Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Foreign front: A century of Indian cinema

Published Jun 10, 2012 03:33am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

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.


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (21) Closed

Sekar Jun 10, 2012 01:11pm
Pathetic and superfluous review. Completely ignores great South Indian movie tradition which had deep social impact which revolutionized political movements like the Dravidian movement and propelled Movie luminaries to politics such as M.G.R, Karunanidhi, N.T.Rama Rao etc. These profound changes shaped Modern India, thwarted Hindi imposition and dominance of the north. In addition South has and had great movie making tradition, Directors like Balachander, script writers like Karunanidhi, Annadurai tackled complex issues such as casteism who both went on to become chief ministers of Tamil Nadu.
Arvind Jun 11, 2012 06:01pm
Its the topic. They are talking about Bollywood. Its not a zero sum game - if Bollywood good then South India cinema bad. Southern cinema is good too. Do you have a complex or something ?
sharma Jun 11, 2012 04:17am
Wonderful review. Where the Indian government failed the Bollywood has succeeded like anything.It has created wealth, literature, music and culture that is common to so many Indians. It has corossed and broken the language barriers. It has also done a yeomans service to the spread of Hindustani language ( which includes Hindi and Urdu) to all parts of the Indian Subcontinent ( Including all pakistan, nepal, srillanka and bangladesh) It has spread Indian culture which is compositely potrayed in most films ( Hindu culture with shades of Islam, Christanity etc) to distant lands as far as Iran, Middle East, To east to mayanar, etc. Bollywood has defined India and Indians , it is as Indians are, confused, mixed, colourful, loud, tolerant and loving.
Sunny Jun 11, 2012 02:58am
Yes, this review is superficial. Bollywood was still is mostly rubbish. Once in a blue moon, we get a good one, not a great one from Bollywood. That is all. India's best films are regional films. Period! Regarding Bengali film, people outside of Bengal only know of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, may be a bit of Tapan Sinha and Ritwik Ghatak. However, many little known directors made beautiful films that could rank among the best in the world. Example: If you could, watch Nimantran (Invitation) which was awarded the best Indian film in 1975 (if muy memoy serves right).
STRAJ Jun 11, 2012 02:12am
Sekar, why divide the country again on linguistic basis. As others said, yes it could have found mention of the Southern movies (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada). I am from Tamil Nadu but enjoyed watching some great movies from Andhra (I spoke and understood Telugu). All in all, a great story of our country. So please stop tearing the country. I know what kind of people these so called greats you call where.
Akhtar Baloch Jun 10, 2012 11:38pm
Who cares about indian movies? They dont represent South Asia and have done nothing but malign Pakistan and people of a particular faith.
Harish Menon Jun 11, 2012 07:08pm
Indians demonstrating regional/linguistic chauvinism and divide on a Pakistani website... this is hilarious...
NickM1979 Jun 10, 2012 10:20pm
Just because it does not mention south India does not make it superfluous. Get your your Southern Superiority complex.
manghirmalani Jun 10, 2012 10:22pm
What is so big deal about south Indian movies
Tamilselvan Jun 11, 2012 12:33pm
Who is going to bell the cat? Will Sharma foot the bill or expect Govt. to do. Here we say "Less Govt the better". Maybe Dilip Kumar should pay for it himself. let's not get too sentimental. After all entire Bollywood is a maya or made up!!
M A Mujeeb Jun 11, 2012 11:43am
Nice to see our Indian friends participating in this forum. Keep writing friends
sharma Jun 11, 2012 10:20am
Bollywood though has one faliure! It has failed to make best of its assets. The residential houses of Mr.Dilip Kumar ( Aka Mr Yusuf Khan) lies in ruin in Pakistan. so is the condition of the old movie studios in Mumbai. These places could have been mae into tourist spots. I have been to USA where they create museums and tourist spots our of their non existent history. While we south Aisians fail to make use of the wealth of history that we are sitting on!!!
Sudhir Jun 11, 2012 10:10am
Most of them are mean minded criticism exhibiting regional sentiments rather than appreciating the article. All those who know to simply criticise anything should write an article by themselves duly justifying the entire film industry
jagga Jun 10, 2012 04:31pm
It just needed your comment to ruin the mood.
Raj Jun 10, 2012 03:50pm
I am little amused here. You call the review pathetic and superflous and then talks about South Indian movie completely ignoring Kannada and Malayalam movies. ...Hmmmm... Kettle calling the does that go??
indian from south Jun 10, 2012 06:54pm
is it necessary here?
ajit Jun 11, 2012 06:21am
good one.
Northie Jun 11, 2012 06:45am
You are right - Only South Indians can again and again elect film personalities with super-inflated egos who have done little in the name of performance and everything in the name of caste, language and regional politics.
murali Jun 11, 2012 06:51am
A Pakistani news paper is discussing the coming of age of Bollywood. Be thankful to DAWN first. Its not the job of DAWN to satisfy your regional feelings. This is an international forum dude.
MKB Jun 11, 2012 07:28am
Yes, it is some what. New theater studio of Taligonj, where Prithviraj & K.L. Saigal first appeare as paid artist, Pramathesh Barua of Dev Das fame, are also absence in the review. Any chronological study of Indian Cinema should not be completed with out them. Why writer missed the name of prominent film like Alam Ara (first Indian movie with sound )directed by Ardersir Irani?
Rahul Kumar Jun 11, 2012 10:49am
This is the beauty of Indian cinema. We have a diversed culture of cinema which is rare seen in any part of the world. That makes it very very special. The review should , atleast touch , the different flavors which is the historic base of "rising Indian cinema".