To Hell With Bollywood
For sometime now, the name, term, insignia, label, epithet, tag, title, moniker Bollywood has been residing vicariously in the eye of a storm. Stars, directors and others in the industry — led by the towering inferno Big B and now followed by Bodyguard and Tiger Salman Khan — have complained that the name is a joke, an insult, demonstrating slavish mimicking of an industry that has clearly overtaken, in terms of movie output, eyeballs, glamor, pull, excitement, color, mass attraction — Hollywood. While no alternative name has quite caught the popular imagination, critics argue that Bollywood reflects imitation, which is degrading and needs to be rectified.
A quick flashback on how this name came about is in order. Contrary to popular belief, the term did not emerge out of thin air, the spasmodic working of an underpaid script writer’s over-heated imagination. Rather, it was inspired by Tollywood, which referred to West Bengal cinema way back in — hold your breath guys — 1932! Yup, you heard right! How? Why? Simple. At that time, Kolkata (West Bengal) was the center of Indian cinema with studios booming with activity. This chance juxtaposition of two pairs of rhyming syllables Holly and Tolly (after Tollygunge, where the industry was concentrated) led to the portmanteau Tollywood, which went on to describe cinema of that region, fashionably promoted with verve and style later in the early 1970s by Kolkata’s iconic youth magazine Junior Statesman.
The term Bollywood, reportedly, has its origins in the 1970s when the Indian cinema industry zoomed past Hollywood in productions. Credit for the term has been claimed by different people, including Reliance Entertainment head and ex Bollywood lyricist Amit Khanna and journalist Bevinda Collaco.
The sudden touchiness about the Bollywood name never ever existed in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 1990s, with the exception of occasional objections, which no one took with any seriousness. If anything, Mumbai’s masala film professionals were generally comforted by the idea of actually having a “brand name.” Amitabh Bachchan’s was the first big, booming voice to register protest. His criticism then, as now, was that the name mimicked Hollywood and relegated the industry to “secondary status.” Today, as Bollywood goes global as a major force, it stinks of mockery and Hollywoodian-awe.
Superstar, Tiger Sallu-bhai has joined in with his growl. Cool with Bolly but-un-cool with Wood, he has proposed an interesting alternative— Hi-Fi, which denotes Hindi Film industry. Like Bachchan, he believes that Bollywood is a corny clone and is both insulting and disrespectful to the world’s largest film factory.
Respected film and TV writer Kamlesh Pandey (Kuch Toh Log Kahenge) is equally incensed. He laments that even after 65 years of independence, Indians haven’t lost their slave and colonized mentality, still craving for the white man’s approval. “It is shameful, because Indian cinema today has a persona and character of its own. Shouldn’t we celebrate it with pride and confidence instead of basking in the cheap, derivative, reflected glory in a name clearly mimicking Hollywood and used more as a taunt or mockery than a glorious brand? Shouldn’t we remember that it belongs to a country that scripted the Upanishads and Mahabharat at a time when people in the western world were roaming the jungles searching for an identity? Whatever happened to our sense of values and our national pride?”
Director Rakeysh Mehra (Rang De Basanti) joins the chorus with a different refrain. His resentment stems from the “random application” of the B term tag to movies and directors like him, which has led to a loss of identity. His material, he believes, is different from what Bollywood stands for — music, dance, melodrama, glamor, stars, exotic locales, item numbers — and is therefore misleading and confusing.
So what gives?
Vibha Patil, a 28-year-old Indian-born marketing executive in London and keen follower of Bollywood sides with the Bachchan-Khan-Mehra troika: “These guys are not wrong. We manufacture a kind of product that is deliciously hybrid, totally unique and resonates big time wherever shown. It is also completely different, special, rooted and made-in-India, so it’s high time the patronizing and copycat name Bollywood is slung out and replaced with something that defines the individualistic, colorful dramabazzi stuff we dish out to zonk the world. I am sure Javed Akhtar or Prasoon Joshi, the adman, will be able to coin a term that blends the best masala with the best of mainstream cinema-something unapologetically commercial, escapist and fun.”
Film scholar, historian and critic Rauf Ahmed confesses that he is confused by the fuss: “I remember Southern Superstar Kamal Hasan and later Amitabh Bachchan voicing protests years ago; the issue also came up at a film seminar and now, a chorus of people joining this scrap-the-Bollywood-term movement… what can I say? While I agree theoretically with Kamal and Amitabh that it does sound copy-cat and country cousin-ish and therefore, perhaps presents a poor picture of our gigantic film industry, these are occupational hazards and come with the territory. We live in a world of short-cuts, nicknames and slangs. Are Bebo, Kat, Piggy Chops, Dips or Bips fab tags to replace Kareena, Katrina, Priyanka, Deepika and Bipasha? They’ve caught and rocked public imagination so today, across the world, all B-town fans recognize and place these names like a shot. Same with Bollywood. I don’t think value-judgment comes into play or counts. The name Bollywood is far too popular to risk or demand re-christening.”
Ad-film maker Pralhad Kakkar also refuses to play footsie: “The name perfectly defines, describes and reflects the industry. It is a greedy, arrogant, pretentious, over-the-top, over-paid, under-talented industry forever ripping off Hollywood material and pretending it’s theirs, They got away with it in earlier times because there was no TV or exposure to global cinema. Also the Hollywood honchos reckoned it would too troublesome to take these bozos to court… so they had a ball. Today, they dare not do that and so are sheepishly buying rights for re-makes, about which the less said the better!”
