The Universal Appeal of Indian Films
Today, the Indian film is a global commodity.
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
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.