Indian films only mean Bollywood


Dr. Alexandra Schneider

Dr. Alexandra Schneider is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She has authored several academic publications on Indian cinema.

Filmmaking in the slipstream of Bollywood is diverse

Since the Bollywood fever of recent years, hardly anyone in Europe has any doubts that cinema plays an important role in modern Indian society. Little is known, however, about the diversity of cinematic work beyond Bollywood. In addition, there is the increasing internationalization of film production in India.

The Indian movie "Slumdog Millionaire" won the Oscar for best feature film in 2009. (& copy AP)

"The cinema is our second, in some cases even our first religion," says Indian photographer Dayanita Singh. And since the Bollywood fever of the last few years at the latest, hardly anyone in Europe has doubts that cinema plays an important role in modern Indian society. Perhaps not without good reason, people in India reacted to the Western "discovery" of Bollywood with a certain skepticism, especially in intellectual circles.

The following text tries to differentiate the image of Indian cinema by sketching a film-cultural and economic map of current production. Bollywood cinema appears on this map, but also independent auteur films, the digitization of cinema and the squinting of the growing Asian film market.

Films in 39 of the 40 most important national languages

Indian commercial cinema is the most productive in the world by the number of films it produces. Depending on the vintage and counting method, between 1000 and 1200 films are made in India per year, which is roughly double the output of Hollywood or all European countries combined. Bollywood, the commercial Hindi cinema that is produced to a large extent in and around Mumbai (formerly Bombay), does not, contrary to popular belief, account for the largest share of the country's film output.

In fact, most of the films are shot in South India, in Andhra Pradesh and its capital Hyderabad in the Telugu language and in Tamil Nadu with the capital Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil. There are smaller production facilities in almost all parts of the country. Overall, films are made in India in 39 of the country's 40 major languages. Instead of one one should therefore speak of the many cinemas in India.

In the last few years in particular, there has been an increasing regionalization of cinema cultures, which is noticeable not least in the declining proportion of Hindi films. Indian companies such as Eros and Reliance Entertainment are investing much more heavily in regional markets, especially in Tollywood (Hyderabad) or Kollywood (Chennai). The flow of money to regional productions is favored and strengthened by the so-called entertainment tax, from which films in the respective regional languages ​​Maharati and Tamil are exempt in the states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Attracted by this tax break, American media groups such as Fox and Disney are now also investing in Indian regional productions.

But it is not just the Western perception that does not do justice to the diversity of Indian film production. The appreciation of regional film productions is also a point of contention within India. This is particularly evident in the distribution of commercial films abroad. In 2000 the industry established the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA), which has the task of supporting Indian filmmaking abroad. Time and again, the IIFA is confronted with accusations from South Indian filmmakers who feel they have not been given sufficient attention - a lawsuit that is all the more understandable when you consider that many Hindi blockbusters are remakes of films that are initially in Tamil, Telugu or the Malayalam spoken in Kerala.

This neglect is undoubtedly also due to the outstanding economic importance of the commercial Hindi cinema, which in India and in the overseas markets achieves the best box office results of all Indian film productions. Unlike the South Indian films, Bollywood productions are shown in cinemas in almost all parts of the country and language regions and are rented and sold on video and DVD. It is no coincidence that the poet and screenwriter Javed Akthar called Hindi cinema an "additional imaginary part of the Indian republic".

The heyday of romantic family melodramas

The outstanding position of Hindi film is not only for economic reasons. Commercial films are the products of a specific industrial regime. But they are also products of a particular culture and society, and they reflect - however indirectly - the time in which they were created. This is particularly true of the commercial Hindi film, which has repeatedly played an important role in the post-colonial history of India in terms of identity politics. A film like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) deals with the transition from a feudal rural to a democratic society on the threshold of industrialization. Hindi films owe their success, seen in this way, to the fact that they - as is also the case with other popular film traditions - repeatedly negotiate virulent social conflicts in a manner that is as accessible to all social groups as possible.

Commercial Hindi films have been exported to over 100 countries since the 1930s. They are all products of an indigenous industry that arose before independence and made a contribution to its fight that should not be underestimated. Important sales markets are the former Soviet Union, Turkey, the African continent, Arab and increasingly also East Asian countries.

Growing influence of multiplex cinemas

The cinema audience in India itself is also changing. The economic liberalization in the 1990s has led to the emergence of a new middle class, which prefers to frequent the numerous new multiplex cinemas, which are mainly being built in the urban conurbations. Although these only make up around 15 percent of all theaters, they generate around a third of theatrical sales. The differentiation of the market allows the film industry a stronger segmentation of the audience and accordingly a stronger focus of the production on specific target groups.

