How Bollywood Keeps A Billion People Happy
Bollywood produces over 1000 films per year. Twice what Hollywood does. They must be doing something right.
Shahrukh Khan is the second wealthiest actor in the world. That’s more than Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr put together. He must be doing something right.
India is a land of 1.3 billion people. 200 languages. 6 religions. 600 million people under the age of 25. That alone is twice America’s entire population.
A land of ancient history, contemporary wisdom and bleeding-edge IT.
But there’s still widespread poverty. 70% of Indians live on less than two dollars per day. Over 25% of Indians are illiterate. Close to 37% are unemployed. And then there’s the societal evils: a colourist caste system, rampant corruption, political polarisation and religious disharmony. Oh, and it’s a Covid hotbed.
But one commonality cuts through all the socio-economic, religious and political divides— Bollywood.
What does Bollywood do that keeps its billion-plus viewers entertained? What can I as a writer learn from it?
This is my tuppence.
It’s Melodrama Dialed to 11
Everyone instantly recognizes a Bollywood movie. Outlandishly comic fight scenes. Ostentatious song-and-dance sequences. Star-crossed lovers. Underdog stories. Thunderous background scores. Gratuitous ultra-slow-mo shots. Exaggerated crying, OTT emotional manipulation, farcical love-making.
Why would anyone waste their time and money watching this? It’s bizarre.
Or is it?
You see, Bollywood has figured out something crucial about its audience: They don’t care that what they see isn’t realistic. They want to be fooled. They queue, pay and sit through two and a half hours of this because they want to be entertained.
Their jobs, if they are lucky to have them, are dreary enough. They don’t want intellectual stimulation, they want to be enthralled. They want to watch on screen what they can’t do in their own lives. Battle armies singlehandedly, dance at billionaire weddings and ride away into the sunset with a pretty girl.
The writing elevates the normalities of life. It shoots for the stars. It chases impossible dreams. It makes magical what should be mundane. With hype. At sweeping scales.
This emotional sleight of hand keeps us all engrossed — the show must go on.
It’s In The Business Of Selling Hope
Bollywood isn’t in the movie-making business. It’s in the hope-selling business.
Choreographed dance routines with catchy songs. No-holds-barred set design. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of extras. Lead actors mime songs sung by professional playback singers. Songs of virtue, hope, fulfilment, promise, peace, love, lament, regret and divinity.
It pushes all your hope buttons.
It uses rhyme, instead of reason. Appeals to your heart, not your head. It shows you a world of carefully staged wonder. It hides grime in poetic innuendo.
It’s bright, loud and vivid. It feels like a parody to your rational mind. Your soul thinks otherwise. It’s like Broadway. But on Netflix.
No rational person can justify the budget spent on these lavish shoots. The songs are rarely consequential to the story. So why blow the budget on them?
Because the audience loves it.
I kept mistaking that quality is synonymous with value. Truth is, addictive fluff is valuable. I used to scoff at TikTok videos and Instagram millionaires. Like, can you really call that content? Turns out, you can. It sells. And the best judge of value is the marketplace. What sells is valuable. Even if it’s repetitive, boring, melodramatic or just plain bad.
I was anchored to my “niche”. I spend lots of time curating the books I read and shows I watch so I can provide some value to my readers. But Bollywood, perversely, plays it safe. It only innovates within its niche. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel. It just adds some masala-flavoured spokes to it. And if the box office returns are anything to go by, that’s lapped up by the swaying masses.
It Is Wholesome
Bollywood is meant for the whole family. A typical Indian family would have three generations living under one roof. How do you write content that engages a 12-year old girl and a 68-year old man? Well, you play to the lowest common denominator. You keep it PG. You keep it clean. You hit on universal human themes.
These trifling constraints lead to innovations.
Bollywood writers rely on the tried and tested three-stage structure for their screenplays. The setup. The tension. The comeback.
Things always end well. And if they don’t, it’s not the end. There’s more to come.
It’s magical, life-affirming, positive, decadent fluff. Delivering hope and a good time. To put it in bollyspeak, it’s “full paisa vasool”. Loosely translated, “a lot of bang for your buck.”
This was an important lesson for me. Selling hopes and dreams may seem like a con-job. But isn’t denying the audience what they want a bigger con?
It’s Human Centric, Not Story Centric
Screenwriting 101: have a strong plot.
You can safely throw this rule away for Bollywood. A film faring well at the box office does not correlate with the strength of its script. I’d go as far as to say it’s an inverse correlation.
Bollywood films are not rigid, plot-driven affairs. They are mostly escapist fantasies of a mega-rich producer, powered by the ego of untouchable superstars, brought to life by an overworked production crew.
Quite often, they aren’t character-driven either. They rely on the larger-than-life persona of the lead actors. The audience vicariously living their best life in the eyes of the ultimate showman. They feel his pain, laugh at his jokes, punch his enemies and applaud his inevitable success.
It’s the meta-human first, the story second.
Actually, it’s the music second. Then the co-star. Then the pre-release marketing. And then, if there’s time, the plot.
You might find this manipulative and egotistical. I agree, it is. But I go back to my previous point: this is what the audience craves.
Sure, you can have the lofty ambition of “educating” the audience to develop a better taste. And plenty do but few succeed. Bollywood has been around for over a century. The basic premise of every blockbuster has remained intact.
The basic lesson for me from this: write with empathy. Yes, layered plots are great. But nothing appeals more to an audience than living vicariously through your work. They’ll forgive the plot holes if they enjoyed the ride. Taking them on this journey needs empathy.
So there you have it — a whirlwind tour of my thoughts on Bollywood, value creation and pure escapism.
If you are a Bollywood virgin, I am working on a “Bollywood Starter Pack” article that’ll give you a primer on the biggest hits in an easily digestible Tweet format. Coming soon to a screen near you.
Until then, may everything you create be full paisa vasool.