Indian cinema: Understanding the nuances, diving into nostalgia

From living a glorious past, to becoming one of the country’s biggest assets, to charming the global audience, the journey of Indian cinema is a gripping storyline in itself.
Indian cinema
Taking a trip down memory lane! Image: Punit Paranjpe/AFP.

Anyone who has grown up in India knows cinema isn’t just a source of entertainment here — it is an emotion. As clichéd as it may sound, it’s an indubitable fact that we have all, at some point or the other, found ourselves lost in the melodramatic plotlines, well-choreographed musical numbers, and of course, the breathtakingly gorgeous backdrops.

Today, India’s creative clout, including both Bollywood and regional cinemas, has managed to dance its way into the homes of fans from around the world. But where did it all begin? What really led Indian cinema to become the country’s biggest business industry and also its hottest export? The journey of its evolution has surely been an interesting arc.

The rise and rise of Indian cinema

Ridiculously huge budgets, shooting schedules in exclusive foreign locations, expensive high-technology equipment, worldwide promotions — Indian films are a big thing today. But what are now glamorous projects, rife with musical numbers, were once humble black-and-white, silent movies made with just counted reels and a lot of manpower and struggle.

The very first motion pictures in the world, ten in total, were shot by the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, in December 1895 and were screened at Salon Indien in Paris. Merely six months later, in July 1896, a French chemist-turned-camera-operator named Marius Sestier brought Lumière films to Bombay. A small crowd gathered in the swanky Watson’s Hotel in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood of south Bombay to watch four screenings. And if historians are to be believed, Arrival Of A Train made some of the astounded spectators jump out of their seats and run at the sight of a moving train!

Watson’s may not exist anymore but it surely witnessed the inception of an idea that later gifted India its very own ‘miracle’ in the 20th century. Tracing the root of the Indian film industry’s glorious history takes us back to 1913, when Dadasaheb Phalke aka the ‘father of Indian cinema’, released Raja Harishchandra. It was Indian cinema’s first full-length silent feature film with intertitles in Marathi, Hindi, and English. Following its commercial success, the early 1920s saw many production companies cropping up and films based on mythological and historical facts gaining popularity. Some of the forgotten stars of silent films were Dinshaw Bilimoria, Prithviraj Kapoor, P Jairaj, Zubeida, Fatma Begum, and Sulochana.

Indian cinema
A still from Raja Harishchandra, first motion picture of India. Image: Courtesy AFP.

At a time when it was considered offensive for women to appear onscreen, Australian-born Mary Ann Evans ruled the Hindi marque as ‘Fearless Nadia’ with her heroic feats in the 1930s through the ’60s. On the other hand, Devika Rani, cofounder of Bombay Talkies, became the first leading lady of Indian cinema. The actor-producer not only performed in the monster hits of the time, but also launched legendary actors like Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, and Madhubala!

In 1931, talkie films made a grand entrance into the Indian film industry with Alam Ara (directed by Ardeshir Irani) and changed its course forever. Amid the turbulence of the Indian freedom struggle, cinema became a comforting escape. Kisan Kanya (1937) directed by Moti Gidwani was India’s first coloured film in Hindi that got rid of the dreary monochromes. The 1950s, the ‘Golden Age’ of Indian cinema, saw an upsurge of films celebrated life and spread social awareness.

At the same time, the South Indian cinema started playing a huge role in reviving the artistic expressions of the creators. Jeevita Nauka, was made in Malayalam in 1951, delving into the themes of socio-economic disparity with direct humour. This led to the trend of bringing in realism to films. With Satyajit Ray’s debut in Bengali, Pather Panchali in 1955, an eloquent new cinematic voice made itself heard all over the world. Ray’s movies were all about dissecting human life under the cinematic spectacle.

Other notable names in filmmaking, significant to the Golden Age, include the likes of Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani, and so on. It was films like Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) and Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) that gave Indian cinema (more particularly Bollywood) its biggest selling point: Romance. The era gave Bollywood a lot more than any other period in the industry’s existence, from legendary actors to evergreen classics like Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) and Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), and K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960).

Indian cinema
Mughal-E-Azam is considered to be one of the greatest classics of Indian filmmaking. Image: Courtesy YouTube.

The years that followed (1960s-70s) were all about focussing on brilliant scripts, grooving music, and gripping plots with memorable visuals, and most importantly super-talented star-studded cast. Dharmendra, Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, Asha Parekh, Saira Bano, ‘angry young man’ Amitabh Bachchan…the list is endless! It was also during the 1970s that a number of Assamese movies were released; over 50 of them.

Kitsch for a few, pop for many. The 90s Bollywood has had a deep-rooted, long-lasting impact on us all. This was the time that made Indian cinema really spread its wings and gave way to larger-than-life hits, grand premiers, high-end fashion, turning stars into forever trendsetters. From Bombay, Rangeela, Satya, to DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai , Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, 90s was a pure gold mine and hence, is referred to ‘The era of nostalgia’. It gave Indian cinema legends like the ‘Khans’, Sunny Deol, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Govinda, Madhuri, Raveena Tandon, and many more who are still very much reigning the industry.

Global recognitions

From Deepika Padukone attending Cannes 2022 as a jury member, and Tamil actor Suriya joining the Oscars committee, to Indian documentary Writing With Fire bagging an Oscar nomination, and Tollywood epic RRR becoming a global hit — 2022 has been a great year for Indian cinema so far. However, Indian film industry had begun making its mark and rising to fame on global platform long back.

