A friend from the United States, who is of Indian origin, recently complained to me about the so-called new Bollywood films. “I don’t like it,” she said. “I feel like Hindi movies are losing their innocence. I like songs. They used to be three hours long. Sex scenes feel weird.”
Indian cinema is the second-oldest film industry in the world after Hollywood. And Bollywood is the best-known and now most prolific, according to the number of films certified in 2016, of India’s more-than-20 film industries. And most of these films largely follow the same formula: popular male and female leads; a blend of genres usually referred to as “masala”; and song-and-dance sequences.
The birth of Hindi cinema, aka Bollywood, can be attributed to the release of Indian cinema’s first “talkie” Alam Ara in 1931, a musical in Hindi and Urdu that featured seven songs. Its success set the template for Hindi cinema, where song and dance is used as an interruption, as a means of entertainment by itself. This usage mirrors how song and dance are integral to Indian culture, with each community, each festival or ritual having their own.
A number of film critics may look down on the genre, but Bollywood has grown in stature internationally, and stars such as Deepika Padukone have made inroads into Hollywood. It caters to the Indian diaspora as well as a growing number of cinephiles across the world who, ironically, embrace its excesses wholeheartedly. An excerpt from David Kamp and Lawrence Levi’s very funny The Film Snob’s Dictionary has this observation to make: “The snob prides himself on his populist, un-arty taste, favouring, for example, the soapy, over-emotive schlock of India’s Bombay-based ‘Bollywood’ film industry over the artful, nuanced films of the Calcutta-born [Satyajit] Ray, and the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sergio Leone and Corbucci over anything Fellini ever made. It’s a reverse snobbery more powerful than the snobbery it’s rebelling against.”
Read more: 6 reasons why Bollywood is in crisis
The “soapy, over-emotive schlock” side of Bollywood, however, is currently in a state of crisis. It is facing a number of headwinds such as changing tastes; an outdated star system; a lack of cinema screens across the country (at one screen per 96,300 people, it is the most under-screened major territory in the world, according to Forbes); piracy; and ticket prices that are low by international standards but too expensive for many Indians. Piracy in particular, often in the form of low-quality DVDs and low-resolution downloads, costs the Indian film industry roughly US$2 billion (Dh7.345bn) a year.
There are other financial concerns. Last year, 219 Bollywood titles were released but big studios such as Disney India and Balaji Motion Pictures Ltd suffered losses and decided to take a step back from the movie production business. True figures for revenues generated by Bollywood are difficult to pin down but it’s clear that fewer people are visiting theatres – according to a recent Indo-Asian News Service report, admissions have come down: from 1.46 billion in 2009 to 1.18 billion in 2016.
Compounding the problem is the recent demonetisation move by the Narendra Modi government. Old banknotes of 500 rupees (Dh27) and 1,000 rupees (Dh54) were scrapped in a bid to fight corruption and this has impacted the film industry through temporary limits placed on cash withdrawals. This has negatively affected smaller cinemas, which rely on cash transactions.