100 years of Indian Film

May 13, 2013

In May 1913 the first full-length Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was released, marking the birth of the Indian film industry. To celebrate its 100th birthday Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, authors of A Dictionary of Film Studies, explore how India has become one of the world's most prolific film-producing nations.

Moving images were first seen in India on 7 July 1896 in Bombay (now Mumbai), and local filmmaking began in the following year. 1913 saw the release of the first Indian feature-length film, Raja Harishchandra/King Harishchandra, a story from the Mahabharata by D.G. (‘Dadasaheb’) Phalke, a pioneering director who established Bombay as the centre of Indian film production. At this time, there was already a huge, largely urban working-class, cinema going public.

By the 1920s, a number of self-sufficient production companies were established, and India's film output had exceeded that of Britain in both quantity and profitability. Other key directors of the silent era include Baburao Painter (Vatsala Haran, 1923) and V. Shantaram (Gopal Krishna, 1929), and the most popular genres of the silent era were dramas in contemporary settings (‘socials’), for example Bilat Ferat/England Returned (Dhiren Ganguly, 1921), and ‘mythologicals’—films based around Indian legends. India's first sound film, Alam Ara/The Light of the World, by the Parsi director Ardeshir M. Irani, appeared in 1931, a year in which 27 sound features were made. But the coming of sound raised the issue of India's many languages, ultimately resolved by the dominance of the ‘All-India’ Hindi song-and-dance film (see BOLLYWOOD). Films in other Indian languages were made in centres such as Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Cheenai): aside from Hindi, the main languages in which sound films were and are made in India are Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Oriya, and Assamese.

The 1930s were prosperous years for Indian cinema, with a number of companies establishing regular outputs and a studio system enjoying a heyday that would last until after World War II. Major studios included Bombay-based Prabhat, whose first sound film was a remake of Raja Harishchandra entitled Ayodhyaka (V. Shantaram, 1932); Bombay Talkies; and the largest, New Theatres, based in Calcutta. The 1940s saw a radical mood in films, as pressure for independence grew. Around this time, too, the film industry became a favoured venue for laundering ‘black’ money, while fees paid to the stars, and production costs generally, peaked. After independence, the film industry continued to grow, with 241 features made in 1950, rising to 396 in 1970 and 710 in 1980, alongside the growth of regional cinemas, particularly those in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, which at times surpassed Bombay's levels of production. The song-and-dance film (see MUSICAL) has dominated India's popular market, while family melodrama has been an enduring Hindi genre, particularly between the 1940s and 1970s. ‘Mythologicals’ and ‘socials’ have continued to be made, in all Indian languages. Epic dramas of Indian nationhood (key titles include the well-loved classics Naya Davr/The New Age (B.R. Chopra, 1957) and Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957)) worked over the trauma of the country's post-independence partition.

Outside the commercial mainstream, an independent national cinema can trace its origins to 1952, when the first Bombay International Film Festival introduced Italian Neorealism to India, with de Sica's Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (1948) inspiring a revival of the ‘social’ film and a new generation of filmmakers, including Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray, the latter coming to worldwide attention when his Pather Panchali/Song of the Little Road (1955) won a special award for Best Human Document at Cannes. The post-independence decade also saw the founding of a film society movement, another route for influence of European art cinema movements, such as the Nouvelle Vague, on Indian film; the formation of the Films Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, with links to the British Documentary Movement; and a commitment on the part of government (in the form of the Film Finance Corporation, later the National Film Development Corporation, or NFDC) to support non-commercial feature filmmaking. The Films Division grew into one of the world's largest documentary producers, sponsoring thousands of films and legislating their compulsory exhibition in cinemas across India. Such prominent Indian filmmakers as Ray and Mrinal Sen made documentaries for the Films Division and features sponsored by the Film Finance Corporation or the NFDC (see NEW INDIAN CINEMA).

During and after the 1970s the ‘All-India’ film for the masses, with its powerful star system, came into even greater prominence than before, with key films of the period, including Ramesh Sippy's legendary spaghetti western - inspired Sholay (1975) and the hit costume drama Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1971) finding favour with Indians living in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in the world, as well as at home. Political parties vied for the support of popular stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, even fielding them as candidates in Parliamentary elections. In recent years a hybrid, diasporic Indian cinema has come into being, engaging with—and defamiliarizing—Indian film conventions and mixing them with Western styles and genres. Examples of this trend include Mira Nair's international co-production Monsoon Wedding (India/US/Italy/Germany/France, 2001), Masala (Srinivas Krishna, Canada, 1992), and Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, UK, 2002).

India's is the only major film industry to establish itself and flourish under colonial rule, and India is now the world's most prolific film-producing nation: in 2008 its feature production stood at 1,325, as compared with that of its closest rival, Europe, at 1,190. India is also the only non-Western country with a bigger demand for domestically made films than for imported ones (in 2008, these accounted for 92 per cent of Indian box office); and Indian films are widely exported, selling to large markets throughout Asia and Africa and in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and increasingly in Britain and North America as well. Within film studies, Indian cinema is commonly approached as a national cinema, in relation to cultural (including diasporic) identities and social and cultural history, through its characteristic genres, and in terms of its key auteurs; while ethnographic and sociological research on Indian cinema is becoming increasingly prevalent among area studies specialists.

Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell are authors of A Dictionary of Film Studies.