Hooray for Bollywood: 100 years of Indian cinema

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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown charts the ups and downs of a very singular industry – and reveals why she has found new faith in the Bollywood machine.

The Indian film industry is the biggest and loudest on the planet. Eight hundred films are produced every year for domestic audiences of a billion-plus and a burgeoning overseas market. Although regional and independent films have always done their own thing, and brilliantly, the most prodigious sector is Bollywood, the ultimate dream factory in Mumbai.

Burhan Wazir, director of the Doha Film Institute, finds the films formulaic, featuring "gym-fit actors, exotic locations and rampantly consumerist lifestyles". Which is true, but it is such a winning formula that glitzy Bollywood is now outshining Hollywood – no mean feat, when one considers how American cultural hegemony has dominated and disabled the European film industries.

Beautiful megastars Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai appear on the covers of Forbes and Time magazine and are considered more famous globally than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. Michael Ellis of the Motion Picture Association admits that US studios have not penetrated the Indian market. Until 2008, American cinemas did not screen Hindi movies. Now they do, big time.

In Los Angeles, dance studios teach Bollywood dancing to wannabe starlets while Columbia, Disney, Fox et al seek out co-production deals with Bollywood. Hitherto narcissistic Hollywood was oblivious to its eastern counterpart. Now it is sprinting to catch up with the rest of the world. Bollywood patriarch and superstar Amitabh Bachchan is jubilant that they who ignored or ridiculed his industry are eating humble (American) pie: "We always knew and believed in our films. The uniqueness of Hindi cinema has been its content… It has survived almost 100 years and is still growing [so] it must be doing something right."

So what is the secret of this success? According to the buoyant director Karan Johar, it is, "A mixture of music, love, family values, comedy, fantasy… [and an] adventurous choice of film location." Discerning audiences know that films are not real life, but allegories which give hope because good triumphs over evil, poetic justice prevails.

Nasreen Munni Kabir, curator of Channel 4's annual season of Hindi movies, writes: "They are unquestionably the most-seen movies in the world… [watched] well beyond the Indian continent and the diaspora, in such unlikely places as Russia, China, the Middle East, the Far East, Turkey and Africa. People from very different cultural and social worlds have a great love for Indian popular cinema, and many have been Hindi film fans for over 50 years." Mao Tse-tung was a fan, as were millions of others in communist countries. Bollywood was a globalised phenomenon long before our age of globalisation.

It all started exactly 100 years ago when DJ Phalke, a nerdy-looking, bespectacled Indian Brahmin made the first ever Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, about a noble king guided by Hindu gods, some frolicsome, some deadly and full of wrath.

In 1895, the French Lumière brothers had created the first motion pictures and by 1911, moving images had been shown in Mumbai venues, creating a buzz and palpable anticipation. A vast audience was prepped for this new medium, its possibilities and magic, and Phalke's first big filmic adventure. He became king of the silent era, producing dozens of mythological films with actors gesticulating wildly, backed by some live music and crude sound effects. The film-maker was populist and subversive, a storyteller with messianic resolve.

Let us go back to India in 1912. The British Raj was full of pomp and hubris and natives were getting restive. Two years later, Gandhi would launch his liberation movement. Phalke had studied art and architecture, tried printing, photography, archaeology and various other ventures. And then, in Mumbai, he watched a French film, The Life of Christ, and was gripped "by a strange spell. I bought another ticket and saw the film again. Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?" He had found his calling. He would put those images on screen to awaken Indian nationalism.

Ironically, however, Phalke knew he couldn't fulfil his mission without western technology and British expertise. He travelled to Europe, met directors, bought a Williamson camera and, in London, was trained by the English director Cecil Hepworth in his Walton-on-Thames studios. Creative Indian and European film-makers then were mutually respectful collaborators who circumvented political partition, defied colonial and societal strictures.

Phalke thrilled audiences and subliminally aroused his compatriots to resist unjust power and inequality. Other silent films chose their own targets. As early as 1921, England Returned mocked pretentious, Anglicised Indians. (Goodness Gracious Me picked on similar characters in their hit BBC TV series in the 1990s.) Risqué and sexually daring films seemed to herald new personal freedoms. One of the boldest was Shiraz (1928), about ill-fated, royal lovers, directed by Franz Osten, a German. The producer and leading actor was the Indian trailblazer, Himansu Rai. It was shown in Germany and England to great acclaim.

