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Narrative traits in Indian cinema Essay

In a nation that produces around 800 films a year Indian people see films a a very important part of their culture. For Indian people “cinema is integral to their lives; it is not a distant, two to three hour distraction, but an explicit life-style for them.”(Jaya Ramanathan). The large screen provides an alternative, an escape from the realities of day-to-day life. The protagonists are totally identified with, the hero is applauded, the virtuous is worshipped and the villain is condemned. The actors and actresses are household names; there is no escaping their omnipresence. Through this essay I will try to examine what makes Indian cinema Indian. By that I mean what narrative and visual traits are intrinsic to Indian cinema and have little relevance to cinema of America or Europe.

The subjects I am going to look at are the song and dance routine, how it came about, what it means and why it’s so important to Indian cinema. I will look at the treatment of women and how sexuality of women is represented in Indian cinema, the importance of the actor within Indian society and will briefly look at the use of costumes and elaborate sets used within the Indian film industry. First I will briefly consider some traits associated with American and European cinema as to see how these cinema types differ from that of India.

The cinema industry in Europe has a highly complex make-up, reflecting the cultural and expressive diversity of individual nations. If, on the one hand, the quantitative production levels of Europe’s cinema industry have remained high (at roughly 600 full-length features a year, on a par with the United States, However only a minority of European titles manage to cross the borders of their country of origin. This is one major difference from Indian film with it having one of the highest worldly distribution figures off all cinemas.

Hollywood makes films for the public, and if the public’s tastes change then Hollywood films will also change. They pay money to have their ideals massaged and their values reaffirmed. And if Americans won’t pay money for it, then Hollywood doesn’t want to sell it. The narrative of Hollywood films’ is a straight plot, in which nothing is left unclear, unsettling or unexplained and every shot is justified by a link to strictest cause and effect. Hollywood films are often viewed as dulling the mind. This is far from the case in Indian cinema where the plot is created with the aim of making people think about what has happened, this is often applied to their own lives in some way.

In America people generally view films for mere entertainment where as Indian people watch films and use the moral codes implied within the narrative to better their own lives. Special effects, violence, and actors’ names are often major themes that bring Americans to the movies. While most Hollywood films are made purely for entertainment value, many foreign films are entertaining as well as forcing the viewer think and question their surroundings at the same time.

In India, movies are more than simply entertainment. They are dreams, escape, fantasy and alternative realities – a necessity in dealing with the drudge of everyday existence and routine. Especially now that they have the cinematography, acting, scripting and associated parts down like a science – to the point of stretching the limits of imagination and modifying what “is” into another realm altogether. While perhaps lacking in the area of Western sophistication, this lack is probably the biggest advantage Indian films have over the rest of the World. They are simply fun to watch. Indians enjoy seeing people interacting with each other and the films reflect societal practices and norms.

The form of Indian cinema has a great deal to do with how popular entertainment has been traditionally perceived and defined in India. “Entertainment is quantified as a combination of the essence of the nine basic emotions. Complete entertainment is possible only when the nine emotions, love, hate, joy, sorrow, pity, disgust, fear, anger and compassion, are blended expertly in different ways around a predominant emotion. The main emotion could be love, joy, hate or compassion, but if not complemented by the others, is neither defined nor experienced.” (V. Damodaran & M. Unnithan-Kumar)

There are certain traits that are commonly associated with Bollywood movies. These include:

“XExtensive use of other performing arts such as singing and dancing

“X Treatment/representation of women

“XThe importance of the Actor within society

“XThemes centred on Moral values and cultural struggles

“XLarge studio sets with elaborate decoration & elaborate and brightly coloured costumes

Bollywood is a term used to describe the Indian film industry, the largest in the world in terms of film production. In 1990 India produced 800+ films (more than two a day). Bollywood’s cinema going audience, in India, Pakistan and elsewhere is also one of the biggest in the world.

