- Anna M.M. Vetticad
Byari: An Indian language that even most Indians have not heard of.
Byari: The title of the Best Feature Film at this year’s National Awards.
For a foreigner, there is no better showcase of Indian heterogeneity than Indian cinema. And to understand India’s wildly diverse cinema in the 100th year since the release of the country’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, there are few commentaries more educative than the National Film Awards that were given away last month.
For most of the world, Indian cinema is synonymous with Bollywood song and dance, but neither Byari nor Deool – joint winners of the Best Feature Film Award – would fall into that slot. For one, they are not in Hindi. Byari is made in a little-known dialect spoken by a Muslim community inhabiting the country’s south-western coastline, and highlights the impact on women of stringent religious and social codes. Deool, a Marathi film, is about socio-political games that are played when a poor man in a remote village claims to have sighted God. Hindi mainstream cinema with all its colour and odes to commerce has been acknowledged with the Best Actress Award for Vidya Balan’s no-holds-barred sexual portrayal of the late film star Silk Smitha in the musical The Dirty Picture. The Best Hindi Film Award, though, went to director Onir’s unusually themed I Am – with its focus on women’s reproductive rights, the vexed issue of Hindu-Muslim relations in Kashmir, child sexual abuse and gay rights.
The film that perhaps best illustrates the global and pan-Indian influences on the country’s cinema is a Tamil film that bagged the year’s Best Debut Film Award. Aaranya Kaandam is the story of an ageing, impotent don, his conniving mistress and rebellious cohorts. With its street lingo and smell of the soil, the film is rooted in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but its elderly hero Jackie Shroff calls Mumbai his home; and his filmography is dominated by Hindi, a language spoken in the north. To watch this man play a gangster in a deeply south Indian-yet-global film is to catch a truly illuminating glimpse of what Indian cinema in 2012 is.
While these films celebrate their victory, there is another cause for celebration as we mark 100 years of Indian cinema: that while other film industries worldwide have succumbed to the Hollywood juggernaut, Indian cinema in multiple languages does not just survive, it thrives.
Big Money, Big Films:
The motion picture travelled to India almost as soon as it was born. Within months of holding their first public show in Paris in December 1895, the Lumiere Brothers arrived in India to show off the new invention. In the decade-plus that followed, many Indian short films were released. Though there is some debate over which was the first truly Indian full-length feature film, that honour is usually conferred on Raja Harishchandra made by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke. It was a silent film based on the legend of a king who would not lie. Its release led to the birth of the Indian film industry that is now widely considered one of the largest producers, if not the largest producer, of films in the world.
n terms of revenue, Hollywood remains unrivalled on the international cinemascape. But in terms of the number of films released (approximately 1,000 a year), India appears to have no match. The uniqueness of the nation’s cinema lies in the existence of not one but several highly successful film industries within one country. The wealthiest among them in terms of budgets and earnings are the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu language industries also popularly known as Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood respectively. There are, however, smaller production centres churning out films in Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Bhojpuri, Punjabi and many other languages.
It was evident from the early days that Indians would not be satisfied with films in just one language. The country’s first talkie – Alam Ara in Hindi released in 1931 – was quickly followed by the Telugu talkie Bhakta Prahlada and Kalidas in Tamil in the same year. Alam Ara featured seven songs. Kalidas had not one, not two, not seven, but 50 songs! These of course were the starting blocks for the country’s unique cinematic tradition weighted heavily towards the musical genre.
The refusal to be swayed by world trends is perhaps the reason why Indian cinema has not lost its domestic audience to Hollywood, unlike most other countries. Europe may struggle to preserve its cinema in the face of the American industry’s marketing might, but the Indian masses will have none of that. India, it is often said, has two state religions: films and cricket. Alongside the larger-than-life, colourful, fantastical melodramas that the world equates with Indian cinema, low-cost offbeat realistic films are witnessing a minor renaissance now as the number of multiplexes in the country increases.
