Brief history of Bollywood

“For us, there’s God, then film stars, then cricketers.”

~ Indu Mehrani (qtd in Booth104)


Most sources disagree on the exact definition of the term Bollywood, so for the purpose of this history, we will define it as follows: Bollywood means films produced by the Mumbai¹ film industry, primarily in the Hindi language, distributed across the normal commercial film circuits of northern India, and containing song and dance item numbers as an integral part of the plot. Bollywood does not encompass all of Indian cinema, contributing  only about 20% of the total film output of India, which is the largest in the world and which predates Bollywood (Ganti 3). It is not one genre of film but is a film industry in which there are many genres.

The history of Bollywood stretches as far back as film industries of the rest of the world—the first feature film was produced in 1913, and the first talkie in 1931. The history is varied and complex, with scholarship on the topic gaining more in-depth attention in recent years—ironically, when Bollywood as it has existed seems to have evolved into a caricature of itself. There are four main aspects that help the uninitiated Bollywood viewer approach with more understanding: nationalism, censorship, music, and the three eras of Bollywood. These topics are interrelated and don’t necessarily need to be treated separately.

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The characteristics that came to define Bollywood also gave it a quality of nationalism: of representing India as a whole and not speaking to just one religious group, language, geographical area, or caste (as unrealistic as that may be). One of these characteristics was the choice, early on, to use the Hindi language as the language of Bollywood films. Hundreds of languages are spoken in India, and Hindi was not even one of the common ones in Bombay at the time talking films arose. Hindi was chosen because it was common as a trade language; most people knew some of it or could understand it because it was similar to their own dialect. When Hindi became the national language years later, this only increased the sense of nationalism in film. Another characteristic lending to the feeling of a unified nation of India via Bollywood is the eclecticism of the music used. From the beginning, the music created for the films incorporated styles from various traditions—both North Indian and Carnatic classical, light classical, religious, and folk music—and of course Hollywood; as films became more widely known internationally, even more international music influences were used: from Latin to Chinese to reggae. A third characteristic is the world of the Bollywood film stars. In this world, Muslims marry Hindus, Hindus marry Christians, and people from different societal classes can succeed and collaborate. Finally, although this didn’t necessarily guide the theoretical development of Bollywood, the “father” of Bollywood, Dhudiraj Govind (Dadasahib) Phalke, strongly believed that an indigenous Indian film industry was a key to India’s future freedom and autonomy from the British.

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Similarly grounded, but different in purpose, to Phalke’s attitude—and extremely impactful to the Bollywood industry—was the government censorship of film. When the British were still in control, during the Studio Era, certain themes about Indian freedom could of course not be included. But it is after India’s independence from Britain that the censorship really strong-armed the industry and subsequently the style. Sex was roundly forbidden, including any “blatant physical contact” suggesting it, such as kissing (Skillman 138). Thus, exaggerated body language replaced these things and became the norm, such as bumping shoulders between two romantic leads or keeping faces very close without touching. The dialogue also reflected the compensation for the missing sexuality. Most importantly, though, the songs took over the expression of love. Three main aesthetics of Bollywood, then—what looks like overacting, what sounds like corny dialogues, and what seem like songs and dances out of nowhere—were actually necessary characteristics, and it can be argued that they have become aesthetics of their own. Viewers just need to become accustomed to appreciating them.


Indian censorship also influenced the creation of several genres unique to Bollywood. For many years, Partition—when Pakistan and India were separated—was not allowed to be directly referred to in a film. India’s enemies could not be named by their true names. So certain plots developed, such as an evil landlord cruelly ruling a town or a family suddenly broken up and not reuniting until years later (called “lost and found” genre). Finally, the censorship of films came from the Indian government’s simplistic ideas about the effect of film: they believed that if it was in a movie, the public would buy it and swallow it with no thought. The government thought that the Bollywood style of film was not classy enough to be called Indian, and they valued “art” films without music (and adhering to the ideals of the government) much more highly. In fact, the Censor Board believed that only North Indian classical music was music that was worthy to be played by Indians (Skillman 139). This animosity between the government and the film industry was increased by the government classifying the industry as a vice—like gambling in the U.S.—and taxing it as such. The government only recognized films as an industry in 1998 (Ganti 50).

