Long before India had information technology or outsourcing services or a booming economy, it had Bollywood — older and bigger than Hollywood. But when I was growing up in India, Bollywood was thought of as a purveyor of “pageant for peasants,” a view my parents shared. I got to see my first movie, surreptitiously, only in my late teens.
Today, Bollywood is very much mainstream. Every day, an estimated 15 million people are in movie theatres partaking of its products, while millions more are doing so with TVs, CDs and videos in India and around the globe. No other form of entertainment, anywhere, commands such patronage, day in and day out. Bollywood now represents India’s soft power abroad. At home, it is the fulcrum of a growing glamorous celebrity culture that combines the worlds of films and fashion with that other national passion, cricket. The three bond in a multi-billion-dollar corporate galaxy bankrolled by a burgeoning corporate sector.
When they get together, they throw a great party — as Toronto is about to find out. Bollywood glitz comes here next weekend for the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards, the newest of several annual award shows. Its cachet is that it showcases Bollywood internationally, marketing it to sponsors and audiences beyond the 25 million-strong Indian diaspora, of which more than 600,000 are in Canada. A cast of 850 nominees and performers is coming. All 22,000 seats at the Rogers Centre have been sold out for weeks, a testament to Bollywood’s long reach. Bollywood — named after its locale, Bombay, since renamed Mumbai — dates back to 1896. Now it makes the most movies in the world and enjoys the biggest audience. Bollywood was post-colonial India’s first major export.
In the 1950s, it had a huge following in the Soviet Union, India’s major ally. When leading man Raj Kapoor, a Charlie Chaplinesque tramp, and his heroine Nargis went to Moscow, they were mobbed by fans who shouted lines of songs from their movies, without understanding a word. “Some years ago, when we started showing Bollywood movies in Toronto,” says Madeline Ziniak, vice-president of Omni-TV, “we were pleasantly surprised to find audiences in the Canadian Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech and Central Asian communities. We couldn’t believe it.” IIFA is holding a Raj Kapoor retrospective kicking off at a gala on Sunday, June 26, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the late actor’s three sons and a daughter-in-law, all stars themselves, will be present — Rajiv Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, and Rishi Kapoor and his wife Neetu. By the 1960s, Bollywood had penetrated the Middle East where Arabs would accost visiting Indians: “You Bombay? Mother India?” referring to a 1957 hit movie. In subsequent decades, Bollywood discovered the Indian diaspora in Africa, Britain, the Caribbean, Canada, the U.S., Fiji and the oil-rich Persian Gulf, especially Dubai. It also developed for them the road show, not just of musicians and singers but also actors and actresses shimmying onstage to lip-synch — like having Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt join a Céline Dion performance. Bollywood’s recent marriage to the $4 billion-a-year cricket extravaganza has seen Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, buying one of 10 Indian Professional League cricket teams. Another owner is Preity Zinta, star of Toronto director Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth. Both are expected in town for the Saturday awards show. Whereas Bollywood has become a synonym for the Indian film industry, it makes