The Uni­ver­sal Ap­peal of In­dian Films

Today, the In­dian film is a global com­mod­ity.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid

One hun­dred years ago, on May 3, 1913, In­dia re­leased its first si­lent fea­ture film Raja Harischan­dra – by Dadasa­heb Phalke. The film re­vis­ited the leg­end of King Harischan­dra. Phalke was rightfully named the Fa­ther of In­dian cin­ema. A cen­tury later, the In­dian film in­dus­try has be­come a thriv­ing ac­tiv­ity, the largest in the world to be ex­act. In 2012 alone, nine films from Mum­bai, the hub of main­stream In­dian cin­ema, made more than one bil­lion ru­pees each at the box of­fice.

It is a fact that when the pioneer In­dian film­maker re­leased his film, he had no idea he that geo­graph­i­cal he was un­leash­ing lo­ca­tion a mass of en­ter­tain­ment Pakiourism medium in­dus­try. like no other; one that would en­thrall rapt au­di­ences for the next hun­dred years. The French might have in­tro­duced the con­cept of mov­ing im­ages, but they prob­a­bly didn't think it would cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of mil­lions around the world in such a

big way.

In­dian cin­ema has an iden­tity that is unique and re­mains un­par­al­leled. It may have come a long way from black and white si­lent films. Just re­cently the in­dus­try pro­duced its first-ever 3D film – but one thing is for sure; the In­dian cin­ema has the abil­ity to keep the au­di­ence en­gaged

The Go de­spite the length – some three hours or so, that in­clude col­or­ful song-and-dance se­quences – of an av­er­age movie. Even though in­ter­net down­loads and television con­tinue to eat into the rev­enues of In­dian films, the lure of the 35mm is some­thing else al­to­gether. Phalke in­tro­duced In­dia to cin­ema at a time when work­ing in films was a ta­boo but his ef­forts showed that the In­di­ans craved for in­dige­nous films just like the rest of the world. His film was hugely suc­cess­ful and inspired sev­eral film­mak­ers in Bom­bay and Madras to make si­lent fea­ture films. In fact, by the mid-1920s, Madras be­came a cen­ter of all film-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties. Cin­ema stal­warts such as Raghu­pathi Venka­iah Naidu, S.S. Vasan and A.V. Meiyap­pan es­tab­lished pro­duc­tion houses in Madras to make Tel­ugu and Tamil films.

Bol­ly­wood – the

name given to In­dian cin­ema in the 1990s – is today a global com­mod­ity and ap­peals to al­most ev­ery cul­ture around the world. The in­dus­try's in­flu­en­tial stars are fol­lowed by their die-hard fans. Cer­tain celebri­ties such as Amitabh Bachchan are given an al­most God-like sta­tus. For in­stance, when Bachchan starred in Man­mo­han De­sai's Coolie (1983) and had a se­ri­ous life-threat­en­ing ac­ci­dent on the sets, mil­lions of de­voted fans prayed for his re­cov­ery. Such is his ap­peal and, by as­so­ci­a­tion, that of many other stars.

The in­dus­try, quite like other film in­dus­tries, has evolved over the decades and has had its own share of highs and lows. Sev­en­teen years af­ter the first si­lent film was re­leased, In­dia pro­duced its first sound film – Alam Ara – in 1931. It was re­leased at the Ma­jes­tic The­atre in Bom­bay. Di­rected by Ardeshir Irani, Alam Ara es­tab­lished songs and dances as a sta­ple of In­dian cin­ema.

The 1940s saw the in­cep­tion of the Prithvi The­atre in Bom­bay, the brain­child of renowned ac­tor Prithvi­raj Kapoor. As a re­sult, the Kapoor fam­ily today is cred­ited with

be­ing one of the largest film dy­nas­ties in In­dian cin­ema, com­mand­ing in­flu­ence and re­spect like no other fam­ily in the in­dus­try.

