How Bollywood influences Indian society

I had a very interesting interview today with an Indian film critic, Suparna Sharma. Unfortunately I could only put one of her quotes into my dpa story. As this didn’t do justice to her elaborate thoughts, I decided to publish the rest here. Enjoy.

There is no doubt that lead female characters in Bollywood films are mostly pretty props to delight not just the men, but increasingly to cater to women as well. They have perfect skins, gorgeous hair, lavish designer clothes, concave stomachs and the silouete of apsaras (celestial nymphs). They are perfect creatures for product placement.

And this hasn’t changed for a 100 years. But neither has the male character(s). We still have the angry young man, the eternal lover, the superman, with the same, age-old compulsions.

As a society, as a culture, we are today almost anti-nuance, anti-intellectual, as you see in the debate about sexual harassment, rape etc. Kill the rapists is the general reaction. We seek retribution, not justice. And that’s exactly what Indian cinema has portrayed for years. This hasn’t changed on ground, and is unlikely to change in cimena.

In two landmark rape films – Insaaf ka Tarazoo (the man who was a rapist in that film is now a politician, Raj Babbar), and Ankush – the rapists are killed, and in one the raped woman commits suicide. It’s this narrative, the linking of a woman’s and her family’s honour with her body that needs to change – not just in cinema, but on the gound as well.

Today a lot of responsibility for the treatment of women is pegged on cinema. People assume that it will somehow have an impact on how men act – that reasoning is screwed.

This strange link – man sees item number/sexy female on screen and this titilates him and thus he may go out and rape – doesn’t just reduce men to unthinking criminal imbeciles and reduces rape merely to a physical, sexual act, but also questions the woman’r right to show her body the way she wants to, to wear what she wants.

It’s an extension of the old patriarchal argument that women must not be seen – that they are things that tempt men and are thus best kept in burqas, purdahs, ghunghats, squarely placing the responsibility on the woman for the man’s criminal act.

In Bollywood movies, women unquestionable get shitty roles, without real jobs. And that won’t change for a while, I don’t see it happening for years to come. There is an audience responsibility as well: People love stories of complicated relationships and love triangles. If they keep on watching them, this is what they will get.

Cinema, after all, is a mass medium, it is made to entertain. Even if films are portraying women as CEOs of big companies, the ground situation is not going to change.

Hospital stories

As I’m still lying around in the hospital, people try to… well… cheer me up with hospital stories. Unfortunately most of them don’t help.

When I, for example, asked the attending physician about the last time he treated someone with an amoebic liver abscess, he said: five to six years ago. And then he remembered the fate of the wife of the doctor of the German Embassy. She once had the same disease, but was only given different pills. These she took for some days, but then she stopped doing so and flew to Goa for some holidays. There the abscess ruptured – and soon thereafter she died.

A couchsurfer who stayed with me some weeks ago, met an Israeli and told me his story. The guy is a medical student in Israel, but far from finishing his studies soon, and he never even assisted at an operation. During his internship in a hospital in Mumbai, he was responsible for operations on people’s organs.

My colleague furthermore told me the story of her father in law. He walked upright into the Max Hospital in Delhi, but soon he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and died. When they got the bill, they saw that all kind of fluids and medications were pumped into his body – and most of them didn’t seem to make sense.


So far I didn’t find much street art in India. When I thought I did, I often had to realise it was clever advertisement. And the other pieces I saw in Hauz Khas were painted or taped or sprayed by europeans who visited Delhi.

But then I found this great stenciled graffiti in Mumbai. The artist, Tyler, said in an interview with “Mumbai Boss”: “The girl with a knife behind her back [was inspired by] a lady in Versova who used to sell boiled eggs. I love animals but I also like to eat chicken. It’s about how greedy people are. They kill people for their own advantage.”

stencil by Tyler

Falling for Mumbai

How could I not fall for this city when I first came here? Maybe I didn’t eat enough street food in Kalbadevi. Or it was because I forgot to spend the evenings at the seafront. Or perhaps I didn’t watch an adequate amount of movies. Or I missed the opportunites for just watching the busy citizens when they roam around the streets.  Well, this time I did.

