The fact that India annually produces more films than any other nation is frequently acknowledged but easily misunderstood. "Indian cinema" identifies a diverse range of popular and art cinemas regularly produced in at least half a dozen languages for large but distinct audiences within and outside India. For much of the West, Indian cinema was long identified almost exclusively with the work of the Bengali director Satyajit Ray (1921–1992), whose realist films consciously differed from the majority of those made in India. Increased international awareness of the popular Hindi-language film industry in Bombay (now officially Mumbai), known with both affection and condescension as Bollywood, can lead to the inference that all Indian cinema adheres to a song-filled melodramatic formula. Yet reducing Indian cinema to either Ray's art films or a generic masala (spicy mix) model misrepresents Indian cinema, as international film critics have begun to point out. Moreover, the complex history of cinema in India—with roots in ancient culture, material origins under British colonialism, and local dominance following independence—also challenges easy generalizations about what is among the world's most heterogeneous as well as prolific national cinemas.

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