Films arrived in India less than a year after the Lumieres first exhibited their cinematographie in Paris. On July 7, 1896, an agent who had brought equipment and films from France first showed his moving pictures in Bombay. That was an important day in the social and cultural history of the Indian people.
The first Indian-made feature film (3700 feet long) was released in 1913. It was made by Dadasaheb Phalke and was called Raja Harishchandra. Based on a story from the Mahabharata it was a stirring film concerned with honour, sacrifice and mighty deeds. From then on many "mythologicals" were made and took India by storm. Phalke's company alone produced about a hundred films.
What little remains of Indian silent cinema up to 1931 barely fills six video-cassettes in the National Film Archives of India, but it is remarkable for the way traditional "theatrical" framing (static characters, faced front on by the camera) is animated by a considerable investment in location shooting, both in natural surroundings and in the city. This is evident not only in Raja Harishchandra, but also in historical--stunt films such as Diler Jigar/Gallant Hearts (SS Agarwal; 1931) and Gulaminu Patan/The Fall of Slavery (SS Agarwal; 1931), and in the international co-productions directed by Himansu Rai and the German Franz Osten. Among these, Light of Asia (1925), about the Buddha, and Shiraz (1928), about the origins of the Taj Mahal, referred to as 'Romances from India' by their producers, render "India" as a startling, exotic assemblage: scenes of ancient and medieval court life, attended by the ritual of courtly gesture, and by spectacular processions of elephants and camels, are juxtaposed with a glittering naturalism.
Advent of Sound
By the time of the First World War, and the phenomenal expansion of Hollywood, 85% of feature films shown in India were American. But the introduction of sound made an immediate difference. In 1931, India's first talkie, Alam Ara, was released, dubbed into Hindi and Urdu. As the talkies emerged over the next decade, so too did a new series of issues. The most prominent of these, of course, was language, and language markets; alongside, there are considerations of regional identity, of the different places that separately and together make up India. Many films of the time were produced both in the regional language (Bengali, Marathi), and in Hindi, so that they could be oriented to the larger Hindi-speaking market. The Indian public quite naturally preferred to see films made in their own language and the more songs they had the better. In those days, the films made had upto 40 songs. This song tradition still persists in Indian commercial cinema.
The 1930s and 40s
While addressing social differences of caste, class and the relations between the sexes, the "social" films of the 1930s adopted a modernist outlook in an essentially converging of society. Many directors of the time showed great innovation. The Marathi director, V Shantaram, for example, was alert to world trends in film-making, deploying expressionist effects intelligently in such works as Amrit Manthan (Prabhat Talkies; 1934).
In what was probably the most important film of the period, Devdas (1935), the director Pramathesh Barua created a startlingly edited climax to a tale of love frustrated by social distinction and masculine ineffectuality. Released in Bengali, Hindi and Tamil, Devdas created an oddly ambivalent hero for this period (and again, through a Hindi remake directed by Bimal Roy in 1955), predicated on indecision, frustration and a focus on failure and longing rather than on achievement.
By the 1940s the social film further delimited its focus by excluding particularly fraught issues, especially of caste division. A representative example, prefiguring the kind of entertainment extravaganza that has become the hallmark of the Bombay film, was Kismet/Fate (Gyan Mukerji; Bombay Talkies, 1943), which broke all box-office records and ran for more than two years. Family and class become the key issues in the representation of society, and the story's location is an indeterminate urban one.
Although this became the model for popular cinema, especially after the decline of regional industries in Maharashtra and Bengal by the end of the 1940s, different strains are observable in the Tamil films of the same period. In the 1930s, the Tamil cinema gained national recognition with the costume extravaganza, Chandralekha, directed by SS Vasan for Gemini studios, and called by its director a "pageant for our peasants" (a large section of the audience would have been illiterate). Its story, of the conflict for the inheritance of an empire, is laden with overblown set-pieces and crowds of extras. Even more significant than this investment in the spectacular was its "Tamil-ness", the recognition of a national existence different to that portrayed in the Bombay output.
By the start of the 1950s, Calcutta became the vanguard of the art cinema, with the emergence of the film society movement at the end of the 1940s and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali/Song of the Road, produced with West Bengal state government support in 1955. Post-independence, despite a relatively sympathetic government enquiry in 1951, the industry became the object of considerable moral scrutiny and criticism, and was subject to severe taxation. A covert consensus emerged between proponents of art cinema and the state, all focussing on the imperative to create a "better" cinema. The Film and Television Institute of India was established at Pune in 1959 to develop technical skills for an industry seen to be lacking in this field. However, active support for parallel cinema, as it came to be called, only really took off at the end of the 1960s, under the aegis of the government's Film Finance Corporation, set up in 1961 to support new film-makers.
Ironically, this pressure and vocal criticism occurred at a time when arguably some of the most interesting work in popular cinema was being produced. Radical cultural organizations, loosely associated with the Indian Communist Party, had organized themselves as the All India Progressive Writers Association and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). The latter had produced Dharti ke Lal/Sons of the Soil (KA Abbas; 1943), and its impact on the industry can be seen in the work of radical writers such as Abbas, lyricists such as Sahir Ludhianvi, and directors such as Bimal Roy and Zia Sarhady.
