom are legends in their own right.

Raj Kapoor, India’s first superstar, was unrepentant of the Bollywood formula. “I am not making films for drawing-room conversation,” he said. “I am making films to entertain the millions of this country.”

A concept that Hollywood opposes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2006 8:23 AM
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