Themes in Indian cinema

Early Indian cinema in the 1920s was founded on specific genres, such as the mythological or the devotional film. The sum and substance of the mythological theme is the fight between good and evil, and the importance of sacrifice in the name of truth. The retelling of stories known through an oral tradition was an important element in the success of the mythological film: The Ram Leela (a celebration and re – enactment of the exploits and adventures of Ram) and the Ras Leela (episodes from Krishna’s life) are said to be of particular influence in Indian cinema. Such reconfirmation has always been an element of Indian culture. As Arundhuti roy says in her novel, The God Of Small Things, ‘The Great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again.’ Roy was speaking of the Kathakali dance form, but the argument holds good for cinema too. This trend was visible not only in the silent era. It continued in the talkie era. NALLATHANGAL in Tamil, BHAKTA PRAHLADA in Malayalam and other languages, KEECHAKAVADHAM in Tamil etc. are good examples. In almost all the languages of India, during the silent as well as the talkie era, themes and episodes from the PURANAS, THE RAMAYANA and MAHABHARATA were treated cinematically. Some folk tales and legends also became cinematic themes.

A change in this trend came about in the 1950s, particularly in Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali movies. JEEVITA NAUKA (The Boat of life) introduced social and domestic theme, family life in Kerala and social humour , and it was among the earliest Indian movies to run for more than six months at a stretch . A more bold theme of socio – economic disparities and indication of prospective social revolution was expressed in NAVALOKAM. But among the socially relevant movies of the early 1950s in Malayalam, NEELAKKUYIL (Blue Koel) of 1954 depicted the story of powerful love breaking caste

barriers but yielding finally to social pressures and the leading characters coming to grief in the face of social ostracism. This period also saw big spectacles like CHANDRALEKHA in Tamil and the beautiful celluloid portrayal in the trilogy of Satyajit Ray starting with PATHER PANCHALI. PARAASAKTI, the Tamil movie which took Sivaji Ganesan to the heights of fame was a strong and defiant portrayal of the collusion between religious and economic forces in the suppression of the poor. DO BIGHA ZAMIN questioned landlordism.

Later on, Social themes were portrayed. Stories were based on the life of ordinary families. Most films were produced in the Bombay and Madras studios. The largest number of movies came out in Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali- in that order. Among the social movies, Andaz and Mela stand out .The production of movies in all languages has dwindled in the closing years of the 20th century, but the reduction has been more in Malayalam than in the other five languages in which production was consistently high in the 1970s and 1980s.

Of the Historical movies of those days, the first choice falls on ANARKALI. Then come MUGHAL – E – AZAM and MOTHER INDIA. To the credit of Raj Kapoor and his R.K. Studios, a series of mild but poignant criticism of the oddities in social life of the 1950s and 1960s came, that were also great entertainers and pieces of artistic attainments: AWARA, SHRI 420, etc. In the 1970s, Amitabh Bacchan ruled the Indian cine world portraying the defiant angry young man of the new generation.

Till the late 1960s, movies were directed by people who learnt the art on the job. There were no schools or training institutes for actors, directors, producers and technical experts. The National School of Drama, New Delhi and the Film and Television Institute (FTII), Pune trained actors and directors and several other personnel connected with film. This was also the period when serious thinking was given to a cinematic style that was entirely different from what it was in the past. Critics have called the new trend ‘New Wave Cinema’. What is termed the ‘New Wave’ in the history of Indian Cinema is not the ‘nouvelle vogue’ of French cinema with which Bresson, Godard and other experimental film makers were associated in the fifties and sixties. In the Indian context, the terms are rather loosely used to describe the deliberately realist and non-commercial style of film making that sometimes experiments with form and content. Its roots are in IPTA theatre, the realist novel, and European cinema (especially Russian, French and Italian). It eschews the escapist Hollywood and the Bombay film traditions, and is concerned more with real – life issues of Indian society than with just entertainment. Other terms used to talk about this cinema are ‘alternative’, ‘parallel’, and even ‘another’ cinema.

