Bollywood Goes To School

Bollywood Is Getting Some Respect

But things are slowly changing. Even as Bollywood tries to make a splash abroad in places like Cannes (65 films in this year’s Cannes Film Market) or in the UK (BAFTA held a 3-day long celebration of Bollywood cinema), it is making waves of a different kind at home.

In April, India’s Central Board of Secondary Education, the country’s premier educational body, announced the inclusion of Sholay (Embers; 1975), one of India’s beloved blockbusters, in its school textbooks. Ramesh Sippy’s multi-starrer Sholay, featuring the ageless superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been added to a course workbook, published by Oxford University Press, for Class V students.

This is a historic development both for the schools and the Indian film industry. With its inclusion in textbooks, Sholay becomes the first Indian film to be taught in the country’s schools.

Sholay is a vaudeville of two outlaws (played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) hired by an honest police officer to nab a dreaded dacoit, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Sholay has been loved by generations of Indians and enjoys the distinction of being India’s first biryani Western. It has been the highest grosser of all time (over $50 million) on the Indian box office.

Recognizing cinema as an integral part of Indian culture, the Indian educational establishment have reasoned that the inclusion of this film in school curriculum will make children aware of the prominence of the Indian film industry and the multicultural ethos of Indian society.

This innovative use of Bollywood films does not extend to school children alone. Some 50,000 school teachers in Delhi are also set to get a powerful dose of Hindi cinema. Two recent blockbusters, Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and Rang De Basanti (2006), are being used for teachers’ training in the capital. Set in the backdrop of India’s contemporary education system, both films have resonated well with audiences.While Munnabhai MBBS is about a gangster trying to get a medical degree to impress his father (also being remade in Hollywood by filmmaker Mira Nair as Gangsta M.D.), Rang De Basanti is a clarion call for today’s youth to rise up and free India of corruption.

Bollywood films made the business school and seminar circuit in India severeal years ago. In 2002, two maverick Indian economists, Bibek Debroy and Amir Ullah Khan, made a documentary, India’s Economic Transition Through Bollywood Eyes. They showed India’s political, economic and legislative milestones through film clips gleaned from scores of Indian films released in the last 50 years. The film was shown to economics and management school students across India,w ho were amused to see how cinema, a medium of entertainment, could be used to teach a cut-and-dried subject like economics. One year later, the duo took the same approach to highlight the travails of marginal farmers in India through another documentary- Village Vignettes  (Agriculture and the Small Farmers in India-A Bollywood Perspective). The documentary was distributed on compact discs by a Delhi-based non-profit, International Development Enterprises.

In 1996, while taking a break from writing his dissertation at Cornell University, Dr. Brij Kothari hit upon the idea of leveraging Bollywood’s educational value outside the classroom. He is using the “Same-Language-Subtitles” (SLS) technology to spread literacy in India, with the help of an unlikely ally, Google. The idea that Bollywood films could really help in the spread of literarcy convinced Google to fund Dr. Kothari’s unique venture in India, titled Planet Read.

Planet Read, active in Mumbai and Pondicherry, uses the SLS methodology  that provides “automatic reading practice to individuals who are excluded from the traditional educational system, or whose literacy needs are otherwise not being met.” Planet Read subtitles Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu videos, film and folk songs for reading development of poor kids. Dr. Kothari’s potential targets are the 40% of the 500 million Indians who have access to TV, but have low literacy skills and are poor. He claims that through Planet Read’s approach, over 200 million early-literates in India are getting weekly reading practice from SLS methodology using TV. It is a low cost intervention wherein every U.S. dollar covers regular reading for an amazing 10,000 people – for a year.


The enthusiasm to learn from Bollywood, it seems, is crossing international borders. In July, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gave a big nod to Bollywood cinema by holding a 3-day special celebration of contemporary Bollywood cinema, called Bafta Goes Bollywood. The festival showcased contemporary Bollywood gems such as Devdas, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Veer Zaara, Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti and Fanaa.

Recently, the De Montfort University at Leicester conferred a doctorate on Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bachchan, for his contribution to India cinema. It is Bachchan’s second. He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Jhansi University in Uttar Pradesh last year and is to receive a third later this year from Delhi University.

Even American Ivy League institutions like Harvard and MIT are studying Bollywood. Three MIT graduate students created “BollySpace: An Interactive Dance Technology Project., which uses music and themes from Bollywod film with live dancers who interact with digital images projected on a screen. According to the creators, this was the first time this type of interactive dance had been paired with elements from non-Western popular culture.

In July, Rakesh Roshan’s superhero blockbuster Krrish made its way to the hallowed precincts of Harvard University. It became the first Indian movie to be used for an international-level case study by the Indian Institute of Management in collaboration with the Asia Case Research Centre, University of Hong Kong and Harvard Business Case Clearance House. The film will be taught in IIMs as well as in Business Schools across Europe, Asia and Latin and North America.  The film’s producer and director Rakesh Roashan, remarked, “This news has given me a bigger high than even the box office collections of Krrish.”

Leveraging Bollywood, a lowbrow Indian obsession, for academic, social and educational objectives, has got to feel uplifting.

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