Bollywood movies taught me so many life lessons - here are some you might not expect


One of W24's regular contributors Haji Mohamed Dawjee has just published her debut memoir - Sorry, Not Sorry - and she's shared an excerpt with us. It's about the experiences of a brown woman in South Africa where she covers topics like Islam and feminism, people pretending to be woke and why white people don't understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour.

Published with permission from Penguin Random House South Africa, Sorry, Not Sorry is available from all leading bookstores.

Bollywood films were where we learnt to make sense of the culture that parts of us unknowingly left behind.

They were the vehicles that took us to the homelands of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who arrived in South Africa and never returned. Those vehicles drove our ancestors home, they drove our parents home and, years later, they drove me home. 

When I visited India with my mom and sister for the first time a couple of years ago, the warmth of all our Friday movie nights and exposure to my Indian culture left my heart burning with a love for India that seemed bigger than my body could carry.

Western societies have long slated Bollywood films for being melodramatic, having thin plots, being repetitive and being far too long.

I travelled with an Overseas Citizenship of India passport – documentation you can acquire after a lengthy process of proving you have ancestors from India, some of whom came over as indentured labourers.

It was a symbol of belonging. I went to India on an Indian passport; I arrived home with so much more. 

But for those who have never visited their country of origin or never again had the chance to return, Bollywood gives them the courage to wear their patriotic hearts on their sleeves.

It’s the Bollywood movie that lets them escape the existential confusion of being an immigrant.

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It’s the Bollywood movie that stops them, even if just for a couple of hours, from doing as the Romans do, and allows sixteen million people of the Indian diaspora to be consumed by the beating heart of their country as it pounds with yearning through their veins.

It provides a connection to their traditions and their roots, and reminds them that while they have left many things behind, they have brought a lot with them as well. 

Western societies have long slated Bollywood films for being melodramatic, having thin plots, being repetitive and being far too long. Many people refuse to watch them because they hate reading subtitles and despise the bad sentence construction and grammar when Hindi is translated to English.

But there is a reason for this ‘bad’ translation: India has a history of maintaining a high rate of illiteracy. This comes as a result of poverty and a lack of access to education. For a long time, literature was incapable of penetrating the populace.

Books could not bind people together the same way movies managed to. When the films moved from India to reach the diaspora around the world, the industry was aware of the fact that the people might have lost their home language without speaking it very often, and that English may have been acquired only partially. 

The only two things more important to Bollywood than the music are happy endings and showing respect for mothers in every single storyline.

Subtitles, therefore, were simplistic, making them easier for people to read. In this way, a viewer on the other end of the world who spoke no Hindi, for example, and only broken English, could still be satisfied because they understood the story.

Interestingly, newspaper reading has since increased in India because Bollywood subtitles have helped raise English literacy levels in villages with no access to schools. 

Another point of disapproval in the West is the fact that every single Bollywood film is a musical. They can’t understand it. They find it irritating and unnecessary. 

An extensive original soundtrack of anything between five and fourteen songs supports each Bollywood film. The actors don’t sing them; they mime. Behind the scenes, a team of composers, musical directors, session musicians and playback singers is hard at work. 

The only two things more important to Bollywood than the music are happy endings and showing respect for mothers in every single storyline. Bollywood respects mothers the way the offspring of Indian families enjoy Hindi films. They have to.

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They have to love them like they love their maternal guardians. They. Just. Have. To. And like our mothers, Bollywood (to an extent) helps shape our hearts and minds. First it sets up the battle between the emotional and the rational, and then the films extinguish the fight between what is kitsch and all that defies common sense with a well of victory: victory for the lovers, the fighters, the abolished.

You can’t escape its triumph and the sense of winning that the last scene of every movie gifts you. 

Bollywood lives in the Mumbai of our hearts. A place of the striving. A place of the abandoned. A place of conflict between moral and immoral choices. It is the lost-and-found bin of emotions and it houses our love. And it quite literally sings us through the streets of our feelings. 

I have never once heard a white person say a bad word about Grease, for example, and is this not also a blockbuster where songs pop up at any given moment?

