Indian Cinema, A way of life
have a curiously infectious quality and have always had a special place
in Indian life since the birth of the Indian movie industry in 1913.
Nothing in today's popular culture is as pervasive as Bollywood movies
with their distinctive approach to storytelling. Usually woven together
by six songs and at least two lavish dance numbers, the movies are about
unconditional love, the conflict between fathers and sons, revenge,
redemption, survival against the odds, the importance of honour and
self-respect, and the mission to uphold religious and moral values -
grand themes that Hollywood generally leaves to the now rarely produced
epic. Not so in India, where film directors routinely tackle the big
questions head-on, even when making a formulaic, run of the mill entertainer
and it is this particular kind of storytelling that has offered people
of Indian origin their most beloved form of popular entertainment.
Bollywood is characterised by a small number of cinematic ingredients
that are reworked in each film. Repetition is part of the often predictable
plot-lines, but to satisfy an audience the right buttons must be pressed.
These include great performances by glamorous stars, melodious, rhythmic
music, exquisite sets and exotic locations. How the audience responds
to the weaving together of these ingredients determines a blockbuster
hit. Other key ingredients include elaborate, loud action scenes and
a sense that the social or moral order will not be challenged. A happy
ending is a mandatory requirement to conclude the two and half hour
The majority of the cinema-going audience in India consists of young
men from a variety of regional, linguistic, religious, and class backgrounds.
Today there are around 500 million Indians under 25 out of a total population
of nearly 1 billion and films are made primarily to appease this age
group. But of course for a film to be popular it must also entertain
the whole family, from grandmother to grandson, who are also avid cinema-goers.
Watching a movie in an Indian cinema hall is a lively experience as
the audience makes itself seen and heard at every turn of the plot -
whistling at a sexy wet saree number, egging on the hero as he takes
on ten bad guys and applauding melodramatic dialogue about lost values.
Once it becomes clear that all ends well, the audience often does not
bother to wait for the last scene and starts making its way out of the
cinema before the film actually ends. However, to assume that audiences
are passive consumers of whatever Bollywood offers is not to know them,
in fact less than 8 movies will make serious money out of the 800 plus
films made each year (the world leader by far).
Presented in a seamless mix of spoken Hindi and Urdu (the two North
Indian sister languages understood by over 400 million, around half
the current population of India), the Bollywood movie may appear simplistic
but even the classic boy-meets-girl saga has many layers of Indian culture
manifest in some form or other relating to class, religion, and tradition.
Popular cinema in India may borrow plots from Hollywood but these are
so transformed by the must-have ingredients of the Bollywood film that
only the bare outline of the original remains discernible.
This sense that every film must reiterate what it means to be Indian
or reflect Indian thinking can be traced to when cinema started in 1913.
The early silent films were based on well-known Hindu epic tales from
the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. The first audiences who discovered cinema
loved the idea of seeing familiar mythological stories involving Gods
combatting demons made literal on the screen. The new western invention
pleased both audience and filmmaker, as it was perfectly suited to the
Indian context of storytelling, which relied on oral tradition. The
fact that cinema technique could enhance the mythical (through special
effects or low-angled shots) was seen as a great asset in the telling
of heroic tales, a major reason why Bollywood films continue to capture
the popular imagination in India.
Theatrical forms such as the Ramleela (an enactment of the exploits
and adventures of Ram), and the Rasleela (the stage enactment of the
exploits of Krishna and episodes from his life) have had a great impact
on the evolution of Indian cinema. This is still apparent in the way
music and drama work together and in the portrayal of the stock characters
of Indian cinema. The villain, for example, is still seen with a twirling
moustache and a sinister laugh, an instantly recognizable version of
stage demons associated with the Ramleela. Early film showings from
1913 onwards took place in tents next to the village and small town
temples where, after prayer, devotees made their way to see Lord Ram
or Lord Krishna come alive on the screen.
Such devotion can still be seen today in the hero worship for leading.
People want to act, talk and look like their idols. In every decade,
barbers have been asked to give their clients an Ashok Kumar, or Dilip
Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan cut and tailors have always been told to copy
the clothes of the beautiful Madhubala or Aishwarya Rai. Until the early
90s, star gossip was almost exclusively reported in the dozens of film
magazines but now interest in the world of cinema is so extensive that
virtually every daily newspaper devotes endless print space to who is
doing what in Bollywood.
The style, content and pace of Indian movies has changed vastly over
the years and so has the way in which the film industry makes movies.
The studio era ended in the late 1940s, and freelancing became the norm
in cities where the bulk of Indian films continue to be produced, including
Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, Chennai (formerly Madras) and Hyderabad.
