Bombay cinema was my first film passion – starting with the Hindi film records our Indian neighbour constantly played when I was a child in late-1970s Dublin.1 Long before I was initiated into the mysteries of Melville and Mizoguchi, I swaggered along with Raj Kapoor and swooned with Nargis. I couldn’t believe there was an entire film industry devoted to my favourite genre, the musical. This was a passion, however, that was not nourished in the outlets wherein I discovered the other sites of world cinema, such as the film magazines I read or the arthouse cinemas I attended. I could read about and see American musicals, European musicals, even Soviet and Chinese musicals, but not Hindi musicals. It might seem absurd to claim the popular Hindi cinema as marginalised – Bollywood is a global, billion-dollar industry whose products make the top tens of most countries in the world each week, and are watched by hundreds of millions of filmgoers within India itself; it is an industry that is arguably responsible for side-lining alternative cinemas in that. Nevertheless, it continues to be ignored by Western cinephiles and under-represented in film history.

In 2003, scholar Jyotika Virdi protested:

A scandal in cinema studies of the last few decades has been the lack of attention paid to Indian popular cinema, the world’s largest film industry.2

Things have improved slightly in academia – there has been an increased output of journal articles, essay collections, and monographs over the last two decades about aspects of Hindi cinema, albeit nothing like the printer’s ink expended on that other global film industry, Hollywood. 

Academia does not create taste, however – it reacts to and tries to interpret it. Film history, film canons, and the scope of contemporary cinephilia is not decided by academia, but by a closed circle of programmers and festivals; film magazines like Cahiers du Cinéma, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, and Cinema Scope; and home entertainment companies such as the Criterion Collection. This circle has expanded in recent years, most notably in its tentative embrace of African cinema, but it continues to find little room for popular Hindi cinema.

Since the 1950s, Western cinephilic appreciation of Indian cinema has been restricted to Satyajit Ray (whose Pather Panchali [1955] was voted the eighth greatest film of all time in the 1992 Sight & Sound critics’ poll) and, latterly, Ritwik Ghatak. Both filmmakers were, significantly, Bengali, belonging to a rich cultural, primarily literary tradition long appreciated in the West, and epitomised by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose works were adapted by Ray. Both filmmakers conceived of character, plot, place, and formal design in the individualistic or subjective terms that paralleled the arthouse films of other nations; Ray, for instance, was frequently compared to the neo-realists, Chekhov, or Jean Renoir (the fact that Ghatak began his career writing for the Bombay Cinema is often conveniently forgotten). Popular Hindi cinema generally ignores these Western norms, finding its roots in local religious, mythological, and popular forms – communal forms – that reject the fixed points of Western perspective, plausibility and logic. As a result, it is ignored by Western critics. Only one Hindi filmmaker has been ‘saved’ for the Western canon – Guru Dutt, director of Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Dutt is admired precisely because he is held to adhere to the kind of cinema Western cinephiles expect. The canon-obsessed Mark Cousins’ 2006 appreciation of Dutt, in which he called him the Indian Orson Welles, and compared him to Hollywood musical maestro Vincente Minnelli and New York Group Theatre alumnus John Garfield, is typical of this kind of Orientalising response.3

Guru Dutt in Pyaasa


Take three ambitious Western cinephile projects launched in the decade after Virdi’s remonstration, and you will see how the pattern of side-lining Hindi cinema is inscribed, repeated, and interconnected.  

Exhibit 1 is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). Rosenbaum is rightly revered as a critic who attempted to broaden and deepen the scope of world cinema, and to introduce US audiences in particular to a greater variety of film cultures. Even Homer nods, however, and Hindi cinema has been one of Rosenbaum’s blind spots. Appended to this volume is a chronological list of Rosenbaum’s 1000 ‘personal’ favourites from 1895 to the date of the book’s publication.4 There are films from all corners of the world, including India, which is represented, as usual, by Ray and Ghatak (three films apiece). There are no popular Hindi films – indeed, there are far more films made by Westerners about Westerners in India, such as Bhowani Junction (George Cukor, 1956), India (Roberto Rossellini, 1958), The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang, 1959), and India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975) – then there are films by Indians addressing their own mass audience. In this, Rosenbaum is following the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences he so often criticises, which throws Oscars at films such as Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), both made by English directors, and ignores Hindi cinema. You could argue that Rosenbaum, like many ‘serious’ film critics, promotes elite rather than popular cinema, but his list is dominated by Hollywood, despite his lifelong protest at, to quote the subtitle of another Rosenbaum book, ‘how Hollywood and the media conspire to limit what films we can see’.