In all fairness, though, Bollywood suffers the same level of success – or failure, rather – as Hollywood when it comes to quality. Three-quarters of the releases are nonsense, the remainder quite good.

But the West’s denigration of Bollywood is much harsher when compared to its US counterpart. For some reason, people can’t seem to step away from insulting the Indian film industry’s plots even though they are as far-fetched and fanciful as Broadway musicals (whose plots are never deemed thin).

I have never once heard a white person say a bad word about Grease, for example, and is this not also a blockbuster where songs pop up at any given moment? What difference does it make if this same thing occurs in another language born of a different country? 

Finally, there’s this age-old argument: Bollywood movies are stupid because the lovers never kiss and they’re always coy and run around trees and stuff. This is what we call culture.

India is a conservative country and the film industry has to reflect this because it plays to a vast audience who possess a variety of ethical views.

Watch a clip about a recently released Bollywood movie and the backlash it sparked

In newer films, physical romantic interaction has become the norm, but not without tussles between the producers and the Central Board of Film Certification.

Often, films are cut and censored to avoid the social scrutiny and criticism of culturally taboo issues like public displays of affection. Some viewers don’t mind an onscreen kiss, but others find it offensive and culturally inappropriate.

I believe in a free and fair media. Censorship is generally wrong, but what if, in the case of Bollywood, the censorship of physical intimacy is right?

After all, art imitates life and all that. People never kiss in public in India. They’re modest, and modesty is honour and respect. Even Veer-Zaara [a 2004 Indian romance film] only sees the hero and heroine touch each other in a fantasy song sequence. 

Maybe it’s this kind of censorship that keeps Bollywood films housed in a cloud of warmth and innocence. In this way, they remain wholesome.

People crave this. Hollywood, on the other hand, breeds ambivalence. There is always an air of indifference when it comes to family, for example. Bollywood does the opposite. The stories unfold in a utopia of pre-cynicism where there is faith in love and patriotism and parents. 

Every country in the world speaks the language of love just like every country in the world understands the language of grief.

And as much as these movies are castigated in foreign societies, so too are they embraced. Bollywood isn’t a billion-dollar industry that puts Hollywood in the shade only because of its home country and the Indian diaspora.

These films have penetrated the globe in ways we forget to mention. The Soviet Union (at the time) started to screen Hindi films as far back as the 1950s. The industry has an – almost inexplicable – mass following in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The films come in peace to both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Their thin storylines are translated into dozens of languages from French to Mandarin and beyond. 

Virtue is nourishing, regardless of where you’re from. Citizens carry the lyrics of Bollywood songs around the globe – even if they have to recite them in English.

Every country in the world speaks the language of love just like every country in the world understands the language of grief.

Familiar feelings are family and so Bollywood movies are accepted in the homes of many. The over-the-top acting and plots are forgiven because of the innocence that is their bedrock. Bollywood is good people. And often, Bollywood is life.

Credit: supplied

A little about Haji:

Born to a Muslim family in the apartheid township of Laudium, Pretoria, Haji Mohamed Dawjee came of age just as South Africa’s democracy was finding its feet. Opting out of the favoured family profession of dentistry, Mohamed Dawjee graduated with a Bachelor in Music from the University of Pretoria before teaching music and second-language English at the American International School. Deciding that the world of education was far too sensible for her, she turned to the more chaotic universe of the media and completed a postgraduate degree in journalism at Stellenbosch University.

After graduating, she rapidly established herself as a digital media specialist. She became Africa’s first social media editor in a newsroom at the Mail & Guardian, where she went on to work as deputy digital editor and a disruptor of the peace through a weekly column. A stint as the programme manager followed at Impact Africa – a grant-disbursing fund for African digital journalists.

In 2017 she was selected as a fellow for the Deutsche Welle Institute. Mohamed Dawjee now pursues her own writing full time and infuriates readers of EWN, W24 and the Sunday Times (to the same degree, she hopes) with weekly and bi-monthly columns, and contributes freelance journalism and opinion to a range of other publications.

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