Contemplating a century

Mainstream Indian cinema’s hundred year spree makes for a pulsating narrative. Though it has gone from selling dreams in the initial days to commodifying wish-fulfilment fantasies in recent years, the journey is nowhere near its end.

Published : Oct 02, 2013 12:30 IST



THE social, cultural, moral and psychological registers of the conventional, popular mainstream Indian cinema, its formulaic plot and narrative mode, its unique and trademark use of “song picturisation” as both a routine device for spatio-temporal shifts and for abstraction and transcendence, its stereotypical categories of the hero, the villain, the comedian and the vamp who become, as a commentator of Tamil cinema put it, like actants on a chess board who move in a particular manner… all these speak to an informed and cultivated ritual of seeing. It is a cinema that taps into the cultural DNA of its viewers. It assumes in them an accreted mental lexicon and glossary of colloquial and epic references. It speaks to them as initiated viewers who instantly grasp what is implicit in the explicit; who, like the spectators following a cricket match or wrestling bout, know the rules of the game and therefore relate to it and appreciate it that much better, with that much more discernment.

This does not, of course, mean that the average cine-goer needs to be educated or even literate to be mentally or sensorially alive to these coded meanings and messages. They are imbibed, generation after generation, as part of a cumulative oral tradition. A foreigner accosted by an Indian screen potboiler for the first time must more than suspend disbelief; the whole syntax and structure, not to mention plot, appearance and characterisation, must be quite disorienting. But, for us, these are the given. With each new film, we pick up the thread as if from where we left off in some other film in the recent or distant past and carry on. A mnemonic continuity underscores the varying tales of the grand Indian cinematic narrative.

On the other hand, the film scholar Sheila J. Nayar ( Invisible Representation: The Oral Contours of a National Popular Cinema ) draws attention to the empathy Indian cinema evokes in a foreign viewer precisely because of this orality, which plumbs a common heritage of “oral performance and orally transmitted narratives, conspicuously sharing traits with, for example, Homeric epic and the Indian Mahabharata . It is a cultural product that has been historically circumscribed by the psychodynamics of orality—that is, by the thought processes and personality structures that distinguish a non-writing mindset, and as such, it is a product that employs specific devices and motifs that are traditionally part of orally based storytelling”.

When two of the brand and banner leaders of Indian cinema, Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra, reduced the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respectively to the small screen, these cardboard cut-out versions became the universalised archetypes of soap-operadom that took over and continues to dominate television entertainment. They were bound to because, as the two producers knew only too well, the two epics have had a sway over the plot and theme of almost every commercial Indian film; G.P. Sippy, the producer of Sholay , believed that Rama and Ravana are implicit in every Indian film. The freewheeling filmic play of the epics has, however, been wide-ranging and heterodox and not narrowly cast in a sacral mould that lends itself to be religiously or politically divisive and exploitative, as their television versions have been.

A similar attempt at sanctification may have overemphasised the Brahmin-priestly lineage of the one who pioneered the Indian feature film, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, and projected his Raja Harishchandra , made in 1912, as a conventional mythological, glossing over, in the process, the rebellious, unorthodox nature of the man and his work. In her essay “The First Cinematic Pauranik Kathanak” (in the collection Narrative Strategies: Essays on South Asian Literature and Film , edited by Vasudha Dalmia and Theo Damsteegt), Brigitte Schulze challenges the approach of authors like Toeplitz (1964) and Barnow and Krishnaswamy (1980) in typecasting Phalke as a “Shastri Brahmin” and the view of Chidananda Dasgupta that Raja Harishchandra was “unmediated traditional mythology in a new vessel”. She points to Phalke’s eclectic European influences, his “inter-nationality”, and the fact that he does not open and close the film in heaven, as was the norm in the stage treatment of mythologicals which were normally bookended by a paradisiacal prologue and epilogue, to suggest a spin by scholarship to claim him for caste, tradition and nation. She seems, though, to go overboard in her own attempt to divest Phalke of his “nationalist” image and the one quote from him she says has been used to this end actually works against her and does seem to evoke a stirring of national pride: “I was determined to do my duty even at the cost of my life, i.e., to defend this industry even in the absence of any financial support, with the firm conviction that the Indian people would get an occasion to see Indian images on the screen and people abroad would get a truer picture of India” (from Phalke’s series of four articles in Bharatiya Citrapat in 1917).

