"I don't like this. I think that it's basically a brand name."
For many South Asians and avid cinemagoers, the word ‘Bollywood’ immediately conjures up images of elaborate productions featuring choreographed songs, excessive costumes and lavish settings.
Despite the excess often noted in Bollywood films, the storyline almost always features the boy-meets-girl troupe and a happy ending.
But whilst Bollywood may sometimes feel like a predictable industry, not all of us are aware of the history behind India’s national cinema.
How did it grow to become one of India’s most lucrative industries?
DESIblitz explores the origins of the Hindi film industry and how the word ‘Bollywood’ emerged in India.
The word ‘Bollywood’ is a play on Hollywood, with the B coming from Bombay (now known as Mumbai).
Indian cinema however dates back to 1913 and Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film Raja Harishchandra, the first-ever Indian feature film.
The first Indian film with a soundtrack was Alam Ara, which premiered in 1931.
Film journalist Bevinda Collaco claims she coined the term for the title of her gossip column in Screen magazine in the 1970s.
Other sources state that lyricist, filmmaker and scholar Amit Khanna was its creator.
Amit was responsible for setting up India’s first integrated media and entertainment company, Plus Channel, in 1989. He was also the founder chairman of Reliance entertainment.
In December 2019, Amit Khanna famously revealed Amitabh Bachchan’s reaction to the coining of the term.
He recalled: “Mr Bachchan called me up one day, and very angrily he asked, ‘Why are you calling this Bollywood?
“I don’t like this. I think that it’s basically a brand name. Does dalda mean anything? Does Colgate mean anything? It is just a brand name of this world.”
Unlike Hollywood, initial growth in the Hindi film industry was slow.
In 1947, India gained independence from Britain, with the country partitioned into the Republic of India, and Pakistan.
From that point, the Indian film industry entered what historians call the golden age of Hindi cinema.
Mehboob Khan’s film Mother India became the first Indian film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Many Hindi films during this time address social issues such as class and propelled the careers of film stars such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand.
Many films from Bollywood’s golden era are considered to be among the greatest ever made even today.
Among these are evergreen classics such as Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool, Raj Kapoor’s Awara and K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam.
Besides being regular features on global lists of greatest films ever made, each of these classics inspired and influenced cinema in the subcontinent for decades to follow.
It wasn’t just Hindi cinema that found its footing during the golden era.
Bengali cinema (now referred to as Tollywood), among the country’s most critically acclaimed regional cinemas, saw its golden era unwind starting in the early 1950s.
Some of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers to this day, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak, all ventured into filmmaking and made their earliest classics during this period.
Manmohan Desai was one of the more successful Bollywood directors of the 1970s and is considered by many to be the father of the ‘masala’ film.
Defending his approach, he said: “I want people to forget their misery.
“I want to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there are no beggars, where fate is kind and god is busy looking after his flock.”
After stagnating in the 1980s, Bollywood saw an uptick in the 90s as India underwent economic liberalisation.
Production budgets increased, and films often had lavish sets in international locations.
The combination of action, romance, comedy, and musical numbers is a model that still dominates the Bollywood industry.
Today, Bollywood films are available globally, both in cinemas and on numerous streaming platforms.
Though greater attention is now paid to the plot, character development, and dramatic tension, it is, in most cases, sheer star power that accounts for a Bollywood film’s success.
With the international success of films like Slumdog Millionaire and the injection of foreign capital into the Indian film industry, Bollywood has perhaps been entering a new chapter in its history, one to which the eyes of the world are now paying closer attention.
But the question remains – will a Bollywood film ever find crossover success with mainstream American audiences?
It seems that south Indian films are closer to nearing this achievement with blockbusters such as RRR and Pushpa: The Rise.
The End of Bollywood?
During an Indian Premier League match in April 2022, West Indian bowler Obed McCoy celebrated taking a wicket by coolly wiping his chin with the back of his hand.
McCoy’s imitation of Allu Arjun’s gesture was a reminder of the phenomenal run of Pushpa: The Rise at the box office since its release in December 2021.
It was also a reminder of the fact that South Indian cinema has perfected the art of making pan-India films, which appeal to both a larger domestic audience and foreign viewers.
Salman Khan too acknowledged it. On April 25, 2022, he said that it is the heroism in South films that is drawing audiences to theatres, which is lacking in Hindi films today.
RRR has also proved a hit with audiences, especially on Netflix where it has reportedly been viewed for over 45 million hours across the world.
From RRR’s improved fight choreography, animal imagery and use of slow-motion shots, it’s no wonder why the film has proved a hit with audiences from across the globe.
This includes American audiences which is surprising considering their general aversion to foreign cinema and subtitles.
Hindi films will have to think about how to expand their market, especially in south India which has close to half the exhibition screens in India.
Southern films have made a smooth transition to the north of India.
Bollywood will have to double down, though they are taking steps in the form of national-level actors joining hands with regional directors.
Whilst the future of Bollywood is not yet certain, one thing is clear – the industry’s elaborate song-and-dance sequences, romantic melodrama, and striking set designs will never be forgotten.