Blinking on Bollywood

11th May 2007 at 01:00
You want to teach pupils about morals and the importance of respect in families, so where do you turn? The Indian film industry, says Yojana Sharma

India's all-singing, all-dancing movies have a huge following, with nine Bollywood releases among the UK's top grossing films last year. Now Bollywood movies are entering classrooms in citizenship lessons.

"Young people are very into Bollywood," says Simon Kovar, a citizenship and RE teacher, who has recently completed a work placement at Whitefields School in Cricklewood, north London. Whitefields has many refugees and almost two thirds of pupils do not have English as their first language.

Simon creates lessons using Bollywood movies, strong on family and community themes, which are central to a GCSE citizenship course.

"Indian cinema is a great form of cross-cultural communication," he says.

"The human messages are similar and contain universal references, which pupils from whatever background can understand."

Simon first encountered Bollywood through fellow students when studying for a master's degree. He started with Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad), the hit family drama. "I'm mesmerised by it - the music, the spectacle, the melodrama and the happy ending at all costs," he says. It is not just lavish entertainment that appeals to Simon. "There is a scene where the youngest son meets his grannies, it is so touching. It reminds me of my Jewish grandmother."

Simon now uses clips when discussing pensioners. "Young people are shocked to hear how little money our senior citizens have to live on. The films spark debates on why we treat senior citizens the way we do and how other cultures do things differently."

Ahsim Sharif, 15, thinks television does not provide good role models of generational relations. "In EastEnders when a character speaks to their mum they even call her a silly cow. They have no respect."

Television soaps used in PSHE help pupils with topics and often deal with current British social issues. "Citizenship education is much broader than this and some of these citizenship issues are dealt with more thoroughly in other cultures," says Simon.

"Bollywood films can be one way of getting them to talk," he says.

Veer-Zaara has a Pakistani woman lawyer defending an Indian citizen on false spying charges, a seemingly impossible legal task. "The pupils open up when I use Veer-Zaara to examine ideas of justice," Simon says.

Even Whitefields pupils who are new to the musical melodramas find them enticing. "It is a bit odd at first. But you can understand what it is about and that makes it interesting," says Jamielee Nurden, 13.

The long - sometimes mocked - speeches are useful. "It explains what is going on in the characters' minds," says Maha Tahir, 13. "With TV you have to make your own assumptions about what the characters are thinking."

Pupils find it easy to draw lessons from the stories and although they wouldn't make the same choices, say watching the films helps them understand the underlying dilemmas.

"Citizenship's not about teaching us to be British but building up our moral barriers," says Demitriou Christian Geddis, 15, of mixed Greek Cypriot and Jamaican heritage.

"Modern British culture is not easy to see. All of us here, we brought our cultures with us. Citizenship's about values and these values are not just important in England but around the world."


Swades (We, the People)

A Nasa scientist returns to India, hoping to give his adoptive mother a better life and is drawn into village problems.

Themes: caste system, poverty and development, community and belonging, discrimination.


A woman lawyer fights an impossible case.

Themes: human rights, women's rights, prisoners' rights, justice, honour, community and belonging, commitment to a cause, accepting strangers.

Lagaan (Land Tax)

Officials try to raise land tax on Indian villagers impoverished by drought. The only one way out is to win a cricket match.

Themes: power and authority, colonialism, racial issues, injustice, peaceful protest, climate and drought, poverty, caste system.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad)

An adoptive son of a rich family is disinherited after marrying a poor girl. Parents and son are reunited by the step-brother.

Themes: family ties,forgiveness, respect for the elderly.

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