In addition, directors such as Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Mehboob Khan, while not directly involved with IPTA, created films that reflected a passionate concern for questions of social justice. Largely studio-based, the films of this era nevertheless incorporated vivid stylistic experimentation, influenced by international currents in film-making. Such effects are evident in Awara/The Vagabond (Raj Kapoor, 1951, script by KA Abbas), Awaaz/The Call (Zia Sarhady; 1956) and Pyaasa/Craving (Guru Dutt; 1957).
The First International Film Festival, held in Bombay in 1951, showed Italian works for the first time in India. The influence of Neorealism can be seen in films such as Do Bigha Zamin/Two Measures of Land (Bimal Roy, 1953), a portrait of father and son eking out a living in Calcutta that strongly echoes the narrative of Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948). Mehboob Khan's Andaz/Style (1949), an upperclass love triangle founded on a tragic misunderstanding, draws on codes of psychological representation - hallucinations and dreams that feature strongly in 1940s Hollywood melodrama. Mehboob's tendency to make a visual spectacle of his material, and his involvement with populist themes and issues make him a good example of popular cinema of the time.
The Art Cinema
India's emergent art cinema, led by the Bengali directors Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak reacted against such spectacle. Satyajit Ray's world-famous debut, Pather Panchali (1955), is based on many of the themes that engaged contemporary popular film-makers of the time, such as loss of social status, economic injustice, uprootment, but sets them within a naturalistic, realist frame which put a special value on the Bengali countryside, locating it as a place of nostalgia, to which the urban and individualist sensibility of its protagonist, Apu, looked with longing.
In Ray's later work on urban middle-class existence, Mahanagar/Big City (1963), Charulata (1964), Seemabadha/Company Limited (1971), Pratidwandi/The Protagonist (1970), and Jana Aranya/The Middleman (1975), his rational, humanist vision is at the same time at home in the city, and repulsed by it; overarching estrangement is relayed through images of futile job interviews, cynical corporate schemes, murky deals in respectable cafes. Wedded to the traditions of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, he finds society wanting, vilifies it for its ignorance and corruption, and oversees the malignant terrain below with a lofty disdain. Ray's women, such as the mother, Sarbojaya of Pather Panchali, the tomboy Aparna Sen of Samapti/TheEnd(1961), Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata and Mahanagar, and Kaberi Bose in Aranyer din Ratri, are splendidly drawn portraits in the realist tradition.
In contrast to Ray, his contemporaries Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak set out to expose the dark underside of India's lower middle-class and unemployed. Sen, after a phase of uneven, didactic political cinema at the height of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite movement of the early 1970s - marked by the trilogy Interview(1971), Calcutta 71(1972) and Padatik/The Guerrilla Fighter (1973) - made two films, Akaler Sandhane/Search of Famine (1980) and Khandar/Ruins (1983), about film-making itself, exploring its inherent distance and disengagement, and the problems entailed in trying to record "reality".
Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this generation, fulfilling the potential of the radical cultural initiatives of the IPTA, was the great Ritwik Ghatak. Disruption, the problems of locating oneself in a new environment, and the indignities and oppression of common people are the recurrent themes of this poet of Partition, who lamented the division of Bengal in 1947. Disharmony and discontinuity could be said to be the hallmark of Nagarik/Citizen (1952) and Meghe Dhaka Tara/Cloud-capped Star (1960), where studio sets of street corners mingle uneasily with live-action shots of Calcutta. There is something deliberately jarring about the rhythms of editing, the use of sound, and the compositions, as if the director refuses to allow us to settle into a comfortable, familiar frame of viewing. In Aajantrik/Man and Machine (1958) and Subarnarekha (1952, released 1965) he juxtaposes the displaced and transient urban figure with tribal peoples; placing the human figure at the edge of the frame, dwarfed by majestic nature.
The Indian Popular Cinema and the Superstars
During the 1960s, popular cinema had shifted its social concerns towards more romantic genres, showcasing such new stars as Shammi Kapoor - a kind of Indian Elvis - and later, Rajesh Khanna, a soft, romantic hero. The period is also notable for a more assertive Indian nationalism. Following the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1962 and 1965, the Indian officer came to be a rallying point for the national imagination in films such as Sangam/Meeting of Hearts (Raj Kapoor, 1964) and Aradhana/Adoration (Shakti Samanta; 1969).
However, the political and economic upheaval of the following decade saw a return to social questions across the board, in both the art and popular cinemas. The accepted turning point in the popular film was the angry, violent Zanjeer/The Chain (Prakash Mehra; 1973), which fed into the anxieties and frustrations generated by the quickening but lopsided pace of industrialization and urbanization. Establishing Amitabh Bachchan as the biggest star of the next decade, its policeman hero is ousted from service through a conspiracy, and takes the law into his own hands to render justice and to avenge his deceased parents.
