Editor's note

Print edition : October 18, 2013
100 years of Indian Cinema

Kamal Hassan has a regret. His real-life heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and E.V.R. Periyar, hated cinema.

“Cinema is a sinful technology,” Gandhi is reported to have said in response to a questionnaire from the Indian Cinematograph Committee headed by T.T. Rangachariar on November 12, 1927. “I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire as I have never been to a cinema…. But even to an outsider, the evil that it (cinema) has done and it is doing is patent. The good, if it has done at all, remains to be proved.”

Equally devastating was the critique of Periyar: “Today dramas and films have become instruments of disaster…. Drama, dance, music and cinema have been created to propagate an idea or loot and not at all to develop art. They have also not contributed to improving morality. If you think and study who handles them and benefited from them, it will become clear why they could promote neither morality nor art.”

Their vehement opposition to cinema, says Kamal Hassan in an interview published in this issue, arose perhaps from the way the medium was used then. Here is a historic irony. When Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi he became a martyr, but decades later, when Richard Attenborough shot Gandhi he became immortalised on celluloid. The irony continued. Periyar’s legatees put the newly emerging medium of cinema to effective use and gained ideological, and later political, hegemony in Tamil Nadu, which has seen five Chief Ministers from the Dravidian stable with a cinema connection: C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa. (It is only in the fitness of things that one of them, “Kalaignar” Karunanidhi, has contributed an article to this special issue of Frontline.) “Moving images” have indeed moved people in a positive way when they carried the messages of anti-colonial nationalism, social reform, Nehruvian “socialism”, and so on.

However, the apprehensions of great leaders about cinema may not be entirely wrong. Who is controlling the medium and to what end?

From touring theatres to multiplexes, from silence to surround sound, from “drama company boys” to superstars, from singing actors to star singers, from the reel system to digital projectors, from studios to streets, from the cottage industry format to corporate control… Indian cinema has come a long way, reflecting or drawing inspiration from the vicissitudes that India has gone through in the past century. In this long journey, has cinema lost its soul? Even if one manages to retain cinema’s soul, who will market it? Karen Gabriel cautions in her insightful article published in this issue about the financial and structural changes brought about by the entry of financial giants into the film world and their ideological and idiomatic implications. With state-created institutions being in disarray or limping, to borrow Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s words in an interview published in this issue, Karen Gabriel’s raises a fundamental question: “With film-making remaining forbiddingly expensive, labour-intensive and market-dependent… who can afford to uphold and validate the fundamental tenets of art?”

As effectively summed up in his lead article by Sashi Kumar, our columnist without whose contribution conceptualising this issue would have been impossible, “The hyperreality that rules the screen today estranges even as it stimulates. The viewer has been replaced by the voyeur.”

While there is much to celebrate about Indian cinema, concerns about its future cannot be wished away.

It is impossible to contain in one issue of Frontline the hundred-year history of Indian cinema, which is as glorious, as diverse and as complex and crisis-filled as the Indian subcontinent itself. The attempt here by experts and film historians—aided by Frontline’s industrious desk comprising K.K. Kesava Menon, V.M. Rajasekhar, K. Jayanthi, Samuel Abraham, Subash Jeyan, Sarbari Sinha, R. Suresh, Roshin Mary George, Sashikala Asirvatham and P. Kasthurirangan, and designers U. Udaya Shankar and V. Srinivasan—is to present a bird’s-eye view of cinema’s century.

Frontline has been leading the debate on major social, political and economic issues for the past 29 years. In this issue, the magazine is initiating a debate on Indian cinema. We expect the readers to continue to support “their magazine” unmindful of the increase in its cover price to Rs.50, necessitated by the increasing production and distribution costs.

R. Vijaya Sankar

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