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Indian Sound Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2015

India map marks

Indian Cinema – the impact of sound in pre-Independence cinema, 1931 to 1947.

On the eve of the sound era, 85 per cent of films screened in India were imported, predominantly from Hollywood. These were shown at nearly 350 cinemas around the country. Hollywood enjoyed an advantage, as they had already recouped production costs in their own domestic market. Indian films tended to cost distributors and exhibitors more than the Hollywood competitor, and were thus disadvantaged in the film market.

However, the advent of sound radically altered the situation. The first Indian sound film was Alam Ara (1931). Filmed in Hindi and Urdu, and containing seven songs, it provided the basic formula for the new sound film industry. It was also demonstrated how to work with the new sound technology, mastering the problem of a single-system camera, which recorded image and sound simultaneously. For largely illiterate rural audiences, in particular, images and songs could be related to familiar traditional art and entertainment forms. Pat paintings (images on screens) had long been used to illustrate the narratives of traditional sagas in nocturnal performances lasting several hours or even running over for days. Traditional song and dance and the more recent Parsee Theatre strongly influenced the sound film. There had already been several Parsee versions of the Raja Harishchandra myth on stage before Phalke made his film version. The traditions of Parsee Theatre both encouraged stories with a strong melodramatic content and a narrative form that was far looser than that developed in the mainstream western films. Songs and dances were the most important part of such legacies, providing both familiar pleasures, but also crossing regional and linguistic boundaries.

The ‘ Masala’ Musical

The predominant form became the musical film. In early sound films actors and actresses sang live on the sound stages. Later, producers experimented with dubbing the singing to improve the sound quality and the ‘playback’ system appeared in 1935.

One actor describes how the playback system evolved as follows:

‘Filming and song recording were carried out simultaneously. The whole song was taken from one angle. Now another angle was selected and the song was again picturised. Like if there were 15 shots, we had to sing the song 15 times. 30 shots, 30 times!

‘To act in films one had to know singing. When I first went to a producer (when I was freelancing) he asked to read the dialogue in rhythm. When Himansui [Rai] took me into films he made it clear that I must sing in my own films.” (Siddarth Kak, 1980)

It is recorded that Bombay Talkies was the first studio to introduce this new system, which took several years to catch on. In playback a pre-recorded song is ‘played back’ on the set or location and the cast mime and dance to the music. Whilst the early playback singers were un-credited, the audience’s pleasure in their performances was later to lead to credits and stardom.


The coming of sound was, however, a mixed blessing for Indian filmmakers. As film historian Khalid Mohamed (1990) pointed out,

‘During this period, [the 1930s] although an increasing number of entrepreneurs were turning their business interests towards cinema, the market was splintering into linguistic zones. Hindi was the most far-reaching language. But people from different states demanded and received films in their regional language.’

Three main production centres developed. Bombay/Mumbai became associated largely with Hindi language film while its neighbouring cities were associated with Marathi. Bengali films were made in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai became the centre for filmmaking of the South Indian languages, Tamil and Teluga.  Sound film actually was a factor in Hindi becoming widely used and understood: audiences in differences provinces with different languages were able [to a degree] to follow Hindi dialogue and lyrics. Thus it was that over time the Bombay industry became a sort of national cinema.

The records for film output give an idea of the developments;

Bengali            – 3 films in 1931, risen to 19 by 1935

Gujarati           – the first production appeared in 1935

Hindi              – 23 in 1931 and increased to 154 in 1935.

Kanada            – produced the one and only film of the period in 1935,

Marathi            – a first feature in 1935, followed by 8 more.

Tamil               – 1 in 1931 and increased to 38 in 1935.

Teluga             – a first film in 1935 accompanied by six others.

Malayam         – the only film not produced until 1940.

It can be seen that after Bombay/Mumbai the Bengali and Tamil cinemas were the most productive and influential.