Song & Dance

Indian films are known all over the world, but ask an English or American person and they will probably say Indian films are about singing and dancing. If you ask someone in the Middle East they may say Indian films revolve around action and if you ask someone elsewhere in Asia they often define Indian movies as love stories. So, overall it is probably Westerners who most of all see Indian movies as just song-and-dance. This is probably partly down to ignorance on our behalf and also due to the fact that musical film has been largely abandoned in Europe and America, or it is defined under its own genre ‘musical’ which often deters people from watching.. Therefore I feel this is a good place to start in terms of considering what makes Indian film different from American or European film.

The narrative structure of popular Indian films is punctuated with songs and dances, usually around six songs. The origins of this tradition can be traced back to the ballets in Indian dance-drama. These song and dances are often referred to as filmi music (a desi word) . Song and dance can have many narrative functions within an Indian film. It can be used to show the emotions and show the real interiority of characters. These song and dance sequences are more often than not used as merely musical interludes or rest periods between the dialogues of the film. The music director’s main effort in the film is to compose attractive melodies set to often fine lyrics of a high literary quality. In early Indian film the heroes and heroines sang their way through the four hour movie. The acting quality and appearance of the character counted for little as it was singing talent that was important. To this day the Indian film song has a unique thrill.

The music director, the songwriter and the playback singers have an unparalleled status in India. These song and dance sequences have played a very important part in Indian films since their birth, around 1913, and they have contained some of the best Urdu and Hindi poetry within its lyrics – this was especially the case during the 1950′ and 1960’s period of filmmaking. This era was considered the golden era in this genre with films such as Pakeezah (purity), directed by Kamaal Amrohi, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, directed by Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram as excellent examples of the use of song and dance. The most popular form of music in India still continues to be the film song.

In the last few years, the market for popular music has grown massively. “Today, it is not unusual for films to be designed around a set of songs rather than the other way around. There is an increasing trend to use the narrative of a film simply as a string to hang song and dance numbers, much like a music hall revue. With the new audiovisual technology available, they can often resemble an extended music video peppered with action and dialogue.”(V. Damodaran & M. Unnithan-Kumar)

Indian cinema has some of the best song and dance sequences in the world cinema and often excels Hollywood musicals through the way in which they link their dialogue and musical lyrics. Examples of this quality can be seen in the work of Guru Dutt in films such as Pyaasa (1957) which he Directed, wrote, produced and also starred in. This film is interesting because the songs are often inserted in the story itself, (apart from the Guru Dutt-Mala Sinha duet scene) and are not only musical picturizations of fantasies, dreams, etc., as it is often the case in later Bollywood films. Examples of his song sequences rival the best in world cinema and in many cases excel the Hollywood musical in the subtle linking of dialogue and lyric. These directors transformed the film song into an art form and confirmed that music was Indian cinema’s greatest strength. Even today, Indian filmmakers are aware that their moment of cinematic glory can come from the songs. Every decade since the 1950s, a huge majority of films that would otherwise have been completely forgotten are saved by a marvellous musical sequence in which melody, lyrics, camera movements, choreography and performance combine to magical effect.

More than anything the phenomenon of song and dance gives Indian Cinema its unique identity. Unlike Hollywood, where the ‘Musical’ was a separate genre by itself, song and dance has been an integral part of the narrative in Indian Cinema be it in any language or whichever genre often leading and us Westerners often describe them as Indian musicals – often not realised by us that almost every different genre of Indian film contains song and dance.

Film songs have been used to express all aspects of Indian life – weddings, funerals, state occasions, religious festivals, parades, parties or political conventions. Over the years, The Indian film song has evolved and many critics say that it has no reached perfection. Consequently film music is by far the most popular brand of music in India. Film makers have realised the importance of the song and dance in their films. Even today with all the visual aspects of the Indian films such as costume and sets, the song is often the single factor that determines the success or failure of a film in India.

Stars of Indian films are often seen as heroes and are idolised. Nasreen Munni Kabir tells us how “people want to act, talk and look like their idols. In every decade, barbers have been asked to give their clients an Ashok Kumar, or Dilip Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan cut and tailors have always been told to copy the clothes of the beautiful Madhubala or Aishwarya Rai”. Until the early 90s, star gossip was almost exclusively reported in the dozens of film magazines but now interest in the world of cinema is so extensive that virtually every daily newspaper devotes endless print space to who is doing what in Bollywood.

