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The world's most prolific dream factory is not located in Hollywood, as Americans might assume, but in the western Indian city of Bombay, or Mumbai, home to a sprawling, ramshackle production center known as "Bollywood."

When Anjan Bacchu migrates to the United States in The New Americans, he keeps a little slice of home close to his ear—an audiotape of his new bride, Harshini, singing karaoke songs from her favorite Bollywood musicals.

India's film industry is a relentless machine, cranking out epic romantic fancy at a breakneck pace. Bollywood turns out as many as 1,000 movies a year—more than twice the output of Hollywood's—and boasts an average daily audience of 14 million.

Bollywood productions, also known as masala films for their spicy blend of elements, are eminently recognizable in their formulaic nature—romance, melodrama, action, villains and most notably, spectacular music and dance numbers. The films often clock in at over three hours and sex scenes, taboo in India, are nonexistent save for the occasional "wet sari" fantasy.

Often made to give poor Indians maximum value for their rupee, Bollywood films are known for their kitschy, escapist qualities. Ironically, it's the hip intellectuals in America who have latched onto their appeal and who track down masala films in South Asian community video stores and movie houses.

For years, zeitgeist watchers have predicted an American Bollywood invasion, similar to the recent influence of Hong Kong thrillers. But while Bollywood films have been entertaining the Indian masses for decades, they have yet to catch the fancy of the average American.

Still, a hint of masala fashion is bubbling up into the American cultural stew, even as world-famous Indian megastars like Amitabh Bachchan remain virtually unknown. GQ magazine, fashion arbiter and finder of the next big thing, was early on the Bollywood bandwagon with a profile of Indian “It boy” Hrithik Roshan in their March 2002 issue, dubbing him "the most famous person you have never heard of."

And Bollywood references have been increasing in American cinema. The Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge and 2002's The Guru have given American audiences a taste of lavish masala-style music and dance extravaganzas. Some film critics even point to the success of Chicago as evidence that a Bollywood influence is bringing back the musical genre.

But as Hollywood latches on to the escapist aesthetic of Bollywood, Bollywood is attempting to turn out sophisticated fare. The success of films like Lagaan (nominated for an Oscar in 2002) has spurred the Indian film industry to look past the local audience for international distribution and success.

While the predicted summer of Bollywood never really surfaced in America, a slow wave of influence, on both sides of the film world, is building.

Get a taste of masala. Check out Bollywood and its influence on American cinema >
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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
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