However, though fragmentation due to the different language demands was a problem for Indian filmmakers in terms of ensuring the largest possible audiences and dominance in the national market, it did give them a huge advantage over Hollywood and enabled them to develop the industry with far less competition from their big North American rivals.

1930s Studios


Large production studios, like Bombay Talkies dominated the 1930s Hindi film industry. This studio was founded by Himansui Rai, a pioneer producer. Bombay Talkies was the most famous of the ‘Bollywood’ Studios, and whilst they shared a mode of production similar to the Hollywood Studios, they differed both in the working atmosphere and their power within the Industry.

They system was described as a ‘joint-family’ system. Following Phalke’s practices they were often groups of relatives. In a similar fashion to the west they tended to have a production studio and its least a preview theatre. The studios developed in sizeable complexes, with facilities for staff, libraries of costumes, props and film properties,

Prabhat had its own menagerie. Whilst Bombay Talkies had its own medical clinic. This studio system was also less hierarchical than Hollywood.

‘When not acting, an actor might be put to fencing or riding lessons. Or he might be given temporary technical duties. At Bombay talkies an actor was expected to do some work as a cutter, as an essential part of his film training. Similarly, a technician might occasionally perform.’ (Barnouw and Krishaswamy, 1980).

There were stars who establish their popularity and who became important in publicising the films. But there was not a star system on the Hollywood model.

Producers and directors were them important and influential figures and they tended to enjoy higher salaries than the stars.

Constraints on Filmmakers – Censorship

Censorship imposed a major limitation in the form and content of films in India. The British colonial masters introduced a censorship system in 1918. While it shared some of the taboos of British censorship (such as forbidding exaggerated scenes of debauchery, desecration of religious places of worship etc), censors were particularly concerned with anything that appeared to support or encourage communalism and nationalist politics. For example, the Government banned a series of topical films on Mahatma Gandhi. These constraints were backed up with propaganda. Official film units produced ‘Newsreels’ and ‘Topicals’, which exhibitors were legally required to screen in programmes. There are instances of audiences protesting by walking out the cinema for their duration.

However, the censors were frequently literal-minded and insensitive to cultural nuances. During the Second World War, when Congress took a line of neutrality, the major hit was a film called Kismet (1943, dir. Gyan Mukherjee). It included a heroic song, ‘Go away, you invaders! India is ours!’ (Door hato O duniyavato, Hindustan hamara hai), which the censors read as anti-Japanese, but which audiences appear to have read as anti-British.


The Indian film market – which, under the British Raj, comprised what we now identify as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) – remained divided into territories and regions based on languages. Indian film companies never achieved unified control over production, distribution and exhibition, known as vertical integration and the basis of the power of the Hollywood Majors.

The impact of the war

The war introduced changes that were to have far-reaching effects on the film industry. The increased economic activity gave many people money to spend, including on film-going. However, there were government restrictions on film stock, as well as on cinema buildings which accentuated a poor ratio of screenings to potential audiences. Annual output fell in most of the different film industries.

An increasing amount of ‘black money’, money made through illegal activities or undeclared, came into film production. Financing films became a way of laundering money for criminals, and/or avoiding taxes for black market entrepreneurs (hence the term ‘black money’). For example, sometimes important personnel, especially stars, were paid an official ‘above the line’ salary and a covert ‘below the line’ sum of money. Usually, no taxes would be paid on the latter. Such financing was illegal, unreliable and unacceptable to public institutions such as banks. The problem intensified after the war and has remained a problem within the industry to this day.

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Meanwhile, notably in the Bombay/Mumbai studios, there arrived really popular star figures. Ashok Kumar was a actor/producer, he had an early hit in 1936 playing opposite an established star Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya (1936). He was joined in the 1940s by Yusuf Khan, who was renamed Dilip Kumar. Another would be Dev Anand who started at Prabhat and then moved to Bombay Talkies where he enjoyed an early hit Ziddi (1948). The female star Nargis started as child actress in 1934 and by the 1940s enjoyed major hit in 1949 with Andaz and Barsaat. In these she played opposite actor/producer/director Raj Kapoor. The greatest of the stars of this period, his career really started in the 1940s. And he spawned a family line of popular film players that are still important  today. These stars also enjoyed a shift in the Indian film industry with the decline of the importance of the studios and the growth of the centrality of stars in funding, marketing and the popularity of titles at the box office.