Representation of Women & Sexuality

In early Indian cinema codes of practise followed by performing arts were also applied to the film industry. One ‘rule’ was that women of high reputation discouraged from working on screen as it was considered unacceptable by society for women to perform to perform in front of men whom were total strangers. As a result of this rule men played the roles of women. Nasreen Munni Kabir2, in his book Bollywood: The Indian cinema story, discusses how women were only gradually accepted in theatre but soon after the production of films in India women became increasing willing to act on screen, however Muslim or Hindu actresses were often frowned upon and thought to have not come from good families. This was not the case for Jewish or Christian actresses; these were seen as being above this type of criticism because of their religion.

According to the Manusmriti, an ancient classical work dealing with laws, ethics, and morality, a woman should be subject to her father in childhood, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead, to her children. Within the guidelines of the Manusmriti, women do not enjoy independence. Women are supposed to adhere to the role of a happy figure that takes care of the household. They are supposed to be obedient to their husbands and go to every length to honour them even after death. These ethics were transferred to film and the role of the woman in Indian films is often one of extreme loyalty towards her father, husband and children. The female character is often a centrepiece to a narrative with other, predominantly male characters working around her.

In traditional Indian Society, there are certain prescribed roles which regulate the conduct of women. For example, the conception of the woman as Sita is prevalent in Indian society and film. Sita is a character in the Ramayana, one of the great epics, which embodies values and the differences between right and wrong. She is the wife of Rama, who is representative of many virtues including honor, courage, and loyalty. Much of Indian popular cinema is influenced by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, another epic, which involves the hero Lord Krishna. Sita is the ideal woman and wife that sees her husband as an idol. Indian popular cinema represents this role of the ideal wife’s admiration and unfaltering respect.

In a great deal of popular Indian Cinema the role of the women can be separated into four categories. The four categories to consider include the ideal wife, ideal mother, the vamp, and the courtesan (Dissanayake 77).

The Ideal Wife (often Heroine)

This character is represented by sexual purity and fidelity. The wife must be consistent with traditional Indian roles by honouring the family and depending on the husband. The definintion of the heroine in early Indian films was closely linked with mythological charaters. Nasreen Munni Kabir uses the virtous Sati Savitri as the perfect model of the women. Savitri is famous in mythology for bringing back her husband from the clutches of Yam, the god of death through her endless devotion to him. From that moment on all portrayals of women in cinema were measured against Savitri.

Heriones were almost always seen as virtuous, weepy, helpless characters whose sole existence relied upon the presence of a man in her life – husband, brother or father. If the heroine were not married then it was assumed that she was a virgin. The basic idea in all Indian films from 1930’s to the present day is that the heroine will finally get her man. Rani Mukerji states “The ultimate goal of the heroine is to get her man in the end…This may not be shared by the hero. Whether it’s a comedy, a romantic film, an action film, a horror film – you always have romance winning in the end”.

The Ideal Mother

Indian reference to the mother involves religious suggestion. The country is connected with the mother goddess, Shakti, who represents great strength. The role of the mother in Indian film is often seen as a strong force, such as in Mother India. This film showcased the Indian Woman completely with her strength and emotions. (1957). Radha (Nargis) is a mother, who is left to look after her sons after her husband leaves out of shame of not being able to fend for his family, due to an accident. Radha throughout the film faces many struggles, raising three boys, fighting poverty and debt, as well as other tragedy in the family. She is a representation of the mother being strong and the backbone of any family. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India is really a great tribute to an Indian woman.

