Last year, Bollywood, as the Indian film industry is known, turned 100. Its first film, Raja Harishchandra, was a silent film released in 1913. This was seventeen years after the very first films arrived in India from England, using technology derived from the French Lumiere Brothers, who created the first moving pictures in 1895.
For decades the Bombay film industry has produced 10 times as many films as Hollywood. And those films were watched by more people than Hollywood films in Iran, Afghanistan, Kenya, and numerous other countries outside of India.
Bollywood films have everything: music, dance, high melodrama, action, love, desire, class, and spectacle. In short, the whole gamut of human emotions.
Promoters of classical Indian culture (Hindustani music, ragas, high art) don’t like Bollywood. They don’t want people to frame their image of India based on Bollywood cinema. The late Harihar Rao, who along with the late Ravi Shankar, founded Los Angeles Music Circle to promote concerts in LA. Rao produced many great concerts in Herrick Chapel at Occidental College, over the past four decades. He did so much for us interested in the beauties and impossible sensuality yet rigor of Indian music and Los Angeles owes him plenty of gratitude for this. Once, I had Rao as a guest lecturer in one of my UCLA World Music classes. The departed Jac Zinder ran some of the most wonderful, fun and kitschy clubs here in LA, showed the class some great Bollywood clips. Harihar watched, annoyed and horrified, that these campy films might eclipse the legacy of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and other musical greats. Harihar took the microphone and declared indignantly, “Well, I hope this class doesn’t frame its impression of Indian culture from these films!”
Then there are the great playback singers whose songs are lip-synched by the actors and actresses: Lata Mangeshkar (who holds the Guiness World Record for most recorded vocalist with over 10,000 songs recorded at last count), her younger sister Asha Bhosle, Hemlata, Manna Dey, Bhimsen Joshi, Kishore Kumar, and others. Audiences would be more inclined to watch a new film if they knew these playback singers were featured.
Some of Ravi Shankar’s first jobs in the 1940s were doing soundtracks for Bollywood Films. He also did the soundtrack for the epic film by Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (an epic film a la Gone with the Wind or Kurosawa) released in 1955.
There are several theaters regularly screeing Bollywood films in Los Angeles in Cerritos, Norwalk, Artesia, Orange, Encino, and other cities. There is also LA Channel 18 on cable who air movies Saturday mornings 11 – Noon.
Happy Birthday Bollywood! Enjoy your centennial! Here is a fun clip from the 1965 film Gumnaam.
Here’s a trailer for the epic movie Lagaan, which ran in major theaters here and featured a great soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, the top contemporary composer. The colonial raj is the bad guy here:
Finally, a medley of songs from the wonderful 1955 film Shree 420.