“People Don’t Want To See Problems On The Screen”: Why The West Won’t Watch Bollywood

By Guest Contributor Margaret Redlich

Kajol (l) and Shahrukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenga. Courtesy: planetradiocity.com

When they’ve tried to make realistic pictures about the poor and the middle classes, they get miserable attendance…People don’t want to see problems on the screen.

So says a 2001 article from Smithsonian magazine about the rise in popularity of the Indian movie industry, a.k.a. “Bollywood,” in the West during the 1990s.  And this is the general assumption many in the First World like to make about Indian film: that it is an escapist genre, and that all the poor people of South Asia need to be happy is three hours of brightly colored fantasy.

Indian films have been the main source of popular culture for all of South Asia and popular in many other countries throughout the world since the 1950s. The first international hit was Raj Kapoor’s Awaara in 1951, followed by Shree 420 four years later. Although the 50s are generally considered the “Golden Age” of Indian film, the Indian film industry had been around for 40 years before that, with the studio system already thriving within 20 years. Although the West, especially America, likes to pretend that they invented the movies and every other country is merely imitating them (as is implied in the very name “Bollywood”), in fact India has been making movies in its own style since the advent of the artform.

The West didn’t suddenly make a Columbus-like discovery of Indian film in the 90s; it was a result of a calculated strategy on the part of the Indian industry. A series of political shifts in Indian government had led to weakening import/export regulations as well as the legalization of investments in the Indian film industry. Therefore, there was suddenly more money around to make these globe-hopping song- and dance-filled extravaganzas. And that money could be turned into even more money by making plots that were universal and of interest to Desis and others living in the First World. What is more universal than romance?


The Smithsonian piece summarizes what it sees as Indian cinema’s standard plot: Boy meets, wins, loses and regains girl. In the process, they run through vast wardrobes, turn up at locations all over the world, kiss (rarely) but in no other way indulge their passion, serenade each other with no fewer than six songs, and join chorus lines in half a dozen dance numbers. While all this is going on, family crises erupt and are settled, murders are committed and solved, cars are chased and destroyed. Oh, and the good guys win.

This was basically how your standard Bollywood film would unfold between 1992 and 2009. The first major international hit done in this style was 1994′s Hum Aapke Hain Koun (HAHK) That next year, Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenga (DDLJ) found an international audience by featuring an NRI (non-resident Indian) hero and heroine, which appealed to Indians abroad while, at the same time, having a romantic plot and traditional style which has made it the longest-running film in India 17 years and counting (for more details, I recommend critic Anupuma Chopra’s book on the film).

In 2009, the film 3 Idiots became a record-breaking success for the Indian international box office, even getting some box-office success in America on Christmas weekend that year where it finished 12th overall, on the same weekend Sherlock Holmes opened and Avatar was still running in theaters.

I wanted to compare a review from an Indian publication with a review from the New York Times, but I could not because the New York Times never fully reviewed 3 Idiots. I guess they didn’t think a singing-and-dancing movie made by and starring brown people was worthy of a review, no matter how successful it was.

I was able to find a short review in the Village Voice which described it as a “tuneful, enjoyable college comedy.” Compare that summation to the review in the Times of India which called the film “the perfect end to an exciting year for India: the year when the aam aadmi [common man] voted in progress, liberalism, secularism and turned his back to corruption, communalism, regionalism.”

So, what did the Village Voice miss? Let’s start with “tuneful.”

“Zoobie Doobie” from the film 3 Idiots. Courtesy: mahiram.com

3 Idiots actually only has two true musical sequences, although there are two other songs that play in the background and are intercut with dialogue. The first song, “Aal Izz Well,” shows the hijinks of the three heroes (Madhavan, Aamir Khan, and Sharman Joshi) while in college. The second is “Zoobie Doobie,” a euphoric fantasy put into song by a young girl in love (Kareena Kapoor, granddaughter of nine-time Filmfare Award winner Raj Kapoor).

Both songs heighten the emotions of the scenes surrounding them by contrasting joy with sorrow. The happy “Aal Izz Well” ends with the discovery of a suicide. “Zoobie Doobie” has a bouncy tune, but its visuals reference the famous “Pyar Hua, Ikrar Hua” sequence from the classic film Shree 420 (1955), foreshadowing a difficult end to the love affair in 3 Idiots.