A big Thank You

…to the person who – with only knowing me for one evening – gave me the keys to his flat so I could stay in Mumbai’s lovely Versova, meters away from the beach. I owe you one.

Versova beach

Edward Theatre -> Edward Talkies

The building once must have been splendid. But the magnificent plaster on the balconies is crumbling, pidgeons are flying inside the theatre and leave excrements on the chairs, and the missing stones in the mosaics on the floor have been filled with concrete. The surrounding buildings are encroaching on the Edward Theatre in Mumbai, and the gate, wrought iron between columns, looks dwarf-like. Someone put a wooden sign on top, written not in English like the hewn in name of the theatre, but in Hindi: Edward Talkies.

Edward Talkies

It now is a cinema for the rickshaw-pullers and day labourers, an escape from the hard work for fruit sellers and people who load and unlaod trucks. Prices are low, a ticket starts at 18 rupees (25 cent), but on the balconies women are not allowed, because the stairs are steep and when they step onto their saris, they could fall down the steps and over the low handrail into the depth.

The heart and hands of Edward Talkies is Sanjay, the manager who cares for every wish of his costumers. As his father used to do this job before him, Sanjay grew up in the green rooms just behind the screen that are leftovers from the time when people were acting on stage. Directly after school Sanjay would sneak into the hall, collect the coins people threw at the screen back in these days, eat his lunch and dinner in the cinema chairs, and when he fell asleep, customers would pick him up and bring him to bed.

SanjaySo he knows all the Bollywood movies – and he also lives a live as tragic as a character in one of them. When Sanjay was still a school boy, he fell in love with his teacher. Knowing that it would be inapropiate to propose to her, he waited until the 10th standard – and got slapped for it. He again failed in 12th standards. Three suicide attamps followed.

But finally he won her over, despite the fact that she was 18 years older and despite the different economic backgrounds of their families. But the next blow followed. Because of her age, they can’t have children, Sanjay says. “My life is a tragedy.”

Searching for 100 Years of Indian Cinema

100 years of Indian CinemaThis year the Indian Cinema is celebrating it’s 100th birthday.  It was on the 9th of May 1913 that India screened its first ever full-lenght feature film, Raja Harishchandra, in a theatre in Mumbai. And even though the label Bollywood – merging the city’s name which was previously called Bombay with Hollywood – was created much later in the 80s, and despite the fact that India has many other regional movie scenes like Tollywood and Kollywood, I hear many talk about the “centenary of Bollywood”.

Given the common amount of passion for Bollywood all over India, the huge emotions and dreams the people share, this historically wrong expression might have it’s justification. Because across the country, men and women, rich and poor, speaking a babel of languages, adore the same Bollywood films. For all Indians alike, cinema is an escape, from rising prices, corruption, power cuts and general chaos.

Film City

To get a feeling for the 100-year-long cinematic journey, I flew down to Mumbai and went straight to Film City, a huge arid area at the bottom of the hills just north of the metropolis. Along the streets that wind through the shrubby land, rest fake cities. Or fake palaces. Or halls in which everything is fake. It’s all just wood and glass wool and long bamboo canes to support the facades.

Where a shooting was going on, the guards were vigilant. But in some others places I was able to sneak in and walk around. Even though I was aware of the structure, I often thought everything were in fact for real. Then I touched a wall to assure myself it wasn’t. But a moment later I again fell for the illusion.

face city

This area, which is the heart of the world’s biggest film industry, is also home to the acting school Whistling Wood’s. There I found three students who explained to me how important movie stars are – not only for them, but for their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandparents and great-grandparent. A 19-year-old girl told me: Whereas acters are looked up to all over the world, and everywhere they function as role models, here in India they are gods.

rich and poor


Whereever you go, they are part of your life, another student explains: Lines from the movies are used by everyone, billboard and poster feature the actors, promoting cement as well as estate agencies and government schemes, and whatever the stars wear in a movie becomes the trend of the season.

