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Bollywood or bust

Laurence Alster introduces a resource on Indian films that reflects a society of startling and mesmerising variety

Bollywood and Beyond Videotape and CD-Rom BFI, pound;34.99 bfi Education Resources, PO Box 105, Rochester, Kent ME42 4BE

Hollywood - hundreds of millions worldwide must have seen an image of that massive sign in Beachwood Canyon. The name has been shouted so loudly from the hilltops that rival film industries have been largely unheard of and unseen. Indian film, for example. An output of around 800 films a year over the past decade makes the Indian film industry - commonly called Bollywood - by far the world's biggest in terms of annual production. In 1985, the last year for which statistics were recorded, the industry employed six million people and attracted audiences of around eight million each day (the numbers have almost certainly increased since). In India, more people see films every fortnight than go to the cinema in this country the whole year round.

The reasons for the high domestic consumption as well as the increasing popularity of many Indian films in the UK are central to Bollywood and Beyond, a first-class introduction to the history and current state of Indian films in the sub-continent and elsewhere. Made up of a videotape with clips from 15 feature films from the 1950s to the past decade, plus lengthy notes and worksheets, the pack will delight and sustain teachers of this area of film and media studies.

The notes, presented on the CD-Rom, open with an outline of the political history of India alongside a history of the country's film industry. An absorbing section on broad cultural characteristics precedes units that deal with topics such as music, song and dance, early and more recent Indian cinema, the star system, and Indian cinema and the Asian diaspora. The units contain numerous references to and frequent questions on clips from films as varied in time and style as Pather Pachali (1955), Sholay (1975) and, from 1998, Dil Se. An extensive filmography plus a lengthy bibliography and list of websites round off this thoroughly useful and absorbing production.

While many students will have seen and enjoyed such recent British Asian successes as East Is East and Bend It Like Beckham, the Hindi productions will most likely be foreign to them in more ways than the obvious, with rolling eyes, exaggerated gestures and coy courtship styles often viewed by British students from non-Asian backgrounds as quaint at best, at worst downright boring. Bollywood and Beyond should help counter such prejudices by fostering an appreciation of the artistic principles and cultural precepts that help shape such films.

Several very good activities stimulate research and understanding, and the text is particularly instructive on gender representations in film, the rise of "parallel cinema" and the narrative structure of Indian films. The industry's star system is covered well, as is its links with politics. Even so, the package could have been better on the ways in which Indian films are shaped for audiences that must count among the most boisterous in the world.

In some Indian cinemas, it's difficult to know whether to watch your neighbours or the screen - mention of which brings to mind the fact that, with film studies and media studies growing more popular by the year, some schools and colleges actually organise student trips to Hollywood. Exciting, of course, but nowhere near as big an adventure as a trip to India and Bombay's Bollywood studios. As this fine resource shows, in both style and sentiment the many forms of Indian cinema mirror a society of often startling but always mesmerising variety. Seeing the films can be wonderful. But how much better to see the place that makes them.

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