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Music, of course, is what many unfamiliar viewers associate as the defining characteristic of Bollywood films, and it is certainly what has fed the industry through all the years. Music directors (as film composers are called) actually think of the need for songs in films “not as a statement of principle or an assertion of aesthetic norms, but simple and unquestioned behavior, like the law of gravity” (Booth 29). The music is as much a part of the film as costumes. At the time it became possible to have songs in films, Indian classical music was not the popular music of the day. The upper castes were trained to appreciate it—no one else. It was not widely disseminated. In addition, the Indian classical tradition created teachers and performers, not composers. Film music opened up musical worlds to those who wanted more. When it became possible to record the image and sound of the film separately and then splice them back together into a seamless strip, Bollywood film changed forever, and playback became a driving force in film and popular music. Playback can turn off unfamiliar viewers because it seems so obvious that the actors are not singing, and the same singers will sing for different characters. However, in India, it is thought of as double pleasure—watching a favorite actress and hearing a favorite singer. Playback was also in many ways necessary, since the film equipment used in India has never been able to be of high quality. In fact, the noise from the film equipment was so loud that all the dialogue had to be dubbed again as well. It was only in 2001, with Lagaan, that the first synchronous sound movie was produced.

Playback allowed directors to choose people who were actually good singers—they didn’t have to worry about looks or acting talent . Once playback made songs even more important to cinema, music directors became a huge component of film. The filming of musical scenes became song picturization, a complex affair. Music was allowed to incorporate any style the music director felt was necessary. And the songs from films, called variously film song, cinemusic, and playback music, became the popular music of the culture—so much so that even today, 80% of popular music in India is still film song (Ganti 40). It isn’t usually helpful to make numerous comparisons between Bollywood and Hollywood, since the two are different species, but here it is helpful to note that Hollywood musicals died out after the fifties because pop and rock music rose up as a separate and powerful entity (Dwyer and Patel 36).


Other history of note in the development of music in Bollywood films is the origins of music in drama and the style of Hindi film song. While there is no denying the large influence of Hollywood and other film industries, it is better to think of Bollywood as an intentional hybrid instead of a passive chameleon. The inclusion of songs in films, and later the orchestration in film, certainly used the styles set up by Hollywood musicals and Hollywood soundtracks and theme songs. With that being said, one reason music became so important in Bollywood films was that in film’s predecessors—Classical Sanskrit drama, folk theater, and, most of all, Parsi theater—music, song, and dance were tightly integrated into and essential to the whole performance (Morcom 3).

The first film songs were heavily influenced by Indian classical music, using classical ragas and talas (also using them in part in an attempt to legitimize the music). Of all the rhythms used, kaharva tala (eight beat meter) and dadra or khemta tala (six beat meter) were the most popular, with dadra or khemta tala essentially omnipresent (Ranade 326). The main music directors for Bollywood films came from a variety of backgrounds—some were trained classically, some in the folk tradition, and some were self-taught. Some thought classical music the ideal, but all incorporated other elements into their compositions. Any list of the cast and crew of a Bollywood film will show numerous repetitions of a music director’s and singer’s names. Like music directors (and directors and stars), singers became superstars of the Bollywood industry, with the famous ones making the majority of the films that lasted in the popular sphere.


Music is composed early in the film development stage, during sittings with the director, music director, and lyricist. They discuss the plot and the placement and meaning of songs within the film. Music directors create the songs from a combination of film song style, their own creativity, and the demands of the particular situation (Morcom 89). Singers are told, if possible, the situation of the song and must be able to sing for a variety of characters using the appropriate emotion. Of note here is Lata Mangeshkar, who gave voice to several of Bollywood’s most famous actresses over the course of more than thirty years.

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Three Eras

Studio Era

It is the three stages of Bollywood, as given dates by Booth (87), which help explain some of the more subtle qualities of the Bollywood film industry: the Studio Era, the Music Director Era, and the Transition Era. From 1935 to 1950, Bollywood was run by studios, much like the studios of Hollywood. Studios had their own stock of directors, music directors, stars, and musicians. Studios were managed as businesses, producing a large number of films each year and hoping for an overall profit. However, during World War II, the government banned most raw materials, and that included raw film stock. This led to the film industry being funded largely by the black market, where money could be laundered during the film production so that actors and others were able to be paid with white money (not black), completing the laundering cycle. This also led to film stars’ salaries skyrocketing—and they could skyrocket, since the black market was so enormous. After the war, this system collapsed on itself: film stars eventually became just too expensive. The studios went out of business quickly, although even into the 1990’s, residues of black market involvement in Bollywood film production could still be found (economic liberalization in the 90’s changed that) (Ganti 35).

