“A Bollywood State of Mind: A journey into the world’s biggest cinema” by Sunny Singh


In an interview with Pierre Andre Boutang in 1989, Satyajit Ray, the Academy Award winning director, declared that India has “a fairly backward audience” adding that this “unsophisticated audience” is largely “exposed to the commercial Hindi cinema, more than anything else.” In Rays’ account, the exposure to commercial Hindi cinema is the cause of Indian audiences’ lack of sophistication.

In A Bollywood State of Mind, Sunny Singh refers to just this sort of derision of commercial Hindi cinema in various accounts stating, “Bollywood has long been considered as a sort of mindless entertainment package created for an impoverished, mostly illiterate audience.” She argues that these repeated declarations about Indian audiences as “unsophisticated” and Bollywood as “mindless entertainment” reveals more about the critical failure to understand the world’s most prolific cinematic culture.


A Bollywood State of Mind: A journey into the world’s biggest cinema, Sunny Singh (Footnote Press, October 2023)
A Bollywood State of Mind: A journey into the world’s biggest cinema, Sunny Singh (Footnote Press, October 2023)

Like Hindi movies themselves, A Bollywood State of Mind offers a multitrack narrative doubling as a personal memoir, a national history and a comparative study of Sanskrit aesthetics and modern Indian films. The book records the cultural history of the evolving ways in which Hindi cinema was consumed by the Indian public. In 1970s, movies from different decades such as Mother India (1957) and Dharam-Veer (1977) could be seen in theaters next to one other, whereas, in 1980s, the VCR brought the movies into the home where Singh could watch a movie like Lawaris (1981) “at least fifty times in its entirety”.

The book also documents the cultural history of India where sartorial choices were often determined by what people watched on celluloid. For instance, Sadhana, an Indian actress, introduced the tight salwar kameez as a fashion trend, and her hairstyle is still famous across Indian salons as the “Sadhana Cut”. Singh also refers to little known moments from Hindi movies such as a song from Razia Sultan (1983) that depicted a kiss between two Indian actresses, an explicit moment of lesbian desire which was later edited out when the movie was broadcasted on television and circulated through DVDs.


A Bollywood State of Mind also attempts to develop a new critical methodology to understand the codes of popular Hindi cinema through the lens of ancient Indian aesthetics rooted in the oldest Sanskrit treatise on dance and performance, Natyashastra. The treatise provides a framework to combine the moral and ethical content of religious scriptures and present it in a form of dramatic and dance performances that can have a wider mass appeal. Bollywood occupies a similar space of mass entertainment in contemporary India shaping cultural, social and moral attitudes of the wider public. Natyashastra,  furthermore, eschews the designation of tragedy and comedy as distinct genres: it conceives a narrative where multiple genres are inter-mixed within a single story, a feature that has uncanny similarity with popular Bollywood movies.

In Hindi movies with a multi-track narrative, different strands with distinct tones jostle for space on the screen creating a diverse emotional experience. There are constant interludes in Hindi cinema, an emotional drama often interrupted by comic passages that have no bearing on the central plot of the movie. Singh traces this emotional diversity to the aesthetic concept of rasa which could mean sap, juice or taste of the aesthetic experience. Rasa also refers to the emotional state evoked in the performer and the audience during the enactment of the story. The culinary metaphor of rasa indicates that commercial Hindi films aimed “to create a visual and narrative feast that the viewers could savour much like a satisfying meal.”

The Sanskrit aesthetic tradition refers to nine distinct rasas or emotional states with Shringar (Love) and Vira (Heroism) considered prominent among all of the rasas. Singh categorizes Hindi movies according to the rasa so that Veer Zara (2004) and Asoka (2001) fall into the category of Shringar rasa, whereas Sarfarosh (1999), Sholay (1975) and Mangal Pandey (2005) are considered typical examples of Vira rasa.


The rasa paradigm also makes special demands upon the spectator. The degree to which the performance can be enjoyed “depends upon the sensitivity and prior knowledge of the spectator” and the greater the prior knowledge of the viewer, “the greater the pleasure or the disappointment with the performance.” Within this tradition, a fine spectator is known as a rasik, a viewer trained in historical, intellectual and aesthetic traditions of the art form so that he could instantly grasp and decipher the most obscure references within each performance.

Singh illustrates that Bollywood movies work through a series of aesthetic tropes that have been built and inherited within the tradition so that a cinephile would find in a popular Hindi movie like Om Shanti Om (2007)


layer upon layer of intertextuality, with every scene, dialogue, costume and location recalling other iconic moments from cinematic history and allusions to their favourite stars.


This argument holds for many recent Hindi movies such as Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani (2023) which can only be truly appreciated if one is acquainted with the songs, music, and plot twists that have informed the Hindi film industry for a century. The informed viewer seeks pleasure not only in the specific story presented on screen, but also the ways in which this particular movie curates the music, dialogues and thematic tropes of a century of Hindi cinema within a single narrative.

It is doubtful if the concept of rasa offers the most convincing framework to explain popular Hindi cinema. However, Sunny Singh herself emerges as the ultimate rasik who combines the personal and the academic, the love of a movie fan and with the critical thinking of an erudite scholar to offer a captivating account of Hindi Cinema. At the end, is the book’s radically new critical methodology convincing? Perhaps, not entirely. But, is it a riveting tale of an individual (and nation) intoxicated with a love of Hindi cinema? Yes, a firm yes. Singh has an encyclopedic knowledge of Hindi cinema and there is an infectious energy to the entire narrative that transmits onto the reader, the rasa seeps from her pages into the reader.

Archit Nanda is a PhD scholar at Queen Mary University of London.