Growing up watching Bollywood movies, I have cried my eyes out over classic films like “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and “Main Hoon Na” and applauded newer ones like “Kapoor and Sons” and “Dil Dhadakne Do.” However, regardless of whether you enjoy the old school or new wave of movies, most Bollywood binge-watchers can agree that there is a stark difference between Bollywood cinema from the early 2000’s and before and the newer, more contemporary works from the last couple years.
Previously in the Bollywood industry, there was a certain mold that most movies would conform to, usually featuring some distinct characteristics including large wedding scenes, elaborate song and dance numbers that appear at random, and a message about love or family values learned at the end. While these classics will always hold a special place in the heart of most Bollywood fans for the nostalgia they carry with them, they also had some recurring characteristics that were not as charming.
For example, the majority of earlier Bollywood movies feature a male hero who the film is mainly centered around, with the female heroine as more of a side character. The heroine was typically a part of the male lead’s journey, allowing for his character to develop throughout the plot. Also, the heroine was often seen as the prize the hero is to win in the end, either from another man, society or, in most cases, her father. This is seen in many of the most well-known and popularized Bollywood films, including the movie which holds the world record for its 1000 week run, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.”
In addition, most of the early movies did not aim to comment on any real world issues or offer a sense of reliability to the audience, but instead would narrate stories about major family issues and depict the characters to be incredibly wealthy, such as with the popular “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” which broke all opening records upon its release. While this sense of alternate reality is part of the beauty of cinema, it is a commonality that seems to be dying out in the recent films that have been surfacing in India.
Starting a few years ago, Bollywood movies began to transform. Whether it be through cutting down the long, dramatic monologues between characters to more conversational dialogue or making female-led movies, there is a perceivable change in Bollywood cinema that is generating a wave of movies that advocate for social change in an entertaining way.
For example, the movie “Queen” which came out in 2013 was wildly successful, resulting in 14 award wins and 22 nominations on several Indian award shows. This movie not only featured a female lead but also depicted the main character to be a normal girl and not in a glamorous role. The story followed the main character on her journey of self discovery that only featured male characters as side roles and emphasized the importance of personal growth over finding a partner.
Along with this, movies such as “Dear Zindagi” (2016) comment on social issues previously deemed as taboo in Indian society. This film discussed mental health and normalized the idea of seeking therapy, two concepts which are foreign in most Indian households. Typically in Indian culture, mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as physical illnesses and are often ridiculed as being nonexistent. Therefore, it was refreshing to see a mainstream movie featuring a major hero, Shah Rukh Khan, as a supporting actor for the main lead, actress Alia Bhatt, whose journey the story follows.
Whether it be through movies like “3 Idiots” (2009) showing the flaws in the Indian educational system or “PK” (2014) which comment on the way religion controls our lives, Indian directors and actors are now constantly pushing the envelope with edgy, sometimes controversial, movies that break the love story norm Bollywood is associated with. Though the classics will always remain special to us for the fond memories and entertaining stories they possess, the social messages being advocated for in Indian cinema is one that has the ability to make real change in Indian society.