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Bollywood and Bombay: Meridian Presents Evening on India’s Thriving Film Industry

By Jonas Meuleman

When people hear the word Bollywood, they often think of iconic movies such as “Slumdog Millionaire.” But long before the 2008 British drama thrust Bollywood into the global spotlight, India’s film industry was one of the most prolific and storied in the world, dating back to 1896.

In fact, India cranked out nearly 2,000 feature films in 2017 alone, making Indian cinema the largest in the world in terms of film production. Today, Bollywood is becoming increasingly famous outside of India, finding growing markets in China, Iran, Egypt and even Poland.

The fascinating history of Indian cinema and its explosive global growth were discussed during a “Bollywood and Bombay” cultural event at the Meridian International Center on Nov. 6 featuring Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Singha and his wife Hemal Shringla, a professor of Indian multiculturalism, world cinema and the history of cinema.

Meridian International Center Bollywood and Bombay
The Meridian International Center hosted a “Bollywood and Bombay” cultural event on Nov. 6 to explore the history of Indian cinema and its widespread global growth. Photos: Meridian International Center

Shringla gave a thorough 101 class on the history of Bollywood, showcasing not only its cultural origins, but also its extensive reliance on music and dance. While modern films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” are not classical Bollywood movies in the strict sense of the word, they do incorporate many aspects of Hindi cinema, such as dramatic twists and rags-to-riches themes often seen in classic 1950s to 1980s Indian films.

Shringla also talked about the intertwined histories of Bollywood and the city of its birth: Bombay (present-day Mumbai), where the first films arrived in 1896, only one year after the Lumière brothers presented the first cinematic screening in Paris.

“By the late 1800s, Bombay became one of the biggest port cities in the world. Before that, it used to consist of seven islands, with only fisherfolk living there. Once the British came and invited people from all over the world to live and work in this new world city full of opportunities, everything changed,” Shringla explained. “Since there was no pre-existing culture, it was ideal ground for something new to take place. And of course cinema proved to be a very new medium at the end of the 19th century. That’s part of the success of why it caught on so quickly in Bombay.”

Hemal Shringla
Hemal Shringla, a professor of Indian multiculturalism, world cinema and the history of cinema and the wife of the Indian ambassador, discusses the evolution of Bollywood.

Besides the British, there was another important community of people that arrived in Bombay: the Parsis. These were originally Zoroastrians from Persia who fled to India to avoid persecution after the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 600s and who also later migrated to Bombay because of the economic opportunities offered by the East India Company throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

“With the Parsis came also the tradition of urban entertainment. That’s also one of the reasons why Bollywood became what it is today,” Shringla said. “Persian and Indian legends and mythology became mediums removed from their religious context, which were then presented as pure entertainment. There you have the template for Indian cinema: melodrama, humor, music, dance.”

Music is especially important in Indian cinema and is often based around raga, a traditional melodic mode dating back to the seventh century. These ragas are then often combined with Western influences to transform the songs into film music, Shringla explained. They are, for example, embellished with foreign instruments or orchestras, and bridges are added to reflect Western musical styles.

Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Singha
Adrian Mutton, CEO of Sannam S4, talks with Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Singha.

But the music has changed over time. Starting out as a derivative of jazz music in the 1940s, Bollywood scores eventually developed a global sound, incorporating elements of Latin music and rock ‘n’ roll — which borrowed from Indian music as well, especially in the 1960s. The most famous example of this mutual influence was The Beatles, who in 1968 spent time meditating in Rishikesh, India, where they were inspired by Indian music to write songs for their classic “The White Album.”

The other major component of Bollywood films is dance. One of the genres of classical Indian dance is kathak, which dates back to 400 B.C. and flourished in royal courts. This style revolves around storytelling and oral communication through movement and dance. Particular to kathak are facial expressions and eye movements that convey these stories.

“In Indian dance, the expressions and hand gestures are extremely important and even more so in Bollywood,” Shringla said.

Bollywood and Bombay
Guests listen to a discussion on Bollywood and Bombay.

Other aspects of Bollywood have evolved significantly over the years. The so-called golden age of Hindi cinema took place between the 1940s to the 1960s, after India’s independence, and explored social themes such as working-class life. In subsequent decades, the subject matter varied from gritty underworld crime films to family-oriented musical romances.

In terms of the future of Bollywood, Shringla said the scene is already shifting yet again — literally.

“Real estate nowadays in Bombay is very expensive. It is also considered the 12th-richest city in the world aggregately. You have about 11 billionaires living in Bombay, but on the other hand you have grinding poverty,” she told the audience. “Therefore, young people in Delhi are trying to shift the focus there, not only economically but also in terms of movies. You can already increasingly see Bollywood movies being made in Delhi. For that reason, I don’t know if Bombay can be the focus of India any longer.”

Even if Bombay is no longer the hub of Indian cinema, Shringla said its legacy will continue to endure well into the future. “Bollywood still extends well beyond Indian-language cinema. It articulates the global emancipation.”


Jonas Meuleman is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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