Film critics in both India and in the West have been inclined to dismiss Bollywood cinema as kitsch and without any artistic value. But the fact remains - the Indian film industry is the largest in the world.
Bollywood is a cinema of emotions. "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham" (Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad, 2001) is a typical family drama, a love story between beautiful, bubbly Anjali and the charming Rahul, played by Sharukh Khan.
Rahul rebels against the wishes of his strict and arrogant father Yash by deciding to marry Anjali who is from a lower social standing. Many tears are shed in the three-hour long film until Rahul and Yash are finally reconciled.
Like many Bollywood films, it sweeps its audience into a fantasy world where the gap between rich and the poor disappears, where the disparities between social status and background are won over by the power of love.
It’s a world in which traditional values such as honesty, respect for elders and hard work still count. This is a film which also reflects the generational conflict in modern India.
Shubra Gupta, a film critic in Delhi, explains that a love of Bollywood unites Indians. "I think that Indian film is the most democratic medium that we Indians have. Everybody can watch a Bollywood film. Whether he does this for a few rupees in a small village cinema or in a huge, luxurious multiplex in one of the big cities, it’s the most important form of entertainment for the masses."
The films also play a role of informing and educating, as well as entertaining. Today, a third of the Indian population still cannot read or write.
From 1913 to 2013
On April 21, 1913, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released the first Indian film, the mythical "Raja Harishchandra." Female roles were played by men in women's costumes - acting was considered an immodest profession for women.
Nobody would have imagined at the time that the Indian film industry would one day become the largest in the world.
Early Bollywood films revolved mainly around the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and good doses of musical and dance elements. Moreover, Javed Akhtar, one of the most popular Indian poets and scriptwriters, explains that many traditions from folk theater then found their way into the cinema. "Music and dance have been an integral part of our culture for 4,000 years: regardless of whether actors are called Ramlila, Krishnalila or Nautanki. There was theater in Urdu or the theater tradition of the religious community of Parsis, which saw huge success in their time. Every Indian story in history has music and dance elements. Those who don't like it don't have to bother watching our films."
The "golden age" of Hindi film was in the 1950s. Directors such as Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt examined serious issues such as the rural exodus and the new Republic of India’s uncertain political future. Their social criticism made Indian films popular not only at home but also in other parts of the world, including China and Russia.
In the 1970s, Bollywood gained popularity across the world thanks to the superstar Amitabh Bachchan. In action-packed films, he played the character of the "angry young man" who fought against social injustices and clashed with the mafia. His films were popular in Turkey and in parts of Africa and he still has a fan base today in Morocco, Uganda, Tunisia and Kenya.
In the 1980s, the anger against society was continued in love films with the fresh faces of Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. Instead of succumbing to their fate, a couple whose families disapproved of their love decided to fight for its happiness. Till death if need be.
And in the 1990s, plots became a bit more realistic. Mani Ratnam's "Bombay" in 1995 examined the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India’s financial hub. The same director’s "Dil Se" focused on separatism and terrorism.
In the early years of the 21st century films such as "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" and "Dirty Picture" won worldwide critical acclaim.
14 million cinema visits a day
According to the European Audiovisual Observatory in Brussels, 1274 films were produced in India alone in 2011, more than in Hollywood. An estimated 14 million people go to the cinema every day in India.
Although strictly Bollywood films, which are produced in the city of Mumbai, make up only a small percentage of Indian films, they are what the world understands as Indian cinema. However, the Indian film industry as a whole, with many centers and regional languages, has a large economic weight.
Shubhra Gupta says that Bollywood has changed in the past 10 years. "There's not just one Bollywood. There are still classical family sagas with intrigues and tears. But then there’s a Bollywood which doesn’t want to give up on traditional ways of telling a story but integrates new elements. And then there’s a third radical strand."
Anurag Kashyap belongs to this radical generation. "I think Hindi cinema could do a lot if it just tried. We’re still producing a majority of love and family dramas, sometimes action films with themes of revenge. If we do make realistic films, they are so arty that they’re boring. I don’t want to be boring or to create a fantasy world that nobody can identify with."