The considerable political turmoil of the next few years, including the railway strike of 1974 and the Nav Nirman movement led by JP Narayan in Bihar and Gujarat, ultimately led to the declaration of Indira Gandhi's Emergency in 1975. It was as if the state and the people had split apart. As the cities grew, so did the audiences. The popular cinema generated an ambiguous figure to express this alienation. At the level of images, there was a greater investment in the stresses of everyday life and, unlike the 1950s, in location shooting. In Zanjeer, the casual killing of a witness on Bombay's commuter trains conjures up the perils of life in the metropolis. This is echoed in images of the dockyard, taxi-rank, railtrack and construction site in Deewar/The Wall (Yash Chopra; 1975), also starring Amitabh Bachchan.
The recurrent narrative of these films, of protagonists uprooted from small town and rural families to the perils of the city, is shared by the street children researched by professional sociologists in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988). The Bombay films' very excesses, their grand gestures, and the priority given to emotion and excitement may more truly reflect the dominant rhythms of urban life in India. At the level of plot and character, however, the Bombay films simultaneously simplify and collapse our sense of India, reducing the enormous variety of identity - social, regional, ethnic and religious - that makes up Indian society. Where these identities appear, they do so as caricatures and objects of fun.
The Art Cinema of the 80s
To counter this, the art cinema of the 1980s diversified from its Bengali moorings of the earlier period under the aegis of the Film Finance Corporation. Works by Shyam Benegal, Gautam Ghose, Saeed Mirza, BV Karanth, Girish Kasaravaili, Mrinal Sen, MS Sathyu, Ray, and Kundan Shah, among others, actively addressed questions of social injustice: problems of landlord exploitation, bonded labour, untouchability, urban power, corruption and criminal extortion, the oppression of women, and political manipulation. Ghatak in particular had addressed many of these issues earlier, but never had there been such an outpouring of the social conscience, nor such a flowing of new images - of regional landscapes, cultures, and social structures. Many of the films may seem didactic and uncomplex, undercutting the attention to form that had marked the earlier period - but not all. Benegal's first two films indicate an unusual concern with the psychology of domination and subordination. Ankur/The Seedling (1974), starring Shabana Azmi, is particularly striking not only for this but also for the open, fluid way it captures the countryside. Among Kannada directors, working in south India, Kasaravalli in Ghattashradha (1981) effected an intimate vision of the oppression of widows through the view of a child. And special mention must be made of Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron/Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (1984), a wonderful exercise in farce and slapstick that is also a brilliant portrait of Bombay.
The most notable of the directors who speak specifically about their own cultures, and about the possibilities of change, are Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan from Kerala. A key to their productivity was the overall development of film culture in Kerala, India's most literate state. In his films Gopalakrishnan transformed the lush countryside, busy towns and animated culture of Kerala into a strange, dissociated place, fraught with communicative gaps, menacing, inexplicable characters, and an overall sense of the impenetrable. Subjects range from the mounting tragedies that beset a young couple in the city (Swayamvaram/One's Own Choice; 1972), and the effete authoritarianism of a declining feudal landlord (Elippathayam/The Rat-Trap; 1984), to the mysterious spiritual decline of a popular communist activist (Mukha Mukham/Face to Face; 1987).
The late Aravindan, sometime cartoonist and employee of the Kerala Rubber Board, had something of the mystic in him, but went through a range of styles, including a cinemaverite approach, as in Thampu/The Circus Tent (1978), in which circus performers speak direct to the camera. His episode from the Ramayana, Kanchana Sita/Golden Sita, places the action against the grain of the high Hindu tradition by situating it among tribes in the verdant landscape of the Kerala forests. At his best, his narrative style refuses a didactic approach, generating a whimsical sense of how destinies are shaped.
Contemporary Indian Cinema
In the 1990s, video, national and satellite/cable television have resulted in the development of a prolonged crisis in lndia's movie industry, where commercial and art films are equally at risk of failing at the box office. The problems of the latter are mainly due to a persistent failure to find distribution outlets. Now, more and more film-makers of both streams look to television. The state film finance unit (now named the National Film Development Corporation) has a major stake in the expansion of the national network.
There have been two responses to this crisis. The first, at the economic level, has been to try and curb film piracy, and to systematize the relationship of film to video. The second is an investment in new technology, and in new forms of story-telling. The Telugu and Tamil industries, and directors such as Ram Gopal Varma and Mani Ratnam, are at the forefront of such moves, showing a lively interest in new techniques in American cinema. Varma's Shiva (1990) and Raat/Night (1991) showcase the use of steadicam - in the latter, to the exclusion of any serious narrative. The technical virtuosity of Mani Ratnam's works as well as their elegant story-telling and restrained performances have attracted a following among film buffs across the country, who identify with his style and, implicitly, with the image of a dynamic, modern identity. In 1993, Ratnam made an important breakthrough with Roja, a love story about a young Tamil peasant woman and her husband, a cryptographer who decodes messages for military intelligence. The couple are transported to Kashmir, which is subject to sustained separatist extremism. Embroiling the Tamil couple in a national issue that might have seemed remote to an earlier generation, the film identified a new pan-Indian field of interest. Dubbed into Hindi, it was a national success, giving rise to the dubbing of a number of southern films.