Thanks to a coalition of politicians, philanthropists and the local Indian community, the 15th Annual International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards make a splashy arrival this week in Tampa Bay — the first time the awards, which have been hosted everywhere from London to Amsterdam to Singapore, have been presented in the United States.
Which makes this the perfect time for a crash course in Indian cinema — and more specifically, its vastly famous sub-genre, Bollywood.
Along with America, China and Nigeria, the Indian film industry has risen to become one of the biggest global players in film today. We’re talking really big. The revenues are in the billions and the films are shown in 90 countries. Hollywood powerhouses like Warner Brothers and Fox are investing in the films, which have their own pool of stars and directors, some of whom have gone onto mainstream success in Hollywood. Director Shekhar Kapur, for instance, garnered seven Oscar nominations, including best actress and best film, for the 1998 Cate Blanchett vehicle Elizabeth. And then there’s Bollywood. Based out of Mumbai, Bollywood films primarily use the Hindi language (India has over 30 languages). They’re technically musicals, but often throw in melodramatic tropes — star-crossed lovers, angry parents, love triangles, long-lost relatives — to help fulfill the Indian audience’s expectations of paisa vasool (literally meaning “money’s worth”).
I discovered Bollywood thanks to the vulgar and hysterically funny Comedy Central cartoon show Drawn Together. One episode featured an animated version of the Bollywood song “Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna” (“Keep the Henna Applied”) from the 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (aka DDLJ), which features Shahrukh Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars. I usually hate musicals, especially American movie musicals. Yet, for whatever reason, the music from Bollywood really gets me grooving. (For starters, name three American musicals that use a sitar.) I really love it — so much, in fact, that I have phonetically memorized the lyrics, the way ABBA did for their songs, and like to impress people at parties by singing in Hindi.
If you’re new to Bollywood films, the classic that everyone should see is 2001’s Lagaan. This movie is the embodiment of paisa vasool. It’s epic. With a then-unprecedented budget of 250 million rupees ($4.2 million) and a running time of almost four hours, Lagaan is a combination sports film/musical/love story/underdog saga/political drama/historical fiction that Roger Ebert glowingly and aptly described as “nothing we’ve ever seen before, and yet completely familiar.” It takes place at the height of the British Empire in 1893 and centers around a small village in Champaner. British captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackhorne) has imposed a high tax (lagaan) on the villagers, who are unable to pay it due to prolonged droughts. A young man, Bhuvan (played by the rapaciously handsome Aamir Khan), catches the eye of Russell’s sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) during a cricket match, and the captain offers to cancel the taxes if Bhuvan can conjure up a cricket team to beat him in three months’ time. Bhuvan accepts the bet, alienating himself from everyone in town save for a young girl, Gauri (Gracy Singh). I don’t want to give anything else away lest I ruin the experience, so I will stop there, but trust me: Even if the storyline sounds formulaic, Lagaan is anything but.
One other reason to look for Lagaan: It features an archetypal Bollywood musical number, “Mitwa-Lagaan,” in which Bhuvan sings his fellow compatriots into joining him for the cricket tourney. The words and the message are as inspiring to the audience as they are to the villagers, leading you to root for the protagonists as they move forward into the cricket match. The paisa vasool factor is off the charts.
And that’s where Bollywood films appeal to American audiences. How many times have you gone to see a huge, massively hyped blockbuster starring A-list actors with a $250 million budget only to leave the theater feeling slightly disappointed? That doesn’t happen with Bollywood movies. They have something for everyone — and what could be more appealing than that?