Indian summer

Amitabh Bachchan has finally been honoured by the British film industry. He talks about Hindi cinema

There are very few men who look acceptable in a dark red velvet jacket, embroidered silk shirt and extravagantly monogrammed carpet slippers, but somehow it is difficult to imagine the very regal Amitabh Bachchan wearing anything else. His long face is dramatically framed by jet black hair and a silvery beard, and his speech is peppered with elegant, slightly quaint-sounding words. During our interview, minions scurry in bringing him tea, biscuits and fruit salad, to be dismissed with an imperious wave.

My Hindi film knowledge not being what it should, I had never heard of Bachchan before the interview was arranged. More fool me, as he is in fact the most famous person I have ever met. He has featured in over 160 films, most famously, during the 1970s, as a new type of anti-establishment character that became known as the "angry young man". In more recent years he has become a godfather figure in the Indian film industry; his son, Abhishek, is married to the actress Aishwarya Rai, and Bachchan himself has continued to make films and until recently presented the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

On the subcontinent, Bachchan's status is apparently approaching that of a minor deity. When he fell ill with intestinal problems in 2005, there were reports of fans fasting and making pilgrimages across the country carrying healing water from the Ganges. TV crews kept a 24-hour vigil at the hospital and the Times of India received 10,634 text messages and 12,888 voicemails from their readers wishing him a quick recovery. The Indian diaspora have made him a global star: in a BBC online poll in 1999, he beat Laurence Olivier to be voted "the greatest star of stage or screen of the last 1,000 years".

That he is not more widely known in Britain is a mark of how removed Indian cinema has been from "mainstream" western audiences. But that now seems to be changing rapidly; the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards were held in Yorkshire, in June, and received substantial coverage across the national press. Since her appearance on Big Brother, the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty has become a household name in the UK. And the week I meet Bachchan, he is in London to attend a weekend of talks and screenings organised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) celebrating him as a "Screen Icon".

He sees this as evidence of a long-awaited breakthrough for the Indian film industry. "It is all finally happening," he says. "Bafta is a very respected organisation and it is British. For them to be recognising something that is coming out of India means that they are giving it a respectability and a dignity that I have always believed we deserve." The way in which Hindi films have been received by the outside world has clearly been a source of frustration to him. "Indian cinema was initially treated with a lot of cynicism and criticism because of its content and the fact that it lacked in quality what people in the western world were used to. We were limited by funds, by technological input - by many things other than talent, which we have always had."

This condescending attitude is encapsulated in the term "Bollywood", to which Bachchan politely but firmly objects. "I don't like it. I describe it as the Hindi film industry or the Indian film industry. Why call it something derived from a western name? Somehow I feel it is a little degrading. It has now found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, so it's going to be there for eternity now."

Unfortunately perhaps, the surge of interest in Indian film is motivated more by political and economic agendas than it is by the cinema-going public. "When a country does well economically, everything else about it starts getting noticed," says Bachchan. "Whether that is cinema, or food, or business." India is now the biggest investor in the UK after the US. The Indian film industry alone contributes £200m to the UK economy each year through filming, distributing and exhibiting in this country, and the UK is one of its largest box-office revenue generators outside India. The IIFA event in Sheffield was screened to a global TV audience of 315 million, giving the Yorkshire Tourist Board the opportunity to promote the region as a film location and tourist destination. A less well-publicised Global Business Forum ran alongside the glitz and glamour of the awards, in which Indian companies were encouraged to invest in British businesses, including those providing "clean energy".

Gordon Brown was instrumental in bringing the IIFA awards to Yorkshire and met Bachchan on two separate occasions. Bachchan describes our new prime minister approvingly as "very straight, very humble, very sincere", and explains with some pride that his meetings with Brown led to Indian delegates becoming involved in events such as cricket matches and fashion shows supporting Oxfam and local charities. The subtext of this, of course, is that it was not so long ago that such local charities would have seen India as a worthy cause.

Whether Indian films could genuinely reach out to a "mainstream" audience weaned on Hollywood blockbusters, however, is another matter. As Bachchan is the first to admit, cinematic culture on the subcontinent differs in major respects from that of the western world. Hindi films can be up to four hours long and still tend to be primarily escapist epics, shot in exotic locations around the world. In recent years, there have been frequent attempts to make films that appeal to a more diverse audience: Bachchan's 2005 picture Black, for example, was a disturbing story about the relationship between a deaf, mute and blind girl and her teacher. Like the 2006 film Rang De Basanti, which stars the British actress Alice Patten, it had first-class production values, was only two hours long and largely in English.

Bachchan insists, however, that Indian films will always be aimed primarily at a domestic audience. "Our films are made for India, for that common man who lives in substandard conditions, who is unable to have the kind of money that would enable him to live a comfortable life. At the end of his hard day's work, he wants to come and escape into a world of fantasy, which is what he finds in a Hindi film. So we need to look after him."

Is there a danger, I ask, with the opportunities for cash and prestige in the international market, that this traditional audience gets left behind? "I don't think so. Our biggest market is still India. In the recent past I think that audiences in India have matured greatly. They are wanting to see different kinds of films, not just the escapist, popularist fare that we have been known for."

He emphasises that Hindi films have always had to bridge cultural gaps, if not between India and the west, then within India itself. "Tamil Nadu is different to Bengal, Bengal is different to Delhi. This is one product which appeals across all these cultures and languages - and now a lot of attention is paid to the overseas audience as well. It is a process, I believe, but I don't think it will ever reach a point where we forget our core audiences."

This also extends to the values traditionally espoused by Hindi films. "We never want to digress beyond our cultural ethos. We have very strong emotional ties within families and we take a lot of pride in that. Every Indian male has a desire that the moment he stands on his own feet he must look after his parents - that is something totally alien to western culture. So we always propagate that in our films." Does cinema have a responsibility to promote a more progressive society, too? "Every film culture in the world looks at the failings of that particular society. The US is obsessed with the black issue and they have made several films addressing this problem." He says that Hindi cinema has been proactive in addressing "failings" in Indian society, such as sati (the practice of self-immolation by widows), untouchability and religious conflict.

"I believe that the Indian film industry is the epitome of great national integration. When you are sitting in this darkened hall watching a Hindi movie you are not bothered whether the guy sitting next to you is Hindu or Muslim, black or white, or anything else - you just laugh at the same jokes, cry at the same emotion. Many of our actors set an example for tolerance and understanding. Muslim stars use Hindi names, there are intercaste marriages - Shahrukh Khan is married to a Hindu and there are no objections to it at all. We are very happy with the way we conduct ourselves."

Born to a famous Hindi poet, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, in the city of Allahabad.
1969 Secured his first part in the film Saat Hindustani, with the help of a letter of introduction from the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
1973 With 11 films already completed, he became Bollywood's first action man with Zanjeer.
1975 A golden year, with no less than seven blockbuster films, including Chupke Chupke and the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, Sholay.
1985 Became Allahabad MP as a favour to his family friend, Rajiv Gandhi, only to step down because of financial irregularities. He was later cleared, but said that going into politics had been "a mistake".
1988 With the flop Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, his career took a downturn which would last until the late 1990s.
2000 His comeback got under way with the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Became the first Indian film actor to have a wax model at Madame Tussauds in London.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins