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Bollywood @ National Geographic Magazine
By Suketu MehtaPhotographs by William Albert Allard

For sheer pizzazz—and number of pictures produced—India's over-the-top film industry, known as Bollywood, easily out-hollywoods Hollywood.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A movie set outside Mumbai. It's after midnight on a sweltering June night. A balding man booms commands into a microphone. The camera zooms in on a group of dancers as they swirl around a huge bonfire in front of a temple adorned with tinsel and fairy lights. A song slowly starts. . . .
Veteran film director Yash Chopra, an amiable man of 72, is directing a scene in which Veer is taking Zaara to meet his relatives in his village during a folk festival. We are in Film City, a 500-acre (200-hectare) wonderland of fake mansions, poverty-stricken villages, schoolhouses, and police stations on the outskirts of Mumbai, where many of the big-budget Bollywood films are shot. Production costs for Indian films are a fraction of Hollywood budgets, though the use of megastars and elaborate sets is starting to narrow the gap. For Veer-Zaara, Yash and his 33-year-old son, Aditya, have re-created Yash's home state of Punjab, bringing in Sikh dancers from the villages, whose colorful turbans make them look like peacocks.
Yash's half-century filmmaking career has produced a string of box-office hits, and his film company, Yash Raj Films, is the most successful in Bollywood. These days, Yash and Aditya work in sync: Aditya writes the story, Yash directs it. On the sets Yash sits in front, issuing orders; Aditya watches from behind a monitor.
Aditya says he wrote the story of Veer-Zaara as a vehicle for his father to return to his Punjabi roots. Born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, Yash moved with his family to the Punjabi city of Jullundur when he was a boy. He came to Bombay in 1951 to work with his older brother in the film business. After decades in the city, Yash still prefers Punjabi food and speaks with a thick Punjabi accent. He is a rustic man in a glamorous world.
The secret to Bollywood's worldwide appeal, says Yash, is that its films are "wholesome"—his favorite word. The Indian government has given him four national awards in the category of "Best Film for Providing Popular and Wholesome Entertainment." He won't allow kissing in his movies. "If a boy loves a girl in India," he says, "they feel shy of kissing in public." In most Bollywood films, if two lovers want to thwart an arranged marriage, they can't just elope; they have to win over the disapproving parents. In Veer-Zaara, the hero and heroine never even touch each other, except in a fantasy song sequence.
During the 1960s and '70s, Yash introduced many elements now considered staples of the Bollywood film: romantic plots, lavish costumes and sets, catchy songs sung in exotic locales. "In Hollywood they call these films musicals," he says. "Here, every film is a musical." He has shot multiple scenes in the Alps, transporting generations of celluloid lovers to frolic in the Interlaken—a substitute for predominantly Muslim Kashmir, which is the Indian idea of a honeymoon paradise but where filming would be too risky because of the continuing conflict that has riven the region since partition.
Yash has just come back from a scouting trip in Switzerland, where, he boasts, he didn't spend a single franc because the Swiss government hosted him. "Everything on the house," he says with the glee of a producer who's spent his life making budgets stretch. The Swiss have given him an award for the contribution his films have made to tourism, and a lake where he often shoots is known as Chopra Lake.
Now in Mumbai a crew of hundreds is working through the night to complete the scene in which Veer brings his sweetheart home. Next to Yash on the set is Amitabh Bachchan, the actor who is playing Veer's uncle. A larger-than-life figure in Bollywood for decades, Amitabh was ranked the "greatest star of stage or screen" in a BBC online vote in 1999, winning out over Chaplin, Olivier, and Brando. He is sitting on four plastic chairs stacked on top of each other, their arms bound by packing tape, because he needs a high chair to keep his long legs comfortable. When Amitabh gets up to dance with the others, it seems slightly undignified, this icon of the cinema—and hero of my childhood—having to perform MTV-inspired dances at the age of 63. The moves seem slightly stale to me: The dancers throw their arms about, twirl, throw out their arms again. But when Amitabh comes back to his improvised throne and watches the replay of the song on a monitor, he's clearly pleased. "We are too much," he says, laughing. "We are unbelievable!"

