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Painting Bollywood posters

(Photograph) - Photograph by Steve McCurry

When the BBC ran a poll asking people to name the actor of the Millennium there were some names familiar to every household in Britain: Charlie Chaplin, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Marlon Brando. But the winner was Amitabh Bachchan, the undisputed king of Indian movies.

Most people think Hollywood is the heart of the world's film industry. In fact, more films are made in India than in any other country - 800 a year in more than 16 languages. The industry, based in Mumbai (Bombay), is known affectionately as Bollywood after the home of the American celluloid dream.

In India, the stars - seen here being painted on promotional posters - are treated like demi-gods by adoring fans. And going to the cinema is a family affair. People dress up in their best and will buy tickets on the black market just to see their favourite actors on the day the latest blockbuster is released.

India's vast cinemas hold a thousand spectators or more, and if it's a full-house people will share their seat with a friend, stand, or sit on the floor. They don't care, as long as they can watch the movie.

Motion pictures first came to India in 1896 when six soundless short films were shown in Bombay using the Lumi re brothers' new invention, the Cinematographe; the first film made by an Indian was screened three years later.

Now an estimated 70 million watch Bollywood films in India every week, from children of doctors and computer programmers in New Delhi, to poor tribal villagers in remote areas who save up every spare rupee to visit a cinema.

One of the most wonderful things about the films is the colour; nothing is drab, everything is perfect, including the weather. The audience gets caught up with the characters, who break the taboos of Indian society, fall in love irrespective of social status and background, have wealth, wear skimpy clothes and, most of all, overcome all adversities because one of the gods is looking after them.

The plot of each film runs to a formula: two young lovers find their chances of marriage threatened by a villain or a seemingly insurmountable social barrier, but after several songs that will be replayed repeatedly on music video channels, some hip-swaying dance sequences that would put Saturday Night Fever to shame, a long car chase, and a cliffhanging fight, all obstacles are suddenly removed just in time for a whirlwind wedding as the closing titles roll.

The films are produced to give enjoyment with all the glamour and chamak (glitter) that Bollywood can muster, and film-goers will maro (recite) their favourite lines, songs and dances to entertain their families at home.

So while Amitabh Bachchan may not be well known to many of us in Britain, his 1975 movie, Sholay, was the biggest earner for 20 years in one of the world's biggest movie markets, India; a point recognised by Madame Tussaud's in London, where a wax model in his likeness was the first of an Asian actor to be put on display.



Lowdown on the latest films:

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Reviews and interviews with Bollywood stars: www.smashits.comindex.cfm

See local film listings for UK screenings of Monsoon Wedding, Laagan and other Bollywood movies

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