Our films,their standardshttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/our-films-their-standards/

Our films,their standards

As Indian cinema turns 100 today,let’s ask why,even as films have changed,the cinema discourse hasn't

As Indian cinema turns 100 today,let’s ask why,even as films have changed,the cinema discourse hasn’t

In the Indian Cinematograph Committee’s Report and Evidences of 1927-28,Dhundiraj Govind “Dadasaheb” Phalke (1870-1944) states: “I began the film industry in India in the year 1912”. The centenary of Indian cinema is taken to be May 3,2013,the release of his first film at Coronation Cinema,Bombay,the mythological film Raja Harishchandra. Phalke made it after seeing The Life and Passion of Christ in 1910. Yet,like Midnight’s Children,the exact moment of birth is disputed,with Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema giving precedence to R.G. Torney and N.G. Chitre’s Pundalik (1912),a devotional film about a saint from Maharashtra.

The first film was shown in India in 1896,but it was 17 years before the first entirely Indian film was made. Pioneers such as Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar (1868-1958),better known as Save dada,made several shorts,including one of a wrestling match in Hanging Gardens,Bombay,and the celebrations of the coronation of Edward VII (1903 Delhi Durbar of Lord Curzon),while Hiralal Sen (1866-1917) shot plays from Star Theatres and Classic Theatre,Calcutta from 1898.

Although only a handful of silent films have survived (approximately 18 incomplete films of over 1,000 films),recent research has looked at the institution of cinema more widely through the study of scripts,magazines,newspapers,photographs and other materials,and the history of these early days is still being written. Others are researching the early days of the talkies,with scholarship on all areas of Indian cinema,from Madras to Calcutta,as well as on the Poona and Bombay studios. Academics are writing about the foreign-trained Bengalis who brought their German colleagues to India to make modern films at the Bombay Talkies; the theatrical interests of the New Theatres in Calcutta where Punjabis K.L. Saigal and Prithviraj Kapoor became stars; the Marathi and Hindi films of Prabhat Films in Poona where Muslims,Hindus and Christians worked on Hindu devotionals as well as films about contemporary social issues; and Fearless Nadia,a white woman,who was Wadia Movietone’s Indian Douglas Fairbanks Jr.


For many,Indian film history begins after 1947,when independent producers and stars replaced the studios,with some extraordinary individuals such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt who fulfilled simultaneously all three roles: director-producer-star. The 1950s now seem to be the classic age of Hindi cinema,with its stars,directors,music directors,singers and others,establishing the narrative and form of movies that continues to this day. The movies of this period still seem fresh and live up to the oft-used description of “evergreen”.

The spread of colour film and the emphasis on locations and costume in the 1960s’ musical romance has often been eclipsed by what is seen as the precursor to Bollywood,the films of the 1970s,which are best remembered for the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon and the consolidation of the style of the movies and,in particular,the dialogues scripted by Salim-Javed. The 1980s are often neglected,although the parallel cinema,made by Shyam Benegal and others,and the middle class films most famously made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee flourished,while television soaps were finding new audiences. The 1990s saw another critical shift with the new stars — the three Khans (Aamir,Salman and Shah Rukh) who are still top box-office attractions,the diasporic romance exemplified by Yash Raj Films and Karan Johar,the new multiplexes and the advent of “Bollywood”,a term that is used more accurately for the new global,multimedia ways of viewing cinema.

South India’s cinemas have produced some of India’s biggest stars — Sivaji Ganesan,NTR,Rajnikanth,Kamal Hassan — while studios such as AVM and influential directors such as Mani Ratnam have influenced the north. Popular Bengali cinema is hardly known outside Bengal,apart from the Uttam-Suchitra films,while even a cursory glance at today’s Marathi cinema shows many films are worth exploring. Bhojpuri cinema is attracting academic interest but needs its Faiza Khan to make a Supermen of Malegaon documentary about other forms of cinema. The realistic or art cinema,labelled by Chidananda Dasgupta as “India’s unpopular cinema”,is known for the globally recognised genius of Satyajit Ray,while fewer see the work of major figures such as Mani Kaul,Adoor Gopalakrishnan,Ritwik Ghatak and others. The indie or “hatke” cinema is drawing closer to the mainstream with one of its leading figures,Dibakar Banerjee,now working with Yash Raj Films.

But all aspects of cinema are in flux,from the films themselves to the means of production and distribution,which are barely recognisable from even 10 years ago. Last year saw the unpredictable success in the mainstream of smaller films led by female stars (Vidya Balan in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani) or films with no established star (Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor),while Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur showed exciting possibilities of new styles of music,with accomplished actors and strong stories.

Reading the ICC Evidences,it is clear that much of the discourse in India around cinema today is similar to that of almost a hundred years ago. Why has Indian cinema,which itself has changed so much,been trapped by this discourse,which perceives it as backward,in financial crisis and inferior to Western cinema,and in need of censoring to “protect” the lower classes,and so on? Why does it focus on its failings rather than its manifest successes,both in India and globally?

The writer,professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS,University of London,UK,is the author of ‘Bollywood’s India: Hindi cinema as a guide to modern India’