Though In­dian cin­ema is and has been pre­dom­i­nantly main­stream, film­mak­ers such as Satya­jit Ray have de­fied the odds and cre­ated films that ap­peal to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. Ray's 1955 film

Pather Pan­chali re­ceived ma­jor ac­claim at Euro-Amer­i­can fes­ti­vals and art house cir­cuits, thus mak­ing Ray one of the first In­dian film­mak­ers to get rec­og­nized in the West. The same decade also wit­nessed the re­lease of Me­hboob Khan's Mother In­dia that went on to be­come the first film to be nom­i­nated in the Best For­eign Film cat­e­gory at the Academy Awards.

The fol­low­ing decade led to the pro­duc­tion of the mag­num opus Mughale-Azam that was, at that point, In­dia's most ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion. It fea­tured Dilip Ku­mar, Mad­hubala and Prithvi Raj Kapoor. Soon af­ter, the 1970s gave rise to the an­gry-young-man phe­nom­e­non. Rag­ing against the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, Amitabh Bachchan per­formed this role to per­fec­tion in the blockbuster hit Sho­lay. The 1970s also saw the mer­cu­rial rise of ro­mance icons like Ra­jesh Khanna, known for his dap­per good looks and his

abil­ity to sweep any woman off her feet.

Un­for­tu­nately, the in­dus­try went into se­ri­ous de­cline in the 1980s, mainly be­cause of the video rental mar­ket. In ad­di­tion, pro­duc­tion stan­dards also fell dras­ti­cally as did the star power of Amitabh Bachchan. The sit­u­a­tion was only ex­ac­er­bated by lack­lus­ter scripts and the con­se­quence was one of the worst phases of In­dian cin­ema. It ap­peared that In­dia had grown weary of action flicks that most pro­duc­ers thought was a for­mula for suc­cess. It was Man­soor Khan's Qayamat se Qayamat Tak in 1988, a film that paid homage to teenage love, that in­tro­duced one of the big­gest mod­ern-day stars, Aamir Khan. It was the big­gest hit of the year and breathed new life into an ail­ing film in­dus­try. Two years later, Sal­man Khan’s de­but hit Maine Pyar Kiya and Ma­hesh Bhatt's Aashiqui cat­alyzed the In­dian film in­dus­try and high­lighted the im­por­tance of songs in movies.

Mean­while, Shahrukh Khan de­buted in 1991 and be­came an overnight

sen­sa­tion with his por­trayal of a cold­blooded killer in Ab­bas Mas­tan's Baazi­gar a year later. Today, Shahrukh Khan is con­sid­ered the big­gest star of In­dian cin­ema although the fans of Sal­man and Aamir are likely to say the same for their idols. In any case, all three stars still rule the roost in the In­dian film in­dus­try even though each of them is about to hit 50.

These stars also changed what was tra­di­tion­ally a con­ser­va­tive in­dus­try. Ear­lier, the por­trayal of sex, vi­o­lence and nudity was con­sid­ered in­ap­pro­pri­ate and was com­pletely omit­ted from In­dian films. In fact, such por­tray­als of­ten went under the cen­sor board’s knife and scenes were rou­tinely cut out. Today, how­ever, the sit­u­a­tion is com­pletely dif­fer­ent with on-screen kisses, risqué out­fits and erotic dance num­bers fast be­com­ing the norm.

Con­tem­po­rary cin­ema is more ac­ces­si­ble to the masses with shorter run times and more spo­ken English. Movies like Zindagi Na Mi­legi Do­bara (2011), a com­ing-of-age film shot in Spain and English Vinglish (2012), in which an In­dian housewife adapts to her Man­hat­tan life, can be eas­ily un­der­stood with­out sub­ti­tles.

In­deed, In­dian cin­ema has come full cir­cle with its larger-than-life por­tray­als of char­ac­ters and sto­ry­lines that con­tinue to res­onate among au­di­ences both within and out­side In­dia.

The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to var­i­ous lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions.

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