Explore Bollywood’s journey from dazzling heights in the 90s to unexpected lows in the 2020s. Discover what’s went so wrong behind the glitz and glamour.
Close your eyes and take a trip down memory lane – back to the golden age of Bollywood, when it was India’s heart and soul. Well, they say Bollywood’s golden age was the 60s, but millennials will agree with me that it was 80s-90s – but that debate is for another article.
Those were the days when every cultural shift was reflected in the silver screen, and Bollywood stars were our ultimate role models. We waited for the release of every new movie, knew the lyrics of every hit song by heart, and could enact every iconic scene flawlessly. We knew the names of every screenwriter, playback singer, and director.
But alas, the times have changed, and so has Bollywood. So today, I think I’ll write what is kinda on everyone’s minds already, and explore the rise and fall of this iconic industry, its challenges, and the factors that contributed to its (negative) transformation.
Bollywood’s Glorious Past
In the days of yore, Bollywood held sway over our hearts and minds. But that wasn’t just because of the limited entertainment options at the time. It was because of the quality of cinema, the soul of Bollywood. Its movies beautifully captured every cultural nuance, every heartbeat of the Indian youth, and reflected the evolving aspirations of India.
We witnessed characters who were aspirational yet relatable, with real desires, fears, and values. Remember the suave Amitabh Bachchan in Don who we couldn’t stop fangirling over even though he was the ultimate baddie? Or Salman Khan in Maine Pyar Kiya, where he stole our hearts with his charm and vulnerability? Bollywood truly connected with its audience through its characters.
40s-60s: Enchanting Chapter in Indian Cinema
The golden era of Bollywood, spanning from the late 1940s to the 1960s, is fondly remembered as a magical time in Indian cinema. It was a period of cinematic excellence, where legendary filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, and Bimal Roy crafted timeless classics that have become cultural treasures. The era brought forth iconic stars like Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, and Dev Anand, whose performances continue to inspire generations.
Bollywood’s golden age was characterized by its melodious music, heartfelt storytelling, and a deep connection with the Indian audience. This heartfelt connect with the Indian audiences really transformed the image of the industry in India’s mind, attracting the best of the best talent, glamorising careers in Bollywood as the most coveted in art.
The Next Generation: A Journey of Transformation
Bollywood, over the next few decades, witnessed a profound evolution, as the industry embraced modern storytelling, and experimenting with diverse genres and narratives.
The emergence of talented directors like Ram Gopal Verma, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Farhan Akhtar, and Anurag Kashyap brought fresh perspectives to the table.
Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Aamir Khan, and Priyanka Chopra gained international recognition, expanding the global footprint of Indian cinema. Every Indian felt represented, validated. From unbelievably hilarious comedies like Andaz Apna Apna to tearjerker dramas like Hum Aapke Hain Koun, we were spoilt for choice!
Impact on India and Indian Youth
The golden era of Bollywood and its evolution to the 2000s left an indelible impact on India and its youth. Bollywood movies became more than mere entertainment; they reflected the country’s social fabric, capturing its traditions, values, and aspirations. The golden era instilled a sense of pride and cultural identity among Indians, showcasing their rich heritage to the world.
As Bollywood entered the 2000s, it became a powerful medium for addressing contemporary issues and promoting social change. Movies like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Swedes, 3 Idiots, and Taare Zameen Par resonated deeply with audiences, sparking discussions and inspiring positive action.
These masterpieces continue to serve as a mirror reflecting the diverse shades of the nation’s soul, inspiring generations and uniting people under the universal language of cinema. With its enchanting melodies and unforgettable stories, needless to say, the Indian audiences had nothing but higher expectations from the future of cinema.
The Shift in Audience Preferences
Fast forward to the present, and we find a changing audience landscape. Thanks to OTT platforms like Prime and Netflix, and multiplexes, the modern Indian movie-goer has more choices than ever.
Should we blame torrents or multiplexes for Indian audiences drifting towards at-home viewing of movies? Have we finally found solace in the world of OTT platforms? Who knows? The shift started in 2000s, thanks to PVR’s expensive popcorn, multiplexes’ expensive parking, and rising prices of movie tickets. And thanks to reducing quality of Indian movies and music, moviegoers started getting really selective about their cinema-going preferences.
Then we turned to Hollywood flicks like the Avengers, Jurassic World series and Star Wars saga and what not. The era of the Indian superstar seems to be fading, and Bollywood is left pondering why.
Bollywood’s Disconnect with Modern India
During and before the 2000s, Bollywood movies never failed to glamorise every average Indian personality trait and trend, like the cool guy, platonic friendships, patriotism, party, girl, casual sex, extramarital affairs, but very few movies represent the post-millennium relationships, friendships, grad school life and family dynamics today.