Almost immediately after the war came Independence, but it also produced the split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The suffering and separations this produced have provided recurring themes in modern Indian cinema.

One of the key films of the 1930s is Devdas (1935) produced by New Theatres Ltd and adapted from a  famous novel. It was directed by PC Barua, a filmmaker who worked in the industry up until 1950.  Devdas belongs to an affluent family in his home village, but develops a friendship and then romance with Paro. However, the are class and cultural differences and their marriage is prevented. The film then follows a long Odyssey by Devdas as he declines into alcoholism and returns to the village to die. The film was immensely influential and has been remade several times. The first Hindi remake was by the cinematographer of the 1935 version, Bimal Roy, in 1955. However, the film’s influence is also in the character of its protagonist, and there are many Indian films that have a similar ‘hero’.

Sant Tukaram (1936), a Prabhat feature, in is an example of the mythological/religious film. This was an important and popular genre in pre-independence cinema. This example presents the life of a C17th poet and saint. The film  is interesting because it includes the struggle against the caste system, a recurring conflict in Indian cinema.

An example of a genre film is Diamond Queen (1940) produced by Wadia Movietone. This is a swashbuckler in which the heroine Nadia and her sidekicks clean up a town, rather like a western. Fearless Nadia as she was known was a popular star of the 1930s. She was actually Australian circus performer recruited into Indian films. She was billed as ‘India’s Pearl White’ and was a great stunt artist.

For Parallel cinema.

Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, Indian Film, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Siddharth Kak, The Bombay Talkies School in Cinema Vision. Vol. 1. No 2, April 1980.

Khalid Mohamed, The Sound of Stardom in Cinema in India, [Journal, Sponsored by National Film Development Corp]  September 1990.

The above post was developed from a contribution to a BFI CD-Rom, [no longer available].

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Love and Marriage in Indian Popular Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on June 26, 2013


Indian films, especially those made in what is popularly termed Bollywood, have become increasingly available to UK audiences in the last few years. Many are screened in urban areas, including in multiplexes. If there is not such an exhibition centre available locally, both the growing range of DVDs and the enlightened screening seasons on Channel 4 provide a worthwhile substitute. Three films, covering common themes, became available this way in 2003. These films all deal with what we commonly term ‘star-crossed lovers’. The crosses they bear stem from family relations and traditions, and most notably, the stern, unyielding demands of the family patriarch or father.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G for convenience, 2002) is a blockbuster that cost about 450 million rupees (or around £6.5 million, very large by Indian standards). It was a ‘superhit’, in India and overseas markets in the UK and North America (the NRI or ‘Non­Resident Indian’ markets). It held the record for an opening weekend in the sub-continent, 13.5 crores [135 million rupees]. In the UK it took £2 million, second only to Amélie (France 2001) in the Foreign Language Box Office that year. It was a repeat success for director Karan Johar, and shared genre features with his first film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (India 1998).

Much of the budget was spent on stars. Amitabh Bachchan is the multi­millionaire with two sons, the adopted elder Rahul (Sharukh Khan), and the younger blood son, Rohan (Hrithik Roshan). These three actors represent different generations of Bollywood leading men. Rahul defies his father and tradition by marrying Anjali (Kajol), from the other side of the class and religious track. This is presented in the first part of the film through Rohan’s extended flashback. Then, after the Intermission, Rohan sets off London to find Rahul and reunite his family. There he also discovers love, with Anjali’s sister Pooja (Kareena Kapoor). Unity is achieved, following the funeral of the parents’ mother, back in India.

