For the Love of Our Shenanigans

Updated on February 11, 2022

there’s rarely a better time to be had at a cinema than at a showing of pure, unadulterated Bollywood.

The term ‘Bollywood’ is a bit of a dirty word in Indian filmmaking circles these days — reluctantly and begrudgingly accepted as shorthand for an entire style of movie that nearly defies classification. Though it must have started out as a joke on someone’s part, it certainly rolls off the tongue easier than, say, ‘Indian-flavoured-mostly-Hindi-language-(but-also-English-and-maybe-some-Punjabi)-heavily-stylized-romances-and-melodramas-made-by-Mumbai-(or-is-it-Bombay?)-studios-and-crew-featuring-lots-of-singing-dancing-outrageous-costumes-action-comedy-social-messages-camp-horror-impossibly-sexy-people-and-generally-insane-shenanigans.’

Shenanigans, yes. We should have just called it Shenaniganwood.

It’s my firm belief that whatever this thing we call Bollywood is, it needs to be both championed and cherished, because there’s rarely a better time to be had at a cinema than at a showing of pure, unadulterated Bollywood masala.

But there’s that word again, forever making people think of some ropey knockoff of the big old glamorous studio product of our American cousins an ocean or two away. It’s a vexing term, even for a movie fan like me, so imagine the irritation it causes both the creators of such movies, and the rest of the vibrant — and very varied — canvas of Indian cinema.

The natural reaction has been, on the part of the filmmakers, to go one of three ways. The first lot choose to stray away from the classic definition as much as possible. So we now have mainstream cinema and crossover cinema and experimental cinema, movies that have ditched songs and masala and even my beloved shenanigans (ironically, ending up being more like copies of Hollywood movies than stamped-and-sealed Bollywood movies ever were).

The rest, comprising what used to be known by the quaint and condescending moniker ‘regional cinema’ have become much more sensitive about not being associated with Bollywood: Bhojpuri movies are not just Mumbai product in rustic guise; there’s an emerging culture of small, digitally-shot films from Bengal and beyond; and Tamil movies have become more, well, Tamil (or at least Shankar movies have become more Shankarriffic).

Forming some kind of indignant third front are filmmakers who have actually embraced the dreaded B-word loud and proud, giving us Frankenstein monster products that are as removed from reality and entertainment as can be (and almost always involve plots about making movies). Many of these movies are entertaining, but you can’t help but wonder, as you watch them, that you’d rather be watching an actual 1970s potboiler instead of a spoof on it, or an affecting, heartfelt love story instead of a clumsy meta-fictional take on Bollywood romantic melodrama tropes.

What all of these groups seem to forget is that the indefinable, strange thing they’re all running away from is actually something that was around before it got the name Bollywood rudely slapped on it. There’s a type of storytelling, a very Indian form of storytelling, that is precisely all the weird and wonderful things that are being overlooked. Our movies did not come from the Hollywood model. Indian cinema follows directly from a millennia-old tradition of drama and theatre that does involve stylized romance and comedy and melodrama and yes, plenty of shenanigans.

And I’m glad that someone still remembers that, because those someones just made a movie like Band Baaja Baaraat. They’re the kind of people who made Rocket Singh, and further back, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Rajnigandha. They might even have been the people who made Alam Ara.

You can, if words fail, call them Bollywood. You can even be politically correct and paint them with the broad and clinical term of Indian Mainstream Hindi Cinema. But these movies, these shenanigans, are barely classifiable by name. They are the feeling they invoke in us, the viewer. They are the laughter and the sorrow and music both heard and in the rhythms of our hearts as we watch.

They are the joy of simply being entertained.

(Thank you to this article on Passion for Cinema for the header image, used here without express permission, but, as always, in the spirit of fair use — and the depiction of Om Puri’s Awesomeness.)