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Celluloid culture: In India, cinema is part of the milieu

In popular perception, a major part of the social transformation in India can be attributed to the potentially reformist character of its cinema, writes Amitabh Bachchan.

comment Updated: Nov 25, 2014 09:21 IST
Amitabh Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan
Cinema,Bollywood,Amitabh Bachchan

Goa is the smallest state in India, and with its miles of golden beaches, crystal clear waters, brilliant green landscapes, interesting cuisine and charming local residents, it is truly an exotic destination.

As they say in Konkani, and I endorse this from the bottom of my heart: Maka Goeya boray lakta! For the uninitiated ...that is ‘I love Goa’ in the State’s official language.

For me, personally, Goa holds extremely precious memories. My links with this beautiful state go back to my very first film, Saat Hindustani, which was shot here and revolved around the theme of nationalists who slip into Portuguese-occupied Goa to raise patriotic sentiments and hoist the Indian flag.

I have of course, since, shot many of my memorable films here and keep visiting this paradise in a personal capacity too. My connections with Goa, indeed, are very special.

In many ways, Goa is a miniature reflection of India’s antiquity and diverse cultures. It encases, like the rest of our country, a tremendous sense of ‘unity in diversity.’

Goa’s multicultural, inclusive and pluralistic ethos reflects a gamut of India’s larger cultural values and political and social concerns that have been reflected in our cinema for over 100 years. The largest industry in the world, now marking its centenary, Indian cinema expands much beyond the confines of the Hindi-language popular films. We have productions in regional tongues such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Assamese, Oriya, Bengali and Konkani as well.

The so-called parallel cinema or the ‘art house cinema’ has also co-existed in various languages, prominently through one of our most celebrated filmmakers, Satyajit Ray.

Then, there is the emerging ‘independent cinema’ that is slowly making an impact on English-speaking, metropolitan audiences, all of them, by and large, specifically rooted in a pan-Indian identity, with common sensibilities and principles.

India’s very first feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, discovered its theme from the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, and espoused the belief that truth always triumphs.

Thus, from the very early years of silent films, Indian cinema developed an admirable ability to converge on different facets of life. Dhirendra Nath Ganguly’s Bilet Ferat (England Returned), directed and produced by him in 1921 in Bengali, was a telling vehicle that got the audience to think of a tricky social situation where natives blindly imitated their foreign rulers and created fresh problems for themselves.

By 1926, India boasted 300 cinema halls and countless travelling bioscopes, but 90% of the films shown were imported from Hollywood, almost exclusively from Universal Studios.

Himanshu Rai, one of India’s pioneering filmmakers, wanted to change this. With his enthusiasm and passion, our cinema soon received a fresh impetus that came all the way from Germany.

In 1922, Hermann Hesse published his Western equivalent of Buddhism, ‘Siddhartha’. Brecht showed his interest in Buddhist philosophy in his ‘Book of Transformations’ and several other European thinkers shared the longing for India and her eternal message of peace and non-violence. Franz Osten and Himanshu Rai’s silent films, therefore, were of great significance, telling Indian stories about the life of the Buddha in The Light of Asia released in 1925. They also drew from the great collection of Indian myths and legends and, like Phalke, used The Mahabharata as the base for The Throw of Dice made in 1929.

Nationalistic ideals were an integral part of early silent era films. Udaykaal, starring V Shantaram in the role of Shivaji, caught the eye of the British censor who rightly sensed an attempt to disguise modern-day feelings of patriotism with a historical theme and came down heavily on the release of the film. Another early-day film, Bhakt Vidur, met with similar disapproval when the British censors felt that the character of Vidur was too closely modelled on Mahatma Gandhi and spoke suspiciously patriotic dialogue, which was too contemporary for comfort.

During the 1930s and 1940s, once our movies learnt to ‘talk’, several filmmakers tried to reflect tough collective issues or used India’s struggle for Independence as a backdrop for patriotic plots.

