A Register of Feeling

Why Bollywood films matter.

A woman in a pale green dress runs smiling through the rain with a crowd of people holding umbrellas in the background.
ECSTATIC: Kajol in a scene from “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.”

When I first experienced the Bollywood buzz, I was 22, just graduated from college and spending a year in Mumbai, India, on a small grant. The film was “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (“Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness”), a highly anticipated pre-Christmas release jampacked with stars. Snippets of the film’s fabulous music had been playing on radio and television stations for weeks, tantalizing audiences.

I didn’t know much about Bollywood then. My mother’s favorite movie when I was growing up in northern Virginia was the zany comedy “Padosan,” which she found hilarious. Knowing no Hindi, I didn’t really enjoy watching it on grainy, subtitle-less VHS. Some evenings, my father, a whiskey in hand, would try to translate the lyrics of an old Bollywood song — something about a flower and a bee — patiently writing out the lyrics for me in his even Devanagari script. But between the hysterics of “Padosan” and the poetics of a love song, there was little that appealed to my child’s heart.

In the years that followed, things changed. I studied Hindi in college and decided that only an extended stay in India could help me figure out the place. I still didn’t know a lot about Bollywood, but I knew I loved Shah Rukh Khan, who was one of the stars of “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham,” along with Kajol, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, and the then-relative newcomers Kareena Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan. When I opened my Mid-Day newspaper the week before the film’s release, I saw huge advertisements for the film. “Bookings open Monday,” the ads announced.

So, on a cool Monday morning in December, I took an auto rickshaw from my rented flat in Versova down to what I had discovered was the place to watch films in Mumbai, the G7 multiplex (its seven screens are named Gaiety, Galaxy, Glamour, Grace, Gemini, Gossip and Gem), commonly known as Gaiety-Galaxy. When the rickshaw slowed as it approached the turnoff to the theater, I stuck my head out to see why. A long line of people snaked from the booking window into the street, blocking traffic. I paid the driver and pushed my way to the end
of the ticket line, excited to be part of the crowd. I heard someone murmur that Friday’s shows were sold out and Sunday’s were not far behind.

By the time I got to the front of the line, the earliest available tickets were for the following Wednesday, but that didn’t matter. Where else in the world would women and men of all ages, religions and social classes spend two hours on a Monday waiting for movie tickets 10 days in advance? How do Bollywood films fire the imagination in such a powerful way?

“Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” perfectly captures the essence of Bollywood. I’ve probably seen it more than a dozen times. It has a formulaic plot: a love story complicated by a cruel patriarch, until he finally relents in the end. But what makes it so enjoyable is that it’s filled with glamour, spectacle, wonderful songs, erotic love, beautiful dancing, spectacular locations, superstar actors and dramatic one-liners. It engages both the heart and the mind.

These classic Bollywood attributes — derided by many foreigners as exaggerated or unrealistic — are precisely what brings joy to so many viewers. They appeal to the senses. They offer emotional intensity. They present a new way of engaging with the mundane violence of the real world. Some people scoff at melodrama and call it escapism, but Bollywood is not escapist in the way they mean. Bollywood is a register of feeling, a language that intensifies the real world’s highs and lows, like a filter on a photograph.

I’ve written a book that explains this cinematic language, “Understanding Bollywood,” which was published this year. At Brandeis, I’ve taught a class on Bollywood seven times. It’s always a wonderful experience. My students come from a range of backgrounds. A few have grown up watching Hindi films. The majority have only a vague idea of what Bolly­wood is.

The course introduces students to the “grammar” of Bollywood cinema — its moral structure, its different forms of love, its use of song and dance, its visual style and its embrace of cinephilia — to give them a vocabulary to understand and analyze what they’re seeing. Unlike the New York Times reviewers who deride the few Bollywood films that ever show up on their radar, my students learn to evaluate films on their own terms — not looking for realistic representations of society, but identifying larger social conflicts and emotional intensities that repeat, with small variations, over time.

Bolly­wood movies are least interesting when seen as a window into Indian culture, politics and social norms. They are better understood as a window into intense feeling. Just as you don’t evaluate a sonnet by criticizing the fact that it’s only 14 lines long, you can’t evaluate Bollywood by holding it up to a model created by an altogether different kind of cinema. Oftentimes, students understand this better than film reviewers do.

Learning the grammar of Bollywood allows access to a filmic universe characterized by intense devotion. Individual stars have massive fan followings. Watching a film in an Indian theater means being surrounded by people who whistle, hoot and sing along with the songs. When Brandeis students went from watching films together in an auditorium to streaming them on their laptops, I worried they would be missing out on the pleasure of communal viewership. Later, I learned that some students rent projectors from the library, hang up sheets in their dorm rooms and invite their whole hallway to see the week’s assigned film.

Many students leave the class ardent fans of Bollywood, even if they come in knowing next to nothing about the genre. They join in the excitement of seeing a favorite star, hearing a song’s majestic chords or anticipating a new release.

Understanding Bollywood means feeling the buzz.

Ulka Anjaria, professor of English, was recently named the Jehuda Reinharz Director of Brandeis’ Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for the Humanities.