Masala Bollywood movies – “All-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” into the 21st century

“A common term used by the film industry, the Indian media, and audiences to describe popular Hindi films is “masala”. A Hindi word meaning a blend of spices, masala, when applied to films, refers to those that contain a potpourri of elements – music, romance, action, comedy and drama designed to appeal to the broadest range of audiences” — Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. [1]

The terms “masala”, “dinchik” (referring to the more glamorous), or “dhishum-dhishum” (action movies) are terms that heard everywhere in Delhi, the capital of India. These terms do not really have a derivative meaning from Sanskrit (i.e. the root language of Hindi) but have rather evolved from Bollywood- the Hindi movie industry. The term Bollywood is in itself a combination of the word Bombay and Hollywood. Bombay being the epicenter of the Indian film industry.

Films came into India soon after the Lumiere brothers invented cinema and the first screening of motion pictures in India was at the Watsons hotel in Bombay on 7 July 1896.[2] Soon after Dada Saheb Phalke was inspired to create the first Indian feature-length movie “Raja Harishchandra” in 1913. Raja Harishchandra is based on a story from the “Mahabharata” (Mahabharata is one of the Hindu epics akin to the Greek epics). “Raja Harishchandra” tells the tale of a truthful king, Harishchandra, who suffers trials and tribulations to honor his promise to the sage Vishwamitra. He sacrifices his kingdom, wife and eventually his children. Convinced of his ideals, the Gods declare him to be the living embodiment of Truth and restore him to his former regal glory.

“Raja Harishchandra” set the stage for the development of Hindi movies. The movie was silent but the overt emotions and melodrama are apparent and this is what later movie tellers would adapt into their own story lines.

Music and sound entered Bollywood simultaneously with the release of “Alam Ara” (Beauty of the World) on 14 March 1931.

“Alam Ara” was promoted as an “All-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” movie and was an instant hit. The film was based on a successful play of the same name, written by Joseph David for the Parsi Theatre.[3] A period fantasy, in Hindi-Urdu, the film tells the story of a king of an imaginary kingdom. Of his two wives, Dilbahar and Naubahar, the former harbors an illicit relationship with Adil, the army chief of the land. When Adil spurns the queen, she plots to have him imprisoned and his daughter, Alam-Ara is exiled. The girl is brought up among nomads and happens to visit the palace. She is spotted by the young prince who falls in love with her. Eventually everything is resolved peacefully. “Alam-Ara” begins the history of Indian film music. “Alam-Ara” had seven songs but not one of them is in circulation today. Unfortunately the last existing prints were destroyed in a fire at Pune’s National Film Archives seven years ago.[4]

Today, films are sold on the basis of the director, stars, and music director; the story and screenplay are secondary. ‘Item numbers’— songs and dances with no connection to the story—are crammed in so that films themselves are perfunctory. The idea is that music videos are used as promos and music sales recover some money, even if the film flops. Moreover, music companies funding films have insisted on up to twelve songs in a single film. This is hardly new: pre-Independence films such as Shirin Farhad had forty-two songs and Indrasabha boasted fifty-nine songs! Since song and dance is considered sacred in Indian cinema, some directors put in horrendously crude sex and vulgarity into song picturization, which the shortsighted censor board would cut if it was merely filmed as part of the spoken narrative.[5]

“Alam Ara” set the norm for movies to encompass singing and dancing in their production. The advent of sound created another complication in film making – that of language. In a country with over a thousand languages, this could have been a problem. Though there are other language film industries such as Tamil, Bengali etc. Bombay was the heart of the film industry. But there was a resolution. Hindi was the most widely spoken language in India and had been recognized as the official language and filmmakers decided to go with Hindustani– a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. This created an interesting environment as Bombay was primarily a Gujrati and Marathi speaking region. As Ganti says, “The fact that cinema in the Hindi language developed in multi-lingual Bombay, rather than in the Hindi-speaking north, disassociated Hindi films from any regional identification, imbuing them with a more “national” character.” This also credited filmmakers with the spreading of Hindi as the national language and also making their movies more accessible to the masses.[7]

With “Alam Ara”, the staple for the Bollywood musicals were set and has prevailed for the past 79 years. As Shedde says, “Though cinema technology came from the West, the aesthetic principles of Indian cinema derive from its own theater. These were based on Bharata’s classic treatise on theater, the Natyashastra (second century B.C.), which called for dramatic action, song, dance, conflict, and a happy ending—all based on the rasa (essence/emotion) theory, aiming at “the joyful consciousness that the spectator feels when his conflicts are resolved and he feels in harmony with himself and nature.”[8]This trend of using song and dance to promote emotions of love and sex is still prevalent in Hindi movies today. Initially, this was done through the use of metaphors such as when the hero leaned into the kiss… there would be a cut to show two flowers touching or bees pollinating.

In the above movie, the flower is the topic of the song itself where as the lovers are far apart they express their feelings through the flower. The heroines in the movies were also supposed to be shy and embarrassed at the concept of falling in love. Most of the earlier movies also show the heroine showing outrage and anger at the boldness of the man proclaiming his love, to display her modesty while being silently pleased at the attention. But with time hugging was common but again mostly in very public places and nature was always the metaphor for love and sex. As seen in this song from “Silsila”.

The next controversial topic in Hindi cinema was the wet sari metaphor. This became a blatant display of sexuality and for a long time was frowned upon.

