Book in Focus
Understanding Bollywood"/>

13th June 2022

Book in Focus
Understanding Bollywood

A Calling

By Asma Ayob

Bollywood cinema has become an international phenomenon, and its popularity is no longer limited to a specific audience. Students from various backgrounds who study film are fascinated by Bollywood films and their origin, while Cinema Studies faculty across the globe are increasingly incorporating such films into their courses.

It has long been established that a study of Bollywood films provides a fascinating account of Indian history and cultural politics. Interest in these films is increasing globally, and the dancing, food and culture that are experienced through Bollywood films are often mimicked by people from all walks of life. Previous research has considered the manner in which Bollywood “stars” create an international euphoria about themselves by blending their personal lives with their onscreen personas. This is achieved by public appearances, interviews, product endorsements, commercials, and, of course, the films themselves.

Seasoned Bollywood actor Anupam Kher plays a key role in the American series New Amsterdam. He also plays a significant part in Silver Linings Playbook with Bradley Cooper. Bollywood actors who perform in Hollywood fuel the popularity of Bollywood cinema by creating interest in their characters. Priyanka Chopra, now married to Nick Jonas, carried the world to India through this marriage. In a sense, her wedding represented the culture in India and kept the Bollywood flame alive and burning.

Bollywood films are also kept alive by workouts such as BollyX, a Bollywood-inspired fitness program that combines choreography with the latest music from around the world. During dance-nights before wedding ceremonies, brides and grooms join their guests in dancing to popular Bollywood music from blockbuster films.

Once an indigenous cinema that represented the realities of life in India and provided escapism for its native people, the Bollywood of today caters to the emerging middle-class and diasporic audiences across the globe. Research has endorsed the strong link between Bollywood films and Indian society, especially in relation to representations of women. Based on this close relationship, when a young woman was gang-raped on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, Bollywood filmmakers were accused of playing a contributory role in fuelling the culture of rape in India. Due to the wide media coverage of this incident, an international dialogue on both the issue of rape and the general treatment of women in India was re-ignited.

When I began my study on Bollywood cinema, I was driven by the formidable duo of Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar—the star par excellence and the young new-age director who I believe changed the face of Bollywood. While studying the representational techniques employed by Karan Johar in his three blockbuster films, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), I welcomed the refreshing way in which he was framing the challenges faced by Indian women in a changing world. The notion of identity was the central focus of my work. Being of Indian descent, I appreciate the nuances of culture that he portrays in his films. I am especially grateful for his unique, discerning representations of identity because they mirror the constant chasm that I, as a woman of the Indian diaspora, experience in various aspects of my life.

However, in light of the tragedy that occurred in 2012, I decided to use the international arena as my backdrop in evaluating Johar’s films, while at the same time addressing this heinous crime and its interrelation with Bollywood filmmakers. The first thought that sprung to my mind was the potential persuasiveness of Bollywood cinema, and then I pondered about whether Bollywood filmmakers were aware of the influence they yielded over audiences. My study was transformed from analysing representations of women to probing the allegations made against Bollywood filmmakers. Serious allegations held them responsible for playing a causal role in fuelling the culture of rape in India.

Understanding Bollywood: A Calling addresses the idea that both filmmakers and audiences need to become aware of the cultural implications of films. We live in a world that thrives on expression, especially when it comes to the performing arts. To use that expression to commit crimes and then shy away from the responsibility of taking the blame for one’s actions is illogical. To commit a crime and then expect to be absolved of blame by denouncing representations in films does not make sense. Bollywood films are important tools that can be used to reflect on societies, their cultural practices, and many other issues that affect real people. Understanding Bollywood: A Calling, is therefore both relevant and necessary during the times in which we live.

When a survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2013 cited Bollywood cinema as playing a contributory role in fuelling the culture of rape in India, Bollywood activist and actress Shabana Azmi joined the conversation and highlighted the complexity of other issues that plague the country such as socio-political factors, poverty, internalised patriarchal mindsets, and high illiteracy levels. American activist Eve Ensler branded the incident a catalytic moment that should be used to re-think the degradation of women globally.

Based on the rape case, Canadian film director Richie Mehta wrote and directed Delhi Crime, which was released on Netflix and won an International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 2019.

The media constantly intimates that Bollywood filmmakers should refrain from objectifying women through representations in item numbers (provocative dance sequences). In this book, the employment of women as eye candy is explored alongside the cultural significance of song and dance sequences within the Bollywood film tradition. However, while certain item numbers have been pinpointed as derogatory modes of representation, this book acknowledges Bollywood cinema as a sovereign medium that has the power to integrate into Indian society on many levels.