The Vamp

The vamp in Indian film is modern and imitates western women and is usually more of an equal partner to the man than the heroine. Her stereotypical behaviour can include smoking, drinking, and dancing. She represents unacceptable behaviour and is seen as unwholesome and is almost always punished for her behaviour. Indian films are representative of Indian society…from beginning to end it is full of values…The character of the vamp is used to pass judgement on sections of society that are not acceptable to the traditional middle class…The middle class always pats itself on the back when it see ‘the vamp’: ‘Oh see, she’s smoking and drinking and she’s wearing those skimpy clothes. My daughter in doesn’t, mother doesn’t etc.”( Archana Puran Singh) These images help the middle classes reaffirm their faith in their own values. An example of this type of woman is the character of Chandramukhi, a prositue in the film Devdas (P.C. Barua) whom falls in love with Devdas (hero) however, he loves Paro. There is one film that goes against moral convention in Indian cinema, with the hero choosing to fall in love and end up with the vamp – Guru Dutts Pyassa.

The Courtesan

The courtesan is outside the normal realm of Indian womanhood she is a type of dancing girl. She embodies sexuality. She is a character who helps with the physical and emotional needs of men. Often in Indian film, she gives the man comfort and care, after which, he leaves her to desperately mourn the loss of him. Archana Puran Singh explains the difference between the vamp and the courtesan “The difference is that the vamp has choices. The courtesan is someone who had no choice in being a courtesan. …there is always said to be a sad story behind her.” Indians are therefore sympathetic towards this character whereas the vamp is frowned upon. “If the courtesan is performing a dance it’s not out of choice and amazingly very often the courtesan remains a virgin with purity of mind and body”. The hero is attracted to her because she represents a forbidden aspect of sexuality, one not shown in the heroine, but shown often too much in the vamp. The hero can watch her and she often will fall in love with him – often causing confusion in communication causing what is often depicted in Indian cinema – The love triangle.

Although Indian cinema continues to change and evolve, reflecting new trends in gender relations, at least in very traditional Indian cinema women who live by these traditional norms are portrayed as happy and ethical. Women who go against these rules of narrative and culture in film are punished and seen as immoral.

Indian films never show scenes of a sexual nature; even kissing was unknown in Indian film for a long time, however, this is not to say that Indian films lack passion and desire. The women in Indian films are often the focus of male desire. Public displays of affection are associated with western life and tend to be omitted from Indian film. Although more recent films often include scenes of overt sexual relations, traditionally Indian film has used three techniques to convey this sexuality as categorized by Richards as tribal dress, dream sequences/wet saris, and behind the bush.

Tribal Dress

Because many Indian films involve music and dance, Richards explains, “tribal costumes are used for the exposure of vast expanses of the body, in particular the pelvic region” ( Dissanayake ).

Dream Sequences/Wet Sari

Dreams offer the ability to express sexual desires and explore forbidden pleasure. Wet saris are often involved in these dreams and are caused by a downpour in which the woman’s flimsy sari allows for exposure of the female body. Dance director Lollipop, known for choreographing the song ‘Aati Kya khandala’ in the film Ghulum (Vikram Bhatt, 1998) notes that “the wet sari must not only have the heroine wearing a sari but the hero wearing a cap so that the rain falls in front of his eyes” this is a sequence that has become a audience expectation.

Psychotherapist Udayan Patel has his own views on this wet sari dance. “The gyrations are repeated and the use of the eyes and lips, all suggest overt sexuality. In our culture, we are split between living through private imaginations and social behaviour. .. . There is no kiss, there is no sex. If its explicit they people cant ignore it and parents will say it’s a bad film. I don’t think producers want this as they would lose big audiences. So sexuality is expressed through dance and the movement you of sexual intercourse without touching or kissing.”

Behind the Bush

The music and dance in films often gives characters the opportunity to run behind the bushes quickly. Afterwards the woman wipes off her lips, insinuating what occurred.

Importance of actor within society

There are high levels of devotion and hero worship towards leading stars of Indian cinema. People want to act, talk and look like their idols. In every decade, barbers have been asked to give their clients an Ashok Kumar or Dilip Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan Cut and tailors have always been told to copy the clothes of the beautiful Madhubala or Aishwarya Rai. Until the early 90s, star gossip was almost exclusively reported in the dozens of film magazines but now interest in the world of cinema is so extensive that virtually every daily newspaper devotes endless print space to whom is doing what in Bollywood.

