India’s film industry is staging a massive charm offensive in Canada with the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards, which will be held in Toronto June 23-25. The IIFA awards are held in a different city every year, and draw television audiences in the hundreds of millions. Some of the names expected at this year's gala include Priyanka Chopra, Ritesh Deshmukh and members of the esteemed Deol and Kapoor families.

The Indian film industry is said to produce an average of 1,000 films a year, and has an ardent following around the world. Many North Americans, however, are perplexed by the genre, which is often condescendingly depicted in the West as exotic kitsch.

The backstory

Although films are produced all across India (in many of the country’s 22 official languages), the epicentre of Indian cinema and the home of what some refer to as "Bollywood" is Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The industry started out in the early 1900s with silent film and gradually evolved into talkies in the ‘30s. Many observers see the ’50s and ’60s — when icons like Nargis, Madhubala, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar ruled the silver screen — as Bollywood’s Golden Age. These movies combined family dramas and love stories with some of the social issues that preoccupied post-independence India: the clash of rural and city life, as well as the differences between Eastern and Western values.

The ’70s saw the emergence of plots currently associated with Indian film: over-the-top boy-meets-girl romances, comedic stories of lost brothers who find each other and elaborate action sequences. This era was characterize by idols like Zeenat Aman, Neetu Singh, Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.

Popular contemporary Indian film continues with the song-and-dance structure, often marrying modern themes such as divorce, patriotism and corporate greed into the spectacle. Many of the dance routines have the look of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. Filmed on elaborate sets, these sequences feature extravagant costumes crafted by Indian fashion designers and a dizzying range of back-up dancers.

The Indian film industry earns about $3 billion US annually, with four billion tickets sold in India every year. But the movies have great reach: they can be seen in more 100 countries, with an audience of almost 25 million in the South Asian diaspora. A 2008 story in Time reported that while box-office profits are "less than a tenth of Hollywood’s take, India’s industry should double in the next five years, while its American counterpart will be lucky to grow 15 per cent or so in that period."

The dynasties


Sanjay Dutt belongs to one of the most storied families in the Indian film industry. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Mumbai is known as the city of dreams, where hundreds of filmi — a colloquial term regarding anything related to Indian cinema —strugglers arrive every day looking for a break in the movies. Some stars have managed to achieve stardom without family connections – current superstar Shah Rukh Khan is the most famous example. But the industry is famous for its dynasties — specifically, the Kapoor family, the Dutts, the Deols and the Bachchans.

The Kapoors: The first family of Indian film started out with patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, who played a part in the country's first talking picture, Alam Ara (1931). The family tradition was firmly established by his son Raj Kapoor, nicknamed "The Great Showman." While Prithviraj’s other sons, Shammi and Shashi, were also popular actors, Raj’s sons Rishi and Randhir Kapoor continued the legacy into the next generation. Raj’s grandchildren, Karishma, Kareena and, most recently, Ranbir, now represent the Kapoor line.

The Dutts: It was like a Tinseltown romance: After starring as a mother and son in Mother India, Nargis and Sunil Dutt got married. Their son Sanjay Dutt is now one of India’s most bankable actors, despite having spent time in jail for possessing illegal weapons. (It was in relation to the 1993 Mumbai blasts, believed to be orchestrated by an Indian mafia don to avenge the deaths of Muslims in religious riots.)

The Deols: Dharmendra Deol was a matinee idol in the ’60s, and his sons Sunny and Bobby Deol shone in the ’80s and ’90s, respectively. The trio is known for their "sons of the soil" roles, which reflect their Punjabi heritage and being part of a farming community known for downing tall glasses of lassi and dancing bhangra exuberantly. The Deols recently starred in Yamla Pagla Deewana (2011). Dharmendra’s nephew Abhay Deol is also a well-known actor.


The Bachchan family. From left, Amitabh, Jaya, Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan. ((Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images))

The Bachchans: This is the dynasty of the moment. Time magazine dubbed the trinity of Amitabh Bachchan, his son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Bachchan (born Aishwarya Rai) "Bollywood’s Father, Son and Holy Babe." While the patrician Amitabh has been ruling the box office ever since he burst on the screen in the ’70s with his angry young man act, Abhishek came into his own in 2004 with the film Yuva. A former beauty queen known in the West as a face for L’Oreal Paris, Aishwarya Bachchan has lately been trying to conquer Hollywood (notably in the 2005 film Bride and Prejudice). Amitabh’s wife, Jaya Bachchan, is also a popular Indian actress.

The Bollywood effect

Western popular culture has bought into Indian exports before — think of sitar player Ravi Shankar and the Nehru collar. But Indian cinema is a more recent phenomenon. The growing South Asian diaspora and the rise of India as an economic power has a lot to do with it. From Indian-inspired fashion shoots on America’s Next Top Model to Bollywood-flavoured routines on the hit show So You Think You Can Dance to the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, film is clearly India’s hottest cultural export.