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Indian Cinema: On the cusp of dramatic growth

The Indian movie industry is a gargantuan entity. From its multiple production centres and in 20-odd languages, it produces nearly 2,000 films a year – more than the output of China and the US counted together. In 2015, 1910 million movie tickets were sold in India. Compare that with the United States (1268 million) and China (830 million) and it becomes clear that in the game of statistics the world’s most prolific film-producing nation occupies pole position. In hard cash terms, however, the Indian entertainment industry has some way to go before it can catch up with the US and China.

Mumbai, the metropolis in western India that is the hub of the pan-Indian Hindi-language cinema, accounts for around 40 per cent of the industry’s box-office revenues. Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Guwahati and Bhubaneshwar, which produce what are described (for the sake of convenience) as regional films, mop up the remaining 60 per cent.

Over the past few years, the concept of the pan-Indian film has expanded to include features made in the south of the country, especially in Chennai, the Tamil cinema headquarters, and Hyderabad, which produces Telugu films. Rajinikanth, a Tamil movie megastar whose appeal transcends geographical boundaries, commands a nationwide following. Every film starring Rajinikanth is an ‘event’ for his fans: his upcoming film, 2.0, a sequel to the 2010 sci-fi actioner Enthiran, is no exception.

The recent Bahubali 2: The Conclusion, a follow-up to 2015’s Bahubali: The Beginning, has given the Telugu movie industry a huge fillip and signaled a dramatic shift of some of the power away from Mumbai. The film, dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, is a mammoth hit. For a while it had the distinction of being the biggest ever box-0ffice grosser in the history of Indian cinema until it was eclipsed by the Aamir Khan starrer Dangal, which tasted unprecedented success in China. Two previous two Aamir Khan releases, 3 Idiots (2009) and PK (2014), also played in China and enjoyed a degree a success. But Dangal, the story of an ageing wrestler who grooms his two daughters to become champions in the sport, has scripted a rousing new chapter.

By all reckoning, the national big box-office powerhouses are in Mumbai – Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan. A barely known Prabhas, who plays the eponymous hero in Bahubali, has taken everyone by surprise by breaking into the big league once reserved for the Bollywood royalty and the one and only Rajinikanth. So the Indian cinema scene is changing, especially at the top of the heap. But there are problems galore in seeking to power the industry by the means of the sheer box-office clout of a handful of stars and the razzle-dazzle of computer generated imagery. Content often tends to take a backseat in such a scenario.

These are exciting times indeed for epic-scale films in India. Ambitions are on the upswing and the means are available to filmmakers in the country to mount projects that would have seemed beyond the realms of possibility only a couple of years ago. But one isn’t sure that this over-emphasis on box office collection at the expense of everything else that cinema is meant to be is going to pan out well for the country’s cinema as a whole.

The question that needs to be asked is: what happens to all the small, independent features that are striving to find their space in the crowded Indian cinema marketplace – the likes of Amit Masurkar’s political satire Newton, feted in Berlin in February, or Subhashish Bhutiani’s remarkable debut film Hotel Salvation, premiered last year in Venice?

The country’s box office gross is projected to grow to $3.7 billion by 2020. Its size results in significant challenges for the industry as a whole. The biggest of them stems from the low density of screens in the country per million population. India has under 10 screens per million people compared to China’s 17 and the United States’ 125. So a large number of films produced each year struggle to find screens and, even if they do, they fail to get a decent run in the multiplexes. The film production sector isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. So the distribution ecosystem is under constant strain to accommodate the films being churned out at a frenetic pace.

When a big film like Bahubali 2: The Conclusion arrives, it inundates the exhibition system and pushes out the smaller films. A week on either side of the Friday that the epic action-fantasy hit the screens at the end of April, no other film dared to open in the multiplexes. This scenario puts a further squeeze on the space available for up to 800 of the 1200 films that are lined up for release annually.

Part of the problem lies in the rapid closing down of single-screen theatres around India. In 2010, the country had 12,000 conventional theatres. The number is down to 8500 today. So, in six years 3,500 single screens have vanished from the map. The number of multiplex screens stands at 2200, but the addition at the rate of about 150 screens per year isn’t quick enough to make good the shortfall. The US has 40,000-plus screens. In China, the number is more than 24,000. India is a distant third.

But all said and done, the indicators are positive. Not only are Bollywood actresses like Priyanka Chopra (Quantico, Baywatch) and Deepika Padukone (XXX: return of Xander Cage) making their presence felt in American showbiz, a new breed of independent Indian filmmakers have abandoned stale narrative methods and embraced new ways of telling stories. It is the output of the latter bunch that needs to be marketed more aggressively on global platforms.

At both ends of the spectrum, activity is peaking. The big-budget, star-driven products are not only conquering eyeballs in the domestic market, but they are also beginning to find takers globally. Bahubali 2: The Conclusion is reported to be making waves in many regions of the world. Dangal opened in China to a very enthusiastic response in early May.

As the globalization of the Indian movie industry continues apace, it would become increasingly essential for filmmakers in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad to seek inspiration from indigenous sources rather than try to imitate Hollywood templates. Then, and only then, will Indian cinema be able to carve out its own niche and translate its growing reach into solid monetary deals that could appreciably alter the industry’s bottomline.

China’s box office gross is currently above the $5 billion mark, which is half of what the US registers. In strictly financial terms, India lags well behind the big two. The average price of a movie ticket in India is $2 against $5.5 in China and $8.17 in the US. Is that the reason why India hasn’t been able to pull ahead of China? It is one of many reasons. The Indian movie industry will have to address all of them collectively, and concertedly, in order to move to the next level. It is ready. Minor tweaks in the rules of the game is all that it needs.


Broadly speaking, India has two distinct kinds of cinema. The profit-driven, star-studded, assembly-line commercial films, collectively known the world over as Bollywood, enjoy mass popularity, thanks to their high entertainment quotient.

Non-mainstream, auteur-oriented Indian cinema is, on the other hand, a fringe entity that depends principally on the social/artistic/cinematic relevance that it derives from its substance and spirit and the critical acclaim that it sometimes receives within the country and outside it.

As a result of its widespread visibility, Bollywood has, in recent years, become a catchall phrase that is often erroneously used to denote Indian cinema at large. The reality is that popular Hindi cinema – which contributes around 200 films a year – accounts for no more than 20 per cent of India’s annual cinematic output. Moreover, even so-called Bollywood cinema generates much that isn’t typical Bollywood fare.

India also produces a large number of non-Hindi films (notably in Tamil and Telugu, two major south Indian languages) that employ the kitschy, breathless, crowd-pleasing song-and-dance formula that underpins popular Hindi cinema. But they aren’t made in Mumbai. So, in physical terms, these films do not belong to Bollywood. Indeed, the multi-cultural, multilingual cinema of the land abounds in perplexing contradictions and variations.

Spectacularly staged songs and dances, elaborately choreographed fight sequences, emotionally high-pitched melodrama, formulaic storylines, and fantastical protagonists dominate films that are made with an eye firmly on the box office. Barring stray exceptions – these have of course become more frequent in the current multiplex era, which has seen an increasing fragmentation of the audience base – the narrative and stylistic model has remained the same since India’s first sound film, Alam Ara, was made in 1931.

India’s indigenous film industry is actually well over a century old. The first film screening in this country took place on July 7, 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematographe unveiled six silent shorts at Watson’s Hotel, now the Esplanade Mansion, in downtown Bombay (now Mumbai). Harishchandra S. Bhatvadekar, who released two short films – The Wrestlers and Man and Monkey – in November 1899, was probably the first Indian filmmaker.

At the turn of the century, such pioneers as Hiralal Sen and F.B. Thanawalla were involved in the production of short films, mostly filmed portions of staged plays, in Calcutta and Bombay respectively. Sen’s Royal Bioscope Company, established in 1899, was also the first outfit of its kind in India. At that time, film screenings were really bioscope shows of short films imported by entrepreneurs such as J.F. Madan, who also built Calcutta’s first movie theatre. By 1927, he had a chain of 85 theatres across India, Burma and Sri Lanka.

