While most audience members were born into Bollywood viewership, a sizable chunk of us stumbled upon the magnificence of India’s most prominent film industry much later in life. And after twenty or so years of watching Hollywood blockbusters, European arthouse cinema, or whatever your poison of choice may be, Bollywood films certainly take some getting used to…to say the least.
Here are five common thoughts that go through every first-time viewer’s mind as they orient themselves into the wonderful world of Bollywood.
1. All Indian stars are also wonderful singers
We know they can act, and we know they can dance…so is it such a leap to assume they can sing, too?
While a few actors like Alia Bhatt, Shraddha Kapoor, and Farhan Akhtar have begun singing in the films they star in, the vast majority of singing in Bollywood musicals is still performed by playback singers. Playback singers, who are superstars in their own right, lend their voices to actors who then lip-sync to the songs that are so integral in boosting the popularity of new releases. Playback singing is, of course, a foreign concept to Western viewers; in the few modern musicals that have been released, actors have trained for months (to varying degrees of success) to perform their own songs. It’s easy to see why many Bollywood virgins would assume that Sonu Nigam’s voice really does belong to Shahrukh Khan…although most of us eventually catch on to ruse.
Which reminds me, I think ‘Kajra Re’ from Bunty aur Babli is still listed in my iTunes library as being sung by Aishwarya Rai. Oops!
2. The movie ends at the interval
It’s been a long, long time since intervals were common in Hollywood films. So when you sit down in the theater for your first Bollywood film, no one tells you that halfway through, the lights will come on and everyone will get up and walk out! Is the film over? What happens in the rest of the story? Is the plot some sort of twisted commentary on existentialism? Did I accidentally doze off?!
Fear not, new viewers. If you just sit tight long enough, the audience will make its way back into the theater after a stretch of the legs and a much-needed bathroom break to finish off the often three-hour-long movie (another thing no one warned you about before you filled up on overpriced multiplex soda).
3. All the Khans are related
You mean to tell me that Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, and Shahrukh Khan aren’t brothers? And only some of the Kapoors share genetics? Preposterous!
Even seasoned Bollywood fans often need a diagram, or at least a detailed family tree, to work out who is related to whom in an industry that functions largely on nepotism. In Hollywood, it’s easy to figure out that if your last name is Barrymore or Baldwin, you probably belong to a singular illustrious film family. But that’s not how it works in Bollywood, where sharing a common last name does not a relative make. It’s sheer coincidence that the three most powerful men in the industry are all named Khan, just like it’s a coincidence that half of Hollywood’s leading men are named Chris. As long as you’re good with matching names to faces, you’ll be just fine!
4. All films involve a bit of travel through time and space
One minute, a couple is having a playful argument in Mumbai. The next, they’re dancing in the snowy Alps. They might hit a few more destinations, like London or Mauritius, along the way, before finally making their way back to Mumbai. And then the film progresses as if they never left at all!
This can get very confusing for the first-time Bollywood viewer, who has been led to expect that wherever a scene begins is where the action will remain. After all, Gene Kelly pulled off a lot of neat tricks, but he never seemed to make it around the world in a single song, did he?
But this isn’t a lapse in logic. Instead, it’s simply the visual language of Bollywood cinema that the Western audience must learn in order to get the most out of their viewing experience. Once you accept that a song takes place outside the confines of time and space, you can sit back and enjoy the exotic locations and quick wardrobe changes the stars breeze through.
5. Kajol and Shahrukh are married. Like…forrealsies.
It’s hard to find the line between where reel life ends and real life begins, especially if you dive headfirst into the Bollywood fandom with no Logic Lifeguard on duty. So Abhishek and Aishwarya are married, but Kajol and Shahrukh aren’t. Deepika and Ranveer are together, but Aamir and Rani are just friends. Karisma and Salman were a popular couple, but now he romances her sister, neither of which he dated in real life…although he did date Karisma’s ex-fiance’s current wife. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted!
So much of the history of Bollywood films is built around the popularity of the couples who star in them that it’s easy to forget that most of the time, the romantic chemistry ends when the cameras stop rolling. And when you have a beloved jodi like Kajol and SRK churning out hit after hit together over the course of two decades, it’s no wonder first-timers assume that two people so inextricably linked to each other in the public consciousness are actually a couple in real life. But alas, most actors go home to their significant others after pack-up, much to the chagrin of Bollywood ‘shippers’ all over the world who undoubtedly would much prefer their favorite jodis had gotten together in real life and popped out beautiful Bollywood babies. Oh, well!