Tuesday , March 21 2023

100 Years of Indian Cinema

Published Date: October 14, 2013

It’s Friday evening. You come back from office tired of the hectic 5-day drawn test match. You have a couple of off days ahead, which you fondly call “weekend”. This slang of a word has turned out to be one of the most adorable words of our generation. So much so that, in a poll for the most beautiful words, “Weekend” came second only to “Mother”. ;)

Now coming back to the point, what do you do to celebrate your weekend?

Yes, you’ve got it right! Majority of us plan a movie to relieve us of the work-stress & to have some quality time with friends & family.

Cinema has become an extension of our culture and it has taken a lot of perseverance & effort to elevate this medium to a level where it is today. In India, Cricket & Cinema have something in common. i.e, Even if you don’t follow Cricket or Cinema, you cannot remain untouched by its impact. 

Today, Indian Cinema is completing 100 years of an exhilarating journey. Let us flip pages of the past to dig out the remains of history and understand the impact of those torch bearers whose untiring efforts have led Bollywood to become the biggest film industry in terms of volume.

For brevity sake, I’ll discuss the article in a two part series. This is the first one dealing with initial half of our cinematic journey. From Dada Saheb Phalke’s humble beginnings to the golden era where storytellers like Satyajit Ray & superstars like Raj Kapoor ensured an intellectually vibrant as well as a financially sound film industry. Next 50 years of this journey will be covered in my next column. Till then, hope you like reading the first part of it!

Dhundiraj Govind “Dadasaheb” Phalke was a small town Marathi photographer who saw a French silent movie, The Life of Christ in 1910 & fascinated by it envisioned his own Indian gods on the screen. The man of exemplary action & grit that he was, Dadasaheb Phalke materialised his vision by producing India’s first full length feature, Raja Harishchandra, against all odds. In the process, this one man institution had to personally do all that was required to make a feature film. He was the director, producer, cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, processor, printer, developer & distributor. Phalke’s strong willed endeavour & unmatched determination gave India its first indigenous full length silent film and heralded motion picture as a form of entertainment, a medium, an art and an extension of the Indian culture.

The immense challenges faced by the patriarch of cinema can be gauged from the fact that he couldn’t find a single female for the role of Harishchandra’s wife, Rani Taramati. Even prostitutes & dancing girls refused to come on screen and ultimately, a canteen boy, Anna Salunke was casted as the first heroine of Indian cinema. We can very well imagine the agony he must have gone through in executing something not at all acceptable to his society. Yes, the father of Indian cinema was looked down upon in disgrace for the very reason which our generation looks up to him in reverence. He was a gritty visionary much ahead of his times.

On the 3rd of May, 1913 at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema, Raja Harishchandra was released before the public, marking the beginning of a journey which still continues to fascinate one & all with an increased vigour with every passing day & with every passing Friday. A journey which has caught the attention of masses & which many claim is the reflection of our society. Since that day when people thronged the Coronation Cinema, motion picture has taken a big leap in its 100 years of breathtaking journey.

Alam Ara, released in 1931 by Ardeshir Irani, was the first Indian talking film. Sadly the film is destroyed and we don’t have a copy of the historical music saga. In 2003, prints of several classics like Raja Harishchandra and Ashok Kumar’s Achhut Kanya were gutted in a fire at the National Film Archive of India, Pune. As the concept of talkies found wings, the silent version of cinema faded away slowly. Dada Saheb couldn’t keep up the pace of this new genre & made only one talking film.

In 1969, commemorating the 100th birth anniversary of Dada Saheb Phalke, government of India institutionalised a national award in his name to be given for distinguished lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. He laid the foundation of Bollywood by giving wings to an art form which today is an integral part of our culture and one of the most powerful mediums of expression.

Bengali connoisseurs were known to be on the forefront of carrying high the heritage of art, be it in any form. As per their reputation, Bengalis proved no exception even in case of Cinema. The journey initiated by a Marathi was taken to heights by superlative Bengali film makers. The 1940s to 1970s is considered one of the golden periods of Indian cinema and all through this period the flag of Indian cinema was held by master storytellers like Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, V Shantaram, Hrishikesh Mukherji & Basu Bhattacharya.

Earlier, Indian cinema mostly used to be an embodiment of our mythology with no original plots. But post independence golden age led by Bengali cinema gave a new dimension to film making. Film making in this era was mostly inspired by contemporary literature, as a result transforming cinema into a reflection of the socio-political reality of the times.

