By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review

INDIAN cinema is unique. On average, 800 films are produced and distributed every year, that is more than two per day, and shown to 11,000,000 people every day in 13,000 cinemas across India. To these statistics can be added the export of film to over a hundred countries where they are watched by millions of expatriate Indians, or NRIs (non resident Indians), mostly in Britain, the United States, and Europe. The classics are eagerly sought out also by Americans, British, other Westerners and other foreigners including Russians, Chinese, Arabs, and Africans. Now, while the NRI audience brings in 65 per cent of total revenues, it is India's sixth largest industry and employs over 300,000 workers.

No-one can convincingly explain the reasons for this phenomenon. Certainly India has the fastest population growth rate in the world, the second largest population (over 1.1 billion), and one of the highest percentages of people between the ages of 12 and 24, the special age group that fills cinemas around the world. But other countries have a similar profile of size, growth, age, and wealth/poverty yet have nothing remotely on the scale of this.

Cinemas are like modern temples but with bright colours where devotees come to be transformed into another life in another world. They go back to see the blockbusters dozens of times; the stars are everywhere mobbed despite their platoons of armed bodyguards; the movie songs blare out from every radio, every shop and every passing car. And now the Internet is jumping with film and cinema websites and DVDs.

I have read extensively through the writings of film-buffs, critics, experts and analysts of the scene but none can define which features of India's rich mix of tradition, ambition, myth, religion, history and geography account for its uniqueness. It is what it is, like some unexplained magic.

One of the main aims of this article is to describe and explain the fundamental changes which have been seen by the watcher of Indian films over recent months and over the last few years. But such changes are seen to be much more interesting and even dramatic when viewed in the context of their historic background. This brief run-through of the main milestones cannot be as comprehensive as the many excellent books on the subject. Among these are the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, Bollywood by Nasreen Munni Kabir, and Bollywood Cinema by Vijay Mishra. Nor is it intended to be as encompassing in analysing patterns such as the role of language, religion, regionality, caste, or the development of music, dance, costume, as in Cinema India by Dwyer and Patel. Rather it is intended to try to find a simple way of describing the most overt features which have seemed to characterise the succeeding decades.

Satyajit Ray wrote in 1948 a most revealing thumbnail paragraph summarising Indian cinema history up to that time 'the development from a turn-of-the-century mechanical toy into the century's most potent and versatile art form. In its early phase the cinema was used variously as an extension of photography, as a substitute for the theatre and the music hall, and as part of the magician's paraphernalia. Today in the complexity of its creative process it combines the functions of poetry, music, painting, drama, architecture, and other arts'. He went on to become the country's f'trst internationally acclaimed film director, winning an award at the Cannes film festival in 1956 with his first film Pather Pachali. Despite this success and the fact that the film, with its simple narrative and black and white realism, is sometimes regarded abroad as 'typical' the fact is that the context of history puts this 'art film' type as a minority genre.


The British connection meant that film came to India at around the time of its very origin in Britain, America and the West. The first (silent) films of the Lumiere brothers were shown in Bombay in July 1896. …

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