In the 1930s, while Gandhiji was already working for the uplift of untouchables, Niranjan Pal penned the script of Acchut Kanya, released in 1936, which dealt with a Dalit girl falling in love with a Brahmin’s son. Bimal Roy also reflected on this theme of an untouchable girl losing her heart to a boy above her social status and caste in Sujata released in 1959. And as late as 2001, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a huge box-office success, dealt with class divide — the elite versus the proletariat.

In the initial lot of films released immediately after Independence, policemen and judges who had come to represent the moral authority of the State acquired a new gravitas. The courtroom became sacred as a ‘social temple’ where truth could never be denied or compromised. A morally erring judge could himself be indicted in court, as essayed in Awara, made in 1951. Other motifs of importance included secularism as early as 1943, when it became evident that Hindus and Muslims would have to live together in Independent India. Mehboob Khan’s Najma, released in 1943, and Humayun, released in 1945, are good examples as is a classic like MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, released in 1973.

If popular perception is any indicator, then a major part of the social transformation in India can be attributed to cinema’s potentially reformist character. Our cinema continues to explore many diverse themes through the popular medium of entertainment. It imparts information, projects aspirations and helps to nurture harmony. Major concerns like the inclusion and rights of people with disabilities have been movingly showcased in films like Koshish, Black, Paa, Iqbal, Taare Zameen Par and Guzaarish. When we dwell on retribution and honour, we immediately think of Deewar,
Sholay, Agneepath, Damini, No One Killed Jessica and Kahaani.

An overview of the last 30 years champions how Indian cinema has come to terms with the fast-changing political, economic and social milieu in the country. The persona of the ‘Angry Young Man’ became a telling vehicle for portraying a dysfunctional system. Yet ‘Good’ always dominated over ‘Evil’ despite enormous social and economic contradictions in larger-than-life cathartic climaxes.

With the process of globalisation in the 1990s, the whole scenario changed.

Association with cinema, once considered ‘infra dig’ in the early years of its inception, where children from ‘good homes’ were not permitted to be associated with it, where parents, mine included, would ‘vet’ a film before we could be allowed to see one, where cynicism and ridicule accompanied assessment of our popular cinema … has today, become a universally accepted phenomenon. I may be ostracised for making this observation, but, in our glorious 5,000-year history of culture, tradition and existence, cinema in India today has almost become its ‘parallel culture’.

Cinema brings people together. It does not divide them. Women, once barred from being allowed to work in films — the men taking on their parts — became representatives in cinema of great sensitivity and substance. Girls today are far more conscious of their rights, far more outspoken, liberated and independent.

These are, indeed, exciting times for cinema in India. And to all young filmmakers with fire in their belly and stars in their eyes a verse from one of my father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poems:

Himmat karney waalon ki haar nahin hoti/ Leheron se dar kar naiya paar nahin hoti…/Asafalta ek chunauti hai, swikaar karo/ Kya kami reh gayi, dekho aur sudhaar karo/ Jab tak na saphal ho, neend chain se tyaago tum/ Sangharsh karo, maidaan chhod mat bhaago tum/ Kuch kiye bina hi jai-jaikaar nahin hoti/ Himmat karney waalon ki haar nahin hoti…

(The brave never quit, never surrender/ Fear of intimidating waves, shall make your chances of crossing slender/ Failure is just a choice, a pause — accept it/ Where did you slip, reflect and reason — admit it/ Don’t rest till victory is finally sealed/ Fight on, don’t ever quit the battle field/ You cannot gain applause without dedication to your cause/ The brave, after all, never quit, never pause…)

It is my belief that there are only seven original scripts in the world. At first they were spoken, as much warming as introducing wary visitors, while they sat around makeshift bonfires, to the people they sought congress with. Then they were sung, at weddings and births, sometimes even deaths. And when these stories became so well known we began to call them tradition. They were enacted, in village squares and royal durbars, school rooms and amphitheatres — this is how they became beloved by all.

(This is an abridged version of the speech Amitabh Bachchan gave at the 45th International Film Festival of India in Goa. The full text of the speech is available on his blog
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 24, 2014 23:33 IST