The Bollywood cinematographic industry, a 2 billion dollar powered business made of music, dancing, dramas, romance and colorful sceneries is currently celebrating its first century with a 6-day film festival and the release of “Bombay Talkies”… a compilation of commemorative movies made by four famous directors, which will be accompanied by the appointment of India as the Cannes Film Festival “Guest Country” next month in France. The capital New Delhi will exhibit a century of cinema including the kissing scenes that were the subject of harsh criticism and censure at the time. With this celebration comes a retrospective reflection on how the industry has evolved, starting with Hindu mythology film adaptations to romantic escapes with a myriad of bright colors which constitutes modern era Blockbusters.
The commercial state of the industry is in pretty good shape: 1500 films produced last year, with profit speculations ranging from 2 to 3.6 billion dollars in the next five years, according to KPMG consultants.
Industry veterans complain about the current superficiality and neglect of the country’s social concerns they were supposed to represent
“There is a decrease in the level which reflects negatively on the content. I think we suffer from what is called a storytelling crisis”, said veteran producer Mahesh Bhatt.
He compares current filmmakers with Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, known as the “father of Indian cinema”, who brought the first national feature film to Bombay (nowadays Mumbai) to screens in 3rd May 1913.
A tale from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, “Raja Harishchandra”, enjoyed a huge success despite the female characters being played by men, women on screen being largely disapproved of at the time.
Phalke made more than 100 films until his dumb style succumbed to the spoken dialogue films of the 30’s, the advent of sound technology providing significant development in Indian cinema.
Current scenarios often involve stars of the Indian screen singing, often in quite remote scenic spots for no reason … a style that Western audiences may find eccentric, but which is very representative of Indian cinema.
“If we were exactly the same as Hollywood, we would already be stepped over. We are far from having the resources they have”, says film critic Anupama Chopra.
For Chopra and for many others, the “golden age” of cinema lies in the 50’s, the time in which emerged the likes of the great Satyajit Ray, who was in fact the most famous filmmaker of India and a major figure of West Bengal alternative cinema.
It was the time of the freshly independent India looking for its own identity by producing films such as the acclaimed “Mother India” (Mehboob Khan, 1957), a film combining social concerns and especially popular appeal.
The growing “mainstream” of the 70s and 80s is mainly due to the film “Masala” which is a family show usually mixed with romance, action, music and melodrama with humour and happy endings most of the time.
The parallel cinema continued to focus on realism instead, with films like “Arth” (Meaning) of Mahesh Bhatt, made in 1982, covering an extramarital subject with hardened steely female characters.
It was a decade described as the “dark age” of Hindi cinema, struggling against the advent of colour television, rampant piracy and the Mumbai underground funding dependence.
After the Indian economy opened in the 90’s, things improved a lot, with films winning the formal industry status a decade later and encouraging Fox and Disney to invest in Bollywood.
Technological advances however did not compensate for the lack of narrative progress, according to critics which deplored plot formulas, the passive roles for women and a clear feeling of copying Hollywood.
The Bollywood escapist fantasies have satisfied the hunger of the mass audience for a long time, because…
“there is enough realism in the daily life of men” says Bhatt.
With increasingly frequent television shows, Internet access and accessible global movies, these films do not meet the requirements of the educated middle class.
“This growing group wants to see something much better than the trash addressed to the common man. This group wants to see a different kind of cinema”, said veteran actor Rishi Kapoor.
A new generation of experimental filmmakers began to emerge, creating a genre that calls itself “indie Hindi”, featuring Anurag Kashyap who is of essential value to the global film circuit.
Trade analysts state that the increasing number of multiple theatres also encouraged mainstream films to diversify. Raj Nidimoru, co-director of the upcoming “Go Goa Gone”, an early zombie movie, ensured Indians believed that the abandonment of the basic Bollywood has only just begun. “It’s just a ripple at the moment. Over time, it will become a wave.”