Phalke’s struggle to make Raja Harishchandra , to find the money for it, his co-opting of his wife Saraswathibai and children and friends and technicians into a larger family enterprise dedicated to the project, his futile search, including in the red light areas, to find a woman to play the female lead role of Tharamathi and his having to finally cast a man, Anna Hari Saluke, in the role, his casting his son Bhalchandra as the royal couple’s son Rohitas in the film, his drawing on his familiarity with Raja Ravi Varma (for whom he had worked ) for the costumes of his characters and to frame his opening scene like the tableau of the king, queen and prince as rendered by the royal painter, his probably cranking the camera himself in good part, the quaint special effects, the bold (for that time) embrace of husband and wife as they come together after a stretch of separation… all these are now part of a legend that surpasses any cinema.

Similar beginnings A recent Malayalam film, Celluloid by the accomplished director Kamal, recreates, to a good degree of period verisimilitude, the difficult circumstances faced by the first film-maker in that language, J.C. Daniel, in making his Vigathakumaran (Lost Child). Made a good 16 years after Raja Harishchandra , towards the end of the silent era, this film and the dire conditions in which it was shot are reminiscent of Phalke in more ways than one. J.C. Daniel, as portrayed in the film, actually goes to meet Phalke in Bombay and, reinvigorated by his example, sets out to make his film in his native Travancore. Like Phalke, he goes to great lengths to realise his cherished ambition, selling his land and his wife’s jewellery, putting his family into the production, and himself playing the role of the protagonist. What proved fatal for the film, though, was his casting a woman from a lower caste, P.K. Rosy, to play opposite him as a Nair lady. An upper-caste boycott of the film meant that it had only limited and sporadic screenings and it sank at the box office. Daniel never recovered from the blow, the film itself was destroyed in a fire and there is today no trace of it left, except for a few photographs and posters.

Raja Harishchandra had a slightly better fate with two (the first and the last) of the four reels of it being salvaged and preserved. But the story of Vigathakumaran does not end with the destruction of the film reels. Caste prejudice, because J.C. Daniel was from the Nadar community, at the bureaucratic and political levels continued to deny the film, for a long time, its rightful place as the very first Malayalam feature. It is interesting to see how caste-based appropriation and denial determined the fortunes of the first Indian (or Hindi) and the first Malayalam film respectively. The silent era was, thus, nowhere as quiet as the films themselves; even in terms of the numbers, the National Film Archive catalogues as many as 1,313 silent films over a 22-year period, pointing to a fairly active dawn of Indian cinema.

With the silver screen breaking out of its long silence, from the early 1930s, into spoken tongue, songs, background score and effects, the issue of the language of the “national” cinema was quickly settled in favour of a mix of Hindi and Urdu, with the accent on the latter. It helped that the Punjabi producers and actors and writers, both Hindu and Muslim, who came to dominate the industry were already accustomed to lacing their language for social discourse with the sophistication of Urdu. By this time, as Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel recount in their work Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film , the main categories of the box-office cinema had already crystallised into the historical, the mythological, and the stunt; to this was soon to be added the social as a distinct type.

The studio system straddled the industry and studios privileged their preferred genres. The Prabhat Film Company of V. Shantaram and his colleagues had a flair for musicals and produced one of Indian cinema’s all-time greats, Sant Tukaram (1936). Bombay Talkies, set up by Himanshu Rai and his wife, Devika Rani, showcased such talents as Saadat Hasan Manto, Gyan Mukherji, Kamal Amrohi, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, and spun out socials like Achyut Kanya (1936), Kangan (1939) and Kismet (1943). B.N. Sircar’s New Theatres in Calcutta hosted stars and actors like K.L. Saigal and P.C. Barua, Prithviraj Kapoor and K.C. Dey and produced the quintessential Indian cinematic tragedy Devdas (1935), which Barua both directed and acted in as hero. There were, similarly, the stunt films of “fearless Nadia” from Wadia Movietone and the historicals of Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Movietone.

The industry lurched forward. Even by the late 1930s, India was the third largest film-producing country in the world, and by the beginning of the 1970s, the largest; by the 1980s the output had risen to about 900 films a year, with about 15 million daily viewers in the 11,000 cinema halls across the country. And so it went well until 2000, when revelations of links between the underworld and Bollywood caused a temporary setback and a serious relook at the organisational structure of the industry and its financing mores.

