After long experimentation with storylines, the mix of film genres produced by Bollywood has now begun to look quite similar to Hollywood’s—thanks to the rise of comedies and thrillers
A typical Indian film comes packed with action, drama, romance, comedy and thrill, all in a span of two to three hours. The complex roller-coaster ride of emotions, themes and characters is what sets Bollywood apart. However, as is clear in recent years, the ingredients of the masala mix of Hindi films have been changing to appeal to the taste of the millennial fan.
The change is not limited to short films and focused plots. Film-goers know that Romeo and Juliet love dramas are no more the norm, and the comedy of the one-odd Golmaal of the 1970s is more frequent now than ever. Biographies of sporting and political heroes, unheard of decades ago, are now rising in numbers. Where does Bollywood’s inspiration behind the changing genres lie? As data analysed by Mint shows, the answer could be another industry halfway across the world: Hollywood.
Hollywood’s journey has been comparatively stable for decades, but Bollywood’s not so. After experiments over the years, the 2010s were the first time that both industries appeared to converge more than ever before, genres listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) show.
Here’s how. The most common genres in Hindi films in the 2010s were drama, comedy and thrillers, as how Hollywood has always been. This means that for the first time in the era of colour films, the action genre did not figure in the top three, and romance, too, took a hit, continuing the decline it has seen since the 2000s. This historical analysis of Bollywood’s film genres is based on film profiles from IMDb, a user-driven portal dedicated to all things films.
For each decade since the 1960s, we recorded the most common genres across feature films produced in Hindi and major vernacular languages in India, and in English in the US (Hollywood). All productions tagged as “feature films" irrespective of box office performances were considered for this analysis.
Drama is the top genre across industries, across time, and covers over 50% of Hindi films released since 2010 that are listed on IMDb. Over a quarter of all Bollywood films were comedies and a fifth were thrillers. Just two decades ago, the top three genres were drama, action and romance.
Despite the changes in the Hindi film industry, it still produced more romance (17%) films than Hollywood (just 10%) did in the 2010s.
Hindi cinema is far behind in offbeat genres such as horror and science fiction. India’s ventures into sci-fi are limited to infrequent releases such as Ra.One and Krrish, which critics say are no match to Hollywood’s seasoned forays. Just 5% Hindi films were horror, against 18% for Hollywood in the past 10 years.
Despite the differences, Bollywood has never been as close to Hollywood in its mix of genres as it is today. The evolution has been long in the making. The one theme that once made up nearly 15% of Hindi films, “family" genre, has fallen to just 6%. Action and romance, which peaked in the 1990s, had started giving way to other genres, such as thrillers, after the turn of the millennium.
One cannot miss the rise of biographies. The genre that never made up for more than 1% of all films in previous decades, scored 2.8% in the 2010-19 period, with lives of sportspersons Mary Kom and M.S. Dhoni, actor Sanjay Dutt, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adapted on screen to much fanfare in recent years.
Hollywood could be the most obvious inspiration for the Hindi cine world, but the diverse content of regional cinema adds another dimension to it. Regional cinema has its own peculiarities. Bengali films, for instance, experiment with non-drama genres very rarely. As many as 66% of Bengali films were dramas. Romance (20%) followed at second place. True to stereotypes, action films dominate Tamil and Telugu industries, with around 30% share. Films in these languages thrive on male stardom and physics-defying stunts much more than others. However, Tamil also has a significant share of “family" films, around 24%, even when all other industries analysed fall short of 10%. Malayalam’s film industry, known to take social issues head on, has the smallest share of romance films.
Comedy, the rising genre, is increasingly common in regional languages, too, and why not. Findings from a 2018 YouGov poll suggest that comedies are the most sought-after film genre, with 79% of respondents from India expressing interest in such films. As much as 37% of those surveyed said they liked horror films, while 34% expressed a preference for both sci-fi and historical films. These genres are, however, still rare in Indian cinema.
Classifying an Indian film under one distinct genre is indeed tough. Western critics find the task perplexing and some see Hindi films as “too melodramatic". So much so, that “Bollywood" could even be classified as a genre in itself, as New York University associate professor Tejaswini Ganti observed in her 2004 book Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.
Romance and action have traditionally been the main ingredients of the ‘Bollywood’ genre, but bigger dollops of comedy and thrill are transforming Hindi cinema.
If the industry continues to go the Hollywood way in the coming decade, it’s probably time to expect India’s very own supernatural heroes and hair-raising deadly ghosts in the years to come.