The extended London sequence is becoming a familiar trope in modern Bollywood films. It provides an alternative setting to the family home, which privileges tradition and the role of parents. The English capital provides a focus for pastiche, but also the opportunity for stylistic and sexual displays out of keeping with Indian family values. This allows the film to indulge the audience with the spectacle of the exotic and foreign West, whilst re-affirming the traditional values of Bollywood. The film also uses Indian family rituals at regular intervals, three of which are the occasion for some of the most lavish song and dance numbers in the film.

Whilst the father causes the family conflicts by his intransigence, he is also the centre of both family and film. The mother, Nandini (Jaya Bachchan), worries and cares for the sons, but has little impact on the fathers’ attitudes and actions. What drives the two brothers, apart from their mutual affection, is the desire for family and fatherly approval. Their wives completely conform to this: Anjali herself prays at the house shrine to her in-laws. Pooja s a good-time girl in London, but transformed into a dutiful Indian daughter on return to India. And it is the father’s embrace that provides closure and satisfaction for both sons and audience.

Alaipayuthey  Ringtones

Alaipayuthey (Waves, 2000) was produced, scripted and directed by Mani Ratnam. He has put the Madras, Tamil language film industry on the national map with his earlier hits Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). He is generally accepted as one of the few popular filmmakers working in India today whose films look at the problems facing India’s large, and growing urban middle classes in a realistic and tender way. This approach distinguishes this film from K3G. It is also clearly a lower budget film, with

a smaller roster of stars. But it does have Ratnam’s excellent production team and the music of India’s premier film composer, A. R. Rahman. There are exciting dance numbers, stylish choreography and some fine staging and camerawork.

The film follows the love and marriage of Karthik (Madhavan, male model turned film star), who is from a wealthy family, and Sakthi (Shalini), whose family is lower middle class. The film does not end with their marriage, but presents their life together as a couple. Much of the conflict in the story stems from the realities of married life

rather than the stereotypical attitudes of the parents. The film is plotted in a fairly complex flashback structure, as Karthik waits at the railway station for the missing Sakthi. The flashbacks trace their romance, her medical studies, his attempts to start a computer firm, and the realistically motivated family opposition.

Whilst we may suspect tragedy, the audience only find out shortly before Karthik himself that Sakthi has been in a road accident. This leads to a melodramatic climax, as laden with emotions as in K3G. Those emotions have been fuelled just prior to this when Sakthi’s father dies. But the bulk of the film deals less emotionally with the changing mores of romance and marriage, changes that Ratnam sees going on around him. (Comments from the interview screened on Channel Four).

Alaipayuthey has as many songs and dances as K3G, (about a dozen), and includes familiar rituals and family scenes, but at the same time it offers a look at an area of family relations missing from the Bollywood film. Whilst in many respects similar to a typical Bollywood hero, Karthik is both flawed and criticised. Sakthi is also in many respects a typical heroine, but unusually she is central to both the action and its motivation. And their parents’ opposition is based in socially understandable behaviour rather than an overarching tradition. The key scene shows underlying class resentments ignited by condescension on the part of Karthik’s father.


The third film, Zubeidaa (2001) is based on the story of a real life Indian Cinema heroine, who appeared in 1930s popular films, but then married a Maharajah. This immediately suggests the ghost of director Shyam Benegal’s earlier film, Bhumika (The Role, 1977). However, it has a very different feel from the earlier film, and in its use of song and dance, it is much closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, it is still in some ways ‘outside’ the familiar world of Bollywood, indicated most dearly by the unusual plotting of the story.

The plot follows Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor), a young woman from a wealthy Muslim family in Bombay, from her youthful interest in dancing, through marriage, pregnancy, divorce and then her second marriage to royalty. In this last stage she is second wife to a prince, and overshadowed by his role in the politics of the newly independent India’.