Exhibit 2 follows the same attitude to India and cinema.  Like Rosenbaum, David Thomson chose one thousand films from around the world in “Have You Seen…?” (2008). The higher cinephilia affects to disdain Thomson nowadays, but his influence on taste should not be underestimated. A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975) was voted the best film book of all time in a 2010 Sight & Sound critics’ poll,5 and Thomson’s work in general is rare in reaching beyond the cinephile community to influence the ‘wider culture’ – Martin Amis and John Banville are fans – in a way someone like Jonathan Rosenbaum could only dream of. When someone like Thomson proposes a canon, it should be taken seriously as it will shape many readers’ film viewing (I know I gifted the book to several people when it came out).  Like Rosenbaum, Thomson uses Ray (three entries) and Western filmmakers – adding Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939) and The River (Jean Renoir, 1951) to Rosenbaum’s examples – to represent India in a world cinema context. Thomson’s Eurocentric bias is clear: he writes that Ray “helped introduce the idea of Indian film to the world – not Bollywood, but an Indian movie that could be identified and seen outside India”.6

The ‘vacuously pretty’ Amitabh Bachchan in Khuda Gawah

Rosenbaum has often criticised Thomson for his narrow geographical and chronological conception of world cinema. Unlike Rosenbaum, however, Thomson does include one Hindi film in his list – Khuda Gawah (Mukul S. Anand, 1992), or God is my Witness as it is translated in the book. There is no evidence within the text that Thomson actually watched Khuda Gawah, the essay is full of ignorant factual errors. Blockbuster Hindi epic Mother India (Mehboob, 1957) was not directed by the experimental Parallel Cinema filmmaker Mani Kaul. His description of lead Amitabh Bachchan as ‘vacuously petty’ seems odd for a fifty-year-old actor playing a tribal Afghan chief from middle- to old-age, his face obscured by heavy ringlets and a beard. Thomson is not interested in Khuda Gawah as a discrete film with discrete artistic qualities. It has been chosen to represent the Bollywood cinema he wants to diminish; any title would have done. Thomson at least has the grace to admit that his preference for Western or Western-sanctioned representations of India is problematic, but the fundamental racism of his position – and, I would argue, the Western cinephilia that Thomson embodies – is laid bare when he writes of “a culture that happens to be centuries older than ours while still primitive by comparison”.7 Popular Hindi cinema is an ‘other’ that cannot be assimilated into the canon because it is too different from ‘us’. Well, sorry David, but some of ‘us’ think of Hindi cinema as ‘ours’ as well, part of ‘our’ cinematic inheritance.

The final exhibit is the 2012 result of the decennial, canon-shaping Sight & Sound critics’ poll of ‘The Greatest Films of All Time’.8 With the 2022 poll due in September, it is worth revisiting the 2012 iteration. Much was made at the time of the attempt to broaden the canon by expanding the geographical and generational reach of the participants, and the range of media outlets they contribute to. The 846 critics who responded chose 2045 films. Ray received the highest number of votes for an Indian filmmaker (56, including 32 for Pather Panchali, the highest-placed Indian film at no. 41); Ghatak won 12 votes. These directors were voted for by critics across the world, from Japan and the Philippines through Norway and Germany to Peru and USA, and so are firmly part of the canon of world cinema. Renoir’s The River, a film about an English family in India, adapted from an English novel by a French filmmaker, received 13 votes, more than any individual Hindi film (Lang’s Tiger of Eschnapur got five). There were only 25 votes for popular Hindi movies. If we remove from this total the nine given to ‘saved’ Guru Dutt, and the votes of academic specialist in Hindi cinema Rachel Dwyer, we find that only four global cinephiles out of 846 felt that popular Hindi film deserved a place in the canon of world cinema. To give these figures some context, there were 35 Hollywood films in the Top 100.


