Film History: The Cinema of India.

Film History: The Cinema of India.

India celebrates its Independence in August, so we’re taking the month to celebrate the world’s largest source of movies!

When it comes to movies, India’s fascination with the art form is unmatched.  India is the largest producer of feature films in the world, nearly doubling the second place finisher, China, with 1,800 movies in 2018 to China’s 1,082.  Historically, the rift has been larger with India making as many films as China, Japan, and the US combined in 2009.  India is also the leading consumer of films when it comes to tickets:  in 2011 it outsold Hollywood by nearly 1 million tickets.  The lower prices keep India out of the top spot for earnings, though it ranks 3rd and has been steadily gaining.

Here we’ll trace the history of India’s love affair with cinema.  From the first black and white short shown in Bombay to the gigantic musical epics that have come to represent India on the world stage, we’ll cover all of the historic milestones on India’s way to the top of the film industry.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion 2017
Let’s set sail for the wonders of Indian Cinema!

Lay of the Land:  Bollywood, Tollywood, and More!

When most Americans think of Indian cinema, one word comes to mind: Bollywood!  Bollywood is the largest of the “…wood” nicknamed film centers, but was not always the industry leader.  India boasts large populations of disparate language speakers with different artistic influences, so the industry tends to be broken up by language and region.  Here are the major players:

  • Hindi Film (Bollywood):  Releases films primarily in Hindi-Urdu language.  It is based in Bombay (modern Mumbai) in the northern region of India.  Home to first talkie and color film.  Associated with the Masala and Mumbai Noir genre.  Largest producer of films in India.  Highest grossing film:  Dangal.
  • Kannada Film (Sandalwood): Releases film in the Kannada language.  It is based in Karnataka state in the southwest region of India.  Site of the first governmental film school in India.  Second largest producer of films.  Highest grossing film:  KGF – Chapter 1.
  • Telegu Film (Tollywood):  Releases films primarily in Telegu language.  It is based in Hyderabad in the South-central region of India.  Third largest producer.  Highest grossing film (currently highest grossing Indian film of all time):  Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion.
  • Tamil Film (Kollywood):  Releases films primarily in Tamil language.  Based in Chennai in the Southeastern region of India.  Known for big spectacle films and historical epics.  Fourth largest film producer.  Highest grossing film:  2.0.
  • Bengali Film (also, confusingly, Tollywood!):  Releases films in Bengali language.  Centered around Tollygunge district in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) from which it gets its nickname.  Once the center of the Indian film industry.  Known for indie and artistic films, heavily associated with the Parallel Cinema movement.  Highest grossing film:  Amazon Obhijaan.

Origins and the Silent Film Era.

Raja Harischandra, 1913, Dadasaheb PhalkeEarly pioneers in film, Robert Paul and the Lumiere brothers brought their films to India in 1896.  By 1899, Indian filmmakers had premiered the first film directed and shot by Indian artists arrived, a documentary called The Wrestlers.

The title for first Indian feature film is a bit dicey.  Shree Pundalik was released in 1912, but was filmed by a British cameraman, processed abroad, and “merely” recorded a stage play.  The first fully Indian feature was Raja Harishchandra, a historical epic by one of the first greats of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke.  It premiered in 1913.  Another Telegu film, Bhishma Pratighna, is variously recorded as 1912 and 1921.  As the studio itself was founded in 1912, it seems a confusion of dates has put Pratighna wrongly in the running for earliest Indian feature film.  The first Tamil film arrived shortly thereafter in 1916.

Let There be Sound:  Studio Building and Talkies.

Aram Ala 1931
Lost to time.

The regional studio system really entered into full swing at this time, with Tollygunge becoming the center of film production, dubbed “Tollywood.”  Madras, Kolkata and Mumbai became the central three regions, with Bengal and Chennai continuing to emerge.  Dadasaheb Phalke “the father of Indian Cinema”, helped usher in a modern studio system when his private studio expanded to become The Hindustan Cinema Films Company.  He had a major comeback late in his career after falling out with the company, and would go on to found another studio towards the end of his career.  Madan Theater, established by Indian film pioneer Jamshedji Framji Madan, at one point controlled 50% of the box office.

