Indian Cinema: Beyond Bollywood and Going Global

Indian Cinema: Beyond Bollywood and Going Global

Indian Cinema: Beyond Bollywood and Going Global

Michael E Ward
Michael E Ward
2 months ago

You may have heard Kipling’s refrain, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet!” but perhaps you are unaware of how he concludes his "Ballad of East and West"? In that conclusion, Kipling flips his opening thought on its head and leaves us with the idea of a borderless world of universal values, heroic acts, and emotions. I am often reminded of the entrenchment of the first two lines when I look at Bollywood cinema versus Western cinema, but I have reason to believe that a common cinematic language is emerging in India that will take its treasure trove of untold stories to global heights.

If we travel when young, we realize we can be outsiders a lot of the time. As such, we can offer hopefully fresh observations, dramatic or comic. I have had the good fortune to have written and produced Indian content in London as well as in India and can testify that the effort required for each is about the same; about a decade spent never giving up! Both London’s West End theatre and the Hindi film industry, a.k.a. Bollywood, seem like impenetrable cultural castles, impossible to lay siege to unless you are Disney, maybe, and only then through acquisition and co-production with existing media barons and feudal lords.

My musical in London was an adaptation of M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, a novel that inspired HBO’s first-ever mini-series in 1984 and which I was pleased to see cited in Save The Cat Goes To The Movies as a classic example of the ‘epic love’ genre. My Indian film Bombairiya is on Netflix and is a contemporary comedy about how a witness protection scheme stumbles into being through the theft of a phone.

But back to Kipling and the upbeat conclusion he came to after opening with “never the twain shall meet...”

‘But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!’

Indian Cinema Beyond Bollywood and Going Global

Today, those two strong folks might be a showrunner from L.A. working with a group of writers in Mumbai to devote the kind of skill and effort required for creating shows that can travel the world. Skills that I am learning and honing through membership in Stage 32’s Writers Room and applying to my Indian stories, which are aimed at global screens with international collaborators.

Whilst this is tremendously exciting for India-based writers like myself, there is, of course, resistance, just as there was for daring to produce in London’s West End when a certain monopolistic Lord brought out an Indian musical of his own! I was flattered that The Far Pavilions posed a threat even though the other show closed a year before mine opened.

Many stakeholders of Hindi Cinema, a.k.a ‘Bollywood,’ comprising of stars, directors, music directors, choreographers, and playback singers, might disagree with Kipling and his foreshadowing of the over-the-top (or "OTT") phenomenon. OTT media is a platform offered directly to a consumer, such as streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime. India currently has 18 OTT platforms. These skeptical stakeholders may have said, "Hang on, dear foreigner. Hindi cinema is 100 years strong because it is different, it is successful because we know our audience, and it is the home of our pop music industry, too, not to mention the fact that it has aided national cohesion for 75 years! Let us not change what is not broken!" And they would make some good points. Hindi cinema has had several golden decades, except in recent times, there is evidence that Bollywood has been losing its grip on its domestic audience.

Hollywood films attracted 8.4% of the Indian audience in 2015 and 20.8% in 2019, compared with Hindi cinema which declined from a 60-65% share to just 45% over the same period (Economic Times Jan 28, 2020). This is partly because Hollywood films are expertly dubbed into the major Indian languages, but there is another threat to Hindi cinema’s hegemony - an internal one. India has two more behemoth-sized film industries in the south of the country, each of which is as big as ‘Bollywood.’ Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh recently split to form Telangana, their own languages and their own stars dominate, which is why Hollywood and Bollywood need to be dubbed so as to be consumed by vast and faithful audiences. In the West, these southern film industries are often wrongly combined with Bollywood’s output. Telegu cinema is now consistently outperforming Hindi cinema at the box office by reversing a trend and being dubbed into Hindi. In the other southern state of Kerala, whose language is Malayalam, film output may be less than half of Bollywood, but it is still a formidable number, and economically these films are generally more robust.

Bollywood

You see, Hindi is a second language for most Indians, as the film industries in the table above bear out. In trying to appeal to all of India, Hindi cinema has flown in the face of this reality for long enough. The pendulum has swung the other way. Aside from the southern states raising their game and producing stories that more people want to see, Hindi cinema has been known for remaking southern films cynically trying to cash in without spending time and money on paying good writers their due. With remakes or copies of southern and Hollywood films having to acknowledge their provenance, the shrewd cinema-goer has obviously noticed. Now he/she can consume dubs of an original film that was made with more commitment, sincerity, and passion rather than wait for a Hindi film studio to try and make a quick cynical buck. Remakes should not be what drive the A-list output of an industry, but that is what has been a decade-long Bollywood trend.

To top it all, India now has OTT, which many Bollywood stars have been wary of appearing on for fear of episodic over-exposure. In allocating dates for a series, they are practically admitting that they will not be able to churn out the 3-4 movies a year that they have been used to for the past 10-20 years.

Here is a snapshot of how many subscribers the top 5 OTT platforms had in 2019. Post-pandemic, one can expect these numbers to have grown substantially.

Bollywood

The establishment of these OTT channels is great news for writers since their commissioning teams are getting well-versed in the craft of storytelling, and the best directors whose vision was being strangled by star power in the theater, now find they can work unhindered by the pressure of the box office and trust that the audience will click with a tale well told in a medium that demands and respects depth of character and motivation within an authentic world.

Many Bollywood stars have refused to leave their cultural castles to test their mettle in Western films because those castles are surrounded and protected by a moat containing the tropes of Hindi cinema like song and dance routines and characters based on archetypes like the British villain, the comic turn from the south or Punjab, and of course the ‘It Girl’ with the ‘Item number’ that wows the audience with her vampish moves. These ingredients that make up what is known as ‘Masala’ (spice) have served Hindi cinema for decades, and it may well be that they will remain the hallmark of commercial tentpole Bollywood films for years to come. However, one thing is equally certain in my opinion, and that is that Bollywood cannot remain relevant to the concerns of the Indian audience by offering escapism alone. I believe the time is right for a resurgence of the Neo-realist movement that sprang up in the 1950s and 60s with the works of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and others. It should be remembered that Ray was a regional Bengali filmmaker as well as a universal one whose films won prizes at Cannes and Berlin, a feat not repeated by an Indian filmmaker since. Telling Bengali stories which are still appreciated as some of the finest films ever made outside India underlines the need for authentic voices to come to the fore and satisfy the needs of that audience. In light of these developments, Hindi cinema is likely to lose more market share to the Neo-realists domestically as well as to Hollywood’s tentpole releases which offer escape of another kind, namely from remake after remake of films originated in other countries or other Indian states. Indian audiences know they deserve better than what they have been getting in recent years, and in a similar way to Hollywood experiencing the breakdown of the star system some 15 years ago, Bollywood is now going through a similar pattern.

It is up to the genuine storyteller to come forward with a tale worth telling because it is universally simple and emotional enough not to require the writer and director to make a song and dance about it.

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About the Author

Michael E Ward

Michael E Ward

Screenwriter, Producer

India born and raised, Michael is a writer and producer for both stage and screen. He is the founder of Beautiful Bay Entertainment, a development and production services company based in India focussing on narratives for the global market. Michael wrote the screenplay for "Bombairiya" a comedy d...

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