At the same time, foreign indians have or Non Resident Indians (NRI), which make up the most important audience group for Indian films abroad, as well as the new urban multiplex audience in recent years also indirectly created space for a revitalization of regional film production, especially in northern India. Commercial Hindi films are no longer produced for the largest possible film audience, but are increasingly aimed at a wealthy, urban niche audience. And with the preferred filming of topics about NRI, the producers even accept that rural audiences in northern India will turn away from these films.

One consequence of this is the renaissance of the Bhojpuri film industry, which is making films in the regional language of the same name in the heavily rural eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand - an area that used to be part of Bollywood cinema. Once ridiculed as the "poor cousin of Bollywood", the recent successes of Bhojpuri films are also astonishing the industry in Mumbai. The films usually tie in with the old Bollywood success formula of a clearly distinguishing good and bad, melodramatically presented plot in which family and moral values ​​play a central role.

Diverse, independent, non-commercial filmmaking

In addition to the multilingual and diverse commercial cinema, there is a diverse, independent, non-commercial filmmaking in India, which can be seen as parallel, art or Middle-of-the-road cinema referred to as. Like commercial filmmaking, independent filmmaking knows different regional centers. Most important is certainly Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the hometown of the two Bengali directors Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who for a long time represented Indian cinema more or less alone for the West.

In the 50s and 60s, films were made here that differ significantly from the universalism of commercial productions. Stories and modes of representation were sought that are more directly and more directly connected to the problems of Indian reality than is usually the case in entertainment cinema. In the 1970s, author and entertainment cinema converged when various actors and directors in independent cinema began working on major entertainment films (such as actresses Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil). They were motivated not least by the desire to reach a larger audience than the audience of the film clubs, in which the films of art cinema were predominantly.

While the term "parallel cinema" has become established for the uncompromising auteur films by Ray or Ghatak, the label Middle-of-the-Road or Mittelweg-Kino describes the work of directors such as Shyam Benegal, who is in Zubeida (2001) also worked with the stars of commercial Hindi cinema. In the last few years the fear of contact between middle ground cinema and commercial mainstream has diminished in both directions. For example, the so-called New Bollywood cinema, which was not least able to develop with the emergence of multiplex cinemas, for its part seeks the formal and content-related confrontation with what was originally considered art cinema. Examples are around Maqbool by Vishal Bharadwaj (2003) or My brother Nikhil von Onir (2005), the first mainstream film on the subject of HIV / AIDS, or now Lunch box by Ritesh Batra (2013, a co-production with Germany and France). While these films did not become big box office hits, their success with critics and niche audiences was still considerable.

In this context, the South Indian director Mani Ratnam, who has been working continuously for many years, should also be mentioned, who in many ways represents an exceptional figure in contemporary Indian filmmaking. Like no other, Ratnam has in recent years understood how to work in a thematically and aesthetically innovative way within the conventions of commercial film traditions. Many of his South Indian films have also been reissued as Hindi remakes, some of them under his direction.

Act globally, consume locally

The year 2013 marked the centenary of film production in India: 1913 was marked with Raja Harishchandra Produced the first full-length Indian feature film under the direction of Dadasaheb Phalke. The anniversary became the occasion for many celebrations and retrospectives - also at the Cannes Film Festival, where India was present as a special guest and celebrated an important international success with Ritesh Batra with his debut Lunchbox.

If you take Cannes as a yardstick for the European perception of Indian filmmaking, then you will also notice Lunch box possibly a new era. From an Indian point of view, Cannes was the decisive factor in the fact that the European gaze had mainly focused on Bollywood for the past ten years, the red carpet for the film since 2002 Devdas (beyond the competition) had been rolled out.

That Lunch box by Paramount Pictures, one of the major Hollywood studios, was sent to the global exploitation track, is not surprising given the growing interest of Hollywood in the Indian cinema market. More and more Hollywood companies are investing in the Indian market. According to the US industry journal Hollywood Reporter, Fox Star Studies India, a subsidiary of 20th Century-Fox, plans to bring no fewer than 28 films to theaters in India in 2014.