Music Director Era

Now that a few studios weren’t running the industry, independent producers became the order of the day: a production company could come in and make one film and never make another. But instead of that cycle repeating, what happened was that several directors became well-known—almost always producing their own films—and then the music directors they worked with became well known—as important as who was starring in the films—and then, with playback achieving prominence, singers also became stars. The key holding these four personas together were the music directors, who became somewhat of a replacement, in terms of dominance and name-attachment driving the popularity of a film, for the studios. The few famous music directors’ styles guided the development of song style, and even the generation that came next (for example, S.D. Burman’s son R.D. also becoming a mainstay music director) came out of that style, not in spite of it. Even with violence replacing music as a prominent feature during the 1980’s, music was still the force of the Bollywood film industry; once the Transition Era is described, it’s easy to see why I chose to name this era after the music directors, even though the directors and stars were just as prominent.

Transition Era

Just as film stars’ black market-enhanced salaries became too much for the industry to support, music directors’ fame-enhanced salaries became too much for the industry. In the Music Director Era, which lasted from 1950-1998, music directors were able to demand extremely high salaries from the producers of films, which producers paid in order to get the names they wanted. Musicians, singers, and lyricists were all paid separately by the producers. From the mid 1990’s and on, though, producers could no longer handle these high prices, which music directors could raise and change on a whim. Producers began demanding that music directors take one salary package, from which they themselves would have to pay the rest of the musicians. This led to a crash in the music industry, even though records were still bought by the millions, and it contributed to the changing sound of film style. Digital music was now used out of necessity—no one would pay to hire a full orchestra. So although some new music directors, such as A.R. Rehman, use digital effects as a matter of personal taste, across the industry it was also becoming a matter of inevitability. In addition, Hindi audiences’ tastes are changing (Banerjee). The Bollywood staple of several songs and dances in each film is no longer required. In addition, in the past ten years, members of the Bollywood industry have created/received bad public images, either through black market murders, attempted assassinations, or wild behavior (Ganti 51; Dwyer and Patel 23; Booth 118). It will be interesting (and perhaps sad, as this industry is great in many senses of the word) to see how the Hindi film industry evolves into its next stage. This is why I have called 1998 to the present a Transition Era.

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Viewers used to Hollywood movies, a Western film aesthetic, and expectations of what a “musical” should entail are often bewildered by Bollywood movies. As was mentioned in the first paragraph, the films seem corny and thrown together, with songs stuffed in wherever they fit. Hopefully, this introduction has gone some way to show that songs and dance item numbers are carefully integrated into the film. It must also be emphasized that there is not one genre of film here, the “musical.” These “misunderstandings of the concept of genre are founded upon notions that genre categories specific to American or European cinema are somehow universal, timeless, and absolute. Genres, however, result from a combination of film industry marketing strategies, audience expectations, film criticism, and academic analysis” (Ganti 139). Genre is a way of categorizing expectations, and Bollywood, if viewers let it, should defy their expectations and then redefine them. Within Bollywood movies, there are the mythological, devotional, reincarnation, dacoit, lost and found, angry young man, action, gangster, drama, comedy, romantic comedy, and many more genres. Only films specifically about music would be called musicals (such as Dil to Pagal Hai). The length of Bollywood films—usually over three hours—is also an aspect needing adjustment; this can partly be explained by the aesthetic that has developed that prefers a novel-like story as opposed to the more short-story-like plot of Hollywood movies (Ganti 138).

My “Stereotypes & Exonerations” section of the website goes into more detail on the characteristics of Bollywood movies. There are so many flavors to appreciate and name, but just like first learning coffee or wine, you have to want to push through past the initial sameness and strangeness of all the Bollywood films and move into a place where your palate can just revel in it.

¹Though some object to the use of the nationalist renaming of cities, I have no personal offense, so I will be using the names they have chosen themselves. Also, when Hindi is written in the English alphabet, there are many chances for variations—one vowel where someone else puts two, an “e” where someone else puts an “a,” an “h” where in other places there is none. I have attempted to be consistent within my own work, but I don’t claim to be perfect.

References (PDF)


6 Responses to Brief history of Bollywood

  1. bollywood says:

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  2. Visitor says:

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  3. Pingback: Bollywood Production Practices | Manahilnadeemas

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