Traditional Indian drama theory encourages the creation of multiple emotions in one piece; today that is described as a “masala film.” Just because 3 Idiots includes multiple comedic scenes alongside its serious ones does not mean it is a “college comedy.” Once the songs are given their proper weight as support to the narrative rather than a distraction from it, once the comedy is considered as merely a part of the film–not its whole–the recurring theme becomes visible, and that is what The Times of India (and the Desi audience in general) appreciated.

At the beginning of the film, a college student is found having hung himself; later, one of the main characters jumps from a third floor window. Towards the end, it is revealed that the heroine’s brother throws himself in front of a train. All of them were promising middle-class college students, driven to suicide by the pressure to succeed. A recent study in The Lancet found that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Indians between the ages of 15-29. The successful “tuneful” song from the film, “Aal Izz Well”, inspired a website aimed at helping Desis considering suicide.

If the NYT had considered the film worthy of review–and had been open-minded enough to get past the songs and the comedy–they might have had to acknowledge the film’s underlying commentary: that India is not the promised land of academic superiority and happy-up-by-their-bootstraps entrepreneurs it desperately wants it to be; that it might have social issues more serious than can be solved by a song.

But then the NYT would never seriously review an Indian movie anyway, because that would be an acknowledgment that the leading creative force for many people in the world comes not from Los Angeles but from Bombay. Indian films are shown all over Africa, and Asia, and the former USSR. They are popular in Britain, Australia, and Canada, and are breaking into South America; a telenovela set in India, for instance, recently debuted in Brazil.

During its aforementioned “golden age,” Indian films frequently deal with the basic economic issues and the “where do we go from here?” questions the country faced after winning its independence. The withdrawal of Britain from India was an especially shoddy colonial retreat; there was very little plan in place for the transition of power; and, while the violence on the border between the newly created Pakistan and India was the most blatant result of this policy, the films from this time point to other, more subtle, problems such as lack of infrastructure, sustainable economies, and a national identity. And these were the hugely successful films that established the “Bollywood” style.  From the very beginning, people wanted to see problems onscreen.

In 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire swept through the West and composer A.R. Rahman won an Academy Award for the score, he referenced Deewar (1975), one of the darkest, deepest, and most beloved Indian films of all time, by quoting “Mere Paas Maa Hai” (“I have mother”) in his acceptance speech. In an interview with Vanity Fair a few months before the Oscars, Slumdog director Danny Boyle also mentioned Deewar as one of his inspirations for the film.

In his speech, Rahman did not bother mentioning the title of the film it came from, perhaps assuming (as would be true in many places in the world), that the quote would be understood. It was not. No western news sources reported the source of the statement. Slumdog was heralded as bringing “Bollywood” to the American mainstream, and yet, the same reporters–and movie fans–who loved it, were completely unaware of, and uninterested in further investigating, the film so important that Rahman felt the need to acknowledge it while accepting the third Oscar ever won by an Indian. A simple Google search of the phrase would immediately reveal its source. To not cite it smacks of willful ignorance on the part of the Western media.

(L-R) Shashi Kapoor, Nirupa Roy, and Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar. Courtesy: harveypam.blogspot.com

To take this ignorance farther, the film was described by that same New York Times as following a “typical” Bollywood plot with “the plucky underdog hero, sibling rivalry, ghetto gangsters, and a beautiful damsel needing a rescue.” This is the plot that was brought to its artistic peak in Deewar. The Indian Express review of the movie acknowledged that up-front with the headline: Slumdog Is Deewar-Redux. But in Deewar, all those elements mentioned so lightly in the NYTreview above are elevated to the level of Greek tragedy in a plot that brings up questions about the future of the Indian state, the existence of God, and the morality of placing the greater good above the immediate.