The first Indian film made with British collaboration, Pundalik, was released on May 18, 1912. N.G. Chitre (the manager of Coronation Cinematograph) and P.R. Tipnis jointly directed it. Pundalik is not regarded as India’s first film for several reasons – it was partly funded by the British, it wasn’t feature length and, moreover, similar filmed versions of stage plays had already been produced by pioneers like Hiralal Sen.

The distinction of being the first indigenously funded and produced Indian film belongs to Dhundiraj Govind (“Dadasaheb”) Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra –released on May 3, 1913. Dadasaheb Phalke is also credited with delivering the India’s first certified box-office hit. The film, Lanka Dahan (1917), ran for 23 weeks, and its box-office collections had to be transported to the bank by armed escorts.

This was the time when the first Bengali and Tamil-language feature films were also made. Madan’s Elphinstone Bisocope Company produced Satyabadi Raja Harishchandra in Calcutta (now Kolkata), while R. Nataraja Mudaliar made the mythological Keechaka Vadham in Madras (now Chennai).

In the course of the next two decades, several of the other major languages of the nation contributed their first films to what is collectively called Indian cinema. Among these languages were Telugu (the language of the state of Andhra Pradesh, Malayalam (Kerala), Assamese (Assam) and Oriya (Orissa).

By the end of the 1920s, important studios emerged all around the country. Vishnupant Damle and S. Fatehlal set up Prabhat Film Company in Kolhapur. Chandulal Shah launched Ranjit Movietone in Bombay. Around the same time, the British Dominion Film Studio and Aurora Film Corporation came up in Calcutta and the General Pictures Corporation began business in Madras.

In 1931, Alam Ara, a Hindi-language film produced by Imperial Film Company and directed by Ardeshir Irani, was released, marking the end of the silent era. It starred Master Vithal, Zubeida, Prithviraj and W.M. Khan. In the same year, the first talkies in three other Indian languages – Tamil, Telugu and Bengali – were completed. The Bombay-based Ardeshir Irani produced H.M. Reddi’s Kalidas in Tamil. Reddi also directed Bhakta Prahlad in Telugu. The Bengali-language Jamai Shashti was released.

It was also in 1931 that Bengali film pioneer B.N. Sircar set up New Theatres, the Calcutta studio that, along with Bombay Talkies (launched by Himanshu Rai three years later), spearheaded the growth of Indian cinema in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the early years of sound, a majority of Indian films were either mythological or historical, but several new genres – action, social drama, and comedy – emerged in the mid-`30s. The runaway success of Toofan Mail, made in 1934, established another immensely popular early filmmaking genre, the stunt movie. In 1935, Homi Wadia released the smash hit Hunterwali, which made a star out of Nadia, an actress who did all her stunts herself at least two decades before any of the male action stars. She thereby earned herself the sobriquet, “Fearless Nadia”.

In 1936, the first major star pair of Hindi cinema, Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, emerged with the release of Janma Bhoomi and Achhut Kanya. Both films were directed by the German-born Franz Osten and produced by Bombay Talkies.

Back then, the Indian film industry drew inspiration from and emulated the Hollywood studio system. Most active filmmakers had their roots in the silent movie era, and the audiences were drawn from the more affluent sections of Indian society. Production studios were omnipotent entities, while actors and technical personnel were tied to them by ironclad contracts. Acting in films was not considered a socially acceptable profession for Indian women belonging to the higher castes. The likes of Devika Rani, who later married Himanshu Rai and took over the reins of Bombay Talkies, and Durga Khote, who starred in the first Marathi talkie, Ayodhyecha Raaja (1931), defied those societal constraints.

In the tumultuous `40s, the decade of the World War II and the climax of India’s freedom struggle, the Bombay movie industry produced an array of unforgettable films that were rich in content and stylistically innovative. These included V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Mehboob Khan’s Roti, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, K.A. Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal, Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar, Pukar and Prithvi Vallabh, Homi Wadia’s Court Dancer, S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha, Vijay Bhatt’s Bharat Milap and Ram Rajya and Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat and Aag.