Revolutionary passion The late 1930s and the 1940s fostered a revolutionary passion, with films like V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Maane (1937) and Aadmi (1939)—Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who, teaming up with Raj Kapoor, was to carry this legacy forward, saw the first film, much like the chronic repeat viewer at the box office, 18 times, and the second 24 times. Abbas went on to script Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946), which V. Shantaram directed in Hindi and English, himself donning the role of the Indian doctor in China. The fervour of the nationalist struggle and the sacrifices of the political leadership of the Quit India Movement, and the devastating Bengal famine seized the sensibility and creative imagination of a progressive group of activist-artists who formed the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). K.A. Abbas made his directorial debut with the IPTA’s only film venture, Dharti ke Lal (1946), an unblinking look at the Bengal famine. Balraj Sahni and Shombu Mitra, who acted in the film, and Pandit Ravi Shankar, who composed music for it, were among the leading lights of the IPTA in Bombay; others in the movement included Bimal Roy and the brothers of Navketan Films, Chetan, Vijay and Dev Anand.

The end of the decade saw the advent of the R.K. banner of Raj Kapoor, who brought a different, romantic, fervour and intensity to the screen with his Aag in 1948 and Barsaat the following year. Nargis was his co-star in both the films and it was a romantic pairing that was to take the celluloid world by storm.

It was a reflection of the liberal mood of the times that Raj Kapoor could acknowledge what Nargis meant to him and his cinema. “Women have always meant a lot in my life,” he said, “but Nargis meant more than anybody else. I used to always tell her, ‘Krishna is my wife, she is the mother of my children. I want you to be the mother of my films.’ And that is precisely what she was.” The logo of R.K. films was an unabashed frozen moment from Barsaat with Nargis bending backward on Raj Kapoor’s right arm, as he, carrying a violin in his left hand, gazes intently at her. Barsaat also introduced the musical duo Shankar-Jaikishen, whose compositions went on to become hits, film after film.

This was also the time when Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi were getting their major breaks in Hindi film music and poets like Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra began penning lyrics for the screen.

The 1950s began with a bang with Raj Kapoor and K.A. Abbas coming together to make Awara (1951), the film that put India sensationally on the world map. Abbas’ story idea was developed for the screen by him and V.P. Sathe. Raj Kapoor directed it and, with Nargis in tow, acted in it. As he recapitulated three and a half decades later, it was for him the complete film: “ Awara had everything. It had the theme of class distinction. It had the greatest juvenile romantic story wrapped in the poverty that the post-Independence era had inherited. It bloomed like a lotus in the mud and it went to the people as something they had never seen before. Could this ever happen to a young man in such circumstances? With a song on his lips and a flower he went through all the ordeals that socio-economic disruptions could bring about. The change that the people wanted, they saw in the spirit of the young man who was the vagabond, the Awara”.

Immense impact In his autobiography I am not an Island , K.A. Abbas recalls the huge impact the film made on the then Soviet Union: “From Moscow to Vladivostok, from the frozen icecap in the Arctic where a steel box containing the film was airdropped along with oranges from the south as a seventh of November surprise gift to the marooned group of scientists on a Polar expedition, to the ancient dusty lanes of Bokhara in the hot south, the film Awara (or Brodgaya as the Russian dubbed version was called) swept the land like a prairie fire.

Within a few months all bands and orchestras in hotels and restaurants were playing the tunes from this film, Russian and Ukrainian and Georgian teenagers were singing ‘Awara’ songs in chorus.”

Three powerful evocations, neo-realist in varying degrees, of stark ruralness and deprivation as a lived condition dominated the artistic conscience, as much as consciousness, of the 1950s—Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) and, quite in its own class, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) in Bengali. There were also, at the same time, the stardom, acting prowess and signature styles of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Dev Anand, Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman vying for attention and accolades at the box office. Dilip Kumar’s inimitable, subtle, measured and controlled movements, gestures, expression and dialogue delivery remain exceptional to this day in a film world of contagious mannerisms and trademark postures.

