"Slumdog Millionaire," which comes out today on DVD, has focused worldwide attention on the bustling Indian film industry. As a country, it produces more movies than any other including the United States. Ironically, "Slumdog Millionaire" is technically a British movie, with a British director and producer. But it was filmed in Mumbai, which used to be called Bombay, and that's where the "B" in Bollywood comes from.
Like Hollywood, it's more of a description than a place. Though only a small part of the Indian film industry, it's the best known for several reasons. Bollywood films are in Hindi, the official language of the government in a country that has 23 languages. And it refers to popular movies, many of which are musicals, as opposed to the more serious "art" films.
"This whole notion of Bollywood is a recent invention that was applied to the Hindi-language cinema in the mid 1990s," says David Schaefer, a communications professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Currently on sabbatical in Singapore to lead a research project on Indian film, Dr. Schaefer notes that "Slumdog" opened to mixed reviews in India.
"Some critics liked it a lot, but some thought it was very demeaning, a very negative stereotype of India. They were displeased at the way it presented Indian culture. The biggest criticism seemed to be that it showed the slums as a really horrible place, without depicting the entrepreneurship that goes on there."
Filmed in "hinglish," (half-English, half Hindi) the movie nonetheless has played throughout the country and boasts one of India's biggest stars, Anil Kapoor (the game show host). A boom in the building of multiplex theaters, which were introduced to India in 1999, has created a need for more movies than the old single-screen "cinema halls." Then 200 movies could fill every screen in India. Today annual production is around 800 films, with 150 to 200 made in Mumbai and 180 to 220 in Tamil-speaking Chennai (formerly Madras).
But the biggest change is in the number of American films being shown, and the looser morality they portray. In the age of satellite TV, the chaste kisses that still managed to shock Indian audiences have been replaced by far worse. Films are censored in order to be "licensed," but their impact on Indian culture is certain to be profound.