Fearing films could incite dissidence and high emotion, colonial administrators imposed strict censorship. Any character wearing a loin cloth was deemed dangerous because it was Gandhi's chosen attire; so, too, any expression of patriotism. To beat the bans, anti-British messages were embedded in song lyrics. Post-imperial India kept the scissors and state censorship. The Brits cut seditious messages; Indian controllers expurgated "licentiousness" – kisses and bedroom antics. So smart directors used dance and suggestive dialogue to make highly charged, erotic films. Just don't tell the censors.

Gorgeous Devika Rani, an Indian actress trained at Rada, met Rai in London in 1928, married him and starred in his films. One of these, Karma (1933), was in English, shot in a London studio and premiered in Leicester Square. Rani received rave reviews, but the film bombed and the couple moved back home. Two years earlier the sound era had arrived with Alam Ara, a historical musical made by Ardeshir Irani, and Rai and Rani, the hot and ambitious couple, set up the Bombay Talkies studio. One of its early hits was Achhut Kanya, about untouchables, starring Rani and directed by Osten, who made 18 films in India – yet joined the Nazi Party while doing so. Inexplicable.

Lalit Mohan Joshi, founder of the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London, was born in India, and used to bunk off school to sneak into cinemas, like the boy in Cinema Paradiso. He tells me that in the 1930s and 1940s, common themes were female rights, hypocritical social mores and caste prejudice, always done beautifully through compelling stories and acting.

Idealistic and artistic directors won prizes at Cannes and Venice. They used the popular art form to create unity in a multilingual, disparate, often conflicted nation. Muslims were key players and astonishingly, Jewish and Christian actresses – some European – were employed by the studios, usually to play red-lipped vamps. The influence of cinema in India, says Joshi, is immeasurable: "It has more of an impact than books, art and even religion."

Adulated stars join the limitless pantheon of Hindu deities. When Bachchan was seriously injured while filming in 1982, millions stopped work, fasted and prayed. PM Indira Gandhi cancelled a foreign trip to go to his bedside. Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman Khan (unrelated) are today's top male idols. All three are of Muslim heritage and immensely powerful. Aamir created and hosts a TV programme which confronts unjust and corrupt practices in public and domestic life. Six hundred million people watch the show, which terrifies and chastens the powerful and rich. Several Bollywood luminaries have gone into politics.

The golden age of Hindi cinema was, arguably, from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. And again, British technical expertise was enlisted by some celebrated Indian producers. Among the actors who emerged then were Prithviraj Kapoor and his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi; also, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and, among others, Raj Kapoor, also a director, replicated Chaplin's hapless characters in memorable films. The Kapoor acting dynasty is still going strong in Bollywood.

Wonderful actresses such as Nargis, and Waheeda Rehman (both Muslims), Meena Kumari and Geeta Bali, meanwhile, were not always good, obedient Asian women. They were rule-breakers, some mistresses and hard drinkers in real life, all defiant and free on screen. Nargis wore revealing ballgowns and short tennis skirts and played feisty characters.

In the remarkable film Guide (1965), Rehman, a dancer, was stuck with an archaeologist husband much like Casaubon in Middlemarch. A sexy tourist guide came along and the heroine went off with him. That, though, didn't end her deep unhappiness. In her most famous film Pakeezah (1972), Meena Kumari played a dignified courtesan exposing society's duplicities.

Moral concerns were depicted with such feeling that they stayed with you, within you. The Oscar-shortlisted Mother India (1957) was about tough, maternal love k and the unwinnable fight for peasant land rights. The usually glam Nargis played the heroine. That powerful drama seeded my socialist principles. In 1960, another immortal masterpiece was released– Mughal-e-Azam, about a Mughal prince and a dancing girl, an epic tussle between love and duty. My English husband has watched it five times.

From the late 1960s, Bollywood changed, perhaps forever. Flamboyant films arrived, with ridiculous story-lines, foreign locations, lovers running around trees and gyrating women breaking into song and dance for no good reason. And bad jokes. Movies such as An Evening in Paris and Love in Tokyo were cringe-making but box-office hits. Then in the 1970s, came the Indian Rambo, ballsy Bachchan, playing volcanic young men and breaking all box-office records. The actor seemed to channel the people's anger under the authoritarian PM Indira Gandhi.

