The Evolution of Indian Cinema
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Sholay’s "Kitne aadmi the" is just one of the many iconic dialogues that almost any Indian can religiously recognise even after four decades since the release of the film. Similarly, whether it is worshipping posters of Amitabh Bachchan or lining up outside Mannat on Shahrukh Khan’s birthday, it is no surprise that much of our indianness is rooted and borne out of our pure love for cinema.
But where did it all begin? To say the least, the journey leading up to our current standpoint in Indian cinema has been an interesting arc. What are now glamorous films, rife with musical numbers and made with big budgets, were once humble black-and-white, silent films made with just four reels in which the director himself would have to move the theatre projector from time to time (and to think how our Netflix buffering seems like a major inconvenience now!). In this blog we go all the way back to the 1890s as we trace the glorious history of our Indian Cinema; remembering the eras, films and filmmakers that influenced generations of stories, art and culture.
The Silent Era & The Lumiere Brothers
One of the world’s biggest film industries had its genesis sowed by Auguste and Louis Lumière — the Lumiere Brothers who invented the cinematographe, a camera and projector device which laid the early foundations of motion pictures. Before its invention, only one person could see a ‘film’ at a time through a peeping-device called the Kinetoscope. Therefore, the cinematographe was a total game-changer. The brothers came to India in 1896, where they previewed six silent short films (which were simply a series of visuals) at the Watson Hotel in Mumbai. Many film historians pin this as the advent of Indian cinema, however, there were no other Indian/indigenous films that were actually made for the next fifteen years.
Fast forward to 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke, a fellow artist turned filmmaker, was ambitious that, ‘Indians must see Indian movies on the Indian Silver screen.’ Often regarded as the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’ his film, ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was India’s first feature film — a silent Marathi full-feature film with mythological influences. You can watch the fragments of the film now (about 108 years later) here.
Fact: For his film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ the producer, director, writer, cameraman etc. was Dadasaheb himself; talk about multi-tasking!
Even now, his vision and legacy lives on through the prestigious ‘Dadasaheb Phalke Award’ given every year by the Government of India to individuals with merits and exemplary contributions in the field of cinema.
The silent era which started with the Lumier Brothers in 1896 and peaked with ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913, continued until the year of 1930 when the progression of technology influenced ‘Talkies’ in Indian cinema.
Talk the Talk: Transition to Sound
As technology advanced, sound could help make films a lot more interesting and engaging. In 1931, Alam Ara (The Light of the World) directed by Ardeshir Irani became the first ‘talkie’ i.e. the first film to employ speech and sound.
The movie was a costume drama about two rival queens with many songs and dances. Who knew our love for filmy songs and dances goes all the way back to the 1930s!
It is also interesting to note that during this time, most of the films were historic-themed. They were about nobility and observed the distinct Pre-British Raj grandeur which were at large an attempt, a plea, a celebration of the undefeated spirit. Amidst the turbulence of freedom struggle, World Wars and overall existential grievances, cinema became a comforting escapism.
The Golden Era (1950s)
As it is with any historical tragedy, bleak reality is followed up with a resurgence and celebration of life and all it has to offer. Similar was the case with Indian cinema where as we progressed into the 1950s, we observed the ‘Golden Age’ of Indian cinema with an upsurge of filmmakers and films. One of the key reasons behind this was the inclusion of color. The dreary monochromatic films were now enlivened with bright colors.
Fact: ‘Kisan Kanya’ a humanist tale about the tough circumstances of poor farmers, was Indian cinema’s first ever color film.
The South Indian cinema played a huge role in reviving the artistic expression by making movies that were relevant to the reality of the audience. Jeevita Nauka, The Boat of Life was one such movie delving into the themes of socio-economic disparity with succinct humour setting a trend for movies that reflected a degree of realism.
Dissecting human life under the cinematic spectacle was loved by audiences widely, inspiring many filmmakers including Satyajit Ray to share their own vision. Life and humanity were at the core of Ray’s films and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once wrote: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
Pather Panchali, a humble film about a poverty-stricken family navigating their tough circumstances, was one of the breakthroughs not just for regional cinema but successfully garnered global recognition at film festivals such as Cannes.
