How the history of Bollywood tells the story of the changing relationship between India and its diaspora

A 30-year history of Bollywood, Britain, and the Bellevue Cinema, Edgware.

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As the end of the 1995 summer holidays neared, and an almost unprecedented heat wave raged, a small corner of London at the top of the Northern Line lay blissfully unaware of the ongoing Oasis vs Blur chart battle: a Bollywood film had just been released, and everyone had to see it.

My family who lived in north Wales had driven all the way to our home in Edgware just to visit the local Bellevue cinema. The evening began at Sakonis for ritualistic dosas and chilli paneer, before we crossed the road with smuggled samosas and half the Asian population of north London to watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

The film, popularly known as DDLJ, broke box office records upon its release. It’s the story of a girl-next-door from Hounslow, her Eton-esque, privately educated, intensely spoiled boyfriend whom she meets inter-railing, and her dad, a cornershop owner who feeds pigeons in Trafalgar Square before somehow walking back to Hounslow every day. The story was familiar and relatable to an entire generation of British Asians who, at that point, had been largely neglected by British media.

In 1995, remember, Goodness Gracious Me hadn’t yet aired, “Brimful of Asha” hadn’t been released, and Gwen Stefani was still on the cusp of discovering the bindi. Asian communities were integrating, but still separate. Our stories were only available at small, grotty Asian cinemas in suburban towns, which sold samosas alongside popcorn.

These cinemas were our community centres: my family and I went to Bellevue nearly every Saturday to watch whichever terrible film had been released that week. The staff there became our aunties and uncles, allowing us to enter late or switch screens when a film moved on to an action-orientated second half. The bathroom stalls of the Bellevue were graffitied with long poems, teaching five-year-old me about the consequences of broken condoms. While my friends grew up idolising Disney princesses, Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit were my damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by short, awkwardly dancing heroes. My brother and I memorised the dialogues of “super flops”, films that very few people in India went to watch. Thanks to a childhood at Bellevue, we have a near encyclopaedic knowledge of ‘90s Bollywood film, but one unique to the Edgware high street.

The success of DDLJ amazed Indian producers. Worldwide box office takings came to $4.8m – a huge figure in 1995 for a movie from a developing country with a weak currency – and the film started a trend of stories to tap in to international markets.

Bollywood began to tell stories of rich diaspora Asians with lavish lifestyles. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) became the pinnacle of this British Asian lifestyle in the eyes of its Indian screenwriters, featuring dance routines at the British Museum and a pivotal scene set in Bluewater Shopping Mall. For a few years, among visiting relatives, this suburban shopping centre became a tourist attraction on a par with Salisbury Cathedral.

Things changed in the early Noughties, as Asian culture suddenly became mainstream. Sky TV became affordable to the emergent Asian middle classes, and now we had access to Bollywood in our front rooms. At the same time, our stories began to be streamed at select Cineworld cinemas, alongside the latest Meg Ryan rom-com. The grotty Asian cinema experience began to die out. And, at some point in the mid-Noughties, Bellevue became a block of luxury flats and Sakonis became a payday loan shop.

Edgware High Street may have changed over the decades, but India has become unrecognisable – a trend reflected in the stories its cinema industry tells. Bollywood’s biggest hit of the Eighties, Disco Dancer, was a blockbuster in the USSR, thanks to its socialist themes set to a backdrop of disco dancing rivalries. But in 1991 India initiated liberal economic reforms, reflected in cinema of the time with films about capitalism and making money. 1997’s Yes Boss – which had its world premiere at the Bellevue Cinema – told the story of a poor man’s ambitions to become wealthy. By the ‘00s, the businessmen in the stories had become successful and moved abroad, living wealthily in the UK, Australia or New York. The children in these films were sent to boarding schools, where they inexplicably sang the Indian national anthem.

In 2014, a tide of nationalism in India brought the election of Narendra Modi, while at the same time Britain’s immigration debate turned increasingly hostile. Changing visa requirements mean that coming to the UK with a dream to make millions is not as plausible as it once was: the relatability of DDLJ’s aspiring Hounslow shopkeeper diminishes with every new salary threshold implemented by Theresa May. And India is getting richer: why aspire to be wealthy abroad when it’s all on your own doorstep?

These changes have been reflected in the narratives of Bollywood too. Indian films no longer relate to diaspora experiences, but instead tell ordinary Indian stories. The unexpected comedy hit of 2018, Badhaai Ho, which explored Indian society’s stigma of older sexuality and pregnancy, grossed $19m globally, beating the bigger-budget Namaste England, which was released on the same day and made just $1.1m. The latter told an ostensibly relatable story about being an immigrant in the UK – yet British audiences opted to see Badhaai Ho instead, which made £355,000 in the UK compared to Namaste England's £110,000. Badhai Ho is the first time I’ve gone to see a film at Westfield only to find it’s completely sold out. 

The British Asian experience is no longer as intrinsically tied to cinema as it was in the Nineties. Once a film has appeared in the cinemas, it will be on TV within a month, alongside reality shows and soap operas that make it easier to tap into the Asian zeitgeist.

At the same time, Bollywood is no longer writing its stories for international audiences, and the quality of films is richer for it. We are now fortunate enough to hear stories about erectile dysfunction; sanitary pads for menstruation in rural villages; tense thrillers about blind pianists. We no longer have to sit through the same four-hour rom-com about an overly rich British layabout, with a rotating string of arm candy, with a lens of nostalgia for the motherland.

A few years ago developers announced a new cinema in Edgware’s main shopping centre – one which would show Bollywood films alongside Hollywood. The plan was blocked by the local community out of fear that it would attract loitering teenagers, apparently with a passion for Bollywood. Today the luxury flats which replaced Bellevue already have paint peeling, and Edgware High Street is a string of payday loan shops. The diaspora lens of nostalgia persists – but instead of pining for the motherland I am nostalgic for my Nineties Bollywood high street, complete with samosas, grimy cinemas, and chilli paneer.

Kavya Kaushik works in educational technology, and writes about data, politics, and Bollywood, often all at once.​