The year that passed marked the 100th year in the journey of Indian cinema—a journey that has seen its ups and downs but that has gone on to establish itself as one of the most prolific cinematic platforms in the world.
This journey saw its beginnings as early as 1896 when the Indian subcontinent was introduced for the first time to the concept of motion picture. Audiences across Asia, Europe and Africa became aware of this ‘marvel of the century, the wonder of the world’, as The Times of India called it at that time, within months of the first ever demonstration of the moving pictures in Paris, and in India, this moment in history came on July 7, 1896, at the Watson’s Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) where Marius Sestier of the Paris-based Lumiere brothers screened the first cinematographe show to an all European audience.
One of the first men to react productively, and creatively, to this idea of the motion picture was ‘Dadasaheb’ Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, aptly termed by the Indian press as the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’. Phalke discovered the pleasures and possibilities of film technology when he saw Life of Christ in a Bombay theatre in 1910. The immense potential of this newly developed technology dawned upon him and he described his experiences in the following words:
“While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my physical eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya, I was gripped by a strange spell. I bought another ticket and saw the film again. This time I felt my imagination taking shape on the screen. Could this really happen? Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen? The whole night passed in this mental agony.”(Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema)
Phalke pioneered the silent era of Indian cinema with Raja Harishchandra (1913), thereby initiating the widely popular genre of mythologicals on the Indian screen. It was in 1931 that Bombay’s Majestic Theatre released India’s first “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing film”—Alam Ara, thus introducing India to its first talkie film. The next moment in the history of Indian cinema came in 1955 when a young man by the name of Satyajit Ray burst onto the world scene with a film called Pather Panchali that was to define new wave Indian cinema for decades to come. And thereafter, there was no looking back!
Cinema in India serves as a major vehicle of popular culture permeating the very way of life of the Indian masses, but, what remains interesting is that Indian cinema today has become virtually synonymous with that massive phenomenon with its base in Mumbai—Bollywood– decidedly one of the largest platforms for musical and visual entertainment in the world today! While it is indisputable that Bombay witnessed the beginnings of the cinematic journey in India, it is at the same time interesting to note how regional cinema, other than Bombay/Mumbai cinema, has practically all but disappeared from the popular imagination. From what were decidedly humble beginnings a hundred years ago, Hindi cinema today stands towering over other forms of regional cinema, and I say other, for literally speaking, Bollywood films are made and produced in the region of Maharashtra alone. Thus, technically, and geographically, Bollywood cinema is simply one half, albeit gigantic, of all films that are produced within the state of Maharashtra in India, although unlike Marathi cinema which is the other half of the coin, they are made in the Hindi language, which is the official language of the nation, and distributed across the nation for all Indian people, as well as beyond the national boundaries. The massive distribution of film rights of course has been a determining factor in making Bollywood what it is today, and in rendering films made in the rest of country the ‘other’ Indian cinema.
As far as Bengal is concerned, the success of Bollywood cinema in capturing mass imagination maybe attributed to Bengali cinema’s own fall from glory during the 1970s right until the first decade of the new millennium. For over thirty years mainstream Bengali cinema had churned out cheap, second-grade films that were disturbingly different from the kind of cinema that were made for the masses in Bengal in the 1950-60s. Bengali popular cinema remained at its lowest ebb for nearly three decades until very recently when film theatres have once again begun to profit from commercial Bengali ventures that have sleek plots, that are well-written, and well-executed. However, for the movie-loving public, these thirty years of decadence in the Bengali film industry was, perhaps justifiably, substituted by the grandeur of Bollywood cinema. Hindi films were screened with great aplomb in theatres that had earlier devoted themselves to screening Uttam-Suchitra romances. And admittedly, no star in Bengali cinema at this time could match the glamour and sensitivity that oozed from the Shahrukhs, Salmans and Amirs of the Mumbai film industry!
Thus, as Ganti points out, the Tamil and Telegu film industries maybe more, or at least, as prolific in terms of the number of films produced annually, as the Mumbai film industry, the fact remains that ‘Indian’ cinema per se has come to be dominated mainly, if not wholly, by the popular acknowledgement of Hindi mainstream cinema. However, from time to time the tables appear to have turned. Bollywood films too are not simply ‘Bollywood-y’ anymore, and regional cinema too earns plenty at the box-office (not just Tamil and Telegu which always did good business but Bengali films too). With time perhaps, the inevitable will happen, and ‘Indian’ cinema will come to mean the entire range of cinema that is made in India. After all, cinema in India is only at hundred; it still has quite certainly, a long way to go!