Jyotiprasad Agarwala Memorial Lecture
Whither Indian Cinema in the context of present Global Culture
The Encyclopedia Britannica (2009) on Bollywood Cinema, writes: ”Indian Cinema is by and large “formulaic story lines, expertly Choreographed fight scenes, spectacular songs-and-dance routines, emotions-charged melodrama, and larger-than-life heroes. This is also true for commercial Tamil Cinema and Telugu Cinema. On the other hand, it is contrasted by the ‘Parallel Cinema’ movement, prominent in Bengali Cinema, Malayalam Cinema, Kannada Cinema, and other regional cinemas, known for its serious content-realism and naturalism.” As cinema as a medium gain popularity in the country, more than 1,000 films in various languages of India are produced annually and thus India has become the World’s largest producer of films, but this count is only in case of feature film production. In case of documentary films also this country stands out. Out of 1,000 feature films more than 800 of the total films produced are in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Hindi films alone accounts for approximately 400 films, while the remaining is in other regional languages. However, Hindi films account for about half of the total revenue generated by cinema in India.
In the 20th century, Indian cinema, along with the American, Chinese and Japanese film industries, became a global enterprise. Enhanced technology paved the way for up-gradation for established cinematic norms of delivering product, radically altering the manner in which content reached the target audience. Facilities for film production in the country include Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, the home of Telugu film Industry, the largest film studio complex in the world. Moreover, the expatriates in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States continued to give rise to international audiences for Hindi-languages films. Indian cinema found markets in over 90 countries where films from India are screened. The Indian Diaspora constitutes of millions of Indians overseas for which films are made available both through mediums such as DVD’s and by screening of films in their country of residence wherever commercially viable. These earnings, accounting for some 12% of the revenue generated by a mainstream film, contributes substantially to the overall revenue of Indian cinema, the net worth of which was found to be 1.3 billion US Dollars in the year 2000. The provision of 100% foreign direct investment has made the Indian film market attractive for foreign enterprises such as 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. Prominent Indian enterprises such as Zee, Utv, and Adlabs also participate in producing and distributing films. Tax incentives to multiplexes have aided the multiplex booming in India. By 2003 as many as 30 film production companies has been listed in the National Stock Exchange of India, making the commercial presence of the medium felt. Music, as always, has been mainstay of Indian mainstream commercial cinema culture. Music is seen as the ether of communication in Indian society that has gained the equal prominence in Indian cinema and it has become another substantial revenue generator, with the music rights alone accounting for 4-5% of the net revenues generated by a film in India.
Unnoticed by the rest of the world and the country, a few years thereafter in 1935, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala released his movie Joymoti and in the far eastern corner of India and the Assamese Cinema was born. A revolutionary visionary Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwala, who was also a distinguished poet, playwright, composer, and freedom fighter and went through rigorous training in the UEFA studio of Potsdam-Babelsber, Germany, became the father of Assamese Cinema. The film Joymoti was made under the banner of Critrakala Movietone, and depicted the crisis and brutality of absolute state power of the Ahom rule underscoring the British Colonial rule. Joymoti has gone into the history of Indian Cinema as an example of creative and sensitive portrayal of historical period of medieval Assam through a fictitious story. Due to the lack of trained technicians, Jyotiprasad, while making his maiden film, had to shoulder the added responsibilities as the script writer, producer, director, choreographer, editor, set and costume designer, lyricist and music director. The film was completed with budget of 60,000 rupees and was released on 10 March 1935. The picture failed financially and Jyotiprasad incurred a heavy loss, but the history was created. It is unfortunate that like so many early Indian films, the negatives and complete prints of Joymoti are missing. Despite the significant financial loss from Joymoti, Jyotiprasad made his second film Indramalati, filmed between 1937 and 1938 finally released in 1939. Remaining strong in the face of adversity, Jyotiprasad made this film after a lapse of two years. It was his second and last film. Though Joymoti was a cinematic masterpiece of that time, in the history of Assamese Cinema, there came a phase which could not be called a face of decline. The ‘Cinematic Language’ as Jyotiprasad Agrawala introduced it through the first Assamese Cinema ‘Joymoti’, could not make any significant impact in the cinematic scenario of Assam thereafter. Cinema was more understood as a prosaic translation of stage play or audio play. But Joymoti and Indramalati have paved the way for the Assamese Cinema and have developed a slow-paced sensitive style thereafter. However despite its long history, and its artistic successes, for a state that has always taken its cinema seriously, Assamese Cinema has never really manage to make the breakthrough in the national scenario, despite its film industry making a mark in the National Awards and International arena over the years. But the influences of the overwhelming mediocre mainstream commercial Hindi films have created a poor replica of some of those films in the Assamese language. