One of the positive benefits of globalization that has been enjoyed in recent years is the diffusion of music, art, and movies from one region of the world to another, thereby widening the audience base for cultural productions that were previously limited to their own region (Cullity & Younger, 2004). As movie theatres have become more internationalized, Americans have become increasingly aware of the richness of creative expressions originating in other countries, including Asian nations.
In fact, one of the movie genres that has been gaining a broader and more enthusiastic following is known as Bollywood, and its success is evidenced by films that have performed extraordinarily well in the United States, including the 2001 favorite, Monsoon Wedding. Far from being mere entertainment, though, the Bollywood movies represent a powerful means of self- and community expression which Indians are using to define themselves in front of the rest of the world. For this reason, a critical analysis of Bollywood movies can help the enthusiastic movie goer to understand more than the films themselves, but also the significance of this particular cultural production.
According to Ginta (2004), the word “Bollywood" is “a tongue-in-cheek term created by the English-language press in India in the late 1970s" to refer to the film industry that has developed in Mumbai, which was formerly named Bombay. The catchy term, with its obvious allusions to Hollywood, caught on and “Bollywood" “has now become the dominant global term to refer to the prolific and box-office oriented Hindi language film industry" (Ginta, 2004, p. 2). Ginta (2004) points out that while the Mumbai-based film industry is “aesthetically and culturally distinct from Hollywood" (p. 2), it is as prominent and revered among Asian entertainers and audiences as Hollywood is in the United States. Furthermore, Bollywood is purported to be as audience-oriented and money hungry as Hollywood (Ginta, 2004). Beyond describing the physical location, however, the word Bollywood also refers to the particular characteristics that are common to films that are produced in this region (Ginta, 2004). These characteristics include “song and dance, melodrama, lavish production values, [and] emphasis upon stars and spectacle" (Ginta, 2004, p. 3), all of which, in the opinion of feminist scholars Cullity and Younger (2004) are a means of “sublimat[ing]…romanticism" (p. 96). The best Bollywood movies integrate all of these theatrical variables.
It is important to point out that Indian cinema did not originate recently; it actually has a long and rich history, most of which is unknown to Western audiences (Ginta, 2004). Further, American movie goers’ increasing but still limited exposure to the diverse variety of Indian films in particular, and Asian films in general, obscures an appreciation of the developmental trajectory that lead to the emergence of the Bollywood films (Ginta, 2004), which are culturally significant in their own right. While the Bollywood movies are generally colorful, energetic, and highly entertaining, they are also one of the “most popular and significant cultural form[s] and commodit[ies] in the transnational South Asian cultural and political economy" (Desai, 2006, p. 35). Although the films may appear to portray rigid and stereotypical gender roles on the surface, for instance, Desai (2006) asserts that various “identificatory processes are centrally configured and contested through the cinematic apparatus" (p. 35). Among the aspects of identity that are defined and challenged are “gender, sexuality,…diaspora, globalization, Asian-Americans…and postcoloniality, to name [only] a few" (Desai, 2006, p. 3). Ginta (2004) adds that the Bollywood films “play an important role in constructing and defining dicotomies," including “traditional/modern, global/local, Western/Eastern, and categories such as culture, nation, and Indian" (Ginta, 2004, p. 3). The films, then, open up and provoke dialogue about what it means to be Indian, a dialogue which is transformed yet again as the film is distributed to international audiences and Asian diasporic communities around the globe.
The implications of the social functions that the Bollywood movies perform ripple far beyond just the Mumbai-based production center, however. Kadosh Otmazgin (2005) observes that the sheer number of movies produced by Bollywood each year (estimates vary dramatically, numbering from 150-200 annually to more than 1,000 annually), coupled with the impressive and diversified market penetration of their films, impacts the rest of Asia in important ways. As Kadosh Otmazgin (2005) points out, “The dense traffic of popular culture throughout urban centres in East Asia serves as a powerful regionalizing engine, generating the formation of a transnational market for culture and pulling East Asian cities and their inhabitants closer together" (p. 499). He adds, however, that there are significant advantages and disadvantages to this regionalization phenomenon generated by Bollywood movies and other cultural products, including music. The advantage, of course, is that Western audiences gain a consciousness that they might not have had otherwise about creative expressions from regions with which they formerly had limited cultural contact. On the other hand, one of the potential negative outcomes of this aspect of Bollywood films is that those same audiences may see Asian nations as a single cultural unit, thereby failing to notice and appreciate important distinctions that characterize each nation and make it unique. These distinctions about Bollywood cinema, of course, are historical and contemporary, and range from obvious differences, such as linguistic and religious preferences, to more subtle differences, such as colonial legacies and postcolonial development.
For these reasons, and because of the successful penetration of Bollywood films into multiple international markets, it also becomes difficult for other Asian nations to develop their own cinematic styles and distribute their own creative products (Kadosh Otmazgin, 2005). Western audiences have become so familiar with the Bollywood archetype so quickly that scholars such as Kadosh Otmazgin fear that they will reject Asian films that fail to follow that established pattern, a formula that obviously works well in the United States. Consider, for instance, that Monsoon Wedding grossed $13 million at the box office in the U.S., and performed reasonably well in other Western countries, including Brazil, Britain, Germany, and Spain (IMDB.com, 2002). Despite the potential for such success, Kadosh Otmazgin (2005) points out that no other Asian nation or region has been quite as successful as Bollywood in establishing its own filmic identity. When one wonders what is Bollywood, it is not just the films themselves, but an entire subset of the economy.
One might contest Kadosh Otmazgin’s (2005) claim by pointing to the incredibly successful 2001 movie,Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was the “highest-grossing foreign language film [it was in Mandarin] in American history" (People’s Daily, 2001, para.1 ). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including best foreign language film and best director (People’s Daily, 2001). Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee could justifiably be proud of the accomplishments of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but as more than one critic has complained, this movie is representative of the overexploited, tired genre of the Asian martial arts film (San Juan, 2004). As such, it typecasts Asians and Asian films as lacking intellectual and psychological depth, and limits them to roles that are purely entertaining or physical. Such movies, while they remain popular with Western audiences, do little to expose Americans to the rich diversity among Asian cultures. Furthermore, the typical Asian martial arts movie establishes a frame of reference for Western audiences that makes it difficult for them to consider or view other Asian films as unique yet equally valid Asian cultural productions. This is especially true for those films that treat themes that are unfamiliar to such viewers. When one asks what is Bollywood, recent examples that come to mind include Deepa Mehta’s series of film, Fire, Earth, and, Water, all of which are provocative and have been controversial in India and abroad. Fire is a treatment about two women who forge a lesbian relationship as a way to escape their arranged marriages. Earth is a profound analysis and criticism of culture and human nature, and Water is a sobering and complex story about the treatment of widows in India. Clearly, these three films represent a significant departure from lighter Asian martial arts films.
As the effects of globalization continue unchecked, it will be interesting to see how Asian artists and producers both accept and challenge not only cultural norms, but also the notion of an Asian regional identity. While Bollywood films consume Western audiences’ thirst for cultural productions from the East, and while these films offer interesting possibilities in terms of the ways in which they construct and deconstruct Indian identities, they also preclude viewing audiences from learning more about other Asian nations and their creative expressions. Space must be made for these other cultural expressions as well, tackling a broad range of subjects, from the comic to the tragic.