Shweta Singh
6 min readApr 29, 2021

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Understanding Bollywood through the concept of Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer

A still from the Hindi movie Cocktail, 2012.

The critical theorist Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, chiefly coined the term “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass deception” which was presented as a critical vocabulary in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). They self addressed the increasing of growing uniformity in the realms of art and culture. The standardized presentation of certain cultural identities in Cinema is leading to the normative ideologies making it a dominant reality altogether. And same goes for Hindi Cinema. Horkheimer and Adorno, in their critical analyses, delve into what they call “the fraying of art” and the “de-artification of art”, and observed how the arts are defused by the culture industry. Films have become similar in their basic form and structure. They are formed to replicate the facts of reality as closely as attainable. If the film maybe a fantasy, which claims to not replicate such reality, do not very really live up to what they claim to be. Thus not withstanding however distinctive the film strives to be, the endings are predictable and attributable to the existence of previous films which followed the same structures. Bollywood cinema, in terms of culture industry, has been following the same pattern of work. In the Culture Industry (1991), Adorno states, “In all its branches products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan the culture industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above”. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industries make use of their two significant vehicles, technology and media, to create a false sense of freedom amongst individual. This terribly illusion compels the people to play by the alleged rules arranged down by the artful media, failing that they might be forged outside the thought. The Culture business believes within the institution of mass production and mass consumption.

Bollywood is one of the largest films producing industry in the world. Indian society and lifestyle is an influence of Bollywood films made and is what shapes and carves its cultural identities for decades. The excessive production of movies cinematic images has led to the adaptations of its habits, dress, language or manners by the audience, and it is in this very context that this thesis of culture industry comes into picture.

Bollywood has been infamous for depicting female characters in set of stereotypical frames. The roles of women in Bollywood are known to be limited than that of the man. The role of female is mostly portrayed as the one who in childhood is subjected to her father, in youth to her lover or husband and then after to her children. Hindi Cinema has been repeatedly portraying female roles as the one who is traditional. The good girl is the one whom the hero ultimately picks to take home. A foreign-educated Salman Khan as Prem in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) or Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) prefers the coy conservatively dressed girl over the one with a modern mindset. In the 2006, movie, Vivaah, Amrita Rao plays the role of again a simple traditional girl who knows all the household works. Even in the movie, Kuch Kuch hota hai (1998) Shah Rukh Khan as Rahul falls in love with Kajol as Anjali after she becomes a simple typical Indian girl but not when she was a tom boy in college. Same goes for the movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) in which again Shah Rukh Khan Character falls in love with Kajol who is a simple and traditional middle class girl rather than falling in love with Rani Mukherjee who is a well educated and a modern girl in the movie. With these very cliché roles of women in Hindi Cinema, Bollywood has standardized the image of an Indian girl. The perception of an Indian women is the one who is traditional, doesn’t work, knows how to obey elders, wears Indian clothes etc. The national award winning movie, Queen (2013), Kangana Ranaut plays the role of Rani, who is again a very innocent traditional girl. In the movie, Raj Kumar Rao who plays the character of Vijay as Rani’s fiancé. In the movie, there is a scene where Vijay doesn’t allow Rani to do a job after getting married. He tells her that she is a girl and she doesn’t need to work. Another aspect of standardizing the role of a woman in movies is that the woman shouldn’t be modern rather she should have ‘Indianness’ in her role. The woman with a modern role is seen to be rejected by the hero in the movies, and it is one of the cliché projections in Bollywood cinema. For example, in the movie Cocktail (2012), Saif Ali khan’s character falls in love with Meera who is a sweet Indian girl with lots of Indian values inculcated rather than Veronica who was a modern girl who drinks, wears western clothes, loves to party, even after dating Veronica for months.

Due to these stereotypical images and repeated portrayal, Indian society has considered it as the idol woman who is perfect to fit in the good books of the society rather than one who is modern, confident, educated and works. Bollywood by repeated stereotyping undoubtedly is normalizing certain perceptions about Indian women about how one should behave, dress and talk, thus proving the existence of culture industry.

Cinema, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, through their mimetic aesthetic, creates the illusion that real world is however an extension of the escapist tendencies of the movie. In line with Adorno and Horkheimer, films serve the capitalist interests by involving the viewer in an illusion about life — just as the realist aesthetic of Hollywood cinema finally climaxes with escapism, therefore of which Hollywood cinema claims to be a mimetic illustration, one would find happiness. Regarding this context, Bollywood film’s stand on realism is no different. Bollywood films mostly depict people’s desired version of reality. They show a reality that has nothing to do with the viewers’ reality. And this is what escapism refers to. It creates an illusion where a person forgets about his life problems and goes into a world where he/she is in their desired version of state. The same thing is done by Bollywood cinema. If one talks about the fundamental difference between cinema in Bollywood and Hollywood, then it lies in the former’s lack of realism as opposed to the latter. Through decades Bollywood has been mostly about its larger than life projection. One of the key elements of it is music and dance. Music and dance in Bollywood is something that makes it different from Hollywood. Escapism in Bollywood actually lies in its distance from reality. In any Bollywood movie you see, a romantic scene breaks into a song shot on a beautiful location, background dancers dancing along with the hero and the heroin of the movie. This creates an unrealistic scenario if one compares it with a real life situation, obviously. Taking an example of a movie, mostly one would find that all the characters in the director Karan Johar’s movie are rich, good looking, sophisticated, have big bungalows and luxury cars. Movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum (2001) , Ae dil hai Mushkil (2006), Student of the year (2012) etc. Projection of movies with such rich lifestyle can be another form of escapism for the viewers because this depicts viewers’ desired version of reality and not the actual reality. Just not the romantic scenes, action in Bollywood cinema is very glorified and projected over the top. The hero in the Bollywood movies is shown performing all the great action stunts, where one man (the hero) beats up all the group of gangsters alone to save his heroin in the movie. It creates a image far from realism in the minds of the viewers. Now, coming to music, it is something which is soothing, relaxing and stress busters for people who listen to music every day. It releases stress for that moment of time when you are into the world it takes you to, but it doesn’t changes the fact that a person still has the same amount of problems in his life. So here it is where again escapism comes into picture, stating the existence of culture industry.

Therefore, Bollywood cinema has been standardizing various Indian cultural ethics and representing them in their own stereotypical ways over the decades. Even today, its existence isn’t over in the movies. Due to this, it is influencing people’s mind and thoughts, hence people perceive cultural elements in their own way, living it in the society. Thus, the concept of Culture industry shows its existence in Bollywood dominantly and how. Doing so, they are gaining cultural importance and economical benefits thereby proving the theoretical concept of culture Industry by Adorno and Horkheimer in the world of Bollywood.

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Shweta Singh

Just a passionate individual celebrating her freedom of speech and expression.