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, Assam has seen a-la-Bollywood-style, Assamese movies hitting the screen. But that was a poor mediocrity and the industry has not been able to compete in the market significantly overshadowed by the larger industries such as Bollywood.Back to top
The period from the late 1940s to the 1960s are regarded by film historians as the ‘Golden Age’ of Indian cinema. Through the ‘formulaic’ Bollywood films dominated the Indian film scenario but there were commercially successful Hindi films which had strong social realism. Some of the most critically acclaimed Indian films of all time were produced during this period. Like Guru Dutt’s films Pyaasa(1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool(1959) and the Raj Kapoor’s films Awaara(1951) and Shree 420(1955).These film expressed social themes mainly dealing with working-class urban life in India . Awaara presented the city as both a nightmare and a dream, while Pyaasa critiqued the unreality of city life. Some of the most famous epic films of Hindi cinema were also produced at the time, including Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), which was nominated for the Academic Award for Best Foreign Language Film. While commercial Indian cinema was thriving, the period also saw the emergence of a new Parallel Cinema movement, mainly led by Bengali Cinema. Early examples of films in this movement include Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar of 1946. Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik of 1952 and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin of 1953, laying the foundations for Indian neo-realism and the “Indian New Wave”. Pather Panchali (1955), the first part of the The Apu Triology (1955-1959) by Satyajit Ray, marked his entry in Indian cinema. The Apu Triology won major prizes at all the major international film festivals and led to the ’Parallel Cinema’ movement being firmly established in Indian Cinema. It’s influenced on world cinema can also be felt in the “youthful coming-of-age dramas that have flooded art houses since the mid-fifties” which “owe a tremendous debt to the Apu Triology”. Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak went on to direct many more critically-acclaimed ‘art films’, and they were followed by other acclaimed Indian independent film makers such as Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Kaul and Buddha Dev Dasgupta. During the 1960’s, Indra Ghandhi’s intervention during her reign as the Information and Broadcasting Minister of India further let to production of off-beat cinematic expression being supported by the Film Finance Corporation of India.
The Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), an art and cultural movement with an inclination to social realism & connected to country’s communist movement, began to take shape through the 1940s and the 1950s. Right after the Second World War, like in France and Italy, Indian Cinema had entered into a new euphoria. Neo-realism of Europe touched the Indian Cinema to create new character and nuance of Indian cinema. Thus a new cinematic culture was born Indian cinema made its step in to the world cinema.
Today, unfortunately, because of the India’s newly expanding media’s ignorance or inability to distinguish between the true international characters of the major film festivals of the world, puts itself in to “ghettoes” to the tune of American propaganda of Oscar award, which is not an International Film Festival in true sense.
Though the exponents of Indian Parallel Cinema movement have taken Indian cinema to the world, but market oriented Indian mainstream commercial film industry grew on the formulaic, star dominated-by and large mediocre melodrama. Theoretically there have been profound influences of Dramatic construct of ancient Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana on the thought and imagination of Indian popular cinema, particularly in its narratives. The first was the Examples of this influence include the technique of a side story, back-story and story within a story. Indian popular films often have plots which branch off into sub-plots, parallel sub stories with the ingredients of all the Rasas, woven together with the melodramatic overture. The second influence is of course of ancient Sanskrit drama, with its highly stylized nature and emphasis on spectacle, where music, dance and dramatic and often over dramatic gesture combined, ”to create a vibrant artistic unit with dance and mime being central to the dramatic experience”. Spectacular dances and dance-dramas have continued to dominate Indian cinema of 50s and 60s. The Rasas method of performance dating back to ancient Sanskrit drama is one of the fundamental features that make difference in Indian cinema from that of Western world.
