College of LAS « Illinois

Comparative and World Literatures

The Lure of Bollywood

A course in Indian cinema is getting noticed at Illinois.


What’s so appealing about Bollywood? Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature, has a few thoughts on that topic. But consider this translated excerpt from a 1950s letter to the editor in the Russian magazine Sovetskii Ekran, from a reader who discovered Indian cinema:

Seriously, one is able to see beauty only in Indian films,” the letter states. “Life is gloomy, dull, tedious, but in Indian films one sees so much beauty, love, music! Indian films are incomparable among the cinemas!”

For Mehta, the old letter drives to the heart of what makes Indian cinema so enduring and interesting. For a century it’s found a way to thrive, despite everything from unfriendly government censors to politics and economic hard times. Now she sees it striking a chord with what may be the toughest crowd yet: college students.

As Mehta teaches her course, “Indian Cinema in Context,” for a third year, one of her biggest questions is of space—that is, whether she should find a classroom that can hold more people, because fire safety regulations seem to be the only thing keeping the course from growing beyond the 100 students who typically enroll. Each year the course has a long waiting list, with the only publicity coming by word of mouth amongst students themselves.

Mehta, who grew up in India, says the idea for the class arose from earlier courses, in which students displayed deep interest in Bollywood. Eventually she pitched the idea to teach the course in conjunction with the College of Media, which was excited about the idea, she says, because Indian cinema is the largest film industry in the world and nobody at Illinois had yet taught about the topic.

“A Bollywood cinema feels very different from a Hollywood cinema,” Mehta says. “It is strange to a person who has never seen an Indian film in their entire life. It has its own narration and idiom, and song and dances, and it is a very different kind of a feel. But I arrive at Bollywood only at the later part of the semester. What I want to teach is the context of Indian cinema. Where did this thing come from? That is the thing that is most important.”

It’s a complex question (which Mehta addresses in a book on Indian cinema, scheduled to be published in 2014). Much of it is rooted in Indian history when authorities—particularly the British colonial government, which ruled India until 1947, but also the Indian government—frowned upon the Indian film industry, and subjected it to censorship, regulations, and heavy taxation.


“The relationship to first the British government and then the Indian government is the fascinating story,” Mehta says. “What has become the film industry today is the result of all these different interactions. And it has been indomitable. No one has been able to tame that.”

Through the 1920s, she says, about 80 percent of the films in India were exported from Hollywood, France, or elsewhere. The rise of films with sound in the early 1930s, however, meant that for the first time Indian audiences could hear Indian actors speaking and singing in their language, which was a powerful draw at a time when the country was trying to free itself from British colonialism. By 1935, only 20 percent of films were imports, and Indian cinema has been booming ever since, even though it was not formally recognized by government as a legitimate industry until 1998.

During World War II, with commodities and other products being heavily regulated as part of the British war effort, many Indians laundered black market money by making films. That meant the industry became defined not by big Hollywood-esque studios (which could not survive, and were largely gone by the 1950s) but by small independent producers and movie stars who could demand big paydays for their wildly popular appearances on screen.

Add to that another 60 or 70 years of development, along with the complexities of Indian culture, and the result is today’s Bollywood, complete with dancing and music—and lots of it. Bollywood fans are willing to forgive a loose script, Mehta says, but they pay to see big stars in closely choreographed, spectacular performances. It’s proven to be a compelling formula with worldwide appeal, with some Hollywood studios lately investing in Bollywood productions.

Kate Lyons, a graduate student in linguistics focusing on Indian culture, heard of Mehta’s course from a friend and was able to land a spot in the class this fall. She says they watch a film each week, and then write about it within an economic and cultural context that they learn in the course. Onir, a Bollywood film director best known for the movie My Brother...Nikhil was scheduled to visit the class.

The course has provided valuable information for the linguistics studies Lyons would like to do in India, on modern developments in Hindi and English, for example.

“The more contextual information you have, for me as a researcher, [that] helps me get more exposure to the references that I might miss just because, well, I don’t know about this movie,” she says. “So it’s definitely been helpful in that respect.”

Mehta is considering developing another course on what’s happened in Indian cinema during the past decade or so, as Bollywood has exploded along with the growth of India’s influence around the world. For now, however, there is still much to learn about the history of Indian cinema.

“There are things going on in these films that we know nothing about,” Mehta says. “Modern India, like any space, is so full of contradictions. And where do those contradictions come from? It is of course from colonial history and all that. This is something I believe that students like. They get the backstory, which they wouldn’t get otherwise.”

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2014