100 years of Bollywood – What desi fiction does right

Deepika Padukone passion

Deepika Padukone in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Bollywood recently celebrated its 100th year. Indian, Pakistani and Tamil have been close to my heart for a few years now: in 2012 I backpacked around India; some of my favourite people are Pakistani; and I spent a long and joyous time researching my (hopefully) upcoming novel Cycles of Udaipur [edit: it’s now available here!]. I’ve watched enough Bollywood films in the last few years to catch up with three decades of world cinema.

As the single most distinctive form of cinema, Bollywood is often a love-or-hate thing for British audiences. I live in Sheffield, one of the north’s most cosmopolitan cities, so our mainstream and indie cinemas draw in big crowds for their frequent showing of Asian films. I’m usually one of the very few white faces in such crowds, but I rarely feel such a buzz or sense of camaraderie as I do at those viewings.

So what can writers learn from Bollywood cinema?

Jodha Akbar passion

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai in Jodha Akbar

If there’s one thing to define the “genre”, besides the spontaneous song-and-dance numbers and spangly productions, it is the emotional power that such films project. I know people who avoid Bollywood purely because each film is such an emotional rollercoaster. If I cry during a “filmi”, it’s probably because I’m watching Jodha Akbar (2008) or Ram-Leela (2013), or films like the lesser-known Raincoat (2004), each of which has a powerful emotional core that beats most dramatic films of the West hands down.

Jodha Akbar is a historical epic centering around the marriage of a Muslim conqueror and his Hindu lover. It is a story of love that transcends all barriers, much like the crux of Ram-Leela, a modern-day Hindustani Romeo and Juliet. Literature, of course, is no stranger to the themes of love, which has been explored in all its facets for thousands of years. But too many English-language novels neglect to dig deep enough into this fundamental emotion, shying away for fear of being too flowery in terms of prose. Is this a flaw of Western literature, or is it the right balance for our comparatively reserved culture?

Raincoat film passion

Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat

Ram Leela passion

Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone in Ram-Leela

There is a reason that so many Bollywood films are musicals; the emotions at play are far too powerful to be contained. This is a statement that is arguably laughable, but there is a lot to learn from the unashamedly ebullient nature of desi films. British literature at its best is a cultural caricature: restrained, emotionally suffocated, bleak and dour. D.H.Lawrence, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer and John le CarrĂ© make a fortune off the misery of their characters, with only a rare few – unsurprisingly operating in the fringes of genre fiction – allow their natural brightness to shine through: the likes of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Ruth Rendell.

I hopefully need not return to what I think of contemporary “romantic” fiction, all of which operates on the largely worthless scale between erotica and chick-lit.

The blandness of English literature could well do with a counteracting injection of Bollywood-style passion, not just of the tear-jerking variety, of which we have become quite adept, but also encapsulating the wealth of untapped positive emotions, which would bring colour to those drab bookshop shelves.


4 thoughts on “100 years of Bollywood – What desi fiction does right

  1. Thank you for this post! As the daughter of Indian immigrants living in the U.S., I hope to bring some of the Indian stories I grew up with to the “western” audiences. I will keep your incredibly valid points in mind when writing my book. Thank you.


    • Thanks Taara! It’s a rather shallow article, but hopefully of interest to newcomers to Bollywood or writers who hadn’t considered how the films differ from traditional western narratives. Please let us know when your book is available to read, and good luck in the meantime!


  2. Thnq for the post sir please write about padmavati also so many people are facing problems after this movie
    Why always some director Play with history why they make movie which are based on Hindu Muslim fights there are so many topics like dowry ,education , poverty ‘ fake political parties like RSS bajrandal plz take this as a serious topic make a video on it dats I would like to say …


    • Hello Shreya, thanks for much for your comment. Actually I recently wrote about Padmavati, and you can read the post here: https://stpediting.wordpress.com/tag/padmavat/ I wonder if you would agree or disagree with what I wrote? I’d love to hear the opinions of anybody living in India or Pakistan, Hindu or Muslim, or otherwise on this topic.

      I agree, there has been a lot of outrage and totally needless violence surrounding this film. I’m about to see it myself tomorrow, but reports are that there are no offensive scenes at all in the film, just like the director has been saying. Have you seen the film? What did you think of it?

      I understand that the character of Padmavati is generally considered fictional by historians (although Alauddin Khalji is a historical figure), which makes the situation equally crazy. In England it would be like someone disrespecting King Arthur (a fictional/legendary character) and people rioting as a result.

      I think films based on history and current topics, like conflict between religions, can be important to create discussions about serious topics – like this one! I’m happy that you believe the problems as a result of a film are overblown, as they seem to be such an unreasonable reaction.

      Thanks for reading!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s