You can’t buy a ticket to Bollywood,” says Stephen Alter in one of two new books on the subject. “There’s no such place.” It’s a state of mind. The label, detested by some of those it’s applied to, has been claimed by a media desperate for stereotypes. It’s also being redefined by the film industry it purports to represent.
“Bollywood” refers to Bombay, India’s commercial hub (now Mumbai), where the Hindi mainstream film industry is based, an industry in which actor Shah Rukh Khan has been ruling the roost for a few years now.
Khan broke several rules, not the least of which was to act in dark, negative roles on his way to the top. Later on, as he became a superstar in romantic roles, he didn’t so much internalize a character as externalize himself—a bit of a rogue, albeit one with a heart of gold.
In King Of Bollywood, film critic Anupama Chopra ascribes a schizophrenic nature to the Khan phenomenon. Khan agrees that there are two versions of him—one the star, the other the husband, dad and ordinary bloke. “I am just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth,” he says in the book.
The book jacket for ”King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Sensitive World of Indian Cinema” by Anupama Chopra is pictured in this undated handout image. Source: Hachette Book Group USA via Bloomberg News
The author says Khan’s life story is also part of India’s growing engagement with the world, following the liberalization of the economy that started in 1991.
Chopra argues that Khan’s directors made him the personification of this global Indian, dressing the actor in sharp contemporary fashions and setting the films in London and New York.
Khan usually provides the same one-note, over-the-top performance, indistinguishable from film to film, although he does shine in his latest feature, Chak De! India. The movie is unexpectedly removed from the loud, garish conventions of most Bollywood commercial cinema. Another film made by Bollywood insiders, and typical of the genre in its colour, music and energy— yet resolutely different—is Omkara, based on Shakespeare’s Othello.
In Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief, Alter traces Omkara from its inception as an idea by director Vishal Bharadwaj, through script development, shooting, music composition and post-production, to premiere.
It is clear from both books that with the kind of evolution that has been, and is still taking place, the genre could well be fragmenting.
In New Bollywood, directors such as Bharadwaj and Shimit Amin (Chak De) have been subverting the genre from within.
Moreover, the term “Bollywood” has always obscured the existence of thriving non-Hindi film industries in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and elsewhere.
Eventually, there may be no Bollywood left, just various kinds of Indian cinema. And that might not be such a bad thing.