Why This Shift?
Bollywood today is marked by its embrace of global influences, and changing storytelling trends, catering to a more cosmopolitan audience.
One noticeable difference between the past and present is Bollywood’s shift towards urban appeal, through storytelling devices that may not necessarily be positive. Case in point – offensive language, a shallow heroine, action sequences that don’t matter to the characters’ emotional journey – the list goes on.
While the golden era of Bollywood was deeply rooted in Indian traditions and values, the present-day industry often finds itself treading a fine line between global sensibilities and maintaining cultural authenticity.
The increased focus on commercial success and the incorporation of elements from Western cinema has at times led to diluting the traditional essence of Bollywood films. Let’s just say that in an effort to please everyone, they end up pleasing no one.
While this may sound like a rant, the decrease in the overall films being released per year, and the overall percentage of box office successes confirms my theory. According to an article published in The Hindu in 2021, the success rate of Hindi is only 8-10%, by far the lowest survival rate of cinema in the world. Among the top 100 highest earning Hindi movies domestically (not adjusted for inflation), only 14 are releases of 2020s.
The social impact of Bollywood on Indian youth is a more subjective change, yet undeniable. The golden era’s movies had a more profound influence on society, addressing pertinent issues and serving as a catalyst for social change.
On the other hand, the present-day Bollywood, although catering to a larger and more diverse audience, may lack the same level of societal impact. Socially relevant movies that address pressing issues have become rarer, such as Secret Superstar or Chhapaak; and the focus seems to be shifting towards entertainment that appeals to a wider section of viewers.
Quality: Then vs. Now
The quality of Bollywood movies has also seen a shift over the years. The overall screen presence, plots, and screenplay seem to lack the depth and authenticity of the past.
Music, which was once soul-stirring and hummable, has lost its magic. The distinct Bollywood style music with its beautiful use of Indian instruments and plot-conscious lyrics has become a rarity. Instead of capturing the hidden aspirations and fears of the characters, the lyrics today commonly become generic and repetitive that can just as well fit into any other movie or any other generic character.
I can also go into the repo baby debate on the impact of cinema quality, but that’s already been over-discussed this year and the last.
Evolving Plots and Characters
One significant factor contributing to Bollywood’s fall is its disconnect with the changing social causes and sentiments of India. Ever wondered why some movies are so addictive and others fall flat? No, it’s not the plot, it’s the characters. Some characters feel so real we can feel their sentiments, hope for their dreams to come true and love them for their flaws. But that can’t happen if the character’s desires, fears and flaws are nonexistent or never talked about.
Plots and characters have lost their relatability, with heroes becoming larger than life and almost flawless. Salman Khan in films like Bodyguard and Ek Tha Tiger, Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express and Aamir Khan in PK are some prime examples that started this trend, where the main character is flawless from the start, hence has no character arc.
While the hero is the flawless and only centrepiece of the typical modern Bollywood film, every parent is irrelevant, and every heroine is – well, unnecessary. And what about the new faces of India? Where’s our delivery boy, the digital cabbie, the entrepreneur, the single mom, the power couple, and the smart, confident yet flawed Gen-Z working woman?
Instead of representing the complexities of modern Indians, modern Bollywood movies create stereotypes. For example, Indian women these days are almost always the same character – the sexy party girls who flirt. The modern Indian is now underrepresented on the silver screen, leaving many feeling ignored and unacknowledged.
The charm of glamorizing the NRI lifestyle has also faded away in today’s society, but many commercially successful films still fail to show what good modern India has to offer.
The Changing Face of Bollywood
As we bid adieu to the golden age of Bollywood, we must acknowledge that times change, and so do our preferences. Let’s not forget, many of the problems I’ve described above are even prevalent in Hollywood. Instead of seeing new characters and storylines, there’s a visible focus on remakes or continuing old franchises, like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, all Disney princess movies.
While nostalgia may pull us back to those heartwarming classics, modern films need to recreate the magic of those old movies that continue to hold a special place in our hearts, through new storylines and characters we care about, through new talented artists, reminding us of a time when Bollywood truly captured the soul of India.
Shilpa Ahuja is the Editor-in-Chief of OpiniOwn. She has a Masters in Design Studies (MDesS) degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, class of 2011. She is also the founder of Shilpa Ahuja Media (SAM).
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion and Jet Airways magazine. She is also the creator of Audrey O. comics. She enjoys creative writing and art. Her work has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and also been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a professional degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. For feedback & questions, please email her at [email protected].