Bollywood Even as Indian films tried to make a splash abroad with an offering of 65 films in this year's Cannes Film Market, they have been making waves of a different kind at home. Bollywood, which has been ruling the hearts and minds of Indians like a powerful religion, is now entering ordinary schools and colleges all over the country. People associate Bollywood with colourful, fomulaic song-and-dance melodramas. Even though a few exceptions in the form of songless thrillers (Ek Haseena Thi; Ab Tak Chhappan; Darna Zaroori Hai, Being Cyrus) have been thrown in lately, the fact remains that Bollywood has not been taken seriously, not even in India. It has always been treated as the producer of fairy tale fantasies, as an opiate for the masses. This is despite Bollywood being the world's biggest film-producing centre, churning out as many as 800 films a year, netting revenues of an estimated US$1.25 billion according to 2004 figures by PricewaterhouseCoopers. But things are slowly changing. In April this year, India's Central Board of Secondary Education, a premier educational body, announced the inclusion of Sholay (Embers, 1975), one of India's most-loved blockbusters, into an Oxford University Press course workbook for Class V students. This is a historic development both for the schools and the Indian film industry. With its inclusion in textbooks, Sholay becomes India's first film to be taught in the country's schools. Sholay has many distinctions to its credit, the latest being the academic one. It is the vaudeville story of two outlaws (played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) hired by an honest police officer to nab a dreaded robber, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Sholay has been loved by generations of Indians, and it enjoys the distinction of being India's first 'biryani western'. It is the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, bringing in US$50 million at the box office. The question is: why did Sholay get this honour over thousands of Hindi films made in the past 100 years? Recognising cinema as an integral part of Indian culture, the authorities have reasoned that the inclusion of this film in the curriculum will make children aware of the prominence attached to the Indian film industry and of the multicultural ethos of Indian society. Disagreement with this line of argument is difficult as Sholay has proved its mettle on both these counts. This innovative use of Bollywood films does not extend to schoolchildren alone. About 50,000 school teachers in Delhi are also set to get a powerful dose of Hindi cinema. Two recent blockbusters, Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and Rang De Basanti (2006), are going to be used for teachers' training in the capital. Set against the backdrop of India's contemporary education system, both films have resonated with audiences. While Munnabhai MBBS is about a gangster trying to earn a medical degree to impress his father (also being remade in Hollywood by filmmaker Mira Nair as Gangsta MD), Rang De Basanti is a clarion call for today's youth to rise up and make India free of corruption. Interestingly, Bollywood was also found to be useful in business schools and the seminar circuits in India. In 2002, two maverick Indian economists, Bibek Debroy and Amir Ullah Khan, made a documentary, India's Economic Transition Through Bollywood Eyes. Their work showed India's milestones in its political economy and legislation through film clips gleaned from scores of Indian films released in the past 50 years. The film was shown to economics and management school students across the nation, evoking a positive response from students and the media. Students were amused to see how cinema, basically a medium of entertainment, could be used to teach a cut-and-dried subject such as economics. One year later, the duo took the same approach to highlight the travails of marginal farmers in India through another documentary - Village Vignettes (subtitled Agriculture and the Small Farmers in India - A Bollywood Perspective). The documentary was distributed in the form of compact discs by a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, International Development Enterprises. In 1996, while taking a break from writing his dissertation at New York's Cornell University, Brij Kothari hit upon the idea of leveraging on Bollywood's educational value outside the classroom. Now, he is using the 'Same-Language-Subtitles' (SLS) technology to spread literacy in India, with the help of an unconventional ally: Google. The idea that Bollywood films could really help in the spread of literacy convinced the American company to fund Kothari's unique venture in India, Planet Read. Active in Mumbai and Pondicherry, Planet Read uses the SLS methodology that provides 'automatic reading practice to individuals who are excluded from the traditional educational system, or whose literacy needs are otherwise not being met'. Kothari's potential targets are the 40 per cent of the 500 million Indians who have access to television but are poor and have low literacy skills. He claims that through Planet Read's approach, more than 200 million early-literates in India are getting weekly reading practice. It's a low-cost intervention that saw 10,000 people getting their regular reading exercises for just US$1. For once, Bollywood may rightly feel proud of its legacy and its usefulness to Indian society.