World's Most Popular Film Industry Turns 100

Bright colors, intricate dance sequences, melodramatic plots and great music are hallmarks of India's movie industry, which got its start 100 years ago. NPR's Scott Simon explores the Indian cinema with Rajinder Dudrah, aka Doc. Bollywood.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You know, Americans often assume that Hollywood films are what the world watches most. But the world's most popular film industry features music, melodrama and spectacular dance moves that have become known by a single name: Bollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Indian cinema. They are the largest producer of movies in the world. Rajinder Dudrah is the author of "Bollywood Travels: Culture, diaspora and border crossings in popular Hindi cinema." He joins us from the studios of the BBC in Birmingham, England. Thanks so much for being with us.

RAJINDER DUDRAH: You're welcome. Lovely to join you.

SIMON: I hear your nickname is Doc Bollywood?

(LAUGHTER)

DUDRAH: That's absolutely right, yes.

SIMON: So our producers didn't make that up?

DUDRAH: No, they didn't. I have a hashtag on Twitter. You can follow me on Twitter with that hashtag.

SIMON: I think I'll be doing that. So what makes a film Bollywood?

DUDRAH: Well, Bollywood is actually cinema, so you know, there's a number of genres. But I think the most favored genre is the masala genre, and within that there's a bit of fighting, so you've got your dishum dishum, action, spectacle, stunts; you've got wonderful heroes and heroines; you've got melodrama often centered around the family or obstacles that are placed in the family, and then obviously there's a love interest. The hero and heroine has to overcome social obstacles, sometimes mediate the family and come together. There will also be suspense, thriller. There might also be a kind of a cut-and-paste or a quote to Hollywood film within that genre itself. So it's a kind of an all-singing, all-dancing melodrama family affair.

SIMON: There are other sectors of Indian cinema, and I'm thinking especially of the Bengali cinema, these pensive, searing social dramas of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. That's not Bollywood, is it?

DUDRAH: No, that's not Bollywood. That's been considered or thought of as art cinema or parallel cinema. So this ran, if you like, parallel to the commercial cinema, not least of the '70s and '80s. But Bollywood cinema has a number of genres and some of these films have a dark underbelly. So yes, you have your melodrama and your spectacle fanfare, but equally within that cinema you have genres which are quite socially aware as well.

SIMON: We've got a scene from a 1957 film that's of great note called "Mother India." What can you tell us about this film, then we'll run a scene?

DUDRAH: Oh, yes. This is a huge colossus film. "Mother India," played by Nargis is one of the most oft-quoted and perhaps one of the most famous of all films and it places center place the role of the women in newly emerging nation.

SIMON: In a famous scene, she has put up with her son just long enough and decides that she's going to put an end to his rebelliousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOTHER INDIA")

NARGIS: (as Radha) (Foreign language spoken)

SUNIL DUTT: (as Birju) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: I don't want to give away an plot points, but there's a gun involved, isn't there?

DUDRAH: Oh, there's high melodrama. This is towards the climax. Now this is a mother who becomes a single mother. Her husband loses his arms in a farming accident. He then leaves her destitute to bring up three children. One of them dies. There's an evil moneylender in the village who's kind of leching after her. But in spite of all this...

SIMON: I mean, we're smiling in the control room as we hear you recite the plot, but it occurs to me it's no more absurd than "Gone With the Wind."

DUDRAH: Oh, absolutely. It's on par with "Gone With the Wind," and perhaps more people around the world, you know, have watched this, because these films aren't watched just - are watched not just in India, but also around the world as well: Africa, the Middle East, you name it. And of course, the Indian and South Asian diaspora overseas.

But in this particular scene, one of the sons who grows up, he becomes a bandit and he wants to take off with the lecherous moneylender's daughter, but, no, she stands in the way and she says: Before I'm your mother I'm a woman first and I will not let you dishonor the woman; I will not let you dishonor the reputation of the village. It's a high drama, high charging and, yes, there's a huge gun involved as well.

SIMON: We have to talk about musicals, because for many people around the world, a signature of what we call Bollywood films are the musicals. There's so many different musical forms that you can see in a Bollywood film. But, I mean, they range from, I get the impression, the Mumbai Philharmonic to somebody playing an accordion.

DUDRAH: No, absolutely. And when it's done well, it's really, you know, it has the full orchestra fanfare that's on par with any cinema around the world and it also gives Hollywood a run for its money. So when you've got the full orchestra fanfare, you've got songs and dance which are integral and central to the storytelling.

So these are narrative accelerators, where the actors, actresses, the supporting cast, tell the story through song and dance. So if the song and dance is missed, a key proponent or a key aspect of that story can be missed as well.

SIMON: Well, undoubtedly, mere audio isn't going to be able to do it justice, but we do have a clip from the 1955 film, "Shree 420."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHREE 420")

MANNA DEY: (Singing in foreign language)

LATA MANGESHKAR: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Nargis again, right?

DUDRAH: Yes. Nargis and Raj Kapoor. And they had a wonderful, wonderful on-screen chemistry and also behind the scenes it's a love affair going on. Now, those songs that we hear, that singing voice, is not their voice at all. These are playback singers. So, for Nargis there, we have Lata Mangeshkar, the female; and for Raj Kapoor, we had Manna Dey. Now, Lata Mangeshkar is still going strong. She's featured in the Guinness Book of Records with something like 30,000-plus songs to her credit and she's still going.

SIMON: Now, we should explain, this is like the Marni Nixon of Indian cinema. She's a very famous American actress who lip-synched for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story," for Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady."

DUDRAH: Very well put - I think that's a really good analogy. And also what's interesting here is so that these songs have a life in their own right. So, not only do they provide a soundtrack for the films, these songs also then featured as records and tapes and now as digital downloads, and the songs have afterlives. And in some cases, the album for this song can be much more successful than the film itself. So, really interesting mix there.

SIMON: I had to cover the war in Afghanistan to understand how powerful Indian films have been around the world. Because that's what, after five years of the Taliban, that's what Afghans looked forward to returning to their cinema. And as someone explained to me, American films have, you know, car chases and shoot-em-ups. Indian films are about coming from the country to the city. They're about marrying the boy or girl that you're not supposed to who will displease your parents. Those are themes that communicate around the world now.

DUDRAH: This is a really interesting point. And in fact, this is one of the ways that Hindi films and Indian films have communicated and translated across borders. Countries like the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, you know, they would willingly watch Hindi films, probably because these were brown bodies enacting family stories, family melodramas or stories that were perhaps a little bit more relevant to their cultural needs at the time. And then, of course, with the case of Afghanistan, when the Taliban came in, all that was censored so it went underground. And then, obviously, with the fall of the Taliban, one of the first forms of popular culture they turned to was Bollywood and Hindi cinema itself. So, this cinema really does translate and speak to a variety of audiences, film and that cinema, the cathartic release that it gives us is a nice way to do it.

SIMON: Rajinder Dudrah, the author of "Bollywood Travels: Culture, diaspora and border crossings in popular Hindi cinema." Thanks so much for being with us.

DUDRAH: It's been a pleasure, Scott. I hope we get to do this again soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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