Guru Dutt, whom his close associate Abrar Alvi—who scripted his hits Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)—calls the “Hamlet of films”, was an ever so tentative, almost self-abnegating, brooding yet compelling, presence on the screen. His composition of the frame, construction of the mise-en-scene and conjuring of mood in a shot are so distinctive that they bear the stamp of the auteur. He excelled in the art of song picturisation, of languid takes and breathtaking close-ups (particularly of Waheeda), but, surprisingly, believed that songs were unnecessary, even if unavoidable, baggage that films had to carry for popular appeal. Waheeda Rehman recalls him asking her to pray for the success of B.R. Film’s Kanoon which had no songs in it, hoping that if it clicked, he could follow suit.

Rising stars The 1950s, again, saw a churning of the regional language cinema. The Tamil studio system, which had the industry in its firm grip and had put up such mammoth visual extravaganzas like Chandralekha (1948), produced and directed by S.S. Vasan of Gemini Studios, began to reconcile to the fact that it was dependent on the star —represented by the trio M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan—as much as, or more than, the star was dependent on it. The Dravidian Movement, which leveraged cinema to good effect as a vehicle to propagate its ideology, also inducted MGR and Sivaji into the cause, giving them an additional, independent, mass following and political appeal.

In neighbouring Kerala, where Left and progressive forces were on the ascendant, poet and lyricist P. Bhaskaran teamed up with Ramu Kariat to make Neelakkuyil (1954), based on a story by Uroob. Its crusading theme against untouchability and feudalism captured the new spirit of the times; its spoken language and catchy songs were freshly minted in the local idiom. It was a clear break from the trend of a surrogate Malayalam cinema whose look and feel and sound were fashioned after the dominant Tamil or Hindi types. Meanwhile, N.T. Rama Rao was becoming synonymous with the mythological roles of Rama and Krishna that he donned with androgynous assurance in Telugu and some Tamil films, and Rajkumar was being catapulted into stardom with his very first lead role in Bedara Kannappa (1954).

The transmogrification of the organic star who has a legitimate performative locus and role in the film into the ritualised fatuous superstar who runs away with the plot or becomes an ornamental peg on which to hang wild wish-fulfilment or fantabulous actions begins with the rise of the phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna and his unbroken, nearly two-decade-long reign of the silver screen. In one of the saner, more human performances in his frenetic career, in Hrishikesh Mukherji’s Anand (1971), he faces off with the man who was to take over the mantle from him and push superstardom to more dizzying heights—Amitabh Bachan, although neither he nor the critics or viewers could know it then.

And so on to the angry young man of the 1970s and 1980s, of a newly concocted cinematic ethic of vigilantism and vendetta, of the aesthetic of mind-boggling violence and gore. A generation later, the superstars of today seem to shuttle between cathartic, orgiastic, collective choreographed dances and supra-human fisticuffs, where the fist packs such tonnage of power into the punch that the man at the receiving end goes flying in the air and crashes into a solid wall of brick and mortar, shattering it with the impact, and so on. The screen diva, meanwhile, has combined the attributes of the heroine and the vamp and relies, by and large, on gyrating, erotic “item numbers” to prove her worthiness. Superstardom, by definition male, has brought with it a greater commodification and subordination of the woman, albeit in the lead role opposite the star, on the screen. There is less and less scope here for the autonomy of will or purpose, less and less space for the independent performance that made Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Madhubala and Meena Kumari stars in their own right.

In the normative sense, stars, as Christine Gledhill put it, “signify as condensers of moral, social and ideological values”. But it is a moot point whether the star as the habitual offender and iconoclast, as the rogue cop who kills in staged encounters those who he believes will otherwise use the legal system riddled with loopholes to escape, as the homicide who lectures the contrite judge in the open court on higher laws of vengeance and justice, as the one who invariably sows, even if in response to a violent provocation, even more death and destruction all round and walks away from all that he has laid low in slow motion, really fits that definition. It seems apotheosis of vendetta all the way, and morality, moral justification and social purpose are brought to bear on it.

There was a time when the cinema sold dreams, dreams that may have made a mockery of the viewers’ real lives but provided opportunity of equivalence at least in terms of aspiration. “How can I lose faith in the justice of life,” wrote Khalil Gibran, “when the dreams of those who sleep upon feathers are not more beautiful than the dreams of those who sleep upon the earth?”

The hyperreality that rules the screen today estranges even as it stimulates. The viewer has been replaced by the voyeur.

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