The Bollywood conundrum

India's latest blockbuster, 3 Idiots, has broken box-office records around the world – but it won't even make a dent in the British mainstream. Former Bollywood fan Nirpal Dhaliwal has a fair idea why

Bollywood films have always felt like a test of my identity, one I've consistently failed. Despite my family ties, love of India and fascination with it, my inability to enjoy Bollywood has highlighted just how unIndian I am. My taste in films, like most else about me, has been shaped by the UK. I am a "Britisher", as a friend in Delhi likes to say and, like the bulk of other Britishers, I enjoy Bollywood – with its music routines involving beautiful people, light-hearted songs and cleverly choreographed dancing – only in small doses. The typical three-hour Bollywood experience, with its cliched plots, dialogue, hammy acting and confusion of unrelated narratives baffles me.

I haven't liked it since I was a child, in the late 1970s, when my parents took me to the old fleapit Liberty cinema in Southall, a tiny corner of the subcontinent transplanted into west London. Showing only Hindi films, it was a dingy place where every shabby third-world habit was allowed to persist. When little boys wanted to go to the loo, inevitably during a scene that held their mums captivated and unwilling to escort them – a family feud or the tearful prayers of a young wife abused by her in-laws – they were often told to stand and pee against the back of the seat in front. I did so more than once myself.

In those days, I loved Indian films for their "dushoom!" factor – the oddly wooden sound effect accompanying every kick and punch connecting with a hero or villain. I could name every star and the masala western, Sholay, was a favourite as beloved as Star Wars. But as I learned to appreciate things beyond my immediate community – films, books, friends, drugs and Tottenham Hotspur – Bollywood lost its magic.

Now, confronted by the hype and ubiquity of Bollywood, I wonder what the fuss is about. I'm left asking: why does the world's most popular cinema, accounting for well over 2bn ticket sales a year – that's two-thirds of global sales – fail to capture the mainstream western imagination?

A big Hindi film will play at 50 or more mainstream multiplexes across Britain (there are only four exclusively Indian cinemas in Britain today), and will sit comfortably in the box office top 10. That spot currently belongs to 3 Idiots, a screwball campus comedy starring Aamir Khan, the poster boy for the globalised new India. Released at Christmas, the film has broken Bollywood records around the world – though that still amounts only to breaking through the $10m (£6.25m) barrier in territories outside India. Nevertheless, in commercial terms, Bollywood beats British cinema on its home turf hands down. But the audience for these films remains almost wholly Asian, while the general British public ignores them.

Prakash Bakrania, of Reliance Big Pictures, distributes Bollywood films in the UK. He attributes their narrow appeal purely to cultural sensibilities. "Indians want family dramas," he says, "with songs and dance and emotional melodrama."

I point out that Moulin Rouge! succeeded while being as camp and musical as any Hindi movie, but Prakash argues that familiarity is also an issue: "Chicago and Mamma Mia! show there's a demand for such movies here, but the music in those films was familiar. Mamma Mia! had a strong USP with its Abba soundtrack. A lot of Indian people go to see a Bollywood film because they like and know the music; they've heard it on the radio. Other people haven't heard it."

But quality must be a reason, too. I've seen a lot of movies in India and some of them – such as Love Story 2050, The Last Lear and Heroes – have been among the worst films I've seen, from any country. Daftly written, clumsily directed and terribly acted, they bombed in India, proving that Indians don't have an appetite for complete rubbish, but they suggest that film-makers will set a far lower bar for themselves in Bollywood than they would elsewhere.

Prakash counters that Bollywood is a victim of its own success: "You don't get a Chinese film released in Britain every week. People only see the very best Chinese films, so have this misconception that they're better. But if you ask them what their favourite Chinese film is, they'll probably name Crouching Tiger, which is seven or eight years old now."

He has a point. Bollywood's best films are as fresh and technically proficient as anything Hollywood produces. Tarun Mansukhani's 2008 comedy, Dostana, was tightly scripted, with great sets and cinematography, and funky music scenes that rivalled the best on MTV. A clever, modern Indian inversion of La Cage aux Folles, about two straight men pretending to be gay in order to seem respectable, the film still received no wider audience than usual, left to drown in the ocean of formulaic mediocrity that is the bulk of Bollywood's output and defines outsiders' perceptions of it.

The social differences between India and Britain create an almost unbridgeable gap for Bollywood. Indian films deal with issues that are alien to the west or long since dealt with. A recent hit was Rock On!!, about the members of an unsuccessful rock band who ruefully look back on their wasted past. "That film was a huge success but was never going to cross over," Prakash admits, "because people in the UK are used to a film like that. It was a very original in India, but here it isn't."

With bland, goody-two-shoes central characters, an anodyne soundtrack and no references to sex or drugs, Rock On!! won't interest Britishers accustomed to the grit of films like Control or Sid and Nancy. But the film is a fair reflection of India's urban middle-class youth who, while sporting grunge haircuts and listening to Nirvana, still live with their parents, aspire to good grades and, compared with Britishers, do very few drugs and have very little sex.