One of the biggest films of the 1940s was Kismat (1943), directed by Gyan Mukherjee. It had Ashok Kumar in the role of a dashing pickpocket. Kismat was the first genuine blockbuster in the history of Indian cinema. It ran for three years in a theatre in Calcutta. Kismat introduced what was to become a ubiquitous filmic convention – the “lost and found” formula, which entails the separation in the first reel of a set of characters that are then reunited in the climax.

Even as the commercially oriented Indian cinema went all out to woo the masses with simple tales of love and heroism, the `50s saw a spate of films that were influenced by the work of the Italian film maestro Vittorio De Sica. The classic neo-realist Hindi film was Do Bigha Zameen (1953), directed by Bimal Roy. De Sica’s naturalistic exploration of social themes in such films as The Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine found ready reflection in Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish, Shree 420 and Awara. Also notable for their realistic treatment of essentially melodramatic narrative material were Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India.

In Calcutta, Nemai Ghosh made the starkly realistic Chinnamul in 1950, while Ritwik Ghatak, who played a key role in the making of that film, made his own directorial debut in much the same vein with Nagarik two years later. The year 1955 saw the premiere of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. This film not only put Indian cinema on the world map but also inaugurated a stream of moviemaking that renounced the clichés of commercial films.

The rave reviews that Pather Panchali garnered led to Indian cinema being taken seriously on the international film festival circuit. In the early `50s, Awara had already tasted major international success, turning out to be a big commercial hit in the Soviet Union. In 1954, Do Bigha Zameen received a Special Mention in Cannes. In 1957, Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho bagged the top prize at Karlovy Vary and Ray’s Aparajito, the second part of the epochal Apu trilogy, won the Golden Lion in Venice. In 1959, another major honour came India’s way when Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath won the Golden Globe for the best foreign language film.

As Indian cinema made steady global inroads, a male-dominated star system established itself in Hindi films, primarily owing to the growing popularity of a trio of charismatic actors – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. They complemented each other perfectly. While Kapoor was the Chaplinesque tramp, Dilip Kumar was the intense tragedy king and Anand the flamboyant romantic hero. Together they rewrote the rules of popular Indian cinema.

The stars, more than the plots and themes of the films that they feature in, still drive much of Hindi cinema. The `70s belonged to the romantic Rajesh Khanna, and the `80s to the towering Amitabh Bachchan. Since the `90s, the irrepressible Shahrukh Khan has held sway although a phalanx of other saleable stars like Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan has equally steady fan followings.

Amid the widespread male domination, female actors have understandably been relegated to secondary positions although down the years the industry has produced the likes of Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee, all of whom are stars in their own right. In fact, for several years in the `90s, Madhuri Dixit was the queen of all she surveyed, propelling many a film to box office success on her own steam. Never before or since has a female star enjoyed as much clout in Bollywood as Madhuri did at the peak of her prowess.

The 1970s saw the rise of films multi-star casts as producers sought to enhance the commercial viability of their films. Two-hero films became the norm, with Bachchan teaming up with co-actors like Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna or Dharmendra in a series of films. The biggest such multistarrer was Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), one of India’s most admired films. Bachchan played a pivotal role in the film. The 1980s were dominated by his angry young man persona, on which most of the decade’s big commercial hits hinged.

By the 1990s, Indian moviegoers had had enough of screen machismo. As a result, romance, music and feel-good family drama came into vogue. Action stars yielded ground to romantic heroes and films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Raja Hindustani, Dil To Pagal Hai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai defined the 1990s in Hindi cinema.

In the new millennium, new creative impulses have emerged in Mumbai with filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj, among many others, moving into top gear and rewriting the Hindi cinema script even as the big star-driven films continue to thrive.

Down south and in Calcutta, the headquarters of the Bengali film industry, the dominant movie stars have been just as big as their counterparts in Hindi films, although their influence rarely, if ever, cuts across provincial and linguistic boundaries. A host of star-actors, among them the likes of Kamalahasan and Rajnikanth, have held sway over south India. Many of them – notably M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh – used their magnetism and mass popularity to wrest political power.

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