OPINION: A centenary of Bollywood

Commi Kapoor in New Delhi/The Star
Asia News Network

New Delhi (The Star/ANN) - Indian cinema turned 100 years old last week. And what a journey it has been! A country riven by sharp differences of religion, caste, ethnicity and language discovered that it could laugh and weep together watching films produced by Bollywood. Such was the pull of films that over a short period, India became the largest producer of films in the world, leaving Hollywood far behind.

Bollywood aside, there is now a flourishing film industry in various regional languages. The output of the southern cinema is so enormous that in sheer numbers, it competes with Bollywood. In their traditional linguistic bastions, regional films are as much a draw as Hindi films are nation-wide.

In fact, thanks to the popularity of Bollywood films, resistance against Hindi, the official national language, has whittled down considerably in recent decades.

At the height of the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, screening of Bollywood films was unofficially banned in Madras (now Chennai) and other cities in the State. Hindi was seen as a language of imposition by the North. No longer, though. Amitabh Bachchan is as popular in Tamil-speaking Chennai as he is in the Hindi heartland.

A word about the origins of Indian cinema. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke is credited with the production of the first full-length feature film made in India. Titled Raja Harishchandra, it was written, produced and directed by Phalke, and was based on the eponymous mythological tale of an honest king who sacrificed his empire, wife and children in order to honour his promise to a revered saint. The mythical king to this day continues to be a byword for absolute honesty and truth.

First screened in the long-defunct Olympia Theatre in Bombay (now Mumbai) in April 1913, the sheer novelty of moving pictures on the screen left the select audience speechless. It was the height of the British rule in India but this did not prevent Phalke from making the first indigenous film. Previously, a couple of French films had been screened in Bombay with much fanfare.

Others took up filmmaking in the most modern metropolis in British India, drawing added advantage from the ease of securing imported materials. According to a film historian, hundreds of films were made in the silent era in Bombay.

It was in 1931 that the first talkie, Alam Ara, was made and became a rage throughout the country. One of the most memorable films of that era, Devdas featuring the legendary singer-actor K. L. Saigal is still remembered by the older generation. Based on the Bengali novel by Sharat Chandra, the story of unrequited love has continued to be relevant to each passing generation of Bollywood film makers. Saigal played the eponymous role in the 1936 classic.

Legendary thespian Dilip Kumar played the role of Devdas in the 1955 film of the same name. Shah Rukh Khan essayed the same role more than five decades later. To this day, it is common for film buffs to dissect the virtues of each of the three different Devdas films and to grade them on cinematic excellence.

Cineastes of this columnist's generations invariably plump for Dilip Kumar's Devdas as the best in the genre, though her parents' generations still root for Saigal's 1935 classic.

Without doubt, the best phase of Bollywood began sometime in the early 50s, which also saw the rise of Hindi cinema's three greats - Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

The three featured in many a memorable film, with each actor developing his own style of acting and mannerisms. Dilip was the tragedy king who never got the girl in the end. Raj Kapoor played the eternal simpleton, always being suckered by the system or greedy landlords or mill-owners. The last of the trio, Dev Anand, was the quintessential romantic hero, always wooing the girl with his boyish good looks and enchanting song and dance numbers.

At the height of their popularity, it was said that the middle-aged women swooned over Dilip Kumar, young girls over Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor was the darling of the rest. Of the three, only the 89-year-old Dilip Kumar survives, albeit in poor health. A generation of Bollywood heroes have copied his acting style.

Indeed, the golden age of Bollywood began when the Dilip-Raj-Dev trio was at the peak of popularity. It continued with the rise of the next generation of stars such as Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, and Amitabh Bachchan.

In the male-centric industry, heroines played a secondary role. Though Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Vyjayantimala and Asha Parekh were popular heroines, the top billing went to their male counterparts.

So, who is the biggest star of them all in the century-old film industry? The real competition is between Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, both of whom have their fans and detractors.

If Dilip Kumar was the unquestioned king of tragedy, Bachchan scored with his sheer versatility, wide range and deep baritone voice. Small wonder then that Bachchan was voted as the "star of the century" in a BBC poll a few years ago.

Unlike the mainstream Hindi cinema, stars in Tamil and Telugu films enjoyed such popularity that they successfully graduated to playing leading political roles in real life.

The biggest Tamil film star, M. G. Ramachandran, or simply MGR, went on to found a political party of his own, the all India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. After his death, MGR's popular heroine, Jayalalithaa, headed the party and is currently Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the late NTR was the biggest Telugu film star. He founded the Telugu Desam Party which, in its maiden election, ousted the well-entrenched Congress Party from power. NTR's son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu now heads the TDP.

Though not on the same scale, a number of film stars in Malayalam cinema too have made a mark in politics in the State, proving the fact that it is easy to sway the voters with cinematic popularity.

Surprisingly, till recently Bollywood was not accorded the status of an organised industry, forcing it to rely on unofficial channels for finance at phenomenally high rates of interest. However, since its recognition by government, the film industry has gained access to legitimate sources for finance.

To celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, the Government has earmarked US$100 million. Old prints of movies would be digitised and an attempt would be made to retrieve a number of missing historic films. Also on the anvil is a Museum of Indian Cinema.