Through the good and bad times, India's independent sector has produced internationally lauded films with low budgets. Satyajit Ray, of course, and Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen ( an actress too, who starred in Ray's films), Mrinal Sen and others have made classics without Bollywood's razzmatazz. Benegal's Ankur starred the subtle and versatile actress, Shabana Azmi, who played an adulterous wife. It is among my 10 favourite films.

Modern director Onir, famous for his touching films on homosexuality and other taboo subjects, has compared Bollywood to a shopping mall, calling it mindless, lifestyle and regressive, and is part of a confident new wave which is making its mark at home and internationally. As are diasporic Indian film-makers such as Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Deepa Mehta, director of Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

For post-war Asian migrants to the UK, Hindi movies were cheap entertainment and gave them solace, an identity as they coped with racism and dreadful weather. The multi-talented Meera Syal remembers going to Hindi films at Wolverhampton picturehouses with her family: "This was the only time and place we saw an art form that was ours. People dressed up and it was as exciting as it must have been for Elizabethan audiences going to the theatre. It was a window into a country I didn't really know, a living link. And I felt proud. To see people who looked like us acting and dancing was amazing. Remember, TV here then had no place for us. The films also had good messages – about families being sacred."

Gurinder Chadha, renowned director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice, was brought up in Southall and went on Sundays with her family to the temple, then a Bollywood film – "The singing and dancing, big musical numbers, bright colours, big emotions!" – followed by samosas and sweets at a local café. She too admires early Hindi films because they had social commentary and defiant messages, all dressed up with songs and music: "A lot of it was about installing pride and unity in this new, freshly independent nation. They were trying to define who they were."

The kitsch came later and carries on, but every decade, she believes, has produced remarkable films reflecting political, economic and social shifts and moods. Interestingly, Chadha's best work is influencing some Indians in the business.

So where are we now? In the words of the novelist Hari Kunzru, "Bollywood has taken a contemporary turn and production values often overshadow narrative. Social-conscience movies dissolved during the 1980s into a torrid orgy of wet-sari clad violence and were overtaken by a new generation of super-glossy love stories with big budgets and international locations."

I tire of the bling and Lamborghinis, the vast mansions, super-lavish weddings and in-house gods covered in real gold leaf. Joshi, too, finds these developments disheartening: "Most of today's films are not deep. They are pseudo, plastic, have no originality or integrity. Whereas before, directors were progressive, today they are regressive." He is right: previously movie-makers were unabashedly Indian, used their own idiom, with integrity and without trying too hard to impress or emulate America or Europe.

Modern global capitalism has changed all that. Indians in the US and UK are upwardly mobile, über-aspirational and getting wealthy. They disdain moralising stories about dirt-poor rural Indian villagers or oppressed women. In India itself, too, the rapidly growing urban middle- and upper-classes want movies which cast them as heroes of a brave new world, not tearful folk tales.

In India this January, the shrill daughter of a wealthy financier gave me an earful: "I mean, you arty types like all those sad films with the poor and weeping women and all that. Why? Is it that you can't accept that India is now a superpower? That you want us to stay backward for your entertainment? Why do you hate and mock Indians who walk tall in Jimmy Choos?" Maybe she has a point. Are those who fetishise old, socially concerned movies refusing to acknowledge, new, shining India? Perhaps, but only because those old divides and injustices have become worse.

And anyway, there is no turning back: Bollywood in the 21st century is a rising brand. Of 12 white students interviewed at Middlesex University for this article, most recognised the "product" and big names and some had watched the movies. That never happened before. Of the Asian students also interviewed, trendy and irreversibly British, almost all watched the films and felt affirmed by them, just as Syal did way, way back.

Though there is too much dross, Bollywood has, in this decade, been making movies of real substance, displaying innovation, high production values, courage and artistry. Examples include Omkara, based on Othello, a multi-layered film of the destructive love between a gullible outlaw and his lover from a respectable family; and Barfi!, a story of a dumb-and-deaf charmer, the highest-grossing movie in India in 2012. The most highly paid stars are now choosing to act in non-glam films with meaning.

So the future looks bright. My American friend, married to an Indian, is unsettled by that: "These movies are great, but they tell me power is moving away from the US, going east. And you know that's hard for us Americans." Her husband cut in, "It's time things were hard for you all. Hollywood will be humbled by Bollywood. Watch this space." Someone should make a movie about the clash of these two titans.

Additional research by Deepika Gurnani

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