This song from “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” being considered the most scandalous song in Bollywood history with the transparent white sari under the waterfall. As Ganti says, “Utilized in many films over the years, these often highly erotic sequences – with wet clothes clinging to bodies – are part of an elaborate system of allusions to, rather than explicit portrayals of, sexuality and physical intimacy as filmmakers navigate the perceived moral conservatism of their audiences, as well as the representational boundaries set by the Indian state through its censorship codes.”[6] Though in movies today with the change in time and morals, kissing is allowed and in recent history movies have even been promoted on the number of kisses that are in it. One of the firsts was “Khwaish” with a scandalous 17 kisses in it. Kisses even made it to taglines with another movie called “Ugly aur Pagli” whose tagline read “ 99 Kisses and 1 slap.”

Czitrom traced the history of movies not only to its technological roots but also explored its role in the shift from “high” culture to “pop” culture and its influence on the middle classes. [9]This was the impact of the films in India. Initial films such as “Raja Harishchandra” traced the lives of royalty but later films followed the lives of everyday people and their problems. It relied on story-telling that focussed on the trials of the everyday man who triumphed in the end and drew in crowds who not only identified with the heroes on-screen but also sang and danced in the theatres alongside them. Movies such as “Mother India” (that tells the hardships of a single farmer woman raising two sons), “Kismet” (Fate, about a pickpocket), “Pyaasa” (Thirsty, the plight of a struggling artist) brought the story from the courts of kings into the lives of the newly independent India. And as always it was the stories with the happy endings that did better with audiences.

Later Bollywood movies also stuck to this formula but family values became the staple diet with films today focussing not only on the Indian family within India but Non-residential Indians grappling with keeping their traditions alive amidst western traditions. The second longest running movie “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (it has run for at least 10 years) is about a young woman (Simran) who falls in love with a young man (Raj) during her trip to Europe but is brought home by her traditional father to wed a man of his choosing. Raj follows Simran to India but is only willing to marry her with her father’s permission, in a traditional style. Thus propagating traditional Indian values.

Throughout the song and dance sequences in Hindi movies, these are not comparable to Hollywood musicals. Song and dance sequences in Bollywood are random and does not necessarily have to follow the plot. They can be used to enhance emotions, cover time lapses or even just to add value to the movie. These sequences are so important that sometimes a movie maybe a hit just because of a single good song. “Every time you come to a point of intense feelings, you see if a song will convey it better. If you don’t have enough situations for songs, then you have to create them” says Anjum Rajabali, a Bollywood screenwriter since the early 1990s.[10]
To demonstrate how effective the song and dance sequence in Hindi movies can be, we can look at the examples of “Umrao Jaan”, that has been remade twice first in 1981 and then 2006. “Umrao Jaan” is the story of a famous courtesan of the same name and the difficulties she faces in being accepted in society. Looking at the two clips from a decade apart it is apparent that the movies treat and use the same styles for the dance of the courtesans.

“Devdas” is another popular tale of love gone awry. It is based on the 1917 Bengali novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and follows the story of Devdas, a young man in love with his childhood sweetheart, Paro. Unable to marry her due to their vast class and caste differences, he turns to alcohol and a dancing girl/prostitute Chandramukhi who falls in love with him. Unable to contain his sorrows, Devdas eventually succumbs to alcohol and dies on Paro’s doorstep. The movie was first made as a silent film in 1928, then remade in 1935, 1955 and 2002 and then 2009. Though the 2009 version differed with a happier ending and also showcases a more modern dilemma, though the 2009 “Devd” is a grittier look at this old story it became a commercial success due to its catchy tunes and lyrics. The posters of these movies are remarkably similar.

Bollywood has also seen many “art” movies i.e. movies that do not use any song/dance numbers or are shot in a more “indie” style but these are mostly never commercial successes though they maybe critically acclaimed. Bollywood may be becoming modern and changing with the times but the music and dance sequences are timeless and will always be an essential part of these “Masalaedar” movies.

1. Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood a Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
3.The Hindu : Friday Review Thiruvananthapuram / Cinema : When the Stars Talked.” The Hindu : Front Page News : Sunday, October 03, 2010. Web. 03 Oct. 2010.
4.”India’s First Talkie Film Alam Ara Lost Forever – Movies News News – IBNLive.” CNN-IBN, Live India News,Top Breaking News,World,India,Business,Sports, Entertainment & Health News. Web. 03 Oct. 2010. .
5. Shedde, Meenakshi. “Bollywood Cinema: Making Elephants Fly.” Cineaste 2006. Print.
6. Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood a Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
7. Ibid.
8. Shedde, Meenakshi. “Bollywood Cinema: Making Elephants Fly.” Cineaste 2006. Print.
9. Czitrom, Daniel J. Media: from Morse to McLuhan and the American Mind. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982. Print.
10. Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood a Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Challenges of doing this assignment:

The biggest challenge I faced in doing this assignment came at the very end. It was while trying to find an appropriate method to cite my sources. I had not realized that it is a different process to use footnotes in a blog. This took me almost four hours to figure out and finally I realized that it had to be done manually using html codes, which I am not familiar with. Besides that there was also a lot of challenge trying to understand how to insert youtube videos/pictures into the post but these issues were easier to solve and had comprehensive tools that could be used. Due to the problems faced with the citing of sources I feel like it does not work as cleanly as an academic paper would have. Also, visiting a friend with really slow Internet brought home the fact how dependent we have got on a fast Internet connection. But overall, it was fun and interesting to do a project where I used multimedia to try and put across my point. It also made me think more visually and plan in advance the clips or possible media I would want to use for this post and what resources were available to me.


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