Friday, March 23, 2012

How Bollywood is defined by the improbable


This Hindi word for “land tax” became a household name in 2001 with the release of a namesake Bollywood movie. Lagaan, Once Upon a Time in India takes the viewer on a very believable time-travel to the Indian subcontinent of the Victorian Era. The movie revolves around poor villagers coerced to pay backbreaking taxes to the British and their struggles to rise above the oppression.

Lagaan instantly turned into a box office hit, grossing a considerable $9009043. It was hailed by Britain’s Empire magazine as one of the “100 Best Films of World Cinema” (Top Earners 2000-2009, retrieved from BoxOffice

This 3 hour 40 minute historical fantasy was described by the New York Times as “a carnivalesque genre packed with romance, swordplay and improbable song-and-dance routines” (Somni Sengupta, New York Times, retrieved from

Using Lagaan as an archetype for all Bollywood movies, this blog is about the “improbable” and how it has become an integral part and parcel of Hindi cinema.

The “musical drama” Lagaan owes much of its length to a varied assortment of songs and dances, as do most Bollywood movies-- a concept that a western audience is not very comfortable with.

Consider, for example, the following love song between the leads Bhuvan (Amir Khan) and Gauri (Gracy Singh), with particular focus on Elizabeth (Rachel Shelly), the easily discernible British actress.

When Amir Khan was asked about the reaction of Londoners to this particular song, he flashed an amused smile at the camera and said, “I heard that audiences in the theatres began to laugh. They just didn’t expect to hear Elizabeth sing.”

One important characteristic that sets Bollywood movies apart are certainly the tedious and elaborate song and dance sequences. It is particularly peculiar seeing a bunch of well-choreographed dancers twirling around the leads. “I don’t get it,” says American student and avid-movie watcher Kathy Rivera, “The songs merely attach an unrealistic quality to the movies. What’s the point?”

The answer is rooted in a number of influencing factors, from varied levels of production and musical style to commercial life and audience reception.

That previous sentence was not intended merely to to add to my word count. Though it may sound complicated, the whole idea boils down to the way society is reflected in these movies. Indian culture is profuse with color and movement, hype and activity, as is evident in most festivals, like Diwali (festival of lights) and Holi (festival of colors), to name a few.



These aspects of society are mirrored in Bollywood movies through the highly ”improbable” dance and music. Such vibes and moves are best illustrated in the following song clip that shows Bhuvan and Gauri in a traditional Dandiya Ras dance.

The colorful songs are “firmly embedded in an Indian popular culture and are an integral feature of the genre, akin to plot, dialogue and other parameters” (retrieved from Hindi cimema, in other words, not only shows you singing and dancing, it is about singing and dancing (Sociology Goes to Movies, Rajendra Kumar Dudrah, p48).

The many “disparate modes of story telling are bound in a coherent whole by songs” (Sociology Goes to Movies, Rajendra Kumar Dudrah, p48). Thus, they serve the dual purpose of stringing various movie elements together. It would not be wrong to say that songs are to Bollywood what a soliloquy is to a Shakespearean play-- they confer a certain metaphorical voice to the character’s actual emotions and sentiments.

Consider for example, the song Mitwa (Friend), from Lagaan:

When translated it means:
Mitwa, O Mitwa
Friend, O friend

Tujhko kya dar hai re
Why do you fear?

Yeh dharti apni hai
This earth is ours

Apna ambar hai re
Ours is the sky.

Tu aa jaa re

You come on…

The lip-synced song brings Bhuvan's sentiments to limelight as he calls upon fellow farmers to stand up against the subjugations of the British. Through the song as a medium, he reminds them that the country is theirs and they needn’t be intimidated by any outside forces. It coherently pieces the movie together, as the next scene shows the villagers responding to his call and following his lead.

Furthering the storyline, the next song “Chale Chalo” (Keep Going) shows Bhuvan and his friends perspiring away as they ready themselves to face the British in an upcoming match of cricket, a challenge that will decide their fate.

But these filmi songs continue to be "derided" in Western movie circles, often being blamed for “unrealisticity.”

I chanced upon an interesting comeback on a Sociology blog site (

"I still hear Western film buffs argue that lip-synced songs somehow make a film unrealistic. Let’s get one thing straight — the use of music in Western films is no more realistic than in Bollywood films. We don't walk around hearing music matched to our mood in real life, but Westerners accept the fantasy because it is familiar."

Although Bollywood takes it one step further, often heavily peppering movies with songs, the dance and music are “essential aesthetic elements of the film… that draw on a stock of Indian cultural and social references and elaborate them through aural and visual spectacles” (Sociology Goes to Movies, Rajendra Kumar Dudrah, p63).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.