A Brief Sprint through the Cinema of India

Posted on December 30, 2010


DEC 30, 2010 – This was written for the Malayala Manorama Yearbook, and it’s got to be one of my most “generic” pieces ever.

LIKE INDIA HERSELF, Indian cinema is so vast, so varied, so undisciplined, that any attempt to define and describe it is essentially an exercise in banality. Just what do you talk about when you mention “Indian cinema?” The newfangled Bollywood multiplex features, aimed at mall-hopping youngsters? Or the earthy Bhojpuri films, still attempting to regale audiences who have not yet been swayed and converted by Western modes of thought and behaviour? Do you talk about the cinemas of the regions – namely the cinema from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa, West Bengal, and so forth? Or do you take just the big industries (that is, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil)? Do you talk of commercial cinema in these big industries? Or do you talk about the art being created in the smaller centres?

Unsurprisingly, a discussion about Indian cinema would venture into each and every one of these areas and would fill a thousand-page book. For the purposes of this article, therefore, selective streamlining is necessary, and for that reason, we shall look primarily at the evolution of Indian cinema, over the years, with a focus on Hindi cinema. The prominence of – and the undue importance accorded to – Hindi cinema (or Bollywood, as it has come to be called) has been a perpetual thorn in the side of the regional industries. However, beneath the hype, it is certainly true that Hindi cinema, at least up to the arrival of the multiplexes, was fairly representative of both a pan-Indian ethos as well as trends that would eventually percolate into the regional-language films, whether Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam or Bengali or Marathi.

The use of examples from Hindi cinema, therefore, shouldn’t be taken to mean that these films are superior in any way – but just like Hindi is our national language and therefore useful as some sort of standard, the influence of Hindi cinema is everywhere, and many of our finest directors chose to make films in Hindi, and it is thus useful to employ Hindi cinema as a loose approximation for the story of Indian cinema. (Indeed, up to a while, stories were made simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, with just surface modifications, thus proving that the audiences were not all that different.) It is solely in this context that the instances in this article will refer back primarily to Hindi cinema in the context of grappling with the idea of an Indian cinema.

The early Indian cinema was primarily mythological – or rather, myth-based, archetype-based. With no sound, no dialogue, it was, for one, easiest to convey stories already familiar to the audience. But also, with these stories already existing, there was no need to “create” new stories (in other words, original screenwriting could wait), and therefore the focus could remain on getting familiar with a new technology. Accordingly, the first few films were along the lines of Pundalik (1912), Raja Harischandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919) and Sairandhri (1920).

And gradually, the modern day began to creep in. Bilet Pherat (1921) employed satirical means to conservative Bengalis and the liberal British. Andhare Alo (1922), one of the earliest films based on a contemporary novel (by Saratchandra Chatterjee), looked at a love triangle between an upper-class Bengali hero, a 11-year-old virgin bride, and the still-far-from-cliché prostitute with a heart of gold. Pati Bhakti (1922) emphasised that wives should remain devoted to their husbands, while Bismi Sadi (1924) detailed the evolution of a street hawker into an exploitative capitalist. And alongside, there were courtly-intrigue fairy tales like Gul-e-Bakavali (1924), quasi-historicals like Kalyan Khajina (1924), and quasi-biopics like Cinema Ni Rani (1925).

March 14, 1931, saw the release of the Hindi-Urdu Alam Ara, which is one of the most significant films made in the country. Not only was it India’s first film to feature sound, it established the now-prevalent musical format that has come to define our cinema. The format became so popular that is wormed its way into films made in other regions (outside Bombay), and today, Indian films are the only ones in the world to depend on the musical format, having created an audio industry devoted entirely to the business of soundtrack music. Till date, film songs are the biggest sellers in the music industry, and non-film music (whether pop/rock, or devotional) comes a distant second. It is not unusual to find even devotional songs set to the tunes of film songs.

After Independence, two distinct strains of Indian cinema were discernible. One was the lowest-common-denominator movie, aimed at pleasing audiences of all ages everywhere. These were films with songs and dances and comedy tracks and action sequences intended to serve as “punchy highlights” (as well as selling points), and the presence of all these ingredients makes it possible for such films to be catagorised under “masala” cinema. (Masala, of course, is a mixture of spices. However, the tone of masala cinema is usually larger than life, and socialist melodramas like the Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt films cannot be brought under the masala umbrella, even though they did have their share of Shankar-Jaikishan chartbusters and Johnny Walker comedy tracks.) Hindi films may have adapted to multiplex trends and moved away from masala, but the hybrid genre is alive and kicking in the regional industries.

The other strain of cinema is the kind epitomised by the likes of Satyajit Ray. (Though there were earlier attempts at realistic cinema, like Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, Ray made such a splash with his Apu trilogy and subsequently produced such a body of work, right until his death, that he is often invoked as the patron saint of art cinema in India.) Films like Pather Panchali were at the opposite end of the spectrum from the larger-than-life masala films. (The films of Guru Dutt, therefore, can be said to occupy a middle ground, alongside latter-day middle-of-the-road filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee). Ray was followed by the likes of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasarvalli, who made films that were (and still are) appreciated more by audiences abroad than back home.

