The Magic of Bollywood and Indian Cinema

In these exclusive interviews, I speak to Ritesh Sidhwani (Co-Founder of Excel Entertainment), Vidya Balan (Multi award-winning actress), Sunny leone (Actress & Entrepreneur) and Siddharth Roy Kapur (MD of Roy Kapur Films and President of the Producers Guild of India).

India is a beautifully diverse place.  It is a place where 1.4 billion inhabitants share thousands of years of history, speak over 19,000 mother tongues, and express life and culture through a stunning array of food, dance, ceremony, faith, music and literature.  It is perhaps no surprise that a country so steeped in mythology and religion holds storytelling close to its soul, and nowhere is this better expressed than through Bollywood.

It was 1896 when the first motion picture was shot in India, ‘The Wrestlers’ (shot during a Mumbai wrestling match!), by the 1970s, the Indian film industry overtook America as the largest film producer in the world, and the term Bollywood was coined (an affectionate nod to their counterparts in Hollywood).  Today’s Indian cinema industry is a vast enterprise.  Over 1,600 films are made each year, attracting over 3.5 billion ticket sales and generating over U$3 billion in earnings (making it the 3rd largest film industry in the world).  Bollywood has generated global superstars, blockbuster films and remains the fastest growing entertainment and media market in the world, set to scale even larger as digital technologies penetrate the population.

To learn more about the magic of Bollywood and Indian Cinema, I spoke with three of the most influential individuals from the industry: Ritesh Sidhwani (Co-Founder of Excel Entertainment), Vidya Balan (Multi award-winning actress), Sunny Leone (Actress & Entrepreneur) and Siddharth Roy Kapur (MD of Roy Kapur Films and President of the Producers Guild of India).

[bios]Ritesh Sidhwani, a prominent and distinguished Indian film maker, is accredited for his visionary approach and peerless contribution to contemporary cinema. The two-time National awardee helms one of India’s preeminent production houses, Excel Entertainment, a brandname aptly synonymous with excellence and success. The banner made its foray into the industry with Dil Chahta Hai, a trailblazing film that not only bagged the National Award in 2001 by the President Of India but also acquired cult status amongst the millennial viewers as a forerunner of new age cinema.

On the one hand, Excel’s oeuvre comprises of a string of box-office hits like Dil Chahta Hai, Don, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Talaash & Fukrey. Alongside these blockbusters, Excel has also launched avant garde ventures like Gully Boy, India’s first hip hop film and the official entry to the Academy Awards this year and Inside Edge, India’s first original series on Amazon Prime Video that was nominated for the coveted International Emmy Awards under the Best Drama category in 2018. In addition to commercially successful cinema, Excel has consistently garnered critical acclaim, Rock On being one such accomplishment that won the production house its second National Award in 2008.

Vidya Balan is an Indian actress who overcame career setbacks to become an instrumental figure in the advancement of women’s roles in Bollywood, typically portraying strong female protagonists.

Balan’s family moved to suburban Bombay (now Mumbai) when she was young. She studied sociology at St. Xavier’s College and earned a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Bombay (now the University of Mumbai). While still at school she developed an interest in acting and landed the lead in the Malayalam-language film Chakram, but production difficulties led to Chakram’s being shelved before its release, and producers blamed Balan for “jinxing” it. She was subsequently dropped from a dozen other films in which she had been cast. In 1995 she landed a role on the television comedy Hum Paanch (We Five). Balan struggled to find other acting work, however, and for several years she appeared primarily in advertisements and music videos.

In 2003 the multilingual Balan finally got her cinema debut in the Bengali-language film Bhalo theko (“Take Care”). Two years later she made her first Bollywood picture, Parineeta (A Married Woman), for which she received a Filmfare Award for best female debut. She starred as a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis in Guru (2007), which gave her a chance to exercise her acting range. After Guru Balan starred in a series of critical and box-office flops, but she returned to critical acclaim (and earned her first Filmfare best actress award) for Paa (2009; “Father”), a dramedy about an unwed mother whose son (played by Amitabh Bachchan) suffers from progeria.