The first “talkie” produced in India was Alam Ara in 1931 by Ardeshir Irani.  While there are still people alive today who have seen this artifact.  Alas the last known print disappeared in 1995, tragically turning Alam Ara into a lost film.  Talkies in every major language followed quickly after.

The arrival of sound and color changed the business model in India as drastically as it did in Hollywood.  Many of the old studios either shifted focus or went out of business.  AVM Studios, founded 1931 in Chennai, is the only surviving movie studio from the early days of Indian cinema.

The Golden Age:  1940-1960’s.

Apu Trilogy, Criterion Collection
This is a gorgeous remaster by Criterion for those interested.

Early Indian cinema lingered under a stigmatism towards acting, and tended to seek the respectability of reproducing classic stories, myths, and historical epics.  This led to a reaction after World War 2, where filmmakers and audiences wanted to see stories that reflected their realities.  The answer came from Kolkata, with the rise of Parallel Cinema.  The style was defined by realism, restraint, and heavy socio-political themes.

Neecha Nagar 1946These serious films would catapult visionary directors like Satyajit Ray and Chetan Anand to international acclaim and put Indian cinema on the map.  Anand’s film, Neecha Nagar, took the Grand Prix at the very first Cannes film festival in 1946.   Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed Apu Trilogy would go on to win nominations and awards at film festivals from Venice to Berlin, and Ray would receive an honorary Oscar in 1991 for his body of work.

In 1957, Bollywood director Mehboob Khan would receive India’s first nomination for a Academy Award for Foreign Language Film for his scathing social critique, Mother India.  India would have to wait till 1988 for another nod from the Academy.

“Classic Bollywood” Era: 1970-80’s.

Masala films
Bright. Cheerful. Impossible to tell the plot from the poster!

If the sober and serious Parallel Cinema films gave India its widest accolades, it was the “Masala Film” that would shower it in riches.  This genre features extravagant musical numbers and a willingness to blend disparate genres such as crime, romance, coming of age, sports, and even spaghetti westerns all into one picture. Manmohan Desai, described as the father of Masala, wanted to make pictures that were uplifting and escapist, while still retaining elements of real life.

The first film to fit this classification is Yaadon Ki Baaraat in 1973 by Nassir Hussain.  Importantly, it was written by writing team Salim-Javed, who went on to basically pioneer and dominate the genre.  They also wrote Sholay, a Masala film that went worldwide and made Masala and Bollywood essentially synonymous.

“New Bollywood” and “Mumbai Noir”:  1990-Present.

Andaz Apna Apna 1994
Can you believe these two baby faces went on to become such freaking beefcakes?

While the Masala genre continues to be the bread and butter of Bollywood, and India in general, the pendulum always comes back around.  Alongside their work on Masala, Salim-Javed also helped popularize a gritty and violent genre about organized crime in urban India through films such as Zanjeer and Dewaar.  These films would lay the foundation for a 90’s revival known as Mumbai Noir- which reached its most internationally known version in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Against this, a revival of musical romances helped to create a “New Bollywood”, which became typified by high profile leading men and women, often attaining cultural idol status.  This new take on the Masala films of the 70’s became dominated the “Three Khans”:  Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan.  These three continue to helm gigantic Bollywood features, gaining stardom not just in India but around the world.

As the reach and influence of Indian cinema continues to expand, we may be entering a new Golden Age.  From production scale, to number of films, to worldwide box office figures, Bollywood and company have never been more popular.  With two big ticket releases arriving in America this fall, it seems that the phenomenon shows no signs of cooling off.

Saaho 2019
Bring back that sweet, sweet Pert Plus hair, Prabhas. I’m ready.

Film History of the World.

Check out our other entries in the series:

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