MUMBAI, India – Twenty-year-old Darbanga Lalit Yadav left his village in the north Indian state Bihar two years ago and moved to Mumbai in search of a job. He works as a cook in a family’s home and earns 4,000 rupees ($87) a month. When he gets a day off about once a month, he said he spends it by wandering around the city and then going to the movies.
But Yadav does not waste his time watching Bollywood films that typically show wealthy, jet-setting Indians in modern outfits living around the world. He can’t relate to those movies. Instead, he goes to the latest Bhojpuri film. In these movies, the characters speak the Hindi dialect Bhojpuri, which is spoken in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and among many of Mumbai’s migrants.
“They’re from my Bihar,” Yadav said of Bhojpuri films as he stood in line to buy a 30-rupee ticket at a single-screen theater in Andheri, a northern suburb of Mumbai. Men repairing the cinema stood above Yadav on bamboo scaffolding. “Bhojpuri films are more interesting,” he said, “because they belong to my own village and language.”
Regional cinemas like Bhojpuri have seen a surge in growth in India over the past decade as a result of Bollywood films increasingly catering to more modern, wealthy and cosmopolitan Indians, according to Kathryn Hardy, a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. candidate in South Asia studies who is working on a dissertation on Bhojpuri cinema.
“As Bollywood targets the global audience, there is a big hole left,” Hardy said as she took a rickshaw to visit the set of a new Bhojpuri film. Regional cinemas have filled that gap by producing movies that cater to a local audience through language, themes, music and settings that resonate with them.
Bhojpuri films have been around since the 1960s, but the number of movies made each year has sprung up in the past 10 years ago. About 100 films are now made a year, Hardy said.
Bhojpuri films, packed with song and dance routines and action scenes, address social and family issues relevant to the lives of people like the young migrant Yadav. In the movie “Devra Bada Satavela,” which Yadav is in line to watch, a father arranges marriages for his three daughters.
Inside the single-screen theater in Andheri, a crowd of Bhojpuri-speaking cooks, rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers and other working-class fans watch the film. In this theater, there is no line at the ladies’ room. The crowd, mostly migrants from northern India, is virtually all young men.
Unlike in multiplexes, where fans sit in air-conditioning and quietly watch Bollywood and Hollywood hits, in the fan-only single-screen theater, the crowd whistles and cheers throughout the film. The audience claps when the film’s hero, Ravi Kishan, runs across a field and accidentally bumps into and falls on the heroine, Rani Chatterjee.
Chatterjee is one of Bhojpuri’s biggest actresses, and she looks strikingly dissimilar to Hollywood stars like Jennifer Aniston or Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya Rai. Chatterjee, too, is gorgeous, but in a Bhojpuri context — she has a so-called healthy look: plump arms, large breasts and a normal-looking midriff that she reveals in her saris or short Western shirts.
Bhojpuri films are made with a fraction of the budget of their Bollywood counterparts, and the movies’ criticism usually involves them being called cheap, tawdry and vulgar, Hardy said.
However, the criticism may be an indication of class issues concerning migrant workers and north Indians. When a sex scene happens in Hollywood or Bollywood, it is considered “acceptable sex,” Hardy said, but when it happens in Bhojpuri films, it’s called vulgar. “Perhaps it’s not just about the film industry but about people’s perceptions of Bhojpuri in general,” she said.
While the lower budgets can be apparent in the films’ production quality, it also enables the movies to have big profit margins. “Sasura Bada Paisawela” [My Father-in-Law is Rich] was made with $65,000 and took in more than $3 million at the box office in 2005, according to the BBC.
The cost of some Bhojpuri films has gone up in recent years as the industry has developed its own big-name stars. A soon-to-be-released film staring Ravi Kishan, who has been a driving force behind the industry, has a budget over $200,000. This is still a fraction of what Bollywood films with big-name stars can cost.
Kishan now earns about 40 lakh to 50 lakh ($87,000-$109,000) per Bhojpuri movie, but he earns double that if doing a Bollywood film, he said while taking a break from shooting his new movie. He said he prefers doing Bhojpuri films despite the pay cut.
“It’s my mother tongue, from my village people, from the place I belong to,” he said. Kishan, dressed in a hot pink shirt and stonewashed jeans, said he makes Bollywood films because they present a chance to expose the world to his talent and bring attention to Bhojpuri cinema. But his heart remains with his regional industry, which he called, “my own created baby.”
Kishan’s life, like that of the Bhojpuri industry, began humbly. He grew up as the son of a wheat and rice farmer and priest in a village outside Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, he said during a shooting break. He would perform in plays for his community during festival days. His father, ashamed of his son for acting, would beat him with a leather belt.
“In those days in my village, the acting was taken as a sin,” Kishan said.
His mother worried for her son’s safety, and she gave him 500 rupees and sent him away at age 15. He took a train to Mumbai, with only the cash and clothes on his back. He went to acting school and slowly began making a name for himself in Hindi and then Bhojpuri films. His career, like Bhojpuri cinema, soon took off. Kishan garnered national fame when he stared in “Bigg Boss,” the Indian version of “Big Brother,” in 2006. He has acted in 120 Bhojpuri films and 40 Bollywood ones. He smokes a Classic in front of an idyllic thatched home on the film set as he lists off the various Bhojpuri best actor awards he has won.
“I started my career with 500 rupees, and I own millions today,” he said. “I move in only BMWs.”
And now, 25 years after he fled home, Kishan said he and his father have reconciled, and his family has embraced him. His father, who still lives in Uttar Pradesh, now has a chauffeured car and a multi-story bungalow. “He’s treated like a king back home now,” Kishan said.