Even calling Hollywood the world’s highest revenue earner is somewhat deceptive unless matters are put in perspective. Here’s why. Tamil megastar Rajinikanth’s rumoured pay packet of ` 350 million per film is said to be the highest in India. That may seem small in comparison with the approximately ` 1.04 billion-plus (at current exchange rates) that Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp take home per film, but let’s look at these figures in the context of the vastly lower cost of living in India and the comparatively minuscule budgets at which films are made here. According to the trade website boxofficeindia.com, the most successful Hindi film till date as per available figures is the 2009 Aamir Khan-Kareena Kapoor-starrer Three Idiots with worldwide net collections of over ` 2.02 billion. This amount is dwarfed by the worldwide earnings of the multi-superhero Hollywood film The Avengers which crossed ` 52 billion according to boxofficemojo.com in just 19 days. There is a catch though. Three Idiots was made on a reported budget of a mere ` 350 million, small change in comparison with The Avengers’ budget which clocks in at a reported ` 11.44 billion. Now consider the number of rupees spent per rupee earned!
Stars, Superstars and Megastars:
So powerful is the influence of Indian cinema on the masses that Indian movie stars have often made political careers for themselves…some without ever having involved themselves with social and charitable causes before they stood for elections. Among the members of the current Indian Parliament are Hindi film star Shatrughan Sinha and Telugu-Hindi actress Jaya Prada. The current Tamil Nadu chief minister is former Tamil actress J. Jayalalithaa. Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi is a member of the Legislative Assembly in his home state Andhra Pradesh.
Few, however, could rival the mania unleashed on the political stage by the late M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. MGR — who vanquished tigers with his bare hands on screen — built on the invincibility of his screen characters to carve a political career for himself, ultimately becoming the Tamil Nadu chief minister in 1977. The late N.T. Rama Rao who dominated the Telugu industry for over three decades drew on his performances as various Hindu deities to achieve the stature of a ‘living god’ among fans. The public adulation culminated in a successful political career during which he served as Andhra’s CM for three terms.
The hysteria generated by these men is replicated today in the worshipful response to Rajinikanth, known to Tamil fans simply as The Boss. Rajini has determinedly stayed away from a political career despite the mass adoration he attracts. Giant cut-outs of The Boss being bathed in milk are a common sight in Tamil Nadu especially in the run-up to the release of his films.
The passion of south Indian film fans would overshadow north Indian fans’ enthusiasm, but don’t underestimate the adulation that comes the way of Bollywood’s big names. Amitabh Bachchan, who was labelled the Angry Young Man of Hindi cinema through the 1970s and ’80s, stood for elections and won decisively from his home state in 1984. He soon quit politics. Now touching 70, Bachchan remains one of India’s biggest stars, almost single-handedly altering the course of Indian television when he re-invented himself in 2000 to appear as the host of the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
No Borders For These Women:
The rise of Bachchan in the ’70s coincided with the diminishing position of women in Hindi cinema. Now though, Vidya Balan’s successive successes with The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) holds out the hope of a return to an earlier era when women mattered as much as men.
Among the country’s earliest superstars were the silent era’s Sulochana and Patience Cooper who went on to achieve success in talkies too. Devika Rani was the winner of the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest honour for a film personality. In contrast to their reduced stature in Hindi films today, women were extremely influential at least until the 1960s. If Suraiya was an acting-singing colossus in the 1940s and ’50s, Nargis is legendary both for her beauty and her histrionics which distinguished her from the more mannered style of previous years.
In the decades since, men have ruled the box office. Unlike the men in every industry though, women have been able to build careers across languages. South India has routinely exported actresses – already successful stars in their home states – to the north. Vyjayanthimala was a dancing sensation in both Tamil and Hindi cinema. Hema Malini was a Tamilian who dominated Hindi cinema throughout the 1970s and ’80s, confining her career to a language far removed from her mother tongue. However, it is Sridevi who remains the most phenomenal pan-India star till date, blazing a trail through Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Malayalam cinema throughout the 1980s and part of the 1990s with her potent combination of beauty, acting skills and dancing prowess.
Children of a Greater God – The Film Family:
Considering Indian society’s weakness for lineage, film dynasties are an inevitability. In terms of longevity and the number of major stars in a single family, the Kapoors of Bollywood arguably have no parallel worldwide. Cousins Kareena and Ranbir – two of Hindi cinema’s most popular young stars – are the great grandchildren of the iconic Prithviraj Kapoor, star of silent films and talkies. Prithviraj’s sons were the great actor-producer-director Raj Kapoor and his actor brothers Shammi and Shashi, each a star in his own right. Raj launched all his three sons as actors, but it was Rishi who became a star from the moment the teen romance Bobby was released in 1973. Shammi was married to the eminent actress Geeta Bali, Shashi’s wife was actress Jennifer Kendal, Rishi married his co-star of many films Neetu Singh and his elder brother Randhir married actress Babita with whom he had two children: Kareena and Karisma, the first Kapoor daughters to act in films. Prithviraj and Raj both won Dadasaheb Phalke Awards. In an ode perhaps to the inseparability of the Kapoors and Bollywood, in 1971 Raj produced a film in which he starred with his father and Randhir playing three generations of the same family struggling to cope with changing values. It was aptly titled Kal Aaj aur Kal (Yesterday Today and Tomorrow).