The plotting, in a series of flashbacks, bears some similarity to Citizen Kane (US 1941). The final revelation concerns not a sledge but a missing reel of film, (shades also of Cinema Paradiso, Italy 1989). The opening sees Zubeidaa’s motherless son watching, uncomprehendingly, the obsequies at her grave. Twenty-eight years later, as a journalist Riaz (Rajit Kapoor), embarks on a quest to discover her story, including the mystery surrounding her death in an air accident.

Zubeidaa lacks the critical edge with which Benegal examined the Indian film industry in Bhumika. The songs that accompany Zubeidaa’s idealised diary version of her romance have a touch of irony. But the film ends with her son and his surviving grandmother enjoying her sole surviving film. The grandmother remarks, with his concurrence, “she really was a fairy princess”.

The focus of the story does privilege the feminine over the more traditional patriarchal values. The journalist/son, is not a typical Bollywood hero and Zubeidaa is an untypical heroine. Her actions are central to the plot development and to other people’s actions. Her father is another autocratic patriarch, fixated on tradition. However, by the time of her romance and remarriage with the prince, he seems to have been rendered impotent. In one sense, Zubeidaa trumps Citizen Kane by providing a portrait, not of the famous public man, but of the woman hidden from view. However, there is no sense of a critique of the privileged world of the Maharajahs. And the politics of independence and unification get little space in the film.

All three films offer the improved production values that have developed in recent years in India. And, as with all popular Indian films, they depend on songs, dances and star faces. Zubeidaa, like Alaipayuthey, benefits from a musical score by A. R. Rahman. The latter film uses Tamil song and music; the former is dearly designed to evoke the music of 1940s Bombay films. All three films feature the singing of the greatest of Indian film voices, Lata Mangeshkar. All the films, to a degree, offer some melodramatic pleasures, though these are central in K3G, low­-key in Zubeidaa, and reserved for the final climax in Alaipayuthey. They are all also full of key rituals and mores central to Indian culture (both Hindu and Muslim). The important ones become clear through plotting and dialogue. With others, one guesses at the significance. For example, both Alaipayuthey and Zubeidaa emphasise the colour red. But in Zubeidaa a character tells her, and the audience, that ‘red is the colour of marriage’. One can then grasp the significance of the floating red sari that opens and closes the film.

The huge success of K3G would suggest that the traditional characters and values of Bombay cinema remain a firm attraction for audiences. It should be noted that a superhit like K3G has to appeal to audiences in major urban centres across India, where the educated middle-class will all understand Hindi, in the rural networks across North India, and in the large diaspora communities overseas.

Alaipayuthey has a more limited audience because the cinema version is available only in South Indian languages (Tamil and dubbed into Telegu). It is designed to appeal to younger audiences in urban areas such as Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad and Bangalore. This allows it to dearly address the changing world for the young of India. (Some of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films have also been dubbed into Hindi –Alaipayuthey has now been remade in Hindi under the title Saathiya).

Zubeidaa seems to play to some degree to nostalgia, harking back to bygone times. What matters more is that it shows one of the doyens of the alternative Indian film, Shyam Benegal, essaying a relatively mainstream film – something that a number of independent directors have attempted in recent years, including diaspora directors such as Deepa Mehta (e.g. Bollywood/Hollywood, Canada 2002)

The three films offer rather different takes on the Indian family, a central focus in Indian cinema from its early days. In this they represent different areas of popular cinema in the sub­continent. They also offer rather different formal and stylistic takes on such ingredients as the key characters of hero, heroine and patriarch; on the use of song and dance in the plotting; and in different conventions of editing and sound design. One can trace variations on the Indian patriarch, hero and heroine: moving from the conventional in K3G to the somewhat unconventional in Zubeidaa. Yet each in its own way is pleasurable and absorbing – a bonus for audiences given their combined running time of over nine hours.


All three films were shot in anamorphic (CinemaScope) formats, which were reproduced on the UK DVDs. It is to the credit of Channel 4 that both Alaipayuthey and Zubeidaa were transmitted in almost full wide screen: an honour that was rarely accorded Western anamorphic movies in that period.