The other influences were that of traditional folk theatres of India, which become popular from around 10th century with the decline of Sanskrit theatre. These regional traditions include the Yatra of Bengal, The Ramlila of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Tamasha of Maharastra and the Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu. The Parsi theatre which “blended realism and fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, integrating then into a dramatic discourse of melodrama”. All of these influences are clearly evident in the masala film genre that was popularized by Sholay, Jai Santoshi Maa, Deewar (All were released during 1975 and 1976).
Though stardom in Indian mainstream cinema began early in the 50s and 60s but it took a new turn with the expansion of television and electronic media in the country. The stardom in the Indian mainstream cinema started to take over the control of the production houses and financial institutions. All the electronic channels and even the Public Service Broadcaster like the Prasar Bharati/Doordarshan started to cater the Bollywood Industry. In 1995 the Indian economy began showing sustainable annual growth, and Bollywood, as a commercial enterprise, grew at a growth rate of 15% annually. With the growth in commercial appeal the earnings of known Bollywood star such as Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan reached 150 million rupees per film by the year 2010. Female star are also not lagging behind. Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and few others too, earned as much as 12.5 million rupees for a film. Many actors signed contracts for simultaneous work for 3-4 films.
In the late 1990’s and early 2010, there is also an emergence of ‘Parallel Cinema’ within the larger periphery of Mumbai Hindi Cinema and began experiencing a resurgence of largely due to the critical and commercial success of Satya (1998), a low-budget film based on Mumbai underworld, directed by RamGopal Verma and written by Anurag Kashyap. The film’s success led to the emergence of a distinct genre known as Mumbai noir urban films, reflecting social problems in the city of Mumbai.
At the juncture, it will be very appropriate to mention a few things about the Malayalam cinema as the Malayalam cinema has created its own niche in both national and international arena. In 1980’s and 8-early 1990’s, Kerala experienced its own ‘Golden Age’. The Malayalam film industry is known for films that breach the gap between Parallel Cinema and mainstream cinema by portraying thought-provoking social issues .Noted filmmakers include Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Shaji N.Karun , G.Aravindan, Padmarajan, Priyadarshan etc. Some of the most acclaimed Indian filmmakers at the time were from the Malayalam industry including Adoor Gopal Krishnan, G.Aravindan, T.V.Chandran and Saji and N.Karun. Adoor Gopalkrishnan, who is often considered to be Satyajit Ray’s spiritual heir, directed some of his most acclaimed films during this period.
To conclude I want to again refer back to the Parallel Cinema movement in India which has addressed the social issues in the different creative and artistic fervor and has created its own position in the history of world cinema. This also known as Parallel movement or the Indian New Wave is a specific movement in Indian cinema, known for its serious content realism and naturalism, with a keen eye on the social-political of the times. This movement is distinct form mainstream Bollywood cinema and began around the same time as the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave. There are many filmmakers from different regions of the country continues making social realistic and artistic cinema with addressing the problems of the society and the common people. There are many names in this list who are either doing successfully doing cinema or still struggling to do so.
Now the expansion of television and satellite networks has changed the scenario fundamentally, where the so-called mainstream Indian Hindi films are becoming not only the cultural ambassadors of Indians. New foreign policy to go West and to the East, but also the cultural policy to make India a ‘Feel Good’ factor in the world arena and within the country’s societies. As the economic and political crisis in the country depends, the so-called ‘Feel Good’ add ‘Dream World’ needs to work as ‘Opium’ or the ‘Magic Potions’ of the Asterix, in the phyche of the society like. Today’s cultural onslaught of the multinational and Corporate House is to create a congenial atmosphere for their economic expansion at the expense of the vast majority of the rural and poor people’s interest. The need of the ‘Glamour World’ and the ‘Dream World’ is being propagated at huge costs. There is an utter disrespect these corporate houses are showing to the real meaning of national and cultural growth. The meaning of entertainment has become cheap and shallow and even vulgar. The powder and the political game has become entangled with Bollywood and even cricket glamour. As the natural resources are being exploited more and more creating more capital and their own richness, the poor common man has become a mere pawn in the bigger game of power equation where entertainment and media has become a commodity. It is the exploitation of resources and profit and more profit, which is the punchline of today’s ‘Cultural Investors’ and their ‘Bollywood Cultural Ambassadors’. From here on it will be interesting to see how the state organization will become forward along with communicator of good cinema safeguard and democratic essence of our multi-cultural nuances of the country.Back to top