Arts & Culture

Bollywood under a lens

6 min read

Class explores the tradition of Indian popular films from an academic viewpoint

Richard Delacy, preceptor in Sanskrit and Indian studies, flicks off the lights in his classroom and cues the video projector. A few students shift in their seats as the opening credits for “Khalnayak,” a renowned Bollywood film, roll across the screen.

Over the next three hours, Delacy and his students will follow the adventures of a gangster and political activist called “Ballu” as he attempts to evade the law. “Khalnayak” has all the elements of a blockbuster: violence, a love triangle, even entrapment. It’s highly entertaining, but students are also focused on a more intellectual aspect of the film, namely: How does the plot echo themes of “Ramayana,” an ancient Sanskrit epic?

“Khalnayak” is one of 12 films that form the syllabus of Indian Studies 123, “Beyond Bollywood: Commercial Hindi Cinema in the Late 20th Century.” According to Delacy, the course is the first within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to focus exclusively on Hindi film. The syllabus covers not only the history and traditions of Bollywood, but also places considerable emphasis on the use of language in cinema. One of the sections is conducted entirely in Urdu-Hindi for those students working toward a language citation.

“I wanted students to engage critically with the very concept of a Bollywood film and to explore how this cinematic tradition can offer a lens on Hindi culture,” says Delacy. “These films are not only framed by the language and literary traditions of South Asia, they are an important component of contemporary society.”

The term “Bollywood” first emerged in the 1990s to distinguish films made in Bombay (Mumbai), the center of cinematic activity in India. Scholars believe the term probably originated from films produced in Tollygunje, a suburb of Calcutta, in the early 1930s. That tradition was known as “Tollywood,” and the term was subsequently adopted and modified by those who worked in the Bombay film industry.

“‘Bollywood’ can be a problematic term because it necessarily implies a comparison to the American film industry,” Delacy says. “One of the themes we seek to address in the course is how Hindi cinema relates to American cinema, which is the globally dominant form of production.”

Delacy notes, for example, that Bollywood represents less than 10 percent of the global film market, whereas Hollywood accounts for the vast majority.

Other course themes include cinema as a social phenomenon, the division between “art” and “commercial” Bollywood films, the nature of the filmmaking business, and the relationship between cinema and concepts of “the nation.” Delacy also explores how Bollywood film is influenced by key works of Sanskrit and Hindi literature, such as the “Ramayana.”

“I urge the class to think beyond the current popular fascination with Bollywood so they can be more critical about the way they consume these films,” Delacy says.

The popularity of Bollywood drives the industry to produce well over 100 films each year. That rate bodes well for the studios, but for Delacy it has made course planning something of a challenge.

“There are thousands and thousands of films that have been produced since the industry was born,” says Delacy. “How do you pick 12 that will be in any way representative?”

Delacy elected to choose seminal films produced between 1974 and the present day, with the idea that these would “appeal to students in their lifetimes.”

“I wanted to challenge their ideas of how they look at contemporary culture that they consume all the time,” Delacy says. Furthermore, he argues, the chronological syllabus creates a historical narrative that allows students to mark change over time.

“There is a scope and a flexibility,” he says. “We can look back and see that in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, most films were violent and extreme, focusing on the struggle of the working classes. After India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, however, cinema shifted to an emphasis on materialism and consumer culture as wealth became something to be celebrated.”

Many students in the course grew up watching Bollywood films, so Delacy is excited to give them an opportunity to form new perspectives on familiar titles.

“I think a lot of students have developed a far more critical eye,” he says. “They no longer take these films for granted as something they just watched as a young person.”

Francisco Perese ’09, a student in the course, agrees.

“This is largely my first foray into Bollywood film,” he says, “but I find it interesting that most of the other students have grown up watching these films for pure entertainment and are now re-evaluating them in an academic context.”

In course meetings it is readily apparent that these films are near and dear to the hearts of many students. The academic discussions are frequently peppered with personal anecdotes, as students reminisce about the first time they watched a film or recall the way their parents discussed the plot.

“For most students in the class the films are very familiar,” says Aria Laskin ’08. “These are classic and well-loved films — the American equivalent of ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ or ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’”

Laskin herself developed a love for Bollywood more recently, while doing thesis research in India last summer.

“I saw this course as an opportunity to better understand the movies I loved,” she says, “and also to justify the otherwise unjustifiably large amount of time I devoted to watching Bollywood movies this summer and fall.”

For Laskin, one of the most interesting aspects of the course is the way that “reality” often permeates the film world.

“I particularly love how closely the lives of the film stars regularly mirror their on-screen roles, and how sometimes the storylines bear out in real life,” she says. “For example, on-screen love interests are often also off-screen spouses.”

Laskin notes that the course has also taught her to re-evaluate common perceptions of the Bollywood tradition.

“It has been great to learn how the term ‘Bollywood film’ does not necessarily mean a squeaky-clean, three-hour extravaganza with singing and dancing and little substance,” she says. “The common Western perception of Bollywood does not do these films justice.”