“I am not conscious of being a humanist. It’s simply that I am interested in human beings. I would imagine that everyone who makes a film is to some extent interested in human beings.” - Satyajit Ray
Other important filmmakers that were significant to the golden age of Indian cinema included: Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani and so on. Bimal Roy’s Devdas gave what Indian cinema (more particularly Bollywood) has so dearly attached itself to: antagonising love triangles. Love. Especially an unreachable, unfathomable and unpredictable sort of love.
Be it Veer from Veer Zara, Ayaan from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or Sameer from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the caricature of the “tragic” hero albeit with different names or stories continued to be at the heart of storytelling in our cinema.
Hence the 1950s saw a little bit of everything: romance, drama, realism, musicals — all while probing themes of life.
Times of Evergreen Films
Soon after watching the love-struck hero, the Bollywood silver screen in the 1960s and 70s, welcomed a new kind of hero — the Angry Young Man. Violence replaced love, realism replaced romanticism and actions replaced emotions. The breakaway from the traditional mould of a filmy hero was propagated and quite frankly popularised by legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan for his role in films like ‘Namak Haraam’, ‘Agneepath’, ‘Shahenshah’ and so on. The ‘Angry Young Man’ trope was further litigated by actors such as Anil Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty. The most remarkable film to be released during this era, which played a huge role in shaping modern cinema of India, was Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sholay’.
The release of Sholay laid out the quintessential checkboxes for a successful Bollywood film:
A super talented (& star-studded) cast
Brilliant script with iconic one-liners
Music that gets the audience on their feet.
Gripping plot with memorable visuals.
It was also during the 1970s that a number of Assamese movies were released; over 50 of them. Bhaity was the first color film of Assam while new directors like Samarendra Narayan Dev left an impressionable mark as a filmmaker in the regional cinema of Assam. It is interesting to note how greatly the themes of regional cinema differed from that of Bollywood. With funding and sponsorship being the factors that consequently decided the production value, much of the mainstream attention was directed towards Bollywood.
The Era of Nostalgia
Finally, the famous 90s. The one period of cinema that most of us readers would be familiar with, we grew up watching 90s films or saw their reruns on Set Max. The 90s was the period of romance and music and irrefutably, Shah Rukh Khan. The 1988 film, ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ revoked the love for love with its Bollywood spin of the ‘Romeo-Juliet’ plot. There is no better way to profess your love than to do it with a song; at least that’s what Bollywood taught us. With romance-musicals gaining popularity, films such as DDLJ, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai set the stage (and benchmark) for how romance is depicted on-screen.
As genres of romantic-comedy, family drama and musicals peaked, parallel cinema emerged actively; producing alt/independent films most popularly Mira Nair’s ‘Salaam Bombay’. Nominated for Oscars and winner of Cannes, Salaam Bombay became the alternative voice to the otherwise commercialised cinema. Art films also strived, especially after the release of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998), that kick-started the genre of Mumbai noir (noir films exploring struggles of urban life). These auteurs experimented with a distinct style and sub-genre, namely ‘Mumbai Noir’ — eclectic and untold stories of the city.
Times of Y2K
As we move onto another decade of films, Indian cinema grew tremendously not just in the number of films it produced but also the quality of the storytelling of the films. With growing commercialisation, a lot more thought was put behind production design, costumes, casting and script. As the millenia began, Lagaan starring Amir Khan led and set the path for films that were loved by the audience as well as the critics.
Shah Rukh Khan who dominated the screens in the 90s, shared his limelight with upcoming actors like Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bacchan, Deepika Padukone, Aishwariya Rai and so on. As for women characters, except performances delivered by Rani Mukherjee in Black and Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met, the Indian screen didn’t give enough credible female characters. You can check out our blog on the progression of women characters in Bollywood here.
While it is difficult to summarise every aspect of Bollywood in the 2000s in a single blog post, here’s a list of some of the most iconic 2000s films here.
Just like that, the evolution of Indian cinema continues to grow rapidly along with the advent and popularisation of streaming on OTT platforms. But as we live through one of the biggest changes in all of humanity, it is a great reminder of the importance films occupy in our lives. Movies, no matter the year they’re released or the year they’re watched, continue to be our safe haven and entertaining escape in the bad times as well as the good ones.