Kakkar laughs off the great righteous indignation expressed by Indian movie stalwarts and invites them to have a long hard look at the mirror. “The good stuff that is coming out like Wasseypur or Shanghai, Kahaani or Pan Singh doesn’t have that label. They belong to parallel/alternative cinema. It’s all typical filmy bullshit and doesn’t deserve any notice. It’s the perfect brand-name… a desperate imitative, pretentious wannabe!!”
While Amit Khanna hurriedly dismisses the issue as a “non-issue fronted by bit-players like Mehra,” hi-profile TV producer Siddharth Basu (Kaun Banega Crorepati) is more measured in his response: “Today the name Bollywood, for better or worse, reflects a brand of entertainment — (glossy, star-driven etc.) and resonates being-on with their fans and all interested or curious about Indian cinema. We are stuck with it and I can’t see another name replacing it in a hurry although Salman’s Hi-fi sounds interesting!”
Film critic Saibal Chatterjee find the hulabaloo over the term a storm in a tea-cup, much ado about nothing and emerging from a deep-rooted complex involving the issue of respectability. “Even since these guys hit the volume market, global — read diaspora — space and Rs. 100 crore club phenomenon, they’ve been walking on cloud 99. However, in the international scene, they are pygmies with smaller nations racing past them in the quality cinema and prestige slot. Kakkar is right. As you sow, so shall you reap. They still, in their heart-of-hearts, aspire to be like Bollywood, but have neither their focus, discipline, sense of respect and humility for their craft or fellow professionals and keep throwing attitude and churning out stuff that reeks of Tarantino, Coppola, Scorsese and gang!”
Chatterjee offers another riveting observation: “Interestingly the guys doing non-Bollywood type movies — Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee — are not concerned or interested with labels and continue to do their own thing. It’s, ironically the superstars who define masala fare, (typical Bollywood stuff) who seem to be most agitated! They should chill and be grateful they have a ready made brand name to hawk their wares in the market.”
Film Historian Rafique Baghdadi begs to differ. The veteran Mumbai-ite and chronicler of its commercial cinema believes the tag does the film industry injustice. “Some guy at some point may have tossed out this name and the press, on cue, put it on a trapeze, swung it high and it stuck! For me it’s both lazy and frivolous baptism by whoever the person was and equally lazily accepted and consumed by the who cares and chalta hai public! Just because we are stuck with it, doesn’t make it okay.”
Respected brand consultant Anand Halve is uncomfortable with the term as well: “Anything that is derivative reflects an active and conscious denial of identity and a cloying desperation to hit the wannabe button. Be it the B word, the hysterically ludicrous call-center accent, the Indian-born tag to people who have struck gold abroad.… It comes from a deep-rooted complex that demonstrates zero confidence or pride regarding self-worth. Very, very regressive and negative. Both Amit and Salman are spot-on. Time to get rid of this albatross fast, if possible. What better time than now?”
Veteran, dazzling hunk and global star Kabir Bedi, however, is unconvinced and dismissive the hand-wringing: “Look Bollywood is a done deal and as a brand is globally known, acknowledged and respected. This secondary-status stuff may have occurred early on, but today even Hollywood recognizes its presence, its enormous mass-appeal and its quirky, colorful, song-dance, melodramatic template that is so uniquely Indian. No wonder so many biggies indicate interest to come on board and associate with it. They are also aware of other streams of cinema coming out of this label, which are different in form and content and story telling.”
Bedi believes it’s both silly and dangerous to tinker with an established, strong brand like Bollywood and insists that while everyone is entitled to their opinion (“it’s a free country, buddy!”) it’s hardly an issue that threatens the pride, prestige and solidarity of either the film industry or the nation, that critics make it out to be.
But for the eminent veteran father of India’s new wave cinema, Shyam Benegal, the problem lies elsewhere. “I have no quarrels with the name Bollywood per se, because by accident or design, the name has stuck and defines Mumbai’s commercial mainstream cinema quite appropriately,” he says. Benegal’s objection is over the term Bollywood being made out to mean, signify and symbolize Indian cinema to the western world, which, he insists, is totally inaccurate, false and untrue. The problem, he says, is that it lumps Kahani, Vicky Donor, Ishqzade, Shanghai, Wassypur, as well as all regional cinema, under one label.
Too bad, says veteran theater and ad guru Alyque Padamsee, arguing that brand-building doesn’t happen over-night, but is created, nurtured and powered into the popular imagination over time and frequency. “It would be a disaster to fool around with it. A classic case in point is the name change from Bombay to Mumbai! Whether the change in brand name has done an iota of good is best left unsaid.”
Santosh Desai, chief executive officer Futurebrands India asserts that the Indian film industry is better served by reclaiming the word than burying it: “Brand Bollywood is a reality and reflects brand values that are special, exclusive, different and resonates brilliantly in many parts of the world. The critical point to address is: since it has taken on a distinct life on its own and since a serious viable alternative tag is not yet anywhere around it’s crucial to infuse new nuance and meaning to this term to make it more edgy, exciting and layered.”