This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.
Lights. Camera. Action.
In recent years, the Indian film industry, led by Mumbai-based Bollywood, has achieved global prominence. Yet, outside of the subcontinent, the industry’s incredible history is little known or celebrated, obscured by the veil of glamour cast by its all-singing, all-dancing façade.
Indian films are often called masala movies because they are composed of multiple, sometimes conflicting elements. A typical Indian potboiler might include action, romance, comedy, melodrama, songs, and those signature dance set-pieces that are so much a part of the subcontinent’s celluloid tradition.
Where did it all begin?
The subcontinent’s first motion picture was released in 1899, eleven years before Hollywood made its debut. The first full-length feature followed in 1913, an epic based on the Hindu pantheon. By the 1930s, the industry was producing over two hundred films a year. This was the era of the talkies when individual stars began to take centre-stage. Prominent among these was Fearless Nadia, a Scottish-Australian woman who starred in daredevil Bollywood action films, skimpily attired in black leather, and with a Tom Cruise-like penchant for performing her own stunts.
The Thirties and Forties saw the Indian Independence movement gather momentum, and this was reflected in the cinema of the age, with producers and actors boycotting onscreen depictions they felt were overly reflective of the British presence in India.
The Fifties and Sixties are known as Bollywood’s ‘golden age’, with one of the fathers of modern Bollywood, Raj Kapoor, making his debut, as actor and producer. His movies – with their overt socialist messaging – became hugely popular, not just in India, but in markets as far afield as Russia and China. Kapoor’s seminal 1951 classic Awaara (The Vagabond) introduced his ‘tramp” character to global cinemagoers, a portrayal influenced heavily by Charlie Chaplin. (In 2012, Awaara was included in the All-Time 100 greatest films list by TIME.)
In 1958, Mother India became India’s first ever film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film – losing by just one vote. Mother India reflected a changing India struggling to find her feet in the aftermath of Partition and Independence. In one poignant scene, we see the eponymous “mother” urging her fellow villagers not to give up on their home after severe blight; through song she convinces them to stay and tend the land, a thinly-veiled allegory for India’s own plea to her bruised and battered populace to stand firm during those difficult years.
The Seventies and Eighties were an era of further turmoil. Civil unrest, accompanied by a growing disillusionment amongst the young, culminated in Indira Gandhi’s Emergency – a government crackdown that saw the Constitution suspended. This period saw a grittier, more visceral cinema emerge. This is also when India’s legendary superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, rose to prominence, capturing the nation’s simmering rage with a range of roles that led to him being anointed as Bollywood’s ‘angry young man’.
It was during this period that the criminal underworld gained a foothold in the industry. With the Indian government refusing to allow producers access to regular sources of finance, the door was left open for India’s notorious criminal gangs. The combination of glamour and the opportunity to launder dirty money proved irresistible. Lurid cases of producers and actors being blackmailed and threatened by ‘Bollywood dons’ made headlines. (It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Indian government finally legitimized the industry.)
This is also the decade that arguably India’s most famous film Sholay (Embers) was released. The story of two petty criminals hired by a village landlord – and ex-cop – to fight bandits, the film was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, and epitomized the masala movie at its zenith.
In the Nineties, liberalization transformed the industry. With new sources of funding opening up, film makers began to take risks. A new ‘genre’ of Indian film emerged, one that catered for the vast Indian diaspora and an aspirational home audience with films that showcased ‘western’ sensibilities.
One of Bollywood’s most iconic movies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“Big-Hearted Guys Win the Bride”) started it all in 1995. With a storyline spread across the UK, Europe and India, the tale of a romance between a spoilt, rich Indian boy played by Shah Rukh Khan and a British Punjabi girl set the blueprint for a new type of Bollywood movie. The film made Shah Rukh Khan a superstar – today he is known as the king of Bollywood. (In 2011, the LA Times declared him to be the most watched film star in the world, in terms of pure eyeballs on screens.)
Bollywood continues to evolve. Rising revenues mean rising production standards; straight genre movies are taking over from the old ‘masala’ format. Film centres across the country, including in the south, generate huge revenues.
The future of the industry looks bright.
The third novel in my bestselling Baby Ganesh Agency series, The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is set in India’s premier film industry. In this book Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) and his faithful one-year-old elephant sidekick, Ganesha, are on the trail of a kidnapped Indian film star. As Chopra begins to investigate he soon discovers that, in Bollywood, as in India, truth is often stranger than fiction …
My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.
This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.
All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.