Paa proved to be a major turning point not only for Balan’s career but also for Bollywood actresses in general. In No One Killed Jessica (2011), a true crime tale of a woman searching for her sister’s killer, Balan (known to her many fans as simply Vidya) proved that a film without a male lead could be a commercial success. She shocked audiences and earned sex-symbol status (as well as another Filmfare win) with her performance in The Dirty Picture (2011), a biopic of “soft-porn” actress Silk Smitha. Balan then portrayed a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in Kahaani (2012; Story), for which she garnered her third Filmfare best actress award, and a woman who defies her conventional family to become a detective in the thriller Bobby Jasoos (2014).

In Hamari Adhuri Kahaani (2015; “Our Incomplete Story”), Balan was cast as a single mother who falls in love with a hotel owner. After the disappointing thriller Te3n (2016), she had a hit with Tumhari Sulu (2017; “Your Sulu”) and earned a Filmfare Award for her performance in that dramedy. In 2019 Balan appeared in NTR: Kathanayakudu and NTR: Mahanayakudu, both of which were biopics about Indian actor, director, and politician Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao.

Offscreen, Balan was known for her philanthropic work for women and children. Meanwhile, she eschewed Bollywood beauty standards and was frequently castigated in the press for her unique fashion sense and fluctuating weight. In 2014 Balan was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government for her contributions to Indian cinema.

Siddharth Roy Kapur is an eminent film producer, founder and MD of Roy Kapur Films and the President of the Producers Guild of India. He has been the former Managing Director of the Walt Disney Company India and UTV – Studios. Siddharth’s filmography includes some of the highest grossing Indian films of all time like Dangal, PK, Chennai Express, Kick and Rowdy Rathore as well as genre-defining films like Rang De Basanti, Barfi, Dev D, A Wednesday, Kai Po Che and ABCD. He has been regularly featured in Variety’s Top 500 list of influential people in entertainment globally and The Hollywood Reporter’s Next Generation Asia Inaugural Class of Young Leaders, among numerous other accolades for his leadership and achievements.

Karenjit Kaur Vohra (born May 13, 1981), better known by her stage name ‘Sunny Leone’ , is an Indian Canadian actress and model, and former pornstar, also possessing American citizenship. She has also used the stage name Karen Malhotra. She was named Penthouse Pet of the Year in 2003, was a contract performer for Vivid Entertainment, and was named by Maxim as one of the 12 top porn stars in 2010. She has played roles in independent mainstream events, films and television shows. Her first mainstream appearance was in 2005, when she worked as a red carpet reporter for the MTV Video Music Awards on MTV India. In 2011, she participated in the Indian reality television series Big Boss. She hosts the Indian reality show Splitsvilla. In 2012 she made her Bollywood debut in Pooja Bhatt’s erotic thriller Jism 2 (2012) and shifted her focus to mainstream acting which was followed up with Jackpot (2013), Ragini MMS 2 (2014) and Ek Paheli Leela (2015).Apart from her acting career she has been part of activism campaigns including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half-Marathon to raise money for the American Cancer Society and has also posed for a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ad campaign with a rescued dog, encouraging pet owners to have their cats and dogs spayed and neutered. Since 2011, Leone has been married to Musician Daniel Weber.On July 21, 2017 the news about Leone and her husband Daniel Weber baby girl – Nisha Kaur Weber – from Latur, Maharashtra.[/bios]

Q:  What is the relationship of film to Indian culture?

[Ritesh Sidhwani]:  In a lot of countries, films are influenced by culture; if you are trying to attract a massive audience, you want to do stuff which people can relate to, that they can identify with.  Indian culture is so rich in heritage – we have so may different ways of life, religions, festivals, languages, celebrations… it’s diversified, but is converging around the themes that are relevant to everyone.