Similarly, 3 Idiots is destined never to cross over despite its phenomenal success. Set in an engineering college in the 1990s, it deals with the hopes, fears and anxieties of India's first globalised generation. A trio of pals strive to succeed within the strictures of India's academic system while protecting their individualities before getting jobs with corporations and securing futures their parents could never dream of – a cocktail of pressures that has induced a suicide epidemic among Indian students.

Westerners wouldn't care for mawkish scenes in which one character drops out of college to pursue his dreams of wildlife photography while another confronts her father for stifling her brother's hopes of becoming a writer. Tears flow, tempers flare and hugs abound as parents are reconciled with their children's choices and let them find their own paths in life. Cheesy and boring as it sounds, this is a massive issue in today's India, where traditional family values are increasingly in conflict with the freedoms and opportunities available to young Indians.

Shridhar Subramaniam, managing director of Sony Music India, believes Indians and westerners want different forms of escapism. "A rural Indian will find a film like Avatar mundane," he says. "People flying around and having super-powers is no big deal, it's what Indians have in their religion. But Shah Rukh Khan dancing on Brooklyn Bridge is genuine fantasy for them. For westerners, it's the other way round. It's a different perception of what is fantasy and what is mundane."

Bollywood, he believes, only succeeds by being the social conscience of India: "It has to appeal to a very wide demographic here. It's not a finely segmented market like in Britain or America. Each film has to appeal to grandparents, parents, and children of various ages. Cinema is often the only entertainment choice Indians have, so it has to appeal to every member of the family as well as to different income, literacy levels, and various regional and language groups. It needs to please those who pay £5 in the multiplexes, but also those paying 10p in the lower stalls, who want overemphasis in the story and the acting, who want to whoop and clap."

This need for inclusivity means that a typical Bollywood film is a romance, comedy, family saga and action movie rolled into one. That, Shridhar acknowledges, gives westerners the impression that they are "loosely written, meandering and don't make sense". But Indians are instinctively forgiving. "People will watch a film and know that the next 15 minutes isn't going to be for them. It might be a dance sequence, or a 'hand of God' scene that's for the grandma sat next to them. Bollywood films are more like a live circus or a variety show than a western three-act concept of a movie."

Shridhar is right. Last month, I watched three films consecutively on a day-long bus ride through Maharashtra. I noticed how men, women, young and old laughed at different moments, enjoying the parts that entertained them while quietly forbearing the rest. The attitude Indians have to watching films is the same as they have for life in general: one of community, great patience and good -natured tolerance. But for a Britisher like me, Bollywood remains a complete mystery.

3 Idiots is out now.


Nirpal Dhaliwal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Beyond Bollywood: Indian cinema's new cutting edge
A new wave of Indian independent film is breaking the all-singing, all-dancing stereotype of Bollywood via low-cost, offbeat movies and edgier subject matter. Rahul Verma reports

Rahul Verma

23, Jun, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
Irony enters the Bollywood mix

Pastiche-laden recent hits such as Dabangg are catering to nudge-nudge-wink-wink urban audiences, as well as Bollywood's traditional heartland

Leo Mirani

25, Nov, 2010 @10:45 PM

Article image
Nirpal Dhaliwal: My Bollywood bit part
Nirpal Dhaliwal has been watching Bollywood films all his life, so when he was offered a bit part in a new film, he jumped at the chance of a peek inside an industry unlike any other

Nirpal Dhaliwal

10, Feb, 2011 @9:59 PM

Article image
How Bollywood is starting to deal with India's caste system
Caste is a contentious issue in India, and one rarely commented on in Bollywood films. But political change is on the way, and Indian cinema will have to reflect that, writes Nirpal Dhaliwal

Nirpal Dhaliwal

16, Dec, 2010 @10:30 PM

Article image
Sridevi Kapoor, Bollywood superstar, dies aged 54
Outpouring of grief in India as one of the biggest names in cinema dies in Dubai

Michael Safi

25, Feb, 2018 @6:09 AM

Article image
Bollywood star Shashi Kapoor dies aged 79
A scion of the Kapoor film-making dynasty, the celebrated actor appeared in a number of Indian features and Merchant Ivory films

Guardian film

04, Dec, 2017 @3:31 PM

Article image
Bollywood falls for the power of merchandising

Action film, featuring Bollywood's top male actor, aims to break the mould of Indian cinema

Randeep Ramesh in Delhi

30, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Kashmiri militant takes on Bollywood

Activist threatens legal action over film in which she is played by sex symbol

Maseeh Rahman in Delhi

24, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Does Bollywood normalise stalking?
A defence lawyer in Australia successfully claimed that his client’s aggressive pursuit of women was ‘quite normal behaviour’ for Bollywood fans. Sadly, it’s all too easy to concur

Nirpal Dhaliwal

29, Jan, 2015 @4:09 PM

Article image
Irrfan Khan: 'I object to the term Bollywood'

Nosheen Iqbal: He nearly quit acting in the 90s, but now Irrfan Khan is one of the most wanted stars in India and Hollywood, with roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi

Nosheen Iqbal

25, Jul, 2013 @6:00 PM