Chapter One outlines the steady rise of Bollywood from its humble beginnings in Parsi theatre to its position as a transnational and cultural touchstone for Indian diaspora audiences worldwide. The three eras of filmmaking in India from 1947 through to the post-1991 period are discussed, while it is shown that, interestingly, Bollywood drew inspiration from Parsi theatre before developing a language of its own. In this chapter, the changing preferences of audiences are considered in relation to literacy rates, as well as aesthetic proclivities. The tendency of Bollywood filmmakers to be faithful to the nationalist project and its articulation of the operation of the joint family system, patriarchal structures, and the subjugation of women is also examined.

Part of the nationalist agenda included using mythology and archaic Indian traditions to ensure that women in India would always be repressed under the domineering cloak of patriarchy. To further coerce women in India into subordinate positions, personal laws were favoured over decisions of the Supreme Court. Women were often intimidated into following constructed personal laws to avoid becoming outcasts of society. The combination of nationalist principles, myths, and personal laws served to shape the psyches of women in India. As a result, many Indian women were silenced. This is vividly explained through an analysis of Jaya Bachchan’s character in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.

Chapter Two highlights how Bollywood as an industry has grown, from being an indigenous cinema for its people to a global phenomenon, and explores the period during which the industry became economically liberated. This was also the time when the Indian diaspora became a lucrative market for Bollywood. As Indians migrated to places across the globe, transnationalism allowed for the creation of a space that synthesised the older ideologies of India with the formation of new identities in foreign lands.

In Chapter Three, the evolution and reshaping of women in Bollywood films

is discussed, from their earlier stereotypical representations to their transformation into autonomous beings. Bhabha’s theory of cultural hybridity is used to shed light on the idea of cultures meeting on neutral ground, a concept that is exhibited in many contemporary Bollywood films. As a result of increasing migration and the splitting up of families, Bollywood filmmakers have been forced to change the basis of their narratives which previously focused on large families sitting around a dinner table and sharing stories about their woes and joys. The contemporary female character must shape her own identity. While this may disrupt the joint family system, it simultaneously opens a world of hybrid possibilities for the creation of a new identity for the Bollywood heroine.

Chapter Four deals with the issue of rape in India and the reasons why it has been linked to the Bollywood industry. According to Hundal (2013), many Bollywood filmmakers have been profiled as fuelling the objectification of women through specific song and dance sequences. The employment of women as eye candy is explored alongside the cultural significance of song and dance sequences within the Bollywood film tradition.

Chapter Five focuses on the dream team—Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar. In a sense, their relationship and success are a symbol of the futility of partition. This chapter also focuses on the role of Johar as an auteur in relation to the various novel and diverse representations in his films. Shah Rukh Khan’s identity in India as a parallel text is explored through the observations of various scholars.

Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight explore Johar’s three films, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, analysing the way Johar develops his ideas about feminism and transnationalism within the contexts of these films. In addition to the representation of women, the undertones of his narratives often allude to the history and legacy of colonialism. These aspects are explored in detail. Finally, the various discussions in the book are concluded.


“This is an impressive study of the aesthetics and social impact of Bollywood on Indian society. It explores the complex synthesis of tradition, culture, religion, patriarchy, nationalism, and gender which shaped this spectacular indigenous cinematic tradition with a growing international and diasporic reach. Ayob sheds light on the history and controversies centered on assertions that patriarchal culture and the subordination of women inscribed in the aesthetics of Bollywood can be linked to the subordination and abuse of women in postcolonial and contemporary India. By investigating the extent to which Bollywood’s aesthetics are embedded in precolonial Indian society and how this has been gradually superseded, Ayob has produced an incisive, nuanced and illuminating study. Her scrupulous attention to detail and incisive application of cinematic and postcolonial cultural and gender theory, framed by family history and personal experience, has resulted in a ground-breaking and highly readable work on popular Indian cinema.”
Andries Walter Oliphant
Professor of Theory of Literature, University of South Africa

“Ayob balances incisive analysis with a refreshingly personal take on Bollywood cinema. She treats these fascinating films as complex texts that both affirm and critique cultural and patriarchal norms, while never losing sight of her own history and identity within the Indian diaspora. Understanding Bollywood serves at once as a useful introduction to the sub-genre, and a repeatedly rewarding deep dive.”
Greg Taylor
Associate Provost and Professor of Cinema Studies, Purchase College, SUNY; Author of Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism

Asma Ayob holds a Master’s degree in Dramatic Art and a PhD in Literature and Philosophy. During her career, she has lectured at Mercy College, Fordham University and the State University of New York (SUNY). Before moving to the US, she held a tenured position in the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature at the University of South Africa (UNISA). She was the first South Asian woman to stage a play at the South African State Theatre. Her background includes experience as founder and producer of developmental theatre, playwright, screenwriter, and script consultant. She has published both feature and academic articles on Bollywood cinema and the Indian diaspora. Her presentations at various international conferences have focused on transnationalism, representations of women in Bollywood films, post-colonial societies, and the impact of auteur theory on social awareness and change.

Understanding Bollywood: A Calling is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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