When you produce for any mass market or popular medium; you have to talk to culture, tradition, and those things that people identify with and relate to.  In India, we’ve classically always depicted those key stories where good triumphs over evil, or stories about love, action and adventure.  India is known for its family values – people live in joint families, and a lot of films talk about the pros and cons of living together in one joint family, 3 generations under one roof. Lately, films are crossing certain lines and getting bold with culture, religion and ideologies; we would never have thought about crossing these lines even a few years ago.  Recently, you’ve started seeing films where people are questioning this blind faith and idol worship, there’s a movie called PK which boldly asked whether or not there is a god.  In South India, there is a festival called Aadi Perukku where people pray, and get hit on the head with a coconut! They are showing these kinds of rituals in films, and showing that people get hit badly, and sometimes die.  Films are now starting to question beliefs – in PK, you saw one of your revered gods running under a chair; we thought that may cause problems when we made it, but the audience accepted it.  Films are a great way to address, and talk-about age old traditions, cultures and question whether they are right for today, or just blind beliefs.

I feel it’s a good way of even addressing or talking about age old traditions and cultures and questioning does this sound right today, or is it just a blind belief?

Q: How did you build your career in cinema and screen?

[Vidya Balan]: I was studying at Xavier’s College, Mumbai doing my 11 standard, and I was taken ill with Typhoid.  I was recuperating at home, and my closest friend Manisha saw a poster put-up in college which was basically a shout-out to all aspiring actors to audition for a campus based TV show.  She knew I’d just done a 2 month production oriented drama workshop at Prithvi Theatre, and she called me and said, ‘…would you be interested? They’re asking for pictures!’ – I didn’t have any, and didn’t know how to go about getting headshots, and I wasn’t well! When I told my parents and sister – my sister (who has always been my champion) took me to a local photo studio.  I had my best clothes, she did my make-up and I posed in front of the camera.  I sent those pictures with a bio that my sister wrote, and I got called for an audition.  I got through the audition, but I’ll never forget the writer/director telling me, ‘what prompted us to call you was the way your bio was written, it was great!’ – That’s why I credit my sister for so much in my life, including my very first opportunity as an actor.

From there; one thing led to another.  I ended up doing a TV show that never saw the light of day, and then a series called Hum Paanch for about a year and a half.  I got into a few attendance issues at college, and had to quit that – but ended up doing ads.  It was quite amazing – I never went seeking work – the universe has been really kind in responding to my desires.  I ended up doing 90 commercials – on one of those shoots, I was in Chennai and someone asked if I’d like to audition for a Malayalam feature film- I gave them an audition on camera there and then; and that’s how acting happened for me; and thank god it did, I know nothing else.

[Sunny Leone] I grew up watching Bollywood films and my parents made it like movie night with pizza and that’s how I was introduced to Bollywood.  I didn’t realise I wanted to be an actress in Bollywood until I landed here.  I didn’t even think that was possible until after Big Boss, and I was offered a film.

Q:  What does it take to be a great actor?

[Vidya Balan]: I don’t know if there’s a secret to be a great actor; but to be a good actor you have to be present in the moment, and submit to the moment – submitting all disbelief.  When you finally let go, and allow yourself to submit to that moment – you really enjoy it, but it takes time and hard work.

I’m so grateful that I have this opportunity to live my dream of being an actor every single day.  I’m full of gratitude, and enjoy it more and more with passing years.

I’d like to believe that I’m a spiritual person, and part of that is making sure that I’m constantly working to better myself; and most things in life get better when you’re present in the moment, life gets better when you’re present in the moment. I don’t think of it as acting, it’s just life.

[Siddharth Roy Kapur]:  Well, there is a baseline – you have to be able to act! *laughs*

What you see is that there are lots of great actors and actresses, but very few stars.  It is that indefinable quality of someone who becomes iconic that people want to come and watch regardless of the type of film they’re in, the genre, or the role.  That is when you know the person is a bona fide movie star.  That kind of growth to iconic status happens over a period of time where the actor or actress has constantly delivered movies that appeal to people, has connected with people… and is the type of person that people aspire to be.