“No matter where you are in this country, you can always strike up a conversation with anyone, often with just two words, or even one – Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikath,” says a film critic.

I can do it on my own! – Well… no.

I firmly thought I could organise everything alone. But then I called a women at the local government to inquire about a story. She asked me to speak Hindi, and when I replied I couldn’t, she hung up. I wanted to write about a man in the slum Dharavi who gives classes in acting and dancing. Many of his students went into Bollywood and a lot of media organisations already spoke to him, so he asked for money. And I heard about the Dabbawallas, who collect home cooked food in lunch boxes and bring them via bicycle, train and handcart to the office workers – but I couldn’t get hold of the organisation.

Prachi, my stringer

So I employed Prachi, a local stringer. It was the first time for me I asked a freelance journalist to contribute to my storys. It was a good experience! She made all the above possible, because she knows whom to ask and how to talk to them. She could also translate for me. Plus it is much more fun to go around in the city when you have someone to talk to and share the meal with. Thanks!

Super Dense Crush Load

Mumbai’s commuter trains are said to be the most overcrowded ones in the world. There even is a term for it: “Super Dense Crush Load”. A lot of figures float around to describe how crowded it is. According to the Wall Street Journal it means 550 people are crammed into a car built for 200 – that translates to 16 people per square meter. It definitely is so crowded that commuters cling limpet-like to the sides and hang out on the openings where doors once might have been.

When I travelled during peak time I was lucky to go into the right direction. So I got a seat before most of the other women came in. Yes, women only, because every train has a women’s compartment. So for me the number of people wasn’t such a challenge. But the fish was. Every train also has a compartment for carrying luggage – and going from Churchgate up north in the morning means huge baskets full of stinking fish. But with the wind coming in through the doors and windows plus the constantly running fans below the ceiling, I managed.

People that fear the crowd always can choose the first class option, with again men and women in separate compartments. Tickets are nearly ten times the price of the cheap normal ones, but still very affordable for tourists. Together with space also come cushions. But still no doors.

Endless sweeping against the permanent garbage problem

Colaba, located at the southern tip of the southernmost island of Mumbai, is probably the district most visited by tourists. But that doesn’t mean that anyone thinks it should be kept nice and tidy. Garbage bins are – like almost everywhere else in the city – nonexistent. So people just drop their rubbish whereever they stand and go. Without even hesitating.

Not that there are more dust bins in Delhi. But in Mumbai there seem to be even more people with more rubbish. It piles up at every corner. Plus the encredibly vast number of people that live on the sidewalks, who cook, sleep, defecate and wash themselves there, often surrounded by things they use or have used before.

So far I didn’t complain much about the apparent waste problem and all the threats to the health of the people that live in it. But in Mumbai I got to a point where I couldn’t stand it anymore.

This is on one side due to the fact that, whenever and whereever you go, there is always someone in your field of vision that sweeps the broom. These people move the rubbish from one side to the other, pile it up so that sidewalks get blocked and constantly disperse the toxic dust, inhaled by the bypassers. But even though Mumbai and Delhi have so many men and women out there that never stop sweeping, the citys never seem to become cleaner.

The other thing that makes me angry, is the obvious not-my-business-attitude. A lot of people keep their premises tidy up front, but take no responsibility whatsoever of what happens behind their house and on the street in front of their house. This is also true in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia with approximately one million inhabitants, where people live very, very close together. In most of the lanes there is hardly enough space to walk and certainly no space for garbage.

When I went into Dharavi for some research, I was astonished at how thouroughly organised all the business is, from garbage to bakerys to leather craft. But obviously no organisation regarding the rubbish. When I asked, a guy replied: “The government needs to take care about that.” But because the government workers often just take the money and let someone else do their job for half the salary, the job often doesn’t get done.

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