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Does Bollywood Have “Global” Appeal?

Speaking about new Indo-Canadian film Speedy Singhs, Akshay Kumar recently claimed that, “the whole idea [of the film] is to take Bollywood more and more global.”

But can the Bollywood film industry truly have a global appeal, or is the cultural difference too large an obstacle to overcome?

Bollywood is steeped in a rich cultural and political history, one that requires pages of ink to explain, so I will refrain from doing so in great depth here. Bollywood, beginning in the early 1900s, lived through the turbulent history of 20th Centruty India, and continues to survive ever more strongly today. The Mumbai based film industry really kicked up the gears during the drive for independence from British rule. We need look no further than Lagaan, a film released in 2001, 54 years after Indian independence, to see that the history of colonisation still runs through the industry, as do themes regarding gender, class, and economy.

Scholar Vijay Mishra explains that, “Bombay cinema is an allegory of the nation in the making”. This is a big task for cinema to accomplish, and it puts a whole blockade to the idea that Bollywood has global appeal. Or does it?

Lets have a peek at a few facts and figures (bear with me):

  • Over 800 films burst out of Bollywood each year in over 15 different languages.
  • In terms of ticket sales, Bollywood is the biggest film industry in the world and tickets are amongst the cheapest across the globe.
  • Bollywood was described by forbes.com as “the world’s most popular movie industry”.

Judging from this, Bollywood is a bloody big industry and as the years roll on, it keeps expanding. And increasing number of Bollywood films are being shown in US and UK cinemas, as well as in the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa and Europe. Even Channel 4 often air Bollywood seasons, providing easy access to a cinema that at first may seem too distant.

So how do we explain this growing success of Bollywood cinema outside of India, an industry with a complex background and those weird intermissions of song and dance? Simple. It is about the appeal of the story. Even if the dialogue of politics, economics or culture is not evident, there is always the story that charms all.

It may be the tale of a passionate romance in Love Aaj Kal, a narrative of friendship like Dostana, or even the drama of Devdas, but whatever the film, you can be sure that the story has a recognisable element, one that can be enjoyed, even if the historical context of Bollywood is not fully understood.

Part of our increased understanding of Indian cinema comes from the films produced by the Indian diaspora in the UK. Gurinder Chadha has been instrumental in this process, making films like Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, movies which look at the Indian culture in the UK, but also give us a taste of some of the traditions and values that run through Bollywood films, allowing us to understand small elements of the Indian produced films.

So Akshay Kumar is right in a sense. Speedy Singhs, a film that clashes traditional Indian attitudes with the new generation’s views, has global appeal. The film mixes Bollywood and Hollywood, with some big music names like Ludacris and Drake.

And this fusion seems to be one of the paths that the Bollywood is taking in the near future with Shah Rukh Khan’s superhero epic, Ra.One just around the corner too.

Without doubt, Bollywood has a global appeal, one that has permeated into the UK in particular, and whilst large parts of the cultural understanding of these films may be lost on us, Bollywood cinema is as entertaining as ever, for the extravagance, story, and ever evolving industry.

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Ra.One Preview: King Khan Turns Superhero

Science fiction is certainly not one of the prominent genres in the romance filled world of Bollywood cinema, but the King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, is looking to change that fact with his new and ambitious film Ra.One, directed by Anubhav Sinha.

Details of the plotline are not clear as of yet, however, King Khan has put his crown aside to don the metallic grey suit of his superhero character, G1. The romance, as always is present with the love interest being Kareena Kapoor.

Khan says that all can enjoy Ra.One since it is, “a father-son love story. It’s a family entertainer like most of my films are, and is meant for kids and adults alike,” he told the Times of India.

The film certainly looks like a blockbuster, with a massive budget and stunning visuals, Ra.One is set to challenge the Hollywood superhero films.

“There is a Superman, Spiderman or an Iron man in the west. So I wanted an Indian superhero. With Ra-One I have taken a chance,” says King Khan.

Ra.One looks to be charging in the right direction as triple platinum selling R&B artist Akon has made a track for the film entitled Chamak Chalo.

Khan has certainly gambled with a film that looks to be out of the realms of Bollywood, but Ra.One flies forward with great optimism and looks ready to soar.

The World of World Cinema

With the global population growing, it may be surprising to think that the world is actually becoming smaller. But in fact with rapidly developing technology and its infinite possibilities, the other side of the world is not so far away. The most important of these advances is cinema, a medium with the power to traverse cultural boundaries, entertaining as it charges forward.

Film is truly a cultural exchange as in the UK we experience the excitement of Bollywood, the thrill of Japanese film, the drama of French pictures and a plethora of other World Cinema. Conversely, Hollywood film and British cinema is transported around the earth constantly in dialogue with other film industries.

Bollywood, described by Forbes.com as “the world’s most popular movie industry”, is the Mumbai based Indian film world. Churning out more than 800 films a year, Bollywood is growing phenomenally and being viewed around the world in the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa and Europe, especially in the UK.

Bollywood’s increasing influence on popular culture in the UK is evident with Herculean-bodied Hrithik Roshan, the King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the stunning beauty Aishwarya Rai among the stars in Madame Tussauds, London. The latter has even appeared in Hollywood hit The Pink Panther 2. Khan was also an esteemed guest on Late Night With Jonathan Ross.

Particularly in the UK, Bollywood has found its way onto Channel 4 who frequently air World Cinema and have a Shah Rukh Khan season in the pipeline. Popular movies such as Bride and Prejudice and Slumdog Millionaire draw upon the Bollywood characteristics: forbidden romances, superb choreography, and an array of colour coupled with enchanting soundtracks.

Of course, other countries are as much a part of World Cinema as India. Pictures such as Volver (Spain), La Vie En Rose (France) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan) to name but a few, have found tremendous success in the UK.

The importance of World Cinema is clear from the prestige of the film festivals abroad such as Cannes and from the exclusivity of “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Academy Awards.

So whether you know it or not, World Cinema is very much a part of our film watching experience and has permeated into popular culture. Expansive and increasingly available, World Cinema gives a fresh perspective to our Hollywood saturated viewing experiences.

(Originally published in York Vision newspaper)