You can have many great actors but you have very few who really become movie stars.

[Sunny Leone] I don’t necessarily consider myself to be great at anything, but I do believe in hard work and I do believe in taking workshops and doing acting classes and working with a acting coach one or one, a Hindi coach one on one really has helped me a lot in seeing a different way of doing things.

Q:  Is Indian Cinema reflecting a more diverse nation?

[Sunny Leone] So I think as time goes by, and because of social media and what’s going on around and the entire world and people having access to everything, it helps us to discuss issues that are out there.  I think that the roles of certain things are now, we’re able to speak about them when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, certain social issues.  So I think that it’s become so much easier to talk about things that maybe we’ve always wanted to, but it’s not such a closed society that we’re able to talk about them.

Q: What does it take to make a great film?

[Ritesh Sidhwani]:  I come from a non-film background, but I’ve always been passionate about film.  I never went to film school – and every film I’ve made in the past 20 years has been with a first-time director – we’ve always given a platform to new storytellers and directors – I’m drawn to the honesty of these stories. The minute I feel that I can instinctively identify with a character – that I can relate to them, that I feel joy when the protagonist does, that I feel their pain, that I cry when they do…. that’s when I know the story is being told with real honesty.  If I can truly believe it? Then I can think about convincing a billion other people that it’s true also.  The minute you make a film for any reason other than honesty, you’ll fail.

You have to step out of your comfort zone, you have to have range, but whatever you do – you have to be 100% convinced in the honesty and integrity of the storytelling… the identity… the emotional connect….

[Siddharth Roy Kapur]:  To make a great movie, you cannot set out to make a great movie!  If you try and reverse engineer the best films and just reconstruct the principles, you simply find it doesn’t work like that.   Great films are authentic, they capture the zeitgeist of a time and place in an entertaining and engaging way.  Great cinema becomes something that reflects the mood of the time.  Look at Rang De Basanti, a film which spoke about students today not having to look up to icons in the way they did during the freedom movement, taking the law into their own hands and becoming anarchists at a time the system was failing.   That seemed to touch a chord, as did Dev. D, a film that was really about Devdas (it was the 4th or 5th rendition of that celebrated novel, but spoke to the question of what would happen if Devdas existed today…).  Dev D was sex, drugs and rock & roll – it captured the mood of the nation.  You then have Delhi Belly, a film filled with profanity, craziness, madness – something that our youth had only previously seen from Western cinema.   All of these films are great but were created organically, with their writers feeling the subject and the time, with writers projecting their own creativity and sensibility… these great films came from the way the writers looked at the world rather than them deciding to set out to make a great film.

Q:  What makes a great story?

[Vidya Balan]:  A great story in film is anchored around conviction.  If you believe in the story you’re telling, and the way you’re telling it, it will work.  If you have any doubts in your mind about the story, the way its told, or how you are telling it – that will reflect in how people receive it.  Films, like life, are a mirror.  What you put out comes back to you, and because of that conviction is the name of the game.   Indian films are also deeply connected with their music; it’s a beautiful part of how we tell stories on screen – music is a strong part of our culture, there is a song for every occasion, for every situation, and that gets amplified in cinema.  Today’s Bollywood uses music in a more symbiotic way; we don’t have lip sync culture any more and I personally miss that, it was beautiful.

[Sunny Leone]:  I think each film maker has a different story to tell, but there are some films that do play on the Indian culture.  And I think that it’s wonderful because it makes it either seem fun or relevant for the younger audiences, and also to be able to follow that culture and this crazy busy world I think is great for young people out there.

Q: How have digital technologies changed the craft of acting?

[Vidya Balan]:  Digital technology hasn’t impacted how I perform, but it’s made life easier.  For example, when you’re shooting a film – sound is sync’d now so you don’t have to dub it.  It makes it far more real and it’s less effort!  With digital, you also have the luxury of doing multiple retakes as you don’t have the cost of shooting on film.  In fact, the entire process of making movies is cheaper in digital – and that has allowed content to reach more people across the globe through cost and capability.  You don’t even need a theatre anymore to watch Indian films, and can watch them globally right on your phone!