The erratic start and stop shooting schedules and complex financing
has meant that stars, music directors, choreographers and the top to
the lowest-paid technicians work on several productions at the same
time. A R Rahman, the ace music director commented, "How do I know
that the film I'm working on will ever get released? Or even how long
it will take to be completed? So I have to compose several soundtracks
at the same time in order to make a living." This juggling of many
projects has become commonplace since the 1960s and no one is surprised
that a star will travel from one set to another, playing a cop in the
morning and a psychopath in the afternoon.
Other key contributors are the action directors, the set and costume
designers. There is a huge demand for exciting action scenes as this
has great appeal for the young male audience. Yet there are only a handful
of action directors (known as stunt masters in India) working in the
film industry. The stunt masters are usually members of the same family
and, like the stars, work on several films at the same time. This is
also how the handful of set and costume designers work. In the Bollywood
movie, set design can range from the rickety and make-shift to the elaborate
and lavish. Costume design has always been important but never as much
as in today's culture of glamour and beauty. Bollywood designers have
become so trendy that many create clothes for exclusive weddings of
the ultra rich as a side line.
Today, budgets are higher than they have ever been, with star fees tripling
costs. This has put a lot of pressure on current filmmakers to succeed
at the box-office.
It is no coincidence that during the time when budgets were generally
lower and film directors were encouraged to be inventive rather than
play safe, that Indian cinema had its golden age, in the 1950s through
to the mid 60s. Even the minor films of this period had some special
quality about them, whether it was a stunning romantic scene, an atmospheric
song sequence or a fabulous performance by actor Dilip Kumar or comedian
Johnny Walker. The era produced immensely popular stars and fine directors
but the ones who had the greatest impact on the aesthetic of Indian
cinema are Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. These
extraordinary filmmakers worked within the conventions of Indian cinema
while making deeply personal and authored classics. They set the standard
not only in their choice of theme and subject, but also in their approach
to black and white photography, set design and editing. Avoiding the
usual stereotypes and stock figures, the layered psychology and sophistication
of their heroes and heroines has given Indian cinema its most enduring
characters. These directors mastered the use of film music and film
Examples of their songs sequences rival the best in world cinema and
in many cases excel the Hollywood musical in the subtle linking of dialogue
and lyric. These directors transformed the film song into an art form
and confirmed that music was Indian cinema's greatest strength. Even
today, Indian filmmakers are aware that their moment of cinematic glory
can come from the songs. Every decade since the 1950s, a huge majority
of films that would otherwise have been completely forgotten are saved
by a marvellous musical sequence in which melody, lyrics, camera movements,
choreography and performance combine to magical effect.
After this golden period, the form of popular films began to change.
By the 1970s, Hindi films began to mix all genres into a single movie
with song and dance firmly at the heart of the narrative, and this "mixed"
approach is still the way film stories unfold today. In a Bollywood
movie, this mixing and matching translates in the hero fighting a sinister
politician in one scene and serenading his heroine, with forty dancers
moving in unison behind him, in the next.
Despite the popularity of television in India since the early 1990s,
there is still a demand in the remoter areas of India for touring theatres,
which involve a projectionist travelling in a truck with an assistant,
18 cans of film and a tent that he will set up in the village, while
in nearly every city street there are signs of Bollywood's extraordinary
influence. On pavement stalls, postcards of the current movie heartthrobs
are proudly displayed for sale next to images of the most revered gods
and national icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. At nearly
every major roundabout and road junction, anywhere where there is space
for a massive billboard, gigantic hand-painted images of stars stare
down at the passing traffic. Outdoing Bombay in this aspect are the
cut-outs and billboards that line the streets in South India where the
popularity of stars has been so powerful that the leading names of Tamil
and Telugu cinema have successfully transferred their popularity from
screen to voting booth and become Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu and
Andhra Pradesh in the recent past.
Nearly every Indian, whether they live in a village or the city, feels
connected to the movies in some way, either because they love a star
(Amitabh Bachchan has broken all records with his fan following) or
they love film songs. The Bollywood movie is also an active link to
homeland culture for those who have made Europe, the US or Canada their
home. When a movie with an A List cast such as Lagaan (2001, Ashutosh
Gowarikar) or Devdas (2002, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) is released, people
of Indian origin whether they live in Lucknow or Leicester are heading
to the cinema at virtually the same time. Impassioned fans can also
be found in the Middle East, Russia, China and in many parts of Africa.
While Indian cinema is unique to Indian culture and history, its energetic
style, the emotional appeal of its themes, the glamorous lifestyles
portrayed, the enduring melodies and lush settings, all contribute to
its increasing popularity worldwide. Jonathan Torgovnik's lyrical photographs
show us the human face of Indian cinemagoers as well as those working
behind the scenes who together have made Indian cinema as alive as it
© Nasreen Munni Kabir