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Foreign front: A century of Indian cinema

June 10, 2012

A scene from Raja Harischandra

At the risk of sounding clichéd — yes, it all began a century ago, and that too only for the rich and the famous of Mumbai.

Dada Saheb Phalke revolutionised the Indian subcontinent giving its first 40-minute feature film, Raja Harischandra. It was a silent film, and back in 1912-13, no one could have imagined that this was going to be a future medium which would provide mass entertainment and unite a nation which has huge cultural differences and economic disparity.

A country which in those days was struggling against an oppressive foreign regime to gain its freedom, found another mode to channelise its thoughts through creative means. Within a couple of years other corners of India — Madras (Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada), Calcutta (Bengali) and of course Mumbai (Marathi and Hindi) started making films. As the sound technique had not yet reached the land, communication through written dialogue didn’t bother anyone.

Though the era yielded a fascinating world of dreams and creativity, it also started the herd mentality which prevails till today. Filmmakers in those days preferred to follow success rather than forge a new path. As Raja Harischandra, a mythological story of a truthful and pious king had pioneered the cinema industry, every other filmmaker decided to reinterpret only mythological, historical and/or folk stories.

In fact, Bollywood film actress Kajol’s grandmother, Shobhana Samarth, till today is known for her portrayal of Queen Sita from the film, Ram Rajya (1943). Prithvi Raj Kapoor, the doyen of actors and of course great grandfather of the current crop of superstars — Kareena, Karishma and Ranbir — is better known for his depiction of historical figures such as Sikander-i-Azam, Mughal Emperor Akbar and others. Rarely were there any social dramas or new story lines, till the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in 1942.

This started trends of socially relevant films such as Dharti Kay Lal, Mother India, Pyasa, etc, which dealt with the problems bogging down the nation in those days, and gave an almost realistic picture of the changing social and economic scenario post-World War II and post-Independence. There were films which dealt with the industrial revolution (Paigam, Naya Daur), caste prejudices (Bandini, Sujata), the gutsy have-nots fighting for survival (Awaara, Shree 420, Boot Polish, Do Bigha Zameen) and then there were dacoit-based films galore (Jiss Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Ganga Jamuna, Mujhe Jeenay Do, etc). Most of these films went on to form the golden era of films and put Indian fare on the international film scene. Especially, Raj Kapoor’s Aawara and Shree 420 became a rage in Russia, France and Germany, and India came to be known as the land of Raj Kapoor and Nargis.

As the euphoria of a new free country started waning and also a feeling of forming a utopian socialistic country started fading, films too changed to what is known as the staple masala films of today. One can easily say that from 1975 onwards till as late as 1995 below-average cinematic releases were being churned out in the name of films. Every aspect except the technical front went into a dizzying somersault reaching the nadir of story content, music and lyrics. Every film had to be a romantic story and it became mandatory to have a boy meets girl, is opposed by parents, gory villain, rape, cabaret dance plus four to five songs and last 15 minutes of fights plot before a ‘happily ever after’ ending.

The garish clothes, loud music and hysterical acting saw to it that the zenith reached by directors like Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, K.A. Abbas, Mrinal Sen, Guru Dutt, Dev Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and their group was lost. Even the international market shied away, restricting the sale of film only to the domestic circuit.

But it wasn’t as though meaningful films were not being made. There were makers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and a few others attempting to establish parallel films. But for lack of marketing and an uneducated audience, the movement lost its fizz. This era saw huge losses and several producers had to close shop. Barring a few exceptions, no one seemed to know how to get out of this cesspool.

Then the markets opened and a plethora of new ideas, filmmakers and marketing gimmicks came up. Aiding this change were cinema halls which changed from single screen structures into multiplexes. Directors like Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, Subhash Ghai and others helped in reaching out to international markets and audiences and wooed NRIs. They didn’t exactly come up with new story lines and stuck to boy-meets-girl love stories. They took India abroad and made films for the nouveau riche settled abroad but yearning for home. They took away ‘rural, poor and struggle’ which touched a chord with the younger generation. As India was in the ‘shining’ mode, suddenly all over the world people were noticing India and Indians.

This was also greatly helped by the provision of 100 per cent foreign direct investment which wooed 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Brothers and hoards of others keen on exploiting the emerging Indian market. This helped the new breed of directors such as Raj Kumar Hirani, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sujit Sorcar and also encouraged actors like Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra, Aamir Khan, Irrfan Khan, Ranvir Shorey to try new genres and enjoy the roles.

The Indian film industry seems to have come of age from the second decade of the 21st century — different subjects, different techniques and different marketing gimmicks plus an understanding audience which is willing to patronise a new breed of films. Added to this is the ever-growing international market.

So all the way from Raja Harischandra to Kahaani, Bollywood has had a wonderful run and the future looks brighter than ever.