Q: How do you create a character as an actor?

[Vidya Balan]:  You have to get into the psyche of a character, and that means knowing the character really well.  To do that? You have to know the script really well, and understand the vision the writer and director have; particularly the director, they are going to put that vision live on screen.

I like to delve deep and think about the most mundane, regular, routine things that make-up that character’s life.  The society they live in, their background, their economic, family and other circumstances, their background, their story.  I want to get to know them well and feel the line between that person and me blur.

Q:  How do you select the right talent for your movies?

[Ritesh Sidhwani]: A lot of filmmaking is based on instinct, it’s a rich medium.  After I’ve read a script, I insist on the writer or director giving me a narration – I want them to tell me a story as if I’m a child, like a mother or father telling a bedtime story – I want them to narrate and bring the story to life, so that I can see the vision of it and how they want to depict the characters and the arc of the story itself.  Only then do we start talking about who we feel could come and complete these characters – I do often see film scripts that have been pre-written with a specific actor or actress in mind, and I find that challenging, not least because that actor or actress may not want to be a part of it! You should never write to an actor, you should always cast an actor.  Characters change and evolve in a film, and by casting you can really understand whether your talent is adaptable enough to cope with that.  It’s obviously great to work with big names, but its not necessarily appropriate.  In Fukrey, it would have gone completely wrong if we had cast known faces.  The film worked because we brought in new people who were raw, and had no baggage… you weren’t invested in them, you weren’t going to root for them because you know them as actors, you root for them because of the story.

Actors complete a character, they bring them to life. Emotions are written on paper, but need to be translated to screen to make them real, and that’s the job of the actor, do to justice to that.

Q: What are your views on diversity in Indian cinema?

[Vidya Balan]:  It’s absolutely fantastic that today we are aware that all kinds of people need to be represented on screen and behind the camera.  It’s early days, but awareness is growing – and it may take some time to translate into reality.  I’m glad conversations have started, and the film industry are realising that your race, religion, gender, language, region, sexual identity, sexual preference and all these things are not important. What is important? …can you deliver, are you good at your job, and can you succeed.

Q:  What is the social role of film?

[Vidya Balan]:  Films have the power to make you think, but real change happens when it makes you feel.  It’s the emotional connection you have to film that gives it the power to shape and change attitudes.  Films can have a very positive influence, but we’re not responsible for all the ills of society – on top of that, In India you find that film stars are expected to hold very high moral values, and I’m not sure that’s absolutely fair – actors are human!

[Sunny Leone] Music is definitely a huge part of Bollywood and the reason why internationally we love watching Bollywood films.  I grew up watching them, mainly because we loved the music.  And being able to see all the different places that Bollywood would choose.  Absolutely amazing growing up, and I think that in a country where we have so much going on, people look to music here and celebrities they see in the songs as a way of escaping their world.

Q:  How has social media impacted the relationship between actors and the public?

[Vidya Balan]:  Social media has created a direct connection between artists and fans; which is great because you (as an actor) can put forward your point of view to share an opinion, to clarify a controversy, or whatever need you may have.   You have to set boundaries though; I don’t read comments across social media, I’m not very active on twitter at all… but I love instagram and post stuff on there, and cross-post to facebook.  The reason I don’t delve into comments is that firstly there are so many and I can’t respond to them all, and also for every 100 good comments, there is 1 bad one, and that really sticks with me.  I have to protect my sanity, and that has worked well for me.  The wonderful thing with social media is also that you receive so much love, and that’s really humbling – but you cannot take it [social media] too seriously.

