Hollywood vs. Bollywood: Only the Names Look and Sound Alike

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
April 13th, 2012

Hollywood vs. Bollywood: Only the Names Look and Sound Alike

--The Indian film industry that is colloquially referred to as Bollywood is actually older than its American counterpart that gave rise to this popular moniker. Whereas the American film industry only reached Hollywood, California in 1910, Bombay, today called Mumbai but still responsible for the first letter in Bollywood, became the main locale for Indian film production in 1899.

Whereas Hollywood represents glistening fantasies, many of the plots of Bollywood films, grandiose though they may be, are actually deeply rooted in Indian culture and history that can be as ancient as the very founding of India or as recent as the period of British rule. Hollywood has invented American culture, whereas Bollywood is simply a somewhat exaggerated and dramatized portrayal of authentic Indian culture, set to music that is unmistakably Indian even if it is composed specifically for the film sector.

Some of the very first Bollywood scripts were indeed based on the almost sacred ancestral historical literature of India. While the same could be said about some Hollywood movies, such as The Ten Commandments or many docudramas based on American history, there is a great deal of difference between how Indian and American filmmakers treat historical material.
Indian films treat historical material with a sort of reverence, whereas American films often commercialize and distort history through over-dramatization and seeming anachronisms. While this characterization of American historical films pertains more to older ones, it still continues today. Certainly, Indian historical films have little in common with the overly heroic Westerns of old, but they also do not really compare to a docudrama such as Erin Brockovich, even when the heroine of the Indian film is a flawed and real person similar to the subject of that classical American docudrama.

The genre of music composed for Indian movies is very authentically Indian, just as some of the top stars of Bollywood, such as Madhuri Dixit, are trained in the classical Indian dance that is the basis for their on-screen dance performances. The classically based dance performances that are an integral part of many Bollywood movies are often as much of a draw for Indian movie audiences as are the plots or stars of those movies. On the other hand, Hollywood musical scores, along with any dancing that may appear in an American movie, are often composed with an eye toward instant commercial success. American popular musical hit lists have often seen movie tunes reach their very pinnacle, to the point that the soundtracks of some musically oriented movies become best-selling albums even if the films themselves were only modestly successful.

That is not to say that Indian movie soundtracks do not also take on lives of their own, but when they do, they usually do so on their own merits, and it is indeed expected that a top Bollywood movie will have a top soundtrack to match. The difference is that fans of music and dance in India may well choose to see a film that has little to appeal to them in the plot department only because of the appearance of a group of classically trained dancers who perform new interpretations of classical Indian dance to music that may be brand new but is clearly based on classic themes.

In short, Hollywood makes American culture, whereas Bollywood reflects and popularizes a native and historical Indian culture. Perhaps the reason for the difference is that the United States is a nation of immigrants that has created a very successful commercial culture, whereas India is a country with a rich, native history that strives to preserve this history as it joins the world that is symbolized by the commercial and global Hollywood culture. Thanks to worldwide cultural exchange, as made possible by technologies developed in both America and India, the very same globalization that has brought Hollywood to the land of Bollywood is also transporting the unique culture of Bollywood to Hollywood and beyond.