One hundred years of Indian cinema

Fascination for movies has not faded a century after the first motion picture was made in the nation of one billion.

Pather Panchali

New Delhi – It’s been a hundred years, and yet the fascination for movies has not faded for a nation of one billion Indians.

The first Indian motion picture Raja Harischandra was produced and released in India in 1913, barely a year after the world’s first motion picture was made in 1912. The Times of India, India’s major newspaper then, hailed it as “the marvel of the century”. As writer and essayist Mukul Kesavan wrote, “The art of the cinema was fashioned in India at the same time as it was developed in the West”.

It’s no mean feat that India produces more films across all its regions than Hollywood. Despite rising production costs, India continues to lead in terms of quantity. Nearly 130 films were released out of Bollywood in the year ending 2011, and the numbers from Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Assamese, Gujarati, Oddisa, and other northeastern states takes the toll over 1,000.

Indian cinema has prided itself on being a sole distraction and leisure industry for nearly a century, in a country where allied entertainment forms like music or the fashion industry are subservient to the glamour that cinema and its stars bring.

From rock chic to glamour, to dress and design, creating indelible images and daily references, business, politics and sports, travel destinations and colloquialisms, violence and sexuality, hero-worshipping and icon-making, Indian cinema had and continues to provide templates and set trends.

In Video

Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman reports from Mumbai

The Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, nicknamed Bollywood, sets the pace for style, fads, and fashion for the young and restless Indian audience between 13 and 30. G Venket Ram, fashion and film professional, says: “The marriage between films and fashion and social trends is never as close as in India”.

Romantic melodrama – or, in India cinemaesque-speak, masala entertainment – remains the staple of Indian cinema across the 15 or more regional language movie industries across the country. However, in the 21st century, things have changed. Bollywood, India’s most widely watched Hindi moviedom, is changing its plot. As Shoojit Sircar, the filmmaker of the Hindi sleeper-hit Vicky Doner put it, “Indian cinema is welcoming real and new role-casts for its stereotyped characters”.

Indian cinema in all languages delved into Indian mythologies and Hindu religious texts for themes and storylines when it began. Following the nation’s independence, the 1930s and 40s were marked by socialist themes and the fight against poverty and society for the marginalised. The 1960s brought global winds of colour and hippie couture. The themes, however, continued to follow the rich and evil versus the poor and virtuous, the rural good guy and the city bad guy formula.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the advent of the megastar syndrome. Actors like Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan from Bollywood, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth, NT Rama Rao, Raj Kumar from south India, Uttam Kumar, Prosenjit Chatterjee from Bengal became icons, deified and glorified according to the regional culture and sensibilities. Fans set themselves ablaze or shed blood to show their affection for their superstars.  

Outsiders’ charge

In the 21st century, Indian cinema is both revisiting and breaking new grounds. New Bollywood is now led by “outsiders”. These are actors and filmmakers who do not belong to any film families or yesteryear studio honcho heirs, which are a very tight-knit lobby. Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Sujoy Ghosh, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Vikramaditya Motwane are filmmakers who make small budget movies, with some released internationally at Cannes and Toronto, and are making movies that are edgy, gritty, noiresque and true to real life. They are a far cry from the ostentatious, over-the-top entertainers set in European and American locations imitating Hollywood teen rom-coms. Female filmmakers like Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar in Hindi and Aparna Sen in Bengali, Revathi in Tamil are making sure female voices and perspectives are being highlighted in Indian cinema.

As national award winning filmmaker K V Anand says, “As Indian audiences embrace globalisation its cinema too had adapted to the growing need for different plots, newer characters and contemporary storylines. Bollywood was called pan-Indian and was characterised by a north Indian sensibility and for a conventional Indian audience residing abroad”.

“The Indians showed immediate enthusiasm for this exciting novelty.”

– Yves Thoraval, French cinephile

The cash-rich Telugu cinema is reinventing mythological and fantasy tales like the smash hit Maghadheera and with Hollywood-inspired special effects and tie-ups with Walt Disney Pictures in Anaganaga Oka Dheerudu. Tamil cinema is making realistic gritty rustic dramas located in the rural hinterland and fantasy films harking to the origins of the Tamil kings of pre historic times. The Bengali movie industry from the east, which battled financial crunches, has now made a comeback, with a slew of contemporary tales with slick filmmaking techniques and chamber dramas, retelling classic novellas and stories.             

Thus the famous Bollywood template from the 1980s to 2000 was large, broad and flat. People were rich or poor as per the country’s economic status, beauty was commodified as per the latest rock chick regalia in the West and Indian sensibilities that included family values, traditional and orthodox views of female sexuality prevailed, and good and evil were always in black or white. Heroes were valorous, heroines gamine, and villains leering and evil. It is now edgier, experimental, has now brought from regional cinema from south and east and infused colour.

From the silent pictures to the talkies, from black and white to technicolour, from cinemascope to hand-held devices, Indian cinema has kept pace with global cinema in its longevity and its ability to make a sub-continent dream a little larger. French cinephile Yves Thoraval, author of The Cinemas of India, recalls at the advent of the first Indian movie, “The Indians showed immediate enthusiasm for this exciting novelty”.

A century later, the excitement, enthusiasm and madness for movies has only got madder.

Source: Al Jazeera

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