Guest Column: The show must go on: Shubhranshu Singh

Singh takes us through the journey of Indian cinema, starting with Dadasaheb Phalke’s film Raja Harishchandra made in 1913

e4m by Shubhranshu Singh
Published: May 8, 2018 8:56 AM  | 5 min read

Mumbai is a 'Maya Nagri', a land of dreams and dream merchants. As many come here for fame as do for moolah. Most barely subsist, but the dream never dies. Nowhere else in India has creative expression been as successfully commercialised and made part of Indian culture as it has in Mumbai.

The last day of April marked the 148th birth anniversary of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke popularly called Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian Cinema, who made the film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913 marking the birth of Bollywood. A silent film, it was an instant commercial success. Dadasaheb’s genius is evident from the fact that he was not merely the producer but also the director, writer, cameraman, editor, make-up artist and art director. Raja Harischandra was also screened in London in 1914. 

Dadasaheb Phalke supervised and managed the production of more than 20 films between 1913 and 1918. Bombay was booming in those decades, with mill expansion, new prosperity and civic expansion. Leisure was in short supply and Bollywood was the ready answer. It marked the commencement of the decline of theater and local stage arts, both genres co-opted into the films in terms of spirit and spunk.

The first ever talkie ‘Alam Ara’ was made by Ardeshir Irani in 1931. From that day, popular music and cinema were, in India, one and the same thing. Phiroz Shah, who worked for Alam Ara, was the first music director. The first song, sung by WM Khan, which was recorded for Alam Ara in 1931 was ‘De de khuda ke naam par’.

Even in the regional sections, the film industry took root early. The first Bengali feature film was ‘Nal Damyanti’ in 1917. The year 1919 saw the screening of the first silent South Indian feature film named ‘Keechaka Vadham’. The first ever talkie film in Bengali was ‘Jamai Shashthi’, which was screened in 1931 whilst ‘Kalidasa’ was the first Tamil talkie which was released in 1931, both notably in the same year as Alam Ara. ‘Ayodhecha Raja’ was the first Marathi film which was directed by V Shantaram in 1932.

As India became more urbanized, educated, and affluent, the film themes also changed course. History and mythology retreated to yield space for more burning socially relevant themes.

The Indian movie is a three-hour reconstruction of the world where utopia seems within reach. Where the weak and poor get to righteous victory. Where police inspectors are honest and justice is done. Where fate brings separated families together and an avuncular God is reachable through fervent lachrymose prayer. It holds India’s poor masses enthralled and they remain believers in the eventual triumph of good over evil.

The Box Office is India’s most transparent ballot box. Success and failure in that Darwinian world depends on ability to adapt and enthrall.

Songs are an integral part of Indian movies. Presence of songs has given Indian films a distinctive look as compared to international films. The Indian film industry has produced many talented lyricists, music directors and artists. Their fame and celebrity value rivalled, at times exceeded, that of the cine stars and always outlasted it.

Although Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Dileep Kumar were all known in large parts of the world in the 1950s, it was in the era after Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan’s super stardom that the NRI diaspora seriously became a commercial anchor for films. The 1990s saw a whole new batch of actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Aamir Khan, Juhi Chawla, Chiranjeevi etc who were hot international money makers. Indian cinema was now seriously dependent on the contribution of the overseas market. Whatever real soft power projection India has, is provided by Indian cinema.

The granting of formal ‘Industry’ status ensured serious corporate interest and formal financing into films. More than two dozen production houses are now listed entities on national bourses. Our multiplexes sitting amidst sprawling malls are the centers of town activity. Cinema, as an industry, was always magical and meritocratic. The one place where a nobody, by dint of hard work and self-expressed talent, could become a national figure. It was about evident success before critical acclaim.

The 70 mm celluloid holds India together. It has no rival in terms of stature in national life, except perhaps cricket, which also does not appeal to all parts and all demographics as indeed, cinema does. The most significant foundational contribution of Bollywood and regional cinema is to define ‘Indian-ness’.

If you want to understand what the prescriptions for familial relationships, social conduct and taboo are at any time, you should see Indian movies of that era. Cinema has always had cultural authority to reflect and thus establish the norm.

It grippingly showcased our social codes, deftly wrapped in stories. Films like Mother India, Deewar, Mughal-E-Azam, Sholay, Lagaan, Devdas, Guide, Mera Naam Joker and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, 3 idiots etc were watershed marks in this socio-cultural accumulation. Each can merit a PhD in terms of context and impact.

A few lines captured as a musing utterance in the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara define the Indian cinematic credo and philosophy well…..

Jab jab dard ka baadal chaya, jab gham ka saaya lehraya,
jab aasoon palkon tak aya, jab yeh tanha dil ghabraya ...
humne dil ko yeh samjhaya, dil aakhir tu kyun rota hai ,
duniya mein yunhi hota hai ,
yeh joh gehre sannate hai, waqt ne sabko hi baante hain ...
thoda gham hai sabka qissa, thodi dhoop hai sabka hissa ...
aankh teri bekaar hi namm hai, har pal ek naya mausam hai.

And the show must go on…

(The author is a Mumbai-based marketer)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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