For a brief period in the seventies and eighties, there appeared to be four types of Indian cinema. There was the unapologetically commercial kind, embodied by major stars like Amitabh Bachchan. There was the unapologetically arty cinema of Kumar Shahani (Maya Darpan, Tarang) and Mani Kaul (Uski Roti, Duvidha). And between these extremes, there was one type of cinema that attempted to create art (but in a commercially viable fashion) and another that tried to make commercially viable cinema (but with an amount of artistry). Filmmakers of the former stripe were Shyam Benegal (Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika) and Govind Nihalani (Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Vijeta) , while Gulzar (Aandhi, Khushboo, Namkeen) and Mahesh Bhatt (Arth, Naam) are emblematic of the latter kind of cinema.

During this period, the boundaries between the various kinds of cinema being produced in the country were so porous that it wasn’t unusual to see stars like Hema Malini in a film by Gulzar (Kinara), or non-stars like Naseeruddin Shah (though he was certainly a star in his own way) in a film by Bapu (Woh Saat Din). Even elsewhere, in Tamil cinema for instance, Kamal Hassan was doing a Sakalakala Vallavan (which is as commercial as can be, from the house of AVM Productions and directed by SP Muthuraman) alongside a Moondram Pirai (from Balu Mahendra, who later remade this doomed love story in Hindi as Sadma). Even Amitabh Bachchan could be found multitasking between pan-India megahits like Sholay (Ramesh Sippy) and Muquaddar ka Sikandar (Prakash Mehra) and Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (Shakti Samanta) and Manzil (Basu Chatterjee).

The middle cinema, though, died an unceremonious death due to the advent of the VCR and multi-channel television. The educated middle-class audiences that ventured out for such worthy fare were content watching films from home, and it was no longer feasible to invest in these small-budget ventures. Decades later, the arrival of the multiplex has revitalised the small film. Charging more money per ticket than the single screen, these movie halls (mostly in the urban centres) have made it viable to produce movies driven by content rather than star power. In a sense, Dil Chahta Hai (2001) is the multiplex equivalent of Pather Panchali. Though urban-centric themes were not unknown earlier, Farhan Akhtar’s first film captured the Zeitgeist so powerfully that it has now come to be viewed as the film that showed that it wasn’t necessary to target all of India with an Indian film.

The India of the villages is no longer the India of the cities, and the disparities are drastic. Urban India has become Westernised to an unrecognisable extent, and the “real India” (as termed by some, though the urban India is equally real) is to be found mainly in the cinema from the regions. Unlike Hindi cinema, regional cinema cannot survive on pricey multiplex ticketing across the metros alone, or else from the lucrative NRI markets. The single-screen theatres in the interiors are equally important, and as a consequence, the audiences patronising those theatres are equally important. As a result, today, you have everything on the cinematic landscape, from ultra-commercial masala fare to the ultra-niche cinema of Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap.

What is lacking, though, is a sense of identity – and this is perhaps inevitable. What is Indian cinema? That is not an easy question to answer. The best way to look at Indian cinema is to look at its constituent cinemas and get a picture of how that particular segment of India enjoys its cinema. The restrained, West-influenced multiplex cinema, with characters lapsing into frequent English, is as much Indian cinema as the ones with a single hero beating up a hundred villains, where everyone speaks not just in a regional language but in a particular dialect. That is the reason an essay such as this one has to be content trafficking in broad generalities.

But thanks to the Internet, and especially cinephile blogs, several specific inquiries are being made into Indian cinema. The commercial aspect of Indian cinema has never been under contest – it is after all the largest film industry in the world – but there was never much of a critical eye applied with respect to genre, movements, auteurs and so forth. All that is changing, thanks to the Web. Where newspapers are content to allocate niggardly amounts of space to discussions about cinema (even the reviews are mostly perfunctory appraisals of surface elements), the limitlessness of blog-space, along with the participation of commenters, ensures healthy analysis of films from all over the country.

If there is a problem with Indian cinema, it is one that exists in the cinema all over the world, and that’s the clout of the star. While Hollywood, for instance, has specialty studios to bankroll the projects of directors off the mainstream radar (namely, those that are not driven by stars), India is still a country of individuals who become producers. It is, therefore, far more feasible to invest in expensive star vehicles than iffy slice-of-life dramas. But the arrival of studios such as UTV is signaling a sea change. On the one hand, we get A Wednesday, an actor’s film, and on the other the star-driven Jodhaa Akbar. And ultimately, both are necessary, for we wouldn’t want to deprived of either the shallowness of star power or the depth of genuine art.

Copyright ©2010 Baradwaj Rangan, Malayala Manorama. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.