Going Parallel, Going Global:
Despite the combined size of the country’s film industries, Indian cinema has got surprisingly little recognition on the global stage over the decades – at the international box-office, awards functions and film festivals. Some of this has to do with the comparatively minimal marketing budgets available to Indian film producers, which puts them at a disadvantage in the competition with Hollywood beyond their home turf. It is also possible that a large mass of Indian films are deemed too over-the-top for the palate of followers of the more offbeat films emerging from countries like Sweden, France and Italy.
Still, it’s not that India is entirely missing from global platforms. In 1946, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar – a film about the exploitation of peasants by a cruel landlord – won the Grand Prix at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France. The seeds of the ‘Indian New Wave’ were sown in the 1950s, widely considered the Golden Age of Asian Cinema, when India was a dominant global force. Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy in Bengali had a profound influence on international cinema. Aparajito from the triad won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Along with Ray’s works, films by Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor continue to be saluted worldwide for their artistic merit.
From the 1960s, the country witnessed a parallel cinema movement led by the likes of Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan. Unlike their mainstream counterparts, these directors made films steeped in reality, reflecting the socio-political dilemmas of the time. They achieved critical acclaim at home and abroad. Though many of them enjoyed box-office success, a large number did not and by the 1990s the movement had fizzled out for its failure to recognise that cinema is both an art and a business.
While Indian cinema continues to overshadow Hollywood here at home, there are those who criticise the country’s many industries for being inward looking instead of exploring markets worldwide. But such critics of the domestic industries must answer some counter questions: Should Indians transform their movie-making sensibilities to suit an international audience, at the risk of alienating loyal domestic movie-goers? Should we sacrifice our national pre-occupation with romance, the length of our films or the dominance of music in them to go along with global tastes? It can equally be asked if the world has not embarrassed itself by failing to acknowledge the incredible appeal of Indian cinema that continues to lure Indian audiences to the exclusion of all else; if international festivals aren’t dismissing Indian fantasia as exotica while also refusing to accept quality films on wealthy and middle-class Indians, instead gladly lapping up the downside of Indian society as depicted in so-called art films.
It’s almost as if films from a Third World country not focused on its less fortunate citizens strike a discordant note with international audiences. Only three Indian films have so far earned Oscar nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988), Lagaan (2001). Salaam Bombay also won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Not surprisingly, all three films were set among India’s poor. While all three were lovely, the common thread that ran through them is an indicator of what the Oscars consider acceptable from India. Satyajit Ray himself has been criticised by some for ‘exporting Indian poverty’ abroad. Yet, even his Lifetime Achievement Oscar was handed to him almost as an afterthought, quite literally on his deathbed.
It’s possible that rising marketing budgets for mainstream Indian films could alter the situation. Though Indian cinema’s overseas audiences primarily comprise expatriates, non-Indians are increasingly being drawn to them which is evident from the gradually rising global collections for Indian films. Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan is a leading beneficiary of this trend, as is clear not just from his films’ worldwide box-office earnings but also the non-Indian crowds that gather for a glimpse of him wherever he goes … from the Berlin Film Festival 2010 where My Name Is Khan was presented to Yale University where he recently addressed students.
What appears to be the gradual emergence of another Indian New Wave may also lead to new beginnings on the international festival circuit. After years of snubbing India, Cannes 2012’s official selections included Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, Vasan Bala’s Peddlers and Uday Shankar’s 1948 film Kalpana restored by the World Cinema Foundation, while Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur was part of the Director’s Fortnight that runs parallel to Cannes.
These are issues for film journalists, film makers and film scholars. But, like Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, a large majority of Indians would, frankly, not “give a damn” whether or not the world nods in our direction. For us, Indian films continue to be among the most enduring images from our past, unrivalled founts of entertainment, chroniclers of our history and constant companions to our everyday lives.
(Anna M.M. Vetticad is a Delhi-based journalist.)