In 1956, Satyajit Ray gained international recognition at Cannes when his debut film, Pather Panchali won a special award, the Best Human Document. Martin Scorsese had once candidly admitted that Steven Spielberg’s E.T, the Extra Terrestrial was inspired by Satyajit Ray’s The Alien. Unlike many other contemporaries, Satyajit Ray never tried making any political point through his films. His detractors said that Ray never offered any solution to the problems & issues which he captured on screen. His critiques say Ray always refrained from taking a stand, but the fact is that, as a film-maker, Satyajit Ray was not meant to take stands, not meant to score political points as did Mrinal Sen or Bimal Roy. He showed the stark truth of society and found his heroes and protagonists in those dark realism, unlike others who would picturise a fight for one’s rights and the triumph of socialism over capitalism. The master storyteller, Satyajit Ray was a pure soul and a true artist whose only inclination was towards his camera, not any political ideology.

The Sight & Sound critics’ poll ranked Satyajit Ray at no 7 in its list of all time “Top 10 Directors”.

His contemporaries Ritwik Ghatak & Guru Dutt were overshadowed, or overlooked in their own lifetimes but generated international recognition later in the 80s & 90s.

Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen & Madhumati were trend setters in combining Parallel cinema with commercial success. Madhumati, written by Ritwik Ghatak was the first ever movie to deal with the subject of reincarnation. It later turned out to be the inspiration for movies like Janam Janam, Karz, Om Shanti Om & many other Indian regional cinemas. Even Hollywood couldn’t remain untouched & took a leaf out of Bimal Roys’s work in Madhumati.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was an assistant to Bimal Roy in Do Bigha Zameen and later on held the lamp of his mentor to greater heights through his pure & deep-meaning style of storytelling, through timeless classics like Anari, Anand, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke and many more. He made films centred around the middle class ethos and carried social messages in a simple style without any violence, drama or opulence. We will have a detailed discussion over Mukherjee’s integral role in film development in the next article of part II.

Intellectual Bengali film makers gave the insight & artistic aspect to a high potential industry, whereas the Kapoors & Anands brought in commercial success resulting in a highly balanced & financially strong film industry. Awaara & Shree 420 under the banner of Raj Kapoor films expressed strong social themes at the same time raking in a lot of money. After the grand success of Awaara, showman Raj Kapoor became a brand abroad, especially in Soviet Union.

A profound Socialist influence on Cinema could be seen during this phase. This was the time when Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a communist inclined art movement was taking shape. The IPTA movement went on to produce Mehboob Khan’s Mother India & Guru Dutt’s Pyasa.Mother India was the first ever Indian film to be nominated for Academy Awards & is still recognised as a timeless epic. Guru Dutt beautifully integrated art & commercial cinema in Pyasa, which has been featured in Time magazine’s all time 100 best movies.

Mrinal Sen, whose most fruitful period was during the Naxal insurgence, had the uncanny ability to present the city Calcutta as a living character. He did it time and again with utmost ease. Raj Kapoor starrer Teesri Kasam, directed by Basu Bhattacharya was based on a short story of Phanishwar Nath Renu, “Mare Gaye Gulfaam.” Completely shot at Araria in Bihar, the film was a classic in terms of picturisation of the simplicity of village life. Basu Bhattacharya went on to direct many light hearted movies and is even acclaimed for the detective series Byomkesh Bakshi. This was the period when Kishore Kumar, a KL Saigal fan was getting ready to burst on the scene. Hrishikesh Mukherji was to guide us through some of the best films ever produced. Poster boy Dev Anand had females drooling all over and his first colour film, Guide is fondly remembered even today. Dev Anand took personal pains in convincing R K Narayan for his consent to adapt his book on screen. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand & Raj Kapoor became the first superstars of Hindi cinema and this was the time when film industry got the taste of infidelity, extra marital & pre marital affairs. This was just a hint of what bollywood would be all about.

This was an era when free India was bubbling with optimism. There was a youthful exuberance in everything and a confidence of being on one’s own feet post-independence was vividly exhibited in the Cinema of this period.

Without an iota of doubt, I can say that the foundation of Indian cinema has been laid by Bengal. The foundation on which, every corner of the country today has a stake. A journey began with Dada Saheb Phalke’s all important first step & the Ray that guided Indian parallel cinema onto a path of success and influence was led by Satyajit Ray. Symbolically Dada Saheb Phalke was born on 30th April, Satyajit Ray on the 2nd May & Indian Cinema on the 3rd of May.

… to be continued! The second part of this cinematic journey would be out soon on Express Today!