I both love and hate Bollywood.
I get asked how I feel about Bollywood enough to have that kind of vague, but also strong, answer. This is really based on a lot of generalizations, but I’m not exactly a person who has moderate feelings on any subject.
I love Bollywood because it’s a part of my childhood. I was even kind of named after a Bollywood actress (thanks for that way too high bar, parents). Bollywood conjures up songs that I will always associate with my dad’s off-key singing and often embarrassing dancing (that I secretly loved). It’s everyone in my family trekking out to see Dilwale Dulhuniya Le Jayenge multiple times in theaters, as it was one of the first major Bollywood movies to be distributed in the US. It’s weekends at my grandmother’s apartment in Queens that also included my dad’s brief trips to Guyanese-owned bakeries and video stores for the newest video compilations of the latest Bollywood hits.
I hate Bollywood because growing up, it was exactly the thing that separated me from my peers. Most of my friends went to the movies to see mainstream Hollywood movies. While I did get a healthy dose of Disney and other kids’ movies (thanks to peer pressure that turned into pressure on my family to take us to the movies) this was heavily supplemented by Bollywood. My primary film idols of the 90s were Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, even though I had a general awareness of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Those same song compilation videos were on at every possible opportunity, and it’s probably a significant reason why my brother and I didn’t have school friends over until we loudly protested against the videos and hid them away from visitors.
Bollywood was were I first saw the power of representation. It was the first place I saw women that looked more like me and who were considered desirable and beautiful. They weren’t just one off characters who had two lines and then were never seen again like in most Hollywood TV shows and movies. In fact, there were decades of stars whose roles and histories overlapped and influenced each other, rather than just appearing as a diversity novelty, which is often the case in Hollywood.
These women had varied and eclectic personas and appeared in many movies. While it’s true that a significant portion of Bollywood actresses ended their careers with their marriages or *gasp,* their aging, it’s not entirely different from the career trajectory of most Hollywood actresses.
It’s not mainstream and it’s not the norm to be a brown woman in the US watching Bollywood. It’s a failure to assimilate. It’s a failure to fit in. It’s a continual marking of otherness. There was also the otherness between myself and those women, as I was not Indian, but rather Indo-Caribbean, and I often wondered how much that changed my understanding of Bollywood. I was also ultimately American, which added yet another degree of separation. I didn’t speak Hindi outside of often repeated phrases in those movies. While I was thrilled to see women who looked like me, how much did it matter if they weren’t in the same context I was?
I can’t claim to be an expert in Bollywood. Most of my knowledge comes from Sunday mornings watching Bollywood song countdowns on local access TV. It comes from parents and grandparents passing down their favorite movies and songs. It comes from every holiday and family gathering being spent with those compilations playing on the TV while dinner is being served, and school days are being recapped, and laughter is getting louder. It comes from going to big Bollywood concert tours, where the actors would perform their most famous dance routines on a stage in a packed stadium, which in retrospect is entirely ridiculous because they are ultimately still lip syncing. (Then again, people pay to see Britney Spears in Vegas, so what do I know?) My knowledge of Bollywood is spending my early teens trying to learn this dance routine with cousins, even though watching this video now makes me hate early 2000s fashion with such a fiery passion, I can’t even finish it.
Seriously, that was so terrible.
All of this still doesn’t begin to unpack the over 100 years of history Bollywood has. As an adult, I can begin to still question the ways in which Bollywood and film history in general continues to overwhelm and interest me. I want to know more about the development of a standardized Hindi for mainstream Bollywood movies in a country with many regional dialects and languages. I want to know if the lighting and coloring techniques used in mostly white Hollywood are entirely dismissed for the use on brown bodies. I want to know how a colonial history still influences Indian nationalism in films, especially as they attempt to reach a global market. I want to know how immigration by Indians to other countries influenced the spread of Bollywood. I want to know more about how the “item number” became a thing. I want to see a cross comparison of the Barrymore and Kapoor acting dynasties.
I know I’m not alone in my complicated relationship with Bollywood. Many other people within the Indian diaspora have complicated relationships with Bollywood, some abandoning the entire film history, and some fully embracing it.
How do I ultimately feel about Bollywood? I honestly don’t really know. I am still unpacking my sadness and resentment and joy and other complicated feelings stemming from both my identity and my exposure to Bollywood. However, since most people associate Bollywood with big dance numbers, I leave you with the most badass thing I saw as a kid, which is this scene from 1975’s Sholay, where Hema Malini dances on glass in the most dramatic amazing thing ever. You’re welcome.