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Throw yourself into Veer-Zaara, Bollywood's latest celluloid love story, as seen in this movie trailer. Then listen to samplings from the soundtrack.

Follow photographer William Albert Allard through the exploits of India's film world.

What is the attraction of Bollywood's music-laced films? And could the recently released big-screen tale of two lovers from India and Pakistan have an impact on relations between the enemy nations?

Learn about Lollywood, Pakistan's not-so-stellar movie industry, from a Pakistani who grew up with it.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Bollywood adds spice to Austen
Bollywood is not confined to the telling of timeless Hindi and Persian tales; classic English literature can also be given the Bollywood touch. As the October 2004 release of Bride and Prejudice proved, this twist can be highly successful. Upon release, the film whizzed straight to the box-office top spot in both the U.K. and Ireland.
As can be guessed by the title, Bride and Prejudice is an adaptation of the famous Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. Though not a quintessential Bollywood movie (it is in English for a start), it proves that Bollywood-style movies are successfully breaking down the wall that separates them from their namesake Hollywood. A further testament to its success: Googling the film brought over a 100,000 hits.
Bride stars Aishwarya Rai, who is featured in our magazine article, a former Miss World and well-known Bollywood star. This was her first film entirely in English.
No pasta required: strictly a curry Western
The Western theme has been given many twists, most notably that of the so-called spaghetti Western. There is also the Indian, or curry Western, as embodied by the ´70s-era film Sholay. Though longer than John Wayne's swagger at over three hours, it bears all the essentials of Bollywood, including the trademark song and dance scenes. Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood superstar featured in our magazine, is one of Sholay's many stars.
When it was released on Indian Independence Day in 1975, Sholay proved any nay-sayers who thought the curry Western would never succeed absolutely wrong. It remained India's highest grossing movie for over 20 years.
Because its story line was relatively familiar to Western audiences, Sholay was one of the first Bollywood movies in what was traditionally a Hollywood genre to find success.
—David O'Connor
Did You Know?

Related Links
Yash Raj Films
Learn more about the movie Veer-Zaara and the people featured in our article on Yash Raj Production's own website. Featuring movie trailers and music.
Planet Bollywood?
Find a great introduction to Bollywood and its workings in David Chute's LA Weekly article.
Salaam Bombay,6903,679966,00.html
Read an in-depth article about Mumbai (Bombay) and Bollywood's place in it by Neil Spencer of the Observer newspaper.
Indian Musicals
As part of its New Americans series, PBS details some of Bollywood's better known productions.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry offers the details of movie director Yash Chopra's life and work.
International Movie Database
This is a one-stop shop for everything movies, from King Kong to Shah Rukh Khan
Star of the Millennium
See the results of the BBC News Start of the Millennium online poll, which was mentioned in our article.
The Partition of India
Explore a  website detailing the traumatic partitioning of India in the late 1940s, the effects of which resonate through to today.


Buscombe, Edward. Cinema Today. Phaidon Press Limited, 2003.
Chopra, Anupama. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. British Film Institute, 2002.
Dwyer, Rachel. Yash Chopra. British Film Institute, 2002.
Kabir, Nasreen M. Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story. Channel 4 Books, 2001.
Keay, John. India: A History. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.
Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Knopf, 2004.
Pendakur, Manjunath. Indian Popular Cinema: Industry, Ideology and Consciousness.
Hampton Press Inc., 2003.
Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Torgovnik, Jonathan. Bollywood Dreams. Phaidon Press Limited, 2003.


NGS Resources
McCourt, Malachy. "Places of a Lifetime: Bombay." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2000), 126-30.
McCarry, John. "Bombay: India's Capital of Hope." National Geographic (March 1995), 42-67.
Scofield, John. "Bombay, the Other India." National Geographic (July 1981), 104-29.


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