History of Indian Cinema
April 9, 2015
by Sanchita Paul
The history of Indian Cinema goes back to the nineteenth century. In 1896, the very first films shot by the Lumiere Brothers were shown in Mumbai (then Bombay).
But history was actually created when Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar popularly known as Save Dada, the still photographer, was so much influenced by the Lumiere Brothers’ production that he ordered a camera from England. His first film was shot at the Hanging Gardens in Mumbai, known as ‘The Wrestlers’. It was a simple recording of a wrestling match which was screened in 1899 and is considered as the first motion picture in the Indian Film Industry.
Beginning of Bollywood
Father of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke released the first ever full-length feature film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913. The silent film was a commercial success. Dadasaheb was not only the producer but was also the director, writer, cameraman, editor, make-up artist and art director. Raja Harischandra was the first-ever Indian film which was screened in London in 1914. Though Indian Cinema’s first mogul, Dadasaheb Phalke supervised and managed the production of twenty three films from 1913 to 1918, the initial growth of the Indian Film Industry was not as fast as that of Hollywood.
Numerous new production companies emerged in the early 1920s. Films based on mythological and historical facts and episodes from Mahabharata and Ramayana dominated the 20s but Indian audiences also welcomed Hollywood movies, especially the action films.
Beginning of the Talkies
The first ever talkie ‘Alam Ara’ by Ardeshir Irani was screened in Bombay in 1931. It was the first sound film in India. The release of Alam Ara started a new era in the history of Indian Cinema. Phiroz Shah was the first music director of Alam Ara. The first song which was recorded for Alam Ara in 1931 was ‘De de khuda ke naam par’. It was sung by W.M. Khan.
Thereafter, several production companies emerged leading to an increase in the release of the number of films. 328 films were made in 1931 as compared to 108 in 1927. During this time, huge movie halls were built and there was a significant growth in the number of audiences.
During the 1930s and 1940s many eminent film personalities such as Debaki Bose, Chetan Anand, S.S. Vasan, Nitin Bose and many others emerged on the scene.
Growth of Regional Films
Not only did the country witness the growth of Hindi Cinema, but the regional film industry also made its own mark. The first Bengali feature film ‘Nal Damyanti’ in 1917 was produced by J.F. Madan with Italian actors in the leading roles. It was photographed by Jyotish Sarkar.
The year 1919 saw the screening of the first silent South Indian feature film named ‘Keechaka Vadham’. The movie was made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar of Madras (Chennai). Dadasaheb Phalke’s daughter Manadakini was the first female child star who acted as the child Krishna in Phalke’s ‘Kaliya Mardan’ in 1919.
The first ever talkie film in Bengali was ‘Jamai Shashthi’, which was screened in 1931 and produced by Madan Theatres Ltd. ‘Kalidass’ was the first Tamil talkie which was released in Madras on 31 October 1931 and directed by H.M. Reddy. Apart from Bengali and South Indian languages, regional films were also made in other languages such as Assamese, Oriya, Punjabi, Marathi, and many more.
‘Ayodhecha Raja’ was the first Marathi film which was directed by V. Shantaram in 1932. This film was made in double version. ‘Ayodhya ka Raja’ in Hindi and ‘Ayodhecha Raja’ in Marathi was the first ever Indian talkie produced by Prabhat Film Company in 1932.
Birth of a New Era
The number of films being produced saw a brief decline during the World War II. Basically the birth of modern Indian Film industry took place around 1947. The period witnessed a remarkable and outstanding transformation of the film industry. Notable filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, and Bimal Roy made movies which focused on the survival and daily miseries of the lower class. The historical and mythological subjects took a back seat and the films with social messages began to dominate the industry. These films were based on themes such as prostitution, dowry, polygamy and other malpractices which were prevalent in our society.
In the 1960s new directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and others focused on the real problems of the common man. They directed some outstanding movies which enabled the Indian film industry to carve a niche in the International film scenario.
The 1950s and 1960s are considered to be the golden age in the history of the Indian cinema and saw the rise of some memorable actors like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Nutan, Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, among others.
This article will be incomplete if the contribution of music in Indian cinema is not mentioned. Songs are an integral part of Indian movies. Presence of songs has given Indian films a distinctive look as compared to international films. The Indian film industry has produced many talented lyricists, music directors and artists.
Bollywood – The Pioneer of Masala Movies
The 1970s saw the advent of Masala movies in Bollywood. The audiences were captivated and mesmerised by the aura of actors like Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, and many others.
The most prominent and successful director, Manmohan Desai was considered by several people as the father of Masala movies. According to Manmohan Desai, “I want people to forget their misery. I want to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there are no beggars, where fate is kind and god is busy looking after its flock.”
Sholay, the groundbreaking film directed by Ramesh Sippy, not only got international accolades but also made Amitabh Bachchan a ‘Superstar’.
Several women directors like Meera Nair, Aparna Sen and others showcased their talents in the 1980s. How can we forget the extraordinary and splendid performance of Rekha in the film Umrao Jaan in 1981?
