Indians suffer from a particularly virulent strain of movie madness. Our love affair started on July 7, 1896, when the first film was screened at the Watson Hotel in Mumbai. It was a series of six short films made by the Lumière Brothers and advertised as The Marvel of the Century, The Wonder of the World. Cinema truly turned out to be that.
In the early 1900s, several short films were made. H. S. Bhatwadekar imported a movie camera from London. J. F. Madan opened the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Kolkata. And one hundred years ago, on May 3rd, Dadasaheb Phalke premiered India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra.
Through the 1920s, an industry slowly took shape. A studio system, based on the Hollywood model, evolved. Here, stars were salaried employees. In 1925, the industry was sophisticated enough for co-productions. One of the earliest was Himanshu Rai’s Light of Asia with Munich’s Emelka Film Company.
It is estimated that a staggering 1300 films were made in India during the silent era but only a handful survived. On March 14, 1931, the cinematic landscape was irrevocably altered with the arrival of the first talkie Alam Ara. The film was advertised as ‘All talking, singing and dancing’. It introduced a new element into Indian cinema – songs.
In the 1930s, the studios flourished. Filmmakers dabbled in radical subjects and powerful plots. So a film called Prince Puran told the story of a prince whose stepmother accuses him of molesting her. He is exiled and becomes a saint. The legendary V. Shantaram made Duniya Na Mane about an old man married to a younger woman and in 1936, Bombay Talkies studios released Achhut Kanya, about the love affair between an upper caste boy and a lower caste girl.
In the 1930s, we also got our first and so far only, female action star – the incredible Fearless Nadia.
In 1943, the first bona fide blockbuster hit screens – Kismet. The film, about a petty thief, ran for over three years at the Roxy Theater in Kolkata. Through the 1940s and early 50s, the studios started to lose their power and a new phenomenon took shape – the star system. The 1950s, widely considered the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, were dominated by three stars – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Each one embodied a different ideal. They personified the dreams and aspirations of a newly born country taking baby steps into freedom and modernity.
The social concerns of the 1950s slowly gave way to a more escapist and flamboyant cinema in the 1960s. Hindi movies were now about blazing color, foreign locations, stylish costumes, trend-setting hair-dos and an increasing Westernization.
In the 1970s, the cloying sweetness of family dramas and romances gave away to the age of discontent. The Angry Young Man arrived like a sledgehammer and for the next twenty years, he couldn’t be budged. Heroines and songs were sidelined by storylines that articulated the anger of a nation, growing increasingly desperate.
The 1980s were a black hole dominated by over-the-top South-style films in which larger than life men spent three hours battling cartoonish villains. The middle-classes retreated to the comfort of home viewing on video. Movies were largely a loud, crass, artistic wasteland.
In the 1990s, the film industry underwent a metamorphosis. The directorial triumvirate of Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar changed the game. Young directors, multiplexes, corporate houses created a brave new world of bound scripts, check payments, independent films and soaring ambitions. Mainstream cinema was redefined. The edgy, scatological comedy Delhi Belly was as much a Hindi movie as the crowd-pleasing 3 Idiots.
Today, India is the largest producer of films in the world. Every year, we create over 800 movies that range from Bollywood’s 100 crore blockbusters to small, deeply personal films made in obscure regional languages like Byari. For Indians, cinema isn’t merely entertainment. It’s a religion, an abiding commitment and a collective hope
By Anupama Chopra
The Front Row