Rajinder Dudrah says Hindi film tropes are slowly giving way to more complex plots about the lives of Indian characters around the world.
Bollywood moving away from the same old song and dance
"We're at a stage now where a 'scholarship on Bollywood' has emerged over the last 10 to 15 years," says Rajinder Dudrah, a senior lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester, England. "Not only in the national press, but in the international press, film press, trade press, journalistic press - there is a sense of Bollywood. Bollywood has arrived."
Dudrah's new book, Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema, aims to debunk some of the myths that have developed over this time, using the notion of travel analytically to comment on films that have tackled in new ways subjects such as the Indo-Pak border, representations of diaspora, and gender and sexuality. It shows how Bollywood has been a rapidly growing global phenomenon for more than 15 years, and asserts that, just as Bollywood has increased its exposure internationally, the topics and ethos of the films now being produced have also morphed.
The book focuses on four recent Bollywood films: Shah Rukh Khan's bodyguard drama Main Hoon Na (2004); Yash Chopra's romantic tale Vee-Zaara (2004), which also stars SRK; Shaad Ali Sahgal's 2007 tale Jhoom Barabar Jhoom about two strangers who meet at a train station; and Dostana (2008), in which Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham play young men pretending to be more than just friends to persuade an interfering mother that they are suitable candidates to share an apartment with a beautiful young woman (Priyanka Chopra).
One of the strongest arguments Dudrah makes is that the films tell stories revolving around Indians living abroad, not only because it's a clever way to tap into the global market but because these films make a strong cultural impact, giving directors the freedom to talk about issues that are socially relevant and pertinent to the country. Dostana, for example, set in Miami, Florida, cleverly plays with the boundaries of gender.
"One of the ways in which people see Bollywood is in this kind of linear direction," says Dudrah. "It's the homeland; Indians and South Asians around the world watch these films; the films teach us to be good citizens and to respect our parents. Then there's the importance of family, so integral to our culture, which features in most films.
"But I think the way in which Bollywood has 'travelled' and grown, the way in which audiences grab on to these films and watch them, is actually more complex."
This has led to the notion of a change in how the Indian diaspora is represented. No longer are Hindi films only about the need to go back to one's homeland, but are beginning to reflect - and comment - on the lives of Indians around the world, as in the case of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.
One of the significant changes, Dudrah maintains, is Bollywood's perception of the India-Pakistan relationship.
"In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a period of - excuse the phrase - Paki-bashing," explains Dudrah. "A lot of films spewed war rhetoric. There also were many films with a nationalistic, sometimes conservative political view.
"In the films I look at, I think there's a genuine move to embrace various audiences across South Asia, and to think about the different possibilities for this geopolitical region. These films actually are talking about peace."
Some of this transformation has come about through the increased willingness to allow Indian films to be shown in Pakistan, and vice versa.
Dudrah also examines the effect social media has had on the Hindi film industry, most notably the interaction between film stars and audiences. Some of the tweets he cites feature Salman Khan's attempts to push the idea that the name Bollywood is a misnomer; that Bollywood is much more than single-genre singing and dancing films; and that the industry should, instead, call itself "Hi-Fi" (short for "Hindi Films").
Dudrah himself argues that Bollywood is only a cog in a far bigger film industry, and that films of various genres have been appearing in the past decade.
The book has created a debate in certain circles. Ashanti Omkar, the Bollywood editor of Cineworld Cinemas' Unlimited magazine, says of the book: "Bollywood Travels is an interesting introspection in the land of Bollywood, albeit a rather tough, academia-infused read."
Omkar also praises Dudrah's deep research into various fields and his analysis of the industry, revealing Bollywood movies to be not just about entertainment but selling products and commodities to the public at large.
The fact that academics are taking a deeper interest in Bollywood is recognition of the vibrancy and growing import of popular Hindi cinema today.
Bollywood Travels is published by Routledge.