A year from now, it will have been a hundred years since the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra, was produced and shown. Unlike most centenaries, this is worth celebrating, specially in a once-colonial culture like ours, because unlike other fictional forms, the feature film didn’t come to us second-hand: we were in on the story from the beginning. Colonised countries like ours borrowed the short story, the novel and literary modernism itself from the West. Pioneering Indian novelists used historical romancers like Walter Scott as fictional models. But the feature film as a fictional form is unique because it emerged at exactly the same time in India as it did in Britain or America. Britain, America and Japan produced their first features in 1912, while India, Brazil and China followed suit a year later. The technology of film might have been invented elsewhere, but the art of the cinema was fashioned in India at the same time as it was developed in the country-cum-direction sometimes called the West.
So Dadasaheb Phalke was shooting Raja Harischandra around the same time as his British and American counterparts were filming adaptations of Oliver Twist. You can read into this an early sign of the different directions that the feature film would take here and there. Phalke filmed a myth, while his western peers chose a story set in the poorhouses of an industrialising England.
The overwhelming majority of feature films made in India during the silent era had mythological and historical themes; western cinema framed its films in formally realist settings. A French company, Pathe, made an early foray into the miraculous with a set of individually sold vignettes of the gospel story collectively titled The Life and Passion of Christ, but in the history of western cinema, this remained a curiosity; it was Indian film-makers led by Phalke who developed the genre. Cinema in India didn’t dance to the western tunes; it marched to the beat of its own drum.
But anglophone Indians who read magazines like Outlook, even those who live and breathe popular Hindi cinema, are ambivalent about the films they love. You can see this ambivalence in critical writing about Indian cinema. Film scholars go on a bit about the Hindi film as a hybrid form. Sometimes, this talk of hybridity centres on specific generic borrowings: the Hollywood action movies that inspired Hunterwali, or the Westerns without which Sholay would not have been possible, or the moll who, along with the tawaif, supplies the bloodlines of Bombay’s vamps.
This is reasonable, but this emphasis on ‘hybridity’ and borrowing leads critics into a larger temptation, namely, the idea that Indian film-makers adapted an art made elsewhere to exotic Indian ends. Thus, Maithili Rao suggests that the Hindi film “is testament to the Indian ability to take a commercial art form born in the West and make it wholly Indian—in spirit at least”.
This tendency amongst English-speaking consumers and critics of Hindi cinema to understand it as a variation on a Western theme is part of a larger post-colonial anxiety, the uneasy sense that desi efforts and achievements are time-delayed re-runs of things that have already come to pass in Europe or America. This unease is compounded by the feeling that not only are Bombay’s films not original, they are also, in terms of the production values of the western film, not very good. The tacky sets, the improvised scripts, the obsolete equipment and poor post-production often seems proof of this inferiority.
The truth is that it is not Bombay’s cinema but our understanding of what a good film ought to be that is derivative. For anglophone Indians whose definitions of fictional art are derived from books and films in English (or French or Russian or Japanese), the Bombay film begins to seem like second-rate mimicry or a guilty pleasure. Salman Rushdie, in whose fiction Bombay cinema plays a large part, makes this case bluntly: “Most Hindi movies were then and are now what can only be called trashy. The pleasure to be had from such films (and some of them are extremely enjoyable) is something like the fun of eating junk food. The classic Bombay talkie uses scripts of dreadful corniness, looks tawdry and garish, and relies on the mass appeal of its star performers and musical numbers to provide a little zing.”
Ignore, for a moment, the familiarity of this critique; focus on the fact that all of us, at one time or another, have been struck by what Rushdie calls the tawdriness of Bombay’s popular cinema and embarrassed by the oddness of the films we love.
Some months ago, I happened upon a television re-run of Kati Patang. This Rajesh Khanna vehicle was a film I had watched more than once 40 years ago, when it was first released. It was hard to sit through it this time round. The soundtrack was as good as I remembered it (partly because I’d been listening to the songs on the radio for decades) but Rajesh Khanna’s mannerisms were intolerable now and Asha Parekh’s brand of prissy vulnerability had worn very badly. The plot turned on a series of absurd contrivances (accidents, deaths, impersonations and coincidences) and by the time the film limped to its happy ending, I was wondering what I had seen in it the first time round.
If I were to generalise a reaction like this into an indictment of the Bombay cinema as a whole, I would be making a mistake. Most films, whether they are made here or in Hollywood, don’t survive the time and milieu for which they were made. Take Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner, a 1967 film which, like Kati Patang, I first saw 45 years ago and then again last year. When it was first released, this film seemed to have everything going for it: the topical theme of interracial love and marriage in segregated America, a cast headlined by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and Hollywood’s best known black actor, Sidney Poitier. It won an acting Oscar for Hepburn and another Academy Award for the best original screenplay.