In 1954, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen received a special mention at Cannes and the Social Progress Award at Karlovy Vary. In his tragically short life, Guru Dutt amassed a massive following overseas, with TIME magazine featuring Kaagaz ke Phool and Pyaasa in its ‘All Time 100 Best Movies’ list.

Indian cinema
Deepika Padukone at Cannes 2022. Image: Courtesy AP.

The most influential Indian auteur of all time, Satyajit Ray won the National Award a whopping 36 times, and was awarded with the Bharat Ratna as well as an honorary Academy Award. But the legendary filmmaker’s Pathar Panchali, one of the breakthroughs for regional cinema, even garnered global popularity at film festivals like Cannes. Ray is known to have influenced the works of Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson and received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.

India’s rendezvous with the Academy Awards or Oscars, however, first started in 1957 with Mehboob Khan’s Mother India being officially nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Since then, Indian movies like LagaanSalaam Bombay, The White Tiger, and Little Terrorist have got nominated at the prestigious awards event. But certainly the biggest Academy Awards moment for Indian cinema was when Slumdog Millionaire got nine nominations and won eight Oscars in 2009, including the title for ‘Best Picture’!

Known for many 80s hits like Mr. India and Masoom, Shekhar Kapur gained global recognition with Bandit Queen, while his historical biopic on Queen Elizabeth won an Academy Award as well as five BAFTA awards. Mira Nair is another popular name in the international cinema circuit, thanks to her strong-themed films such as Kama Sutra, Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, and literary adaptations such as The Namesake and A Suitable Boy. Actors like Priyanka Chopra and Freida Pinto also rose to global fame.

Indian cinema
Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards in 2009! Image: Shutterstock/s_bukley.

Not to forget, how the world’s best-known exponent of Indian classical music, Pandit Ravi Shankar introduced the West to sitar, and now his daughter Anoushka Shankar has been carrying forward the legacy with global concerts, collaborations and studio albums that have received several Grammy nominations. Composer A R Rahman has won two Academy Awards, two Grammys, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his music in Slumdog Millionaire. One of the most respected music conductors in the West, Zubin Mehta holds the title of Honorary Conductor from numerous orchestras around the world, and a record 23 Grammy nominations and five wins.

The art of screening

Way before multiplex theatres and single-screen cinema halls existed, ‘caravan cinema’ ruled the Indian cinema. The long and colourful tradition of travelling movie theaters in India dates back to the 1950s, when trucks loaded with tents, screens, and other equipment made rounds of village carnivals for movie screenings.

Indian cinema
Touring tent cinemas have now lost their audience to big screen theatres and online streaming. Image: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP.

Even though travelling theatres became a significant part of Indian cinema, the move towards permanent structures was inevitable. The oldest theatre in Mumbai established in 1879, Capitol Cinema hosted several plays during the British era, and was later turned into a single-screen theatre.

In 1907, J F Madan built the Elphinstone Picture Palace or Chaplin Cinema in Calcutta, most certainly the first actual dedicated movie theatre in the country. A series of iconic cinema theatres cropped up across India in the same time frame, which today, serves as vanguards of the glorious bygone days.

Built mostly in the 1930s, many of the theaters in Delhi survive today as popular commercial cinemas or iconic cultural landmarks. While halls like the Regal screened popular Hindi films, others like the Plaza and the Rivoli mainly showed Hollywood blockbusters. The Odeon stood out as an exception, catering to both Indian and western audiences.

Indian cinema
The iconic Edward Theatre in Bombay. Image: Shutterstock/AnilD.

Talking of the showbiz city of the country, Mumbai (then Bombay) tops when it comes to heritage theatres that stand as art-deco gems reminding of the glorious past of Indian cinema. Edward Theatre, Liberty Cinemas, Matterden CFC (earlier called Deepak Talkies and Saraswati Talkies), Metro Cinema, Regal Cinema are the most prominent ones in the list. Built in 1958, Maratha Mandir deserves a special mention, for holding a record of screening Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol-starrer blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge for 1,009 weeks now, ever since its release in 1995!

Cinema and travel

Indian cinema has long been synonymous with escapism from the struggles of daily life of a common man in India. But it has grown so much more than that. Breathtaking scenic locations have become an inseparable part of musical numbers as well as gripping plotlines.

Movies like Dev D, Jab We Met, and Highway immortalised the snow-clad stretches of Rohtang Pass on celluloid. 3 Idiots put Ladakh’s Pangong Lake on tourists’ radar. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani of Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone made even the remotest locations in and around Manali among young backpackers and movie buffs alike. Down south, locations like Munnar and Ooty became even more famous after the release of movies like Life of PiChennai Express and . Then of course, there are several other hits that made sure destinations like Delhi, Kashmir, Mumbai, and Rajasthan are never forgotten.

Indian cinema
Pangong Lake is a popular site in Ladakh, known for the climax shooting of 3 Idiots. Image: Shutterstock/Farris Noorzali.

But what’s even more interesting is that journey itself has become a character in Indian movies. Speeding through the remote areas of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, Highway spoke to its audience through a journey of two souls, Veera (Alia Bhatt) and her kidnapper, Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). Karwaan made us all connect with Kochi, Ooty, and Bengaluru as much as with Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan), Shaukat (Irrfan Khan), and Tanya (Mithila Palkar). From Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Queen, Tamaasha, to Finding Fanny and Piku, Bollywood movies have over and over made us romanticise with a destination, and treat it like a living, breathing character itself!

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