India has one of the oldest film industries in the world. Though the first film advertisement in India appeared in the Times of India on 7 July 1896, inviting people to witness the Lumiere Brothers’ moving pictures, “the wonder of the world”, it was not until early 1913 that an Indian film received a public screening. Rajah Harischandra was an extraordinary commercial success: its director, Dadasaheb Phalke, who is now remembered through a life-time achievement award bestowed by the film industry in his name, went on to make a number of other films drawing upon themes derived from the Indian epics. Phalke could not find a woman to play the female roles, being turned down in this endeavor not only by ‘respectable’ women but by prostitutes, and had to resort to the expedient of choosing a young man, A. Salunke, to play the female roles in his early films. Among the middle classes, that association of acting with the loss of virtue, female modesty, and respectability has only recently been put into question, whatever degree of emulation actresses might appear to receive from an adoring public.
While a number of other film-makers, working in several Indian languages, pioneered the growth and development of Indian cinema, the studio system was beginning to emerge in the early 1930s. Its most successful initial product was the film Devdas (1935), whose director, P.C. Barua, also appeared in the lead; the Hindi re-make of the original Bengali film, also directed by Barua, was to establish the legendary career of Kundanlal Saigal. The Tamil version of this New Theatres release appeared in 1936. “To some extent”, note the authors of Indian Film, “Devdas was a film of social protest. It carried an implied indictment of arranged marriage and undoubtedly gave some satisfaction on this score to those who hate this institution” (p. 81). The Prabhat Film Company, established by V. G. Damle, Shantaram, S. Fatehlal, and two other men in 1929, wasalso achieving its first successes around this time. Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Tukaram (1936), made in Marathi, was the first Indian film to gain international recognition, winning an award at Venice. The social films of V. Shantaram, more than anything else, paved the way for an entire set of directors who took it upon themselves to interrogate not only the institutions of marriage, dowry, and widowhood, but the grave inequities created by caste and class distinctions. Some of these problems received perhaps their most explicit expression in Achhut Kanya (“Untouchable Girl”, 1936), a film directed by Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies. The film portrays the travails of a Harijan girl, played by Devika Rani, and a Brahmin boy, played by Ashok Kumar, whose love for each other cannot merely be consummated but must have a tragic end.
The next significant phase of Hindi cinema is associated with such figures as Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, and Guru Dutt. The son of Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor created some of the most popular and memorable films in Hindi cinema. Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951), Shri 420 (1955), and Jagte Raho (1957) were both commercial and critical successes. Many of his films explore, in a rather benign way, the class fissures in Indian society. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Acres of Land”, 1954), which shows the influence of Italian neo-realism, explored the difficult life of the rural peasantry under the most oppressive conditions; his film Devdas (1955), with Dilip Kumar playing the title role in a re-make of Barua’s film, was a testimony to the near impossibility of the fulfillment of ‘love’ under Indian social conditions, while Sujata (1959) pointed to the problems posed by marriages arranged by parents without the consent of their children. Meanwhile, the Hindi cinema had seen the rise of its first undisputed genius, Guru Dutt, whose films critiqued the conventions of society and deplored the conditions which compel artists to forgo their inspiration. From Barua’s Devdas (1935) to Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi aur Gulam (with Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari),the motif of “doomed love” looms large: to many critics, a maudlin sentimentality characterizes even the best of the Hindi cinema before the advent of the new or alternative Indian cinema in the 1970s.
It is doubtless under the influence of the Bengali film-makers Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen, however, that Indian cinema, and not only in Hindi, also began to take a somewhat different turn in the 1970s against the tide of commercial cinema, which was now characterized by song-and-dance routines, trivial plots, and family dramas. No Indian director has had a greater international reputation than Ray, which almost every one of his films, except in the last years of his life, did a great deal to consolidate from the time that he produced Pather Panchali (“Song of the Road”, 1955). Ghatak has had more of a ‘cult’ following: his oeuvre was quite small (six feature films), but Ghatak went on to serve as Director of the Film and Television School at Pune, from where the first generation of a new breed of Indian film-makers and actors — Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and Om Puri among the latter — was to emerge. These film-makers, such as Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Govind Nihalani, and Saeed Mirza, exhibited a different aesthetic and political sensibility and were inclined to explore the caste and class contradictions of Indian society, the nature of oppression suffered by women, the dislocations created by industrialism and the migration from rural to urban areas, the problem of landlessness, the impotency of ordinary democratic and constitutional procedures of redress, and so on.
Mainstream commercial releases, however, continue to dominate the market, and not only in India, but wherever Indian cinema has a large following, whether in much of the British Caribbean, Fiji, East and South Africa, the U.K., United States, Canada, or the Middle East. The popular Hindi cinema is characterized by significant changes too numerous to receive more than the slightest mention. The song-and-dance routine is now more systematized, more regular in its patterns; the ‘other’, whether in the shape of the terrorist or the irredeemable villain, has a more ominous presence; the nation-state is more obsessive in its demands on our loyalties and obeisance; the Indian diaspora is a larger presence in the Indian imagination (witness Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge); and so on. These are only some considerations: anyone wishing to explore the world of Indian cinema should also reflect on its presence in Indian spaces, its relation to vernacular art forms and mass art (such as billboards), and the highly stratified and gendered (that is, masculinized) space of the Indian cinema-hall.