The central conflict of the film is between the two brothers, a police officer and a criminal, for the love of their mother. In a final confrontation between the two brothers, the criminal asks “Aaj mere paas buildingey hai, gaadi hai, bank balance hai. Tumhare paas kya hai. Kyaa hai tumhare paas?” (“Today I have a building, I have a car, I have a bank balance. You have what?  What do you have?”) And the response of the son who represents the future of India, the one chosen by his mother–who stands in for “Mother India” herself–is “Mere Paas Maa Hai.”

When he quoted this in his Oscar speech, Rahman at once paid homage to one of the all-time great Indian films and, at the same time, he acknowledged that he had brought metaphorical India with him to the awards. The First World chose to ignore this context, terming it merely his thanking his mother. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge that such a film as Deewar could be made by someone outside of America and Europe and could accurately reflect the anger and despair present in the land that is supposed to be the future of capitalism.

Margaret Redlich is a graduate student in Media and Cinema studies at DePaul University and host of a weekly Bollywood movie nights.

  • Anonymous

    What a great piece. I know very little of Indian film and this is a brilliant, concise introduction. Thank you very much.

  • vee

    Loved this post. 3 Idiots is one of my favourite Indian films and one of my favourite Indian films to show to people who’ve not seen many, because it makes a point and is entertaining and full of lovable, relatable characters. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. While I could describe it as a comedy, I would never leave out “with a social consciousness/message” because to ignore that would be a complete disservice.

    I’m always annoyed at the ease of which people reduce this multifaceted industry to either song-filled musicals, fluffy romances or then goofy youtube clips. There’s always this dismissive attitude underlining reactions, which leads to defensiveness on my part when I talk about these movies to people who don’t really know them. They’re not perfect movies (I’ll be the first to admit the occasional mind-boggling sexism or racism against black people or Asian people in Indian films) but the general level of ignorance people who’re supposed to know and understand film (say, film critics) display about the 2nd biggest film industry on the planet is staggering

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    Interesting article—as someone who’s been a fan of Bollywood cinema for over a decade now,it’s been nice to see Bollywood films get some notice here in the U.S.—unfortunately people think that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE represents the Bollywood film—-which it really dosen’t,especially for anyone who’s really been into Indian cinema for a awhile. The ending musical dance scene, frankly, wasn’t even that good and was actually pretty boring compared to actual Bollywood musical numbers I’ve seen in countless Indian films, most of whom have far more vibrant dancing and dance routines in general (no matter how lame the plot of the movie is sometimes).

    I saw DEEWAR some years ago and was kind of impressed with its cynical,realistic attitude toward its subject/characters (which was actually typical/par for the course of ’70′s cinema in general from anywhere in the world at that time) particularly in that the mother figure wasn’t defied like she usually is
    in Indian films—she’s shown for once as a person with her own flaws
    for a change outside of the mother identity,but only briefly. Another good film to check out that features the stars of DEEWAR is SUHAAG—-I thought at the time that DEEWAR was like a darker,more realistic version of the 1979 B-wood masala action drama SUHAAG,whose plot is a little bit similar (but not identical) to DEEWAR (even though DEEWAR came out a few years before SUHAAG).. But,yeah,Bollywood itself isn’t just a cheap ripoff of Hollywood—it has its own unique pleasures and cultural touchstones,just like any cinema from any other country on the planet,and I’ve seen B-wood films that are the equal of anything that comes out of Hollywood on a daily basis,like the classic ’90′S gangster flick SATYA, and pretty anything made/produced/written by Ram Gopal Varma or the Bhatt family is a must-see. Of course you have some B-wood ripoffs of Hollywood films, but seeing that Hollywood has always done ripoffs like crazy,it goes both ways. There’s also an independent film scene that examines subjects not usually dealt with in mainstream Bollywood cinema,too—so the article got that part wrong,definitely.

  • http://twitter.com/laguiri laguiri

    What is also very telling of the Western attitude towards films done by brown people is that it’s extremelñy easy to see the references to Cidade de Deus, a Brazilian film, in Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a back and forth relationship, as CdeD is influenced by earlier Boyle films. In any case, it’s a brilliant film and anyone who had seen both would have pointed out that Slumdog Millionaire is a sort of “Indian Cidade de Deus”. But it’s easier to see Doyle as “improving” on Bollywood than as learning from many different filmakers, some of them POC.