Maharajah – under the British Raj, various local rulers were allowed to keep their powers of control over their land and peoples. After 1947, the ‘princely states’ were absorbed into the new democratic India and their rulers forced to negotiate with the new government in Delhi.

This article originally appeared in itp In the Picture, February 2004.

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Happy Birthday, Indian Cinema!

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2013


This is a strand in the 19th Bradford International Film Festival. The title points to the centenary of the production and release of D. W. Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. This is generally treated as the first indigenous film feature in Hindi cinema. There had actually been earlier documentary-type films and dramatic features of stage plays. But Phalke’s film is a 40 minute long drama presenting one of the great Hindu stories onscreen. The event will offer a range of Indian films from its earliest days right up to the present. Alongside this, but already open for viewing] is Bollywood Icons: 100 Years of Indian Cinema.

This is an exhibition of between 45 and fifty posters spread across the history of the Raj India and post-independence Indian cinema. The earliest posters are a set of those for the films of ‘Fearless Nadia’. aka Mary Evans, from Australia. After a circus tour of the Asian sub-continent she ended up as the Indian equivalent of ‘Pearl White’. She appeared in a series of action films involved in great stunts and fantasy adventures in which she defeated stereotypical villains.

Another set follows the dynasty launched by mega-star Raj Kapoor. His films from the late 1940s and through the 1950s exploited an onscreen persona, which offered echoes of Chaplin but also involved melodramas that had a hint of Frank Capra movies. Various family members are still leading stars in contemporary Hindi cinema. Karisma Kapoor stars in Zubeidaa (2000), a film whose poster is an example of the films of Shyam Benegal, part of the New Indian Cinema.

Amitahb Bachaan, the greatest and most iconic star in Hindi cinema has a set of posters. These include his famous early films like Deewar and Sholay (both 1975), where his is a violent and ‘angry young man’ persona is central. There are also his later films where he has become the father figure of Hindi cinema.

And there is also a set of films featuring Shah Rukh Khan; the contemporary star whose fan base stretches far beyond India as ‘Bollywood’ has become a global player. Unfortunately my favourite of his films, Dil Se (1998), directed by the talented Mani Ratnam is missing.

There are posters of the classics such as the original poster for Mother India (1957), and for Mughal-E-Azam (1960), and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). The latter was the work of one of the finest directors of melodrama in Hindi Cinema, Guru Dutt. There is a poster for the Urdu movie Unrao Jaan (2006) centred on the courtesan characters common in Indiana films.

The styles and formats of these posters are as varied as they films they publicises. And they also, to a degree, represent the different language and regional cinemas, which contribute to the large totals of film production each year. Some examples show the influence on foreign cinemas, especially borrowings from Hollywood films. Whilst there is variation there is also development, given a sense of how the cinema has evolved over it history.

Pick up a copy of the Festival Brochure, handily available. It contains and excellent article by the curator of the exhibition Ima Qureshi, Decoding the Bollywood Poster. Ima Qureshi is giving an illustrated talk during the Festival, on Saturday April 13th.

Added to all this are some video projection. The larger offer music clips from a range of Indian films from the 1950s to the present. The clips have been provided by major distributors of Indian films in the UK. Unfortunately, as with quite a number of the UK DVD releases, some of the films have been cropped and it does show. The smaller video exhibit is from the 1913 version of Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. When I visited the DVD from India had not arrived and the exhibit used a YouTube version. Unfortunately this has very poor image quality and has been filmed askew [probably from the rear of a cinema auditorium?].

Note one of the surviving fragments of Raja Harishchandra is being screened in the festival programme alongside A Throw of Dice (1929). The latter is a co-production involving Germany and is one of the few surviving films from India’s silent era. Mother India also gets an outing, as does Mughal-E-Azam, both in their original 35mm format. The other classic to catch is Kalpana (1948) recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation.

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