It is not only in terms of magazines and haircuts that these people are followed, it has been known for highly acclaimed actors or actresses to become members of government, as it is believed that because people follow them on screen and idolise them then this will be the case in government where they can actively change the lives of their fans and society in general. One example of this occurrence is with Shabana Azmi. Shabana is an internationally acclaimed actress, Member of the Indian Parliament, and UN Goodwill Ambassador. She is the winner of an unprecedented five National Awards for Best Actress in India for the films Ankur (1974), Arth (1983), Khandhar (1984), Paar (1985), and Godmother (1999).

She is also an extremely vocal and committed social activist, for which she was presented the Rajiv Gandhi Award as well as the Yash Bhartiya award from the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Most significantly she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988 by the Government of India, an award given to eminent citizens for excellence in their field and distinguished contribution to society. She describes why she was driven into politics after movie making. “What ultimately drove me towards politics was this essential contradiction: if the whole purpose of art is to sensitize people, how can you say that this sensitivity is only going to be directed towards yourself and giving a better performance? This is simply not possible since the best resources of an actor must come from life itself. So when you are in films playing characters struggling with social injustice and exploitation, then a time comes when you can no longer treat your work like a nine-to-five job. I could not think that as of 6:00pm everyday, I would no longer concern myself with the lives of the people I choose to play. This turn came about some time in the early-80s” (Shabana Azmi)

Moral Values & Cultural struggles

Indian movies usually centre around moral values and binary oppositions such as unconditional love, the conflict between fathers and sons, revenge, redemption, the hero, the villain, survival against the odds, the importance of honour and self-respect, and the mission to uphold religious and moral values – grand themes that Hollywood generally leaves to the now rarely produced epic.

The characterizations in Indian films are often based on archetypes of good and evil. Here are some examples of this binary opposition in Indian film:




Indian societyWesternisation


Love Loneliness

Ever Indian film shows a struggle between at least one set of these oppositions above. Independence films had tended to deal with the confrontation of Western culture with Indian tradition. Westernization was seen as an aspect of colonialism. Western values were considered inimical and threatening to Indian familial social tradition. Villains tended to wear western clothes; westernized women were seen as vamps. In the hero versus villain situation, it was always the villain who was westernized and therefore, depraved and perverse. The Indian tradition was seen as being liberating and also the sole repository of moral and social values.

Costumes & Setting

Other key contributors to Indian film are the set and costume designs. There is a huge demand for exciting, colourful action scenes as this has great appeal for the young male audience. This is also how the handful of set and costume designers work. In the Bollywood movie, set design can range from the rickety and make-shift to the elaborate and lavish. Costume design has always been important but never as much as in today’s culture of glamour and beauty. Bollywood designers have become so trendy that many create clothes for exclusive weddings of the ultra rich as a side line.

The unique style of Indian cinema is explored through an analysis of the mis-en-scene of the film itself–the locations, the sets and costumes–and shows how they, along with the song and dance sequences, construct the ‘look’ and meaning of a film. Use of hairstyles and make-up is examined in the context of representations of the body in order to explore changing ideas of beauty and sexuality within the film genre.


From this essay I can conclude that Indian film is very different from that of American or European films in many ways. Some of these being:

*Indian cinema is more socially challenging than American cinema

*Indian film delivers messages about how Indian people should live their lives

*Indian cinema treats women as objects inferior to men

*Women are stereotyped either good or bad ( heroine or tramp)

*Indian cinema always has romance

*Indian cinema does not use spectactular specil effects

*Indian cinema does not include any sexual relations

*Indian cinema focuses around song and dance

Eventually, Americans and British alike can begin to appreciate a more intellectual type of film such as the films popular in India. We need to learn to be willing to open our minds to new possibilities and new ideas. Once we are willing to think for ourselves occasionally, Hollywood can stand out as the film capitol it supposedly is

While Indian cinema is unique to Indian culture and history, its energetic style, the emotional appeal of its themes, the glamorous lifestyles portrayed, the enduring melodies and lush settings, all contribute to its increasing popularity worldwide.

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