[Sunny Leone] I believe in any part of the world that different celebrities are, it is important for the fans to see what they’re doing and how things are done.  You set examples for things, and I think it’s important that when we get a chance to portray the right voice and the right message out there, based on what we believe in, as long as it’s not hurting somebody physically or emotionally.  You should try not to do that.  I think the digital world is definitely a great way for celebrities to relate to their fans and be able to reach out to them, and fans to be able to reach out to celebrities.  Does it sometimes backfire?  Yes, but we live in a world where we want to know everything a celebrity is doing, so the digital world is the best way to do that.  Social media pages.

he fact that we can now consume our content, our Bollywood content, our Indian cinema on our couch is something that’s amazing.  We all live in crazy worlds right now, and sometimes we can’t get to the movie theatre.  I think it’s great that Bollywood has come into this new age of viewing.

I think if you can have fans all over the world, then you can branch out into different areas and do different things, and any celebrity should do it.  I am not from India, but I think that having fans all over has been a blessing in so many different ways.  To be able to do things on different platforms and go to different events where you’re internationally recognised.

Q:   Is digital culture changing Indian cinema?

[Siddharth Roy Kapur]:  Digital culture is at its infancy in India, but soon – these ripples will create an impact on the Indian mass-audience.  Social media has also demystified movie stars; earlier you would hunger to know what the private life of your favorite star was all about – what their lives were like off the screen – today, you can access that 24/7.  The digital world has also democratized content – it’s now available on every platform all the time – and we’re going to see a whole raft of new stars, because talent can be rewarded.

It could dilute our ‘star’ system in India, but I don’t think it will ever go away – we always look to icons and role models, people we can aspire to be…

Q: How has a global india changed film?

[Vidya Balan]:  A global India has changed the idiom of Indian film.  There is no longer one formula you need to adhere to; you can tell any story in whatever format you want, and share that around the world.

The horizons have opened for Indian film, as has the scope of the films themselves.  Where our films are becoming more universally viewed, Bollywood is no longer seen as exotic cinema of song and dance.

We’re managing to speak a more universal language, catering to more universal audience.  Today’s Indian cinema caters to a global audience who appreciate that it may be local in content, but tells internationally relevant stories.

Q:  What are the common misconceptions about Bollywood?

[Siddharth Roy Kapur]:  Outside of the South Asian diaspora, perhaps in the general Western and Far Eastern audience; there is some general understanding of what Indian cinema is, and how it’s evolved from that kitschy, psychedelic Bollywood stereotype. We still make those kitschy films, and are very proud of them, but cinema in India has evolved to tell stories in diverse, interesting narratives.  It’s about today’s India, about the cultures and people of India, about the real world of today – not just the world of the 1970s and 80s.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be? 

[Sunny Leone] As far as a legacy goes, I think the best thing is that someone might see that you work hard, and that hard work pays off.  And being persistent and taking money and doing some nice things for people, or branching out in different businesses.  I think India is one of the most amazing emerging markets in the entire world right now, and if you have the ability you should definitely branch out into different avenues as a celebrity, to do different things.  Because as much as we want, it doesn’t always last forever.

Q:  What does cinema mean to you?

[Ritesh Sidhwani]:  I’ve always been drawn to cinema; I never went to film school, but was always fascinated by the making of movies.  I loved the creative process, the way movies were made and how cinema gave people a platform to express freely, influence and entertain.  It’s a powerful gift when you get it right; but also comes with a great deal of responsibility.

You do influence people through cinema; they look up and want to emulate what they’ve seen on screen – they want to be like the characters they’re seeing, so you have to be very responsible.  If you do it right, you have the chance to influence millions of people.

I love telling stories, creating and being a part of something I believe in – and cinema gives me that opportunity. Cinema is challenging, not every film will work, but the fact that you can create something that could live for eons, and that people will always know? That makes it exciting.

[Siddharth Roy Kapur]:  I always wanted to be involved in the movies, I just didn’t know how to go about it.  The cinema industry tends to be a place you are born into, a bit incestuous, and a place you got into because of who you know rather than through merit and competition (though there are notable exceptions).  I always had an aspiration though – and grew up movie-mad.  I loved the movies – and was reading trade magazines from when I was just a child.  It was always my dream to be involved in the industry, and I’m so happy that it happened!

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.