Major Studios – The creation of the major studios in Madras, Calcutta, Lahore, Bombay and Pune in the 1930s was a crucial move in the development of a proficient Indian film industry. Studio owners including Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, V. Shantaram, V. Damle and S. Fatehlal set the tune of film production, playing an essential role in promoting national integration. People of all castes, religious, regions, sects and social classes worked together in the various studios. Film production has always prided itself in the way it has been inclusive and continues to be a shinning example of communal (i.e. inter religious) harmony and tolerance. Hindus and Muslims work together and promoting and National Integration and communal harmony hasalways been a favourite theme of the Indian film.

The studios, including Bombay talkies, the New Theatres in Calcutta, Prabhat Film Company and Gemini and Vauhini in Madras, were also responsible for broadening the choice of screen – subjects, with music as a primary ingredient. Like the great Hollywood studios, they experimented with different stories and themes while each developing their own brand of film making. The key films of this period show the origins of themes and subjects that have recurred over subsequent decades of film making. For example, the New Theatres films , particularly the 1935 classic DEVDAS by actor / director P.C.Barua , made in both Hindi and Bengali versions , gave Indian cinema its most recurrent theme : the love triangle . DEVDAS is an adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Bengali novel of the same name. This film also gave its most enduring male character: The tragic romantic hero. Devdas is a high caste Brahmin who cannot marry the love of his life, Parvati, his neighbour’s daughter, because she is of a lower caste. He later befriends Chandramukhi, a prostitute who gives up her profession and turns to spirituality. In a downward spiral of self – destruction, the Hamlet like Devdas becomes an alcoholic and ultimately dies at the gate of Parvati’s marital home.

The story of Devdas touched millions of Indians in the 1930s who felt that his anguish would become their own if they dared marry against parental authority. This theme returns regularly every decade , either in a direct remake , e.g. Bimal Roy’s 1955 Devdas ( director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new version released in 2002 ) , or as an important theme , as in Guru Dutt’s PYASSA (1957 ) or Prakash Mehra’s MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR ( 1978 ). V.Shantaram was a co – founder (along with V. Damle , S. Fatehlal and Dhaiber) of the Prabhat Film Company , based in Kohlapur and later Pune . He made many stunts and action films early in his career, favoured socially progressive subjects and dealt with themes considered taboo. Shantaram’s best work included a period drama about the vengeance of women (AMAR JYOTI, 1936 – the first Indian film to be shown at an International Film Festival, in Venice), the cruel injustices against women brought about by the arranged marriage system (DUNIYA NA NANE, 1937), to the rehabilitation of a prostitute (AADMI, 1937), and the promotion of Hindu – Muslim friendship (PADOSI, 1941). In 1942, V. Shantaram left Prabhat to start his own production company and studio, Rajkamal Kalamandir , in Bombay. There, he continue to make internationally acclaimed films based on social concerns, including Dr. KUTNIS KI AMAR KAHANI (1946) and DO AANKHEN BARAH HAATH (1957).

Bombay Talkies also made social films, the most celebrated example of which is Franz Osten’s ACHUT KANYA (1936) starring Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. It was one of the first films to deal with the evils of untouchability. Bombay Talkies made many popular movies, including Gyan Mukherji’s afore mentioned KISMET, a film that introduced another favourite theme in Hindi cinema – the ‘lost and found’. Though the lost and found theme can be traced back to mythology in the story of SHAKUNTALA, KISMET made it popular in cinema.

An interesting twist on this popular theme occurs in Manmohan Desai’s AMAR AKBAR ANTHONY (1977), in which the director depicts three brothers separated as young children and brought up by members of the three main Indian religions : Hinduism, Islam and Christianity ( hence the names AMAR , AKBAR AND ANTHONY) . The film was a massive success and Desai himself made several other films combining the importance of communal harmony with the theme of loss and recovery. In his NASEEB (1981), the Amitabh Bacchan hero is called ‘JOHN, JAANI, JANARDAN’ and is proud to be seen as Christian, Muslim and Hindu. As long as the separated family members are played by well – known stars, the audience never seems to tire of the repetitions of themes.

End of Studios – Financers who made money during the war years found film – making an easy way of gaining quick returns, and this new method of financing movies ultimately brought about the end of the studio era. The studio owners could not afford to pay high fees for their staff and stars, and so freelancing made a return – a system whereby all film practitioners were employed on a contract – by – contract basis. The studio system was over by the late 1940s, and widespread freelancing, established by the 1950s, set the pattern for film production thereafter.