And yet, Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is virtually impossible to sit through now. As the white liberal parents of a young woman who is bent on marrying a black man, both Tracy and Hepburn come across as smug and patronising, and Poitier is lumbered with such professional perfection and personal nobility that he barely seems human. Context and timing, in popular cinema, is almost everything.
The difference between the two films is that Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner obeys the rules of realist fiction while Kati Patang doesn’t. The Hollywood film unfolds over a single evening, inside one house, and observes the classical unities of time and place, whereas the Bombay film has a long back story and is so unconcerned with realism that Rajesh Khanna makes no attempt to work the piano’s keyboard in time with the song he’s singing. So while both films are desperately dated, judged by the criterion of plausibility, Stanley Kramer’s film makes story-telling sense, while Shakti Samanta’s movie, no longer buoyed up by the novelty of its songs or the charisma of its stars, seems incoherent and absurd.
The real problem that the anglophone Indian has with Bombay’s films isn’t their tackiness: it is the absence of realist conventions. He might adore Priyanka Chopra and worship Shahrukh Khan, but he can’t help notice that their films are made up of stock elements that seem out of sync with rational modernity, which is underwritten by the rules of realism. A film culture where the musical is so completely the norm that a film without songs is remarked on is obviously a local aberration, an aesthetic dead-end.
Paradoxically, the Hindi film’s success in film markets other than India confirms this conclusion. To be popular in the Middle East, Central Asia, parts of Russia and Africa is to be a cinema for backward peoples as yet undisciplined by realism, reason and modernity. A cinema that doesn’t bear witness to the real world is either escapist entertainment that you can enjoy in an ironic way or something you choose to watch because you were socialised into this cinema as a child and watching Hindi movies is your way of staying connected to that lost hinterland, that Bharat-which-is-not-India.
To think in this way is understandable but wrong. There is a reason why the Bombay film is produced in Bombay and that reason is profit. The people who financed Hindi movies in Bombay (a thousand miles away from Hindi’s heartland) didn’t do it out of an attachment to Hindi or Urdu; they did it because Hindi/Urdu was something of a lingua franca in large parts of India and it made their movies accessible to the largest possible audience. This was the same reason that Parsi businessmen invested in the repertory companies that constituted the Parsi theatre and preceded the Hindi film industry. The Parsi theatre was agnostic about language: it experimented with plays in Gujarati, Marathi, even English, but settled on Hindi/Urdu as its most profitable medium.
The Bombay film doesn’t routinely use phonetic nuance to indicate class in the way that an American film might use dialect. Even the accent Hindi films use to indicate rustic speech is a confected dialect designed to indicate a generic villager, untethered to a specific region or place. Bombay’s cinema has ways of rendering Madrasis, Bengalis, Goans and Pathans as stock types, but it has no interest in mimetic realism because the effects it wants to produce aren’t aimed at a linguistically homogeneous audience. It tries to stage melancholy and joy, laughter and tears, anger and love in Bijnor, Bangalore, Barabanki and Bombay. So it is indifferent to local usage in speech or behaviour, the stock-in-trade of literary and cinematic realism in single-language countries like America or France.
The cruel money-lender, the country bumpkin, the big city businessman, the honest engineeer are always archetypes and every film has songs because songs are springboards to feeling, they transport a diverse audience via music into a medley of emotional states. The silent era was a good time to be an Indian film-maker: there was no language to fracture the market. Music did for the talkie what silence did for the early feature: it helped consolidate a pan-Indian audience.
At its best, the Hindi film can take a story set in one part of India and through the rhetorical power of its Hindustani dialogue and the magic of its songs, make it powerfully available to a subcontinental audience. Taken Guru Dutt’s (or Abrar Alavi’s) Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam. It is based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra that maps the decline of a peculiarly Bengali class of rentiers. But thanks to the magic worked by Hemant Kumar’s music, Meena Kumari’s role as the neglected wife and Rehman’s extraordinary performance as the debauched zamindar, the film is transformed into a great melodrama about feudal decadence of the order of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar. Something is lost, of course, when the Bombay film-maker forsakes the cultural and linguistic intimacy of realism, but, as Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam teaches us, much is also gained.
So Rushdie’s right—and he isn’t. Much of the output of Bombay’s film industry is trashy, but the aesthetic that makes the bad films is also responsible for the good ones. Hindi cinema happened when actors, directors, producers, composers, lyricists and dialogue writers got together to make unsubsidised films for a subcontinental audience. Far from being a cul-de-sac, the Bombay film has been a hugely successful answer to a great and abiding question: how do you make popular art for a diverse people?
(Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi.)