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*APA on the term, the controversy, and why it still matters.
"...it's called Indian cinema. You call French cinema 'French cinema.' Why do you want to call Indian cinema 'Bollywood cinema?' It's really sad." --Mani Ratnam
"...it was coined as a barb at Indian films -- saying 'we might as well call them Bollywood, because they're so influenced by or want to be like Hollywood.' So it was actually intended as an insult, and unfortunately that word caught on." --Abhishek Bachchan
With the festival India Splendor being held in Los Angeles, Asia Pacific Arts intended to publish a special "Bollywood Issue" with interviews, reviews, and general commentary on the current Bollywood cinema. However, after hearing megastar Abhishek Bachchan and acclaimed director Mani Ratnam speak, we were confronted with a different kind of "Bollywood issue:" the one surrounding the term "Bollywood," the much contested word denoting the fusion of the "Bombay film industry" and "Hollywood."
As Bachchan points out at India Splendor's screening of Guru, the term was coined by journalists in the 1970s as a blast against the tendency of Indian film producers at the time toward poorly remaking Hollywood films. Thus "Bollywood" from the beginning necessarily connotes a poor imitation of Hollywood. His and Ratnam's objection to the term is thus to differentiate Indian cinema from Hollywood, to show that it has its own history and traditions, and to decolonize a phrase created by outsiders.
A similar objection was raised during our interview with Rang De Basanti director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who claimed that "there is nothing called Bollywood. There's the Hindi film industry or the Indian film industry.... And let me assure you, we don't have any hill with a sign saying Bollywood. No property would ever want to sell land to advertise it. So it's one of those things that can be avoided, I think....It's like calling New York, Bombay.... It also loses your identity. Imagine changing your name to rhyme with something else."
Whereas Bachchan argues against "Bollywood" to separate Indian cinema from being a poor imitation of Hollywood, Mehra goes one further by arguing that "Bollywood" is objectionable not only because the Indian film industry is "not Hollywood," but because "Bollywood" as a term has no geographical referent, and thus it cannot stand for the identity of any people or community. A corollary would thus be that "Bollywood" as a cinema could have no true political or social function. A similar case is raised by Ratnam in the quote above, when he argues for the use of "Indian cinema" rather than "Bollywood cinema."
And yet we persist.
The objections made by Bachchan, Ratnam, Mehra, and countless others are surely legitimate. Yet the term continues to stay relevant because there is a bigger, and more provocative issue at stake. From the perspective of audiences, critics, and distributors, "Bollywood" obviously connotes more than just an imitation of Hollywood. If anything, it stands for a sort of refusal to play by Hollywood rules. Or better yet, of out-Hollywooding Hollywood. It also connotes certain narrative themes, which unfortunately frequently invoke cultural chauvinism, gender inequality, heteronormativity, and political conservatism.
But more obviously than that, the term stands for a specific film industry with its own stars, styles, and institutions; a distinctive culture of film spectatorship; and an easily-recognizable "brand name" for selling films not only within India, but amongst desis around the world and in global film marketplaces. All of this implies (against Ratnam and Mehra) that like "Hollywood," "Bollywood" need not be defined as a local cinema, but as a necessarily deterritorialized term. "Bollywood" is not only a film industry in India, it is also an international film style (to the point that we can now say that a non-Bollywood film is "Bollywood-esque") and a source of cultural attachment for NRIs around the world. The alternate moniker "mainstream Indian film industry" lacks these cultural, financial, and aesthetic specificities, as well as the affection that many fans express when they use the term "Bollywood."
Equating "Bollywood" with "Indian" has other problems as well. Doing so suggests that Indian cinema comprises only Bollywood films, when as many have pointed out, Indian cinema has many "parallel cinemas" which include art films and non-Hindi films, many of which are not three hours long, do not mix-and-match film genres, do not contain song-and-dance numbers, and do not star Amitabh Bachchan. The Bengali and Tamil cinemas stand out, as does the Telugu cinema, one of the world's biggest film industries.
It thus makes sense that directors such as Mani Ratnam and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra would object to the term. Both are directors working on the margins of what can be called "Bollywood." Ratnam made his name in the Tamil film industry, directing controversial films such as Roja and Bombay. Similarly, Mehra is interested in a socially-conscious cinema inspired by European art cinema traditions. Yet both directors engage with Bollywood conventions, such as using musical numbers and casting stars such as Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, and Aamir Khan. Since their social and political preoccupations refuse the de-politicized nature associated with much of contemporary Bollywood, it's not surprising that they would want to create distance between their works and the term.
Which shouldn't mean that we must ignore the warnings made by Bachchan, Ratnam, Mehra, and others. If anything, we need to understand their frustrations. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that these frustrations are precisely at the heart of Bollywood as a concept, which has from the very start contained many of the contradictions involved with naming, claiming, and selling these films. Their objections bring to the fore the crucial facts that Bollywood is not homogeneous, but can and should reflect stylistic, political, and regional variations, and that Bollywood is constantly changing. Indeed, there was a time when Bollywood films were endlessly innovative and socially minded. The negation of the term "Bollywood" by these film artists is thus central to our understanding of "Bollywood cinema" at a time when it is undergoing massive change, both within the industry as Hollywood makes its inroads, and abroad, as ordinary filmgoers around the world who have never seen Indian films, suddenly know what "Bollywood" means.
See APA's past coverage of Bollywood
Coverage of the 2003 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Date Posted: 8/24/2007