The 1990s saw a whole new batch of actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aamir Khan, Juhi Chawla, Chiranjivi, and many more. This new genre of actors used new techniques to enhance their performances which further elevated and upgraded the Indian Film Industry. 2008 was a notable year for the Indian film industry as A.R. Rahman received two academy awards for best soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire.
Indian cinema is no longer restricted to India and is now being well appreciated by international audiences. The contribution of the overseas market in Bollywood box office collections is quite remarkable. Around 30 film production companies were listed in National Stock Exchange of India in 2013. The multiplexes too have boomed in India due to tax incentives.
Indian cinema has become a part and parcel of our daily life whether it is a regional or a Bollywood movie. It has a major role to play in our society. Though entertainment is the key word of Indian cinema it has far more responsibility as it impacts the mind of the audiences.
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Table of contents
1.Introductory words and various general facts about Bollywood
2.Always the same film-formula – the recipe for success “’Star Wars’ couldn’t have been made here: No one gets married.” “’Mission Impossible’? Not without a dance number.”
3.History of Bombay cinema
4.1The satellite and video invasion – Non-resident Indians and their favourite leisure time activity
5.Indian women’s traditional roles in real life and on screen
5.1Gurinder Chadha – An excursus on women’s roles and Western and Bollywood elements in “Bend it Like Beckham”
Cover picture taken from Academy award winner “Lagaan” (www.Lagaan.com)
1. Introductory words and various general facts about Bollywood
“East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet!” (Rudyard Kipling)
It cannot be denied that the division between these opposite cultural poles exists – but, when reflecting on the Bollywood subject, one has to disagree with this famous quotation by Rudyard Kipling as the Indian cinematic world proves that the East and the West can be in unison. The films of this branch are not only influenced by their homeland’s folk tradition, they are equally affected by MTV’s video styles, young fashion and – of course – Hollywood movies. Likewise, it is true that the Indian spirit has recently become perceptible in Western civilization. Nowadays’ music, clothing and film industry – to name just a few – seem to be more and more inspired by South Asian culture; Indian is said to be “the funkiest trend around” (Sardar, page 14-17).
As we shall see, both poles approach one another. Is it any surprise then that especially non-resident Indians, living in the Western hemisphere, are the centre where both cultures meet? Indian-English director and producer Gurinder Chadha portrayed this mixture of Western elements and Bollywood flair successfully in her latest movie Bend it like Beckham (2002). Among other questions, for example those about the history of Bombay cinema, the film industry’s costs and contents of typical Bollywood epics, this paper will also deal – in an excursus – with this particular movie.
Some general pieces of information about this special film industry might, first of all, provide readers with basic facts necessary for this subject. Every day, 11 million cinemagoers visit 13,000 cinemas across India and, what is more, thousands of Indian films are watched day by day by millions of non-resident Indians living abroad – generally, in the UK or the US. Film business is India’s 6th largest industry (inter alia after textile industry, food industry and chemical industry), over 300,000 workers are employed in it. As in every country of the world teens between 12 and 24 are particularly attracted by the film glitz – India makes no exception in this case (Ninian, page 235). An astonishing amount of 800 films is produced in Bombay every year – compared to Hollywood’s 400. Therefore, Bombay’s film production calls itself Bollywood – simply as an ironical sideswipe at the West. Bollywood basically stands for the Hindi film industry located around this 11.5 million people metropolis. Bombay is the second largest city in India and considered by many as the actual capital – this is certainly due to the fact that Bombay’s film branch is by far the most commercial and influencing one, although other regional film companies, most of them in the south, exist (The Economist, Issue 8183, page 57f).
The reason for the success of Bollywood movies remains still obscure. In his essay, named Bollywood, Alex Ninian tries to find reasons for its triumph, namely by suggesting that this rich mix of Indian myth, tradition, religion and history creates an exceptional uniqueness which is incomparable to other countries’ cultures. Furthermore, Ninian illustrates that arts like poetry, music, painting and drama are joined together and that all these provide the Indian film branch with an exclusive and individual character (Ninian, page 236). The controversial author Salman Rushdie found a very precise and creative term that sums up the subject of Indian films perfectly, describing it as: “Epico-Mythico-Tragico-Comico-Super-Sexy-High-Masala-Art” (Salman Rushdi, 1995 in “The Moor’s Last Sigh” quoted in Mishra, page 2).
Another argument we should take into consideration when regarding Bollywood’s triumph is the fact that in a nation, in which 5 per cent or even less of its population are able to read, the only access for the masses to prose and poetry is to watch Bollywood films and to listen to the ornate style dialogues and lyrical songs. Thus, it is no coincidence that some film stars gain more attention from the public than politicians do. Logically, some of them secured this initial advantage by putting their foot in politics and are now running several organizations in India (Dasgupta, page 173-190).
In the following section I will rethink the subject of success more detailed while the key elements of Indian epics will be presented. Furthermore, I will look at the commercial situation.
2. Always the same film-formula – the recipe for success “’Star Wars’ couldn’t have been made here: No one gets married.” “’Mission Impossible’? Not without a dance number.”