Although the market share of American films in India is growing steadily, the numbers are still modest by international standards. While Hollywood has a market share of more than 50 percent in most European countries, it is still only around 10 percent in India. Hollywood is trying to expand its presence in India with direct investments, but also with an increased presence of stars. In 2013, not only were Steven Spielberg and Robert de Niro guests of the Indian film industry, Snoop Dog and Sharon Stone also paid a visit to the Indian subcontinent - primarily, of course, to raise awareness of American entertainment in the rapidly growing Indian media market.

As Hollywood seeks to expand its position in India, Indian media companies are investing more and more in the American entertainment industry. Reliance Entertainment holds shares in Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. In addition, the company has been operating the video-on-demand platform BigFlix, an Indian counterpart to Netflix, since 2012.

Advancing digitization and piracy

Apart from the efforts to open up new production and sales markets, the global film industry is going through a profound structural change with increasing digitization. In India, too, the transition from analog film copies to digital projection is making rapid progress, especially in multiplex cinemas.

The question of so-called piracy is becoming increasingly explosive in the context of the advancing digitization of production and distribution. The American producers' association MPAA claims that the Indian film industry lost around one billion dollars in revenue through illegal film viewing in 2012 alone. A figure that should be treated with caution, as American studios, in their own interest, like to exaggerate the damage caused by the informal circulation of digital copies and seek their salvation in a long since questionable criminalization of end users.

The main reason for the piracy of Hollywood films in India is anyway less in the criminal mentality of the end users than in the pricing policy of the studios. Converting the purchase price for a DVD of an American film in India, a DVD in the US would have to cost $ 641 instead of $ 24 if it was as expensive as it is for an average Indian based on the cost of living index in India .

There is no question that the Indian film industry, like Hollywood, is developing more and more from a cinema industry to a copyright industry, i.e. an industry that generates its income from the management of copyrights on a large number of distribution platforms. This can be seen not least in the massive increase in legal proceedings in connection with author and reproduction rights of Indian film productions.

Increasing focus on the Asian market

The most important recent trend in the Indian film industries is their increasing focus on foreign markets in Asia. A look at a study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) published in 2013 under the title Emerging Markets and the Digitalization of the Film Industry was published, gives an insight into the background. With 1,255 titles in 2011, India still ranks first among the countries with independent film production. However, the annual output has decreased slightly since 2008, while in the People's Republic of China the number of film titles produced has more than doubled since 2005. If you then look at the sales generated at the box office, a similar picture emerges: China is the big winner among the so-called BRIC countries. It is assumed that the Chinese film industry will have overtaken the USA in terms of sales by 2020.

There are similar growth prospects in the populous states of Southeast Asia. Indian films and primarily Hindi films are particularly popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, but are also widely used in the informal sector of the highly regulated Chinese cinema market, which is officially difficult to access for foreign productions. In order to circumvent the quota on the Chinese market, Indian producers are increasingly trying to get co-production contracts with China.

These efforts are accompanied by accompanying cultural diplomatic measures. Zhang Yimou, the most important director of the so-called fifth generation of Chinese cinema, was honored for his life's work in Mumbai in 2012, while the Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan opened the Delhi Film Festival in 2013 and China will be the guest country at the Goa Film Festival in 2014. It almost seems as if the producers and festival organizers have taken to heart a sentence by the influential film critic Meenakshi Shedde from 2013: "Indian film should be oriented towards the Far East." (Indian films should now look to the far east.)


In summary, it can be said that there is still a big difference between commercial and non-commercial film traditions in India in terms of aspiration, production conditions and commercial success. At the same time, however, in recent years - as in many other places in the world - an aesthetic and thematic convergence of the two supposedly separate traditions has taken place.

The big question for the future is how long Indian films will manage to claim 90 percent of the home market for themselves. The diversity of filmmaking as a whole depends to a large extent on the strength of popular productions in Germany, as other forms of cinematic work thrive in the slipstream of commercial cinema.

The more the purchasing power of the middle class increases and the more expensive the tickets in the multiplex cinemas of the big cities become, the more interesting India becomes as a market for them Global players, especially for Hollywood. On the other hand, foreign suppliers of consumer products on the subcontinent have repeatedly found that they fall short of their expectations. It seems as if people in India like to act globally, but prefer to consume locally. This obviously also applies - and continues to apply - to the cinema.


Publications by the author on Indian cinema

"Bollywood. Indian Cinema and Switzerland" (Zurich: Museum für Gestaltung 2002)

"Import / Export. Cultural Exchange between India, Germany and Austria" (Berlin: Parthas 2005)

"Transmission Image. Visual Translation and Cultural Agency" (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009)