Bollywood's new dream

Indian cinema has a global future in its sights

Indian cinema is the "world's largest film industry" (in terms of the number of films produced and people employed, though not of its finances) and the home of Bollywood. But probably few New Statesman readers, other than those of south Asian ancestry, will have actually seen one of its films. Yet "Bollywood" became a buzzword during London's "Indian summer" of 2002, where its image of kitsch, song and dance and melodrama was used to market exhibitions, shops and even, occasionally, the cinema itself. The term is regarded as pejorative by many in the Indian film industry but is now here to stay.

Bollywood is part of the mainstream Hindi cinema based in Mumbai, one of many cinemas produced in India, which vary in style (from Bollywood to art house) and language. The 1990s saw certain production houses associated with specific styles: the big budget romance shot in exotic locations with the top stars, was associated with Yash Raj Films headed by the veteran Yash Chopra; while Ram Gopal Varma's company was linked to gangster and realistic genres (1998's Satya) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali emerged with a new visual and musical richness (such as his 2002 remaking of Devdas).

Since 2002, new trends have emerged which may take Indian cinema closer towards its global dream. Bollywood is ignored in some of the world's key markets, notably Europe and North America. This is attributed to form (average running time of three hours, the language, the song and dance, etc) and to problems of exhibition, marketing and the sheer difference in budgets between India and Hollywood (it is commonly said that the budget of a major Hindi film is less than that of a Hollywood trailer). Yet India is booming and the country is highly self-conscious about its role on the world stage. What remains to be seen is which of its films will break through. Producers such as Yash Chopra admit that the day of any film running for many weeks in cinemas throughout India are now over. Changes in technology and lifestyles have all had an impact, as has DVD piracy, while downloads of film music have destroyed a traditional means of financing production.

Astute producers are now tailoring new types of film to the segmented audiences of urban India. These include A-grade, big-budget films, with which they now saturate the world market with prints to pre-empt pirates, relying on the first week's takings. They are experimenting with English language films, and making smaller budget movies specifically for the more upmarket multiplex audiences in the Indian metros. Popular themes are social issues such as aging parents or the transnational Indian. Other producers make B-grade movies, whether specific genres (such as the mythological for rural areas) or in regional languages.

We cannot predict whether any of these Bollywood films will succeed in the west. Some argue that Bollywood needs to adjust more to Hollywood norms However, it seems premature to abandon all the features that make it different. Perhaps some of its core elements, such as music and dance and its emphasis on the family (key to some of the most successful Hollywood films), will lie at the heart of a more complete globalisation.

Four Bollywood movies you must see

Mughal-e Azam (left) 1960, dir K Asif. The Great Mughal, Akbar, and his son, Prince Salim, come into conflict over the Prince's love for the dancing girl Anarkali. The Bollywood view of Indian history with songs, dance, grand speeches, elephant processions, palaces and stars including Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. A gem.

Pakeezah 1971, dir Kamal Amrohi. The story of a courtesan in early 20th-century India, born in a graveyard, who falls in love with a nobleman. An aesthetic delight and a camp classic starring the queen of tragedy, Meena Kumari.

Pyaasa 1957, dir Guru Dutt. The poet's lover rejects him to marry money; his family rejects him for his impracticality. It is only when he is declared dead that his poetry is celebrated and he finds love with a prostitute. Exquisite cinematography and songs mark this as a truly great film.

Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge 1995, dir Aditya Chopra. The story of British Asians who fall in love on a Eurail holiday. Shah Rukh Khan is the favourite star of the British Asian community.

Most of these films should be available through and elsewhere online

Rachel Dwyer is author of 100 Bollywood Films (BFI)