In his article “Inside Bollywood”, Lewis M. Simons sums up the typical plot of Indian films, which is nearly always the same, with the following satirical words:
“[…] boy meets, wins, loses and regains girl, during which time they run through vast wardrobes, turn up at locations all over the world, kiss (rarely) but in no other way indulge their passion, serenade each other with no fewer than six songs, and join chorus lines in half a dozen dance numbers. While all this is going on, family crises erupt and are settled, murders are committed and solved, cars are chased and destroyed. Oh, and the good guys win.” (Simons, page 46-55)
Surprisingly, Indians never get tired of watching the same scheme of love triangles and family tragedies again and again. Love, hate, sorrow, disgust, joy, compassion, pity, pride and courage, coupled with a lot of song and dance, coincidences and a rather “black and white” characterization are the fundamental principles of Indian cinema (Simons, page 46-55; Mishra, page 35ff).
Not only can regular film-goers predict the happy endings of most Bollywood films, but they also wholeheartedly cry each time the love between the hero and his girl in a “light-coloured sari” (Aftab, page 88) overcomes family intrigues at the end of the story (Kaur, page 201). It must be stressed that, especially in rural communities, Indian girls and boys are still tightly controlled by their parents; even holding hands is often forbidden to them. This might explain why audiences love to see people expressing their feelings on screen (Marquand, page 1).
Taking all these facts into account, the question should be raised again, why these typical contents of Bollywood epics are still a guarantee for the success of the Bollywood machinery although the story is always “recycled” or rather repeated. One answer may be that this is mainly because Bollywood films provide an escape from the severe Indian everyday-life, the harsh reality, into a created film world in which all problems are solved in the end and the characters on screen get rich by a lucky chance. It is little wonder that India’s poor population wants to have a temporary relief from reality and worries and does not want to see an imitation of their life in form of pictures. Since especially the rural populations are desperately poor and often live in strict patriarchal families of old-fashioned, medieval style, they long for positive illusion (Marquand, page 1). According to this, the editor of the film magazine “G”, Bhawana Somaaya, states that,
“When they’ve tried to make realistic pictures about the poor and the middle classes, they get miserable attendance. […] Rural India definitely is not interested in movies about rural India. And the affluent, educated in urban India, are looking […] to New York and London.” (Bhawana Somaaya, quoted in Simons, page 46-55)
To sum up the last paragraph, it can be said that impoverishment causes a certain hunger for cinematic illusions and helps to forget the feeling of resentment if only for a limited time.
Whereas many critics underline the aforesaid, namely that Bollywood film plots are not reflecting reality, Ravinder Kaur’s article Viewing the West through Bollywood: a celluloid Occident in the making involves judgements illustrating the contrary. He says that although only a part of India’s reality is presented in Bollywood blockbusters and problems such as droughts and famine in India are mainly left out, the films nonetheless do reflect the life of a representative urban middle class household (Kaur, page 208). Bollywood movies have always centred around the affluent milieu of the upper-caste and middle-class Hindus. Long-established family rituals, such as engagement and marriage ceremonies, Mehndi rituals or the welcome of a newborn child, take place in innumerable scenes. But these scenes are at the same time different from the films of the previous decades – the capitalist influence is becoming more and more obvious. The way the luxury food and drinks are captured by the camera – i.e. slowly gliding over western chocolate bars and soft drinks – is an absolutely new kind of shooting. This kind of camera take clearly reflects India’s “policy of economic liberalization” (Alessandrini, page 324); which causes the effect that people get the impression that the country has still much wealth, although in reality the unemployment rate has been increasing since 1991.
 Examples for Bollywood slowly entering the western world can be easily displayed: Andrew Lloyd Webber successfully produced his new musical Bombay Dreams, Monsoon Wedding was a hit in Western cinemas, the album The very Best of Bollywood Songs recently reached the UK charts, the BBC’s advertising campaign includes colourful trailers with female Indian dancers and Pot Noodle even created a new flavour named Bombay Bad Boy (Sardar, page 14-17; Shamsie, page 26-29)!
 At this point it is necessary to point out that Bombay is actually the old fashioned British Empire form of Mumbai. Nowadays, the latter form is the one which is politically correct. In this paper context the name Bombay is used to indicate the connection between Bombay and Bollywood.
 Quotation taken from Robert Marquand: “Hooray for Bollywood’s tales of love“ in Christian Science Monitor; 10/20/99, Vol. 91, Issue 227.
 Tanuja Chandra, famous director of Bollywood epics, defends its simple and romantic formula - boy meets girl - the following way: “Indians all know they have another hard day tomorrow, so if you want a commercial blockbuster, you have to do a love story, […], people want complete fantasy, a world minus problems. We don’t see anything wrong with that” (Tanuja Chandra, quoted in Marquand, page 1).
 In addition, Ravinder Kaur even affirms that “the belief that popular Indian cinema is removed from reality is misplaced” (Kaur, page 208).
 Rituals in which women’s legs, arms and fingers are highly decorated with henna-ornaments.