The debate over 'Bollywood'

Is the internationally used nickname for Indian film demeaning to its players?
CBC's Arisa Cox explores the debate around the word 'Bollywood' -- a disparaging term to some, but a signal of international recognition to others. 3:28

It's fairly easy to guess where the term Bollywood originated.

With its multitude of Hindi-language filmmakers and thriving film production, the former city of Bombay (now Mumbai) has long been a major hub of the Indian film industry and an easy comparison to Hollywood for western cinephiles. The term Bollywood was used back in the 1970s and it's been about a decade since it landed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Westerners have stuck to the term as the go-to reference for the entire Indian film industry, despite the significant growth of other regional film industries, such as Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.

Inside the community, many find the term pejorative, deploring it for defining India filmmaking as simply a lesser off-shoot of American cinema and failing to recognize the distinctiveness and variations within the country's overall industry. 

"Some people feel it's a take on Hollywood," said Noreen Khan, one of the organizers of the 2011 International Indian Film Academy Awards, taking place in Toronto in late June.

Though Bollywood "is a term that's widely known and used around the world," she continued, "we're not trying to replicate or be somebody else. We're our own industry, in our own right, which is why we like to be known as the Indian cinema industry or the Indian film industry."

Within India today, Bollywood tends to specifically signify Hindi-language films, Khan explained.

A good way to look at Indian film is to compare it to that of Europe, according to Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival and TIFF's programmer for the South Asian region.

"In the same way that Greek film is different from Swedish film, a film from Kerela is different from a film from Mumbai. A film in the Telugu language is different from one in the Tamil language is different from one in the Bengali language," he said.

Changing views?

In recent years, some have embraced the term Bollywood, viewing it as Hindi cinema not being derivative of, but an alternative to the "globally hegemonic Hollywood," according an essay published in the collection Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora.

For acclaimed Indian actor Kabir Bedi, the term has transcended whatever negativity it may have had in its origins.

"For me, Bollywood is a fantastic term," said the stage, film and television veteran, known internationally for roles such as the James Bond villain Gobinda in Octopussy, the titular pirate in the hit European TV series Sandokan and Emperor Shah Jahan in the Indian epic Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story.

"Bollywood is a term that has captured the imagination of the people. It has become a term that people instantly recognize and, I say, ride with it. It's a worldwide brand now, why knock it?"

The key desire is for world audiences "not just to only associate India with Bollywood," says Indo-Canadian actress Lisa Ray.

Bollywood films might be a person's initial introduction to Indian cinema "and that's great if it spikes people's interest, but I would really hope that people would then dig a little deeper, explore further," she added.

India has had success across many industries, aside from its films, Bedi noted.

"But the fact is, Bollywood's contribution to India is not small and it's certainly one of India's great contributions to world pop culture. India should be proud of it."