On the occasion of the ongoing centenary celebrations of Indian cinema, I requested my friend Aloke Kumar to share his views of Indian cinema. Aloke is a man of many talents and his views and observations about films have always resonated with me. Aloke is a Communication person. He has brought many a project to life, including the Calcutta-based newspaper, The Telegraph, Sananda Magazine and Swabhumi, the Heritage Park. He has held various positions starting from Media Planner to Chief Executive Officer. In the last five years he has focused on sharing his experience by teaching different facets of Communication in renowned Universities. Currently, he writes on varied topics from cinema to curio, from advertising to artifacts.
Here, Aloke pays a fitting tribute to a film industry that is uniquely Indian and yet has found universal appeal across the world.In the spring of 1913 India was still halfway through the period of British rule. Bombay, as the capital of Maharashtra was known then, had become an expanding and rapidly industrialising city, home to a population of near one million, many of whom had arrived from other regions and who were thirsty for commerce and innovation. Bombay had welcomed cinema eagerly to India in 1896 when the city hosted the Lumière Brothers’ on their famous mind-boggling world tour of cinema demonstrations. Seventeen years later the Bombay gave birth to a nascent industry with the screening of its own film.
A Pictorial History of Indian Cinema by Firoze Rangoonwala published in 1979, has a single sentence on the film ‘Sholay’, missing the importance of its contribution to Indian Cinema and its subsequent hallmark as a turning point.
“In recent years, this has reaped a large harvest of crude dacoit films with the hero as the much wronged wrongdoer. Another outcome is the ‘curry western’ best represented by the unbelievably successful Sholay (Flames) which had (has) a retired officer hiring gunmen with jail record to bust a dacoit gang terrorizing a lonely village.”
Rangoonwalla missed the importance of the film by several reels, which he rectified in the subsequent edition. Sholay was dubbed as ‘crude’, ‘curry western’, ‘unbelievably successful’ and ‘had’….a past tense to close the chapter of its subsequent success. He could not for the love of cinema, sitting in the hall, fathom the importance of Sholay, which changed the way the box office viewed films in India. It was left to a French-Canadian Jesuit priest, Father Gaston Roberge, from the cloister of his St. Xavier’s environ, to predict in his book Chitrabani, published the same year, the historic change that Sholay would bring about.
Interestingly, this has been the plight of most of Indian Cinema including that of Dada Saheb Phalke, V.Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and others. Most of the time we have failed to recognise our films.
A hundred years ago Dada Saheb Phalke made a movie about a king who never lied. Phalke’s inspiration came from an English film The Life and Passion of Christ and he too wanted to translate the lives of Indian Gods to the screen.
His first production Raja Harishchandra was screened at Coronation Cinema in Mumbai on 3 May 1913 marking the beginning of Indian cinema and thus the beginning of its hundred years. Regarded as the father of Indian cinema, Phalke went on to make several silent films but became the first casualty when the silent era passed.
Alam Ara debuted at Majestic Cinema in Mumbai on 14 March 1931, a love story between a gypsy and a prince, starring Zubeida, Master Vettal as well as Prithvi Raj Kapoor. It was so popular that the police had to be called in to control the crowds. Ironically, the first talkie was snuffed out as its print perished in a fire in the National Archives in 2003.
The talkies changed the face of Indian cinema. Apart from looks, the actors not only needed a commanding voice but also singing skills, as music became a defining element in Indian cinema.
In the middle of the Second World War in 1945 came Kismet starring Ashok Kumar which became one of the biggest hits in the history of Indian cinema. It came with some bold themes – the first anti-hero and an unmarried pregnancy. It clearly showed that the filmmakers of the era were bolder than the times in which they were living in. By the 1940s, the winning formula at the Box Office had been etched – songs, dance, drama and fantasy.
A close relationship between epic consciousness and the art of cinema was established. It was against this backdrop that filmmakers like V.Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan made their films.
In the meantime, the film industry had made rapid strides in the South, where Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films were taking South India by storm. By the late 1940s, films were being made in various Indian languages with religion being the dominant theme.
The golden period of the 1950’s provided a strong impetus to the industry, with themes changing to social issues relevant at the time. Sure, they were entertaining but the movies of that time also became a potent medium to educate the masses. The era established a 25 year actor/filmmaker as the showman of Indian cinema – Raj Kapoor, someone who had an eye for detail.
Recalling the magic of the golden age, Bollywood director Imtiaz Ali says, “The relationship was very tender, very real, and the influences of the contemporary society exhibited in movies of that time is something that I have not seen before.”Raj Kapoor’s Awara, the story of a man caught in the centre of a nature versus nurture debate brought him immense glory. The film went on to become not just a national but international success, especially in the then USSR. The film also got nominated in the Cannes film fest in 1943. The actor filmmaker effectively used Chaplin’s character (the one he used in Awara) in later films like Shri 420. He Indianised the Chaplin idiom and sat down with the man on the street bringing the spotlight on the common man.
The golden period also produced some of India’s most critically acclaimed films and memorable actors of all time. Among those in Bollywood’s hall of fame are Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Balraj Sahani, Nargis, Bimal Roy, Meena Kumari, Dev Anand, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar.
This was the time when mavericks like Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy captivated the audiences with Pyaasa and Do Bigha Zamin, Indian cinema moved one step ahead with K Asif’s magum opus Mughal-e-Azam in 1960. It was after the release of this movie that the magnanimity of Indian cinema was established.
Changing social norms and changing economies influenced movies and the companies that made them. This had the effect of changing movies. The narrative style changed. The story structure changed. Characters changed. Content changed.
In the 1970’s a new genre was born – the masala movie. Masala films were the demand of the time. The genre promised instant attraction and had great entertainment value. People flocked to theatre to see their reflection on the big screen. Audiences were enthralled by the histrionics of actors such as Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Tanuja and others.While Indian commercial cinema enjoyed popularity among movie-goers, Indian art cinema did not go unnoticed. Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shaji Karun and several other art film directors were making movies that gave India international fame and glory.
This was Bollywood’s prime period, a time when director Ramesh Sippy gave us his iconoclastic Sholay (1975). The film, which has been internationally acclaimed, also clinched the title of superstar for Amitabh Bachchan, who already had over 30 films under his belt. Some other worthies of the masala movie included Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra .
The 1980’s saw the emergence of several woman directors such as Aparna Sen, Prema Karnath and Meera Nair. It was also the decade when sultry siren Rekha wooed audiences with her stunning performance in Umrao Jaan (1981).
And then in 1990’s, it was a mixed genre of romantic, thrillers, action and comedy films. A stark upgrade can be seen on the canvas as technology gifted the industry Dolby digital sound effects, advanced special effects, choreography and international appeal. The development brought about investments from the corporate sector along with finer scripts and performances.
It was time to shift focus to aesthetic appeal. And stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Rajnikanth, Madhuri Dixit, Aamir Khan, Chiranjeevi, Juhi Chawla and Hrithik Roshan began to explore ways to use new techniques to enrich Indian cinema with their performances.
Indian cinema finally found global mass appeal at the turn of the 21st century. As the world became a global village, the industry reached out further to international audiences.
Apart from regular screenings at major international film festivals, the overseas market contributed a sizeable chunk to Bollywood’s box office collections.
With regular foreign investments made by major global studios such as 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros put a stamp of confirmation that Bollywood had etched itself on the global circuit.