Figure 14.6 Chungking Express: Hong Kong streetlife (BFI Stills, Posters and Designs)
The Indian film industry has often been described as 'the biggest in the world' in terms of production output. It also has a long history dating from its roots in 1896 and from the work of Dadasaheb Phalke, who directed the first Indian feature film (Raja Harishchandra) in 1913. By the 1920s Indian studios were already producing over 100 films a year, considerably more than either the British or French industries. Output was prolific but, perhaps partly hampered by the variety of cultures and languages of the subcontinent, the major production companies were unable to secure any measure of vertical integration to consolidate their position. Though the studios (most typically those at Tollygunge in Calcutta which were nicknamed 'Tollywood') were modelled on Hollywood, they retained a 'family' ethos, and the most favoured (and highly popular) genres were the 'mythological' or religious tales, 'stunt' adventure films and a smattering of socially responsible romantic melodramas. Most significantly, virtually all films, of whatever genre, were punctuated by (apparently non-diegetic) song and dance numbers.
By the eve of the Second World War in 1939, the Indian film industry had attained a deceptive position of apparent strength. Some 200 films were being made each year, yet though many of the films were popular within India, they were not dominant in the way that Japanese and (later) Hong Kong films dominated their home markets. This was no doubt partly due to the wide variety of Indian cultures and languages (which made it impossible for a single film to appeal to a truly massive audience), but must also have been exacerbated by the financial instability of the film companies themselves, which were prey to corruption and nepotism as studio heads were increasingly held to ransom by star actors and actresses demanding exorbitant fees.
Though the old Indian studio system collapsed in the 1940s and hundreds of small independent companies sprang up, little changed in the post-war years; by the early 1960s some 300 films were being produced each year by an intensely competitive industry (with its principal bases in Bombay and Madras), conforming largely to the same genres, with the addition of the 'historical' genre inaugurated by Chandralekha (Vasan, 1948). This genre complemented the 1950s moves to censor representations of sexual activity, particularly wanton kissing and 'indecorous' dancing - though dancing and singing, of course, remained essential ingredients of almost all Indian films, aimed as they were at a rural audience which was at the time still largely illiterate.
Nevertheless, the 1950s also saw some changes, with some directors beginning to experiment deliberately with European influences. Thus while Raj Kapoor's comedy dramas were popular and populist, the mise en scène was new to Indian audiences. More innovative still were the films of Satyajit Ray, a writer and commercial artist who turned to film after seeing Bicycle Thieves - it is clear that Ray was in no way 'typical' of Indian film-making of the time. His semi-autobiographical trilogy Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1960) introduced the methods and ideals of Italian neorealism to Indian cinema: no songs, no dancing, but a careful, undramatic but sensitive and beautiful observation of the hardships of a poor family (Figure 14.7). When De Sica's scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini saw Pather Panchali, he responded: 'at last, the neorealist cinema that the Italians did not know how to do' (quoted in Das Gupta, 1981, p. 61). While Ray's films have probably been appreciated more in western 'art cinema' circles than in rural Indian cinemas, his influence on later Indian films (for example, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988)) has been considerable. Indeed, even Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957), at the time the greatest Indian box-office hit of them all (and still playing occasionally on British terrestrial TV), despite its use of song and dance, was perhaps more 'realist' than previous films of the genre.
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