Has much improved in the decade since the 2012 poll? Sight & Sound, the self-professed ‘International Film Magazine’, is given here as my example because it is the magazine I have read and loved since 1992 and therefore know best, but it is also representative of the other influential publications that direct cinephilic taste.  The answer is no, things have not improved. While Hollywood continues to dominate the magazine’s coverage (nearly 60% of Sight & Sound covers between October 2012 and June 2022, or 66 out of 111, featured a Hollywood film, director, star, or theme – including four for Stanley Kubrick, who, you may be surprised to learn, died in the last century), there hasn’t been a single full-length feature about a Bollywood subject, past or present, between 2012 and 2022.  

Because it is a publication of record, and because Bollywood films are released weekly in the UK, it has to publish reviews of Bollywood films, but these reviews are usually given to one writer, the indefatigable Naman Ramachandran. This critic is rarely invited to write about other kinds of cinema in the magazine, so his Bollywood coverage is not integrated into the mainstream of its output. Conversely, its star writers – the ones who attend festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, and whose recommendations decide what distributors will acquire and show in UK cinemas, and what ‘serious’ newspaper critics will cover prominently on release – never write about Bollywood. And so, Bollywood is confined to a critical ghetto. 

Again, it might be objected that Sight & Sound only puts ‘serious’ Hollywood films on its covers. Again, I reply that by giving multiple-page cover stories to the likes of Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, Sight & Sound admits that it is possible for a commercial industry to produce works worthy of critical commentary. Whether the will is not there, or the demographic bias of its contributors skews it towards certain forms of cinema, the magazine doesn’t extend this insight to major figures in contemporary Bollywood, such as Aamir Khan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Farah Khan, or Rajkumar Hirani. Even when a publication does make a special effort – such as Film Comment’s May-June 2002 ‘Bollywood 101’ special issue, it is an isolated gesture. Film Comment did not go on to include Bollywood within its regular features or review slate, despite the presence of Hindi film fan Devika Girish on its editorial board, one of the few Indian writers in a prominent position at an influential film magazine.

This pattern structures every part of the cinephile system, such as film exhibition – which is hardly surprising, when so many programmers are former or practising critics. Since 2014, I have lived in the UK, where there is a large Indian diaspora, and a vocal and innovative academic population interested in Bollywood (several of whom have contributed to this dossier). The British Film Institute’s flagship cinema complex on London’s Southbank has since 2014 mounted film seasons on various countries, directors, genres, periods, and stars, but not a single one devoted to a Bollywood subject (there is a complete Satyajit Ray retrospective scheduled for July 2022, following a previous one in 2013). I know the same goes for comparable institutions in the US and Australia, which also have large Indian diasporas.

The same applies to home entertainment. Take the Criterion Collection, whose very name implies excellence and taste-making exclusivity. Offering a ‘series of important classic and contemporary films in special editions’, Criterion follows the Rosenbaum/Thomson/Sight & Sound model by equating Indian cinema with Ray (11 titles available for purchase), Ghatak (two), western filmmakers such as Louis Malle, Alexander Korda, and Wes Anderson, as well as Mira Nair (two titles), a filmmaker who, like Ray before her, has long been critical of popular Hindi cinema.9  

It would seem, therefore, that there is a link between what films get written about in certain publications, what films get shown in certain cinemas, what films are released by touchstone home entertainment companies, and what constitutes the film canon. That canon does not include popular Hindi cinema.


There are doubtless all sorts of sociological, psychological, economic, geopolitical, cultural, historical, postcolonial etc etc factors that could explain why this is so. Anecdotally, I know that most cinephiles’ disdain for Bollywood is not based on the actual experience of watching Hindi films, but on a caricature derived from music videos, Baz Luhrmann pastiches, comedy skits, advertisements, and TV idents. For what it’s worth, I have my own theory to explain the marginalisation of Hindi film from the canon. There was a time when Hollywood was dismissed by the cultural elite as factory-made pap in the same way as Bollywood is now. It was not until the Cahiers critics in the ’50s, their UK followers at Movie magazine in the ‘60s, and the publication of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema in 1968, that the concept of ‘Hollywood’ as a homogenous mass, an industry pedalling disposable and ideologically conservative product, was replaced with one where individual filmmakers with individual styles and outlooks could be identified, categorised, compared, and contrasted. Where a regimented production system could nevertheless facilitate personal artistry and expression.  

No such mainstream critical attempt was ever made with Hindi cinema. In academia, where critical interest in Bollywood does exist, the focus tends to be sociological, anthropological and ethnographic rather than artistic or intentionalist – how does this film or genre reflect particular social trends or embody particular ideologies, consciously or otherwise? There has been no Truffaut or Godard proclaiming the distinctiveness of individual Hindi directors, no Perkins or Bordwell analysing elements of style, no Mulvey or Robin Wood examining the ethical content of particular oeuvres (Laura Mulvey, incidentally, included Dutt’s Pyaasa in her top ten for the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ poll). Auteurism is often dismissed as an outdated critical framework but, as implied above, it continues to dictate how most cinephiles experience cinema, while in film studies it was a necessary critical steppingstone before other approaches could be developed.10 

This dossier, therefore, was born of frustration at the marginalisation of popular Hindi cinema in the discourse of Western cinephilia. The call for submissions was framed in unashamedly auteurist terms in an attempt to complicate and diversify the monolithic concept of ‘Bollywood’. I thought that this angle would appeal to the contributors of Senses of Cinema, with its auteurist focus – this is the journal with a legendary ‘Great Directors’ section, after all! Unfortunately, none of Senses’ regular contributors responded to the call, and I was forced to bombard the academic departments in the UK and elsewhere with pleas for contributions. I am deeply grateful to everyone who agreed to write for this dossier at short notice, producing some remarkable and thoughtful texts on subjects as varied as literary adaptation, diasporic viewing conditions, and Bollywood’s complicity in promulgating the caste system. I also thank my co-editor Amanda Barbour for giving me the opportunity to initiate this dossier, and then guiding me through my first editing project.

The work of starting a Bollywood response to The American Cinema will have to wait another day. Until then, enjoy this Senses of Cinema dossier!



  1. The problematic nomenclature relating to this dossier’s subject is discussed by almost all of its contributors. For this introduction, ‘Bombay Cinema’ is used to describe works produced by the Bombay film industry up until the mid-’90s; ‘Bollywood’ relates to films made from the economic liberalisation of the mid-’90s to the present day; and ‘Hindi cinema’ or ‘popular Hindi cinema’ is a general term covering the entirety of Bombay/Mumbai production aimed at a mass audience.
  2. Jyotika Virdi, The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History (New Brunswick et al: Rutgers University Press), p. ix.
  3. Mark Cousins, “Guru Dutt: Such Sweet Sorrow”, Sight & Sound, Volume 16 Issue 3 (March 2006), pp. 30-32.
  4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press), pp. 407-424.
  5. Nick James, “Print the Legend”, Sight & Sound, Volume 20 Issue 6 (June 2010), pp. 16-28.
  6. David Thomson, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (London: Allen Lane, 2008), p. 989.
  7. David Thomson, “Have You Seen…?”, p. 329.
  8. “The Greatest Films of All Time: The Results”, Sight & Sound, Volume 22 Issue 9 (September 2012), pp. 39-71.
  9. In its defence, Criterion’s streaming channel mounted a short Raj Kapoor season in January 2021, even if it felt the need to describe the filmmaker as ‘Chaplinesque’ to attract American cinephiles. A British Film Institute DVD of Bombay classic Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972) was scheduled for release in 2003, but never materialised.
  10. The monumental and indispensable Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1994) by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen could be posited as the equivalent to The American Cinema I am calling for. In practice, however, its severe post-structuralist ideology, informed by the Screen theories Willemen helped to formulate, means that it is ultimately a rejection of auteurism, and even, arguably, of the pleasures of Indian cinema.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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