According to Topschoolsintheusa, the expressive plurality of Indian cinema can be appreciated considering that in the country numerous languages are officially recognized by the Constitution, with their written and oral literature. Films are produced every year in at least twelve of these languages, with good feedback from both audiences and critics. Hindi, a language native to the Ganges plain, in India Northern, it is understood and spoken by about one third of the population and has been the official language of the Indian Union since 1950, of the state bureaucracy and of state television. Its popularity is also due to the popularity of commercial cinema produced in Bombay (recently renamed Mumbai). But auteur cinema is also expressed in other languages: Bengali in Bengal, Malayālam in Kerala, kannaḍa in Karnataka, Tamil in Tamil Nadu and Telugu in Andhra Pradesh. More than 15% of the population has a basic knowledge of the English language, spoken and written; despite this, the penetration of US cinema is rather limited (around 10% of the market) as well as that of European cinema, present in a percentage of 2%. There is therefore a plurality of cinemas that define the vast cinema of the subcontinent.
From its origins to the 1980’s
As early as 1896, screenings of the Cinématographe Lumière took place in Bombay and from the following year European films were regularly imported. After the mostly documentary work of pioneers such as Harischchandra Sakhran Bhatvadekar, FB Thanavalla, Jamshedji Framji Madan, Ramchandra Gopal Torney, in 1913 Dhundiraj Govind Phalke made the first Indian fiction film, Raja Harishchandra (The King Harishurchcandra uniting) which had great success throughout the country, the mythological vein inspired by the national epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. The approximately 1300 films shot at the silent era by filmmakers such as Dhirendranath Ganguly, Debaki Kumar Bose, Chandulal Jesangbhai Shah, almost totally lost, already fully manifest themes and genres that will be typical of the whole subsequent period, up to the recent production:
Ardeshir Marwan Irani made the first Indian sound film, Alam ara (The Light of the World) in Hindi in 1931. Also lost, it contained several songs, according to a scheme that would soon become almost obligatory and that refers to the lyric tradition of Sanskrit theater and that of popular drama, based on the alternation of songs and dances in a highly emotional function. Indian cinema thus became a widely popular spectacle, even if its consumption, due to the above characteristics, was limited to the domestic market. Not infrequently the production of films, distinguished according to the different linguistic zones, was coordinated with the record industry, and the posters of the cinema advertising signaled in large print the
From 1931 to 1935 the production was almost tenfold (from 27 to 233 films), but it was fragmented in the multiplicity of languages and dialects spoken on the national territory (it was however the cinema in Hindi that conquered a hegemony that would have crossed the entire history of Indian cinema, until the beginning of the 21st century). The 1930s were dominated by three major production houses: Calcutta’s New Theaters Ltd, which produced the comedies of D. Ganguly, the religious films of DK Bose (including Seeta, from 1934, the first Indian film presented at the Venice Film Festival of Venice) and Pramatesh Chandra Barua’s films (including the hugely popular Devdas, 1935, the story of a love hindered by caste differences); the Prabhat Film Company of Puna, founded, among others, by director Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram (Kunku – Duniya na mane, 1937, L ‘ unexpected) and Vishnupant Govind Damle and Sheikh Fattelal, to whom we owe the first Indian film to be awarded in an international competition (in Venice): Sant Tukaram (1936, Il santo Tukaram); Bombay Talkies, founded by actor Himansu Rai, who gathered around him some of the best young talents (actor, then director, Raj Kapoor, actor Dilip Kumar, screenwriter, then director himself, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas) and produced mythological films and social dramas. Numerous independent producers emerged in the 1940s, while large companies that had produced religious, mythological or social films in the 1930s declined. Competition and economic instability of productions, paroxysm of the star phenomenon (the star was now a real object of worship), imitation of Hollywood films and the use of financing from criminal activities became the characteristics of a constantly expanding production (300 films at the end of the 1950s), in which, however, the links with the real problems of the country were increasingly lost. A year before independence from Great Britain, Abbas made Dharti ke lal (1946, Children of the Earth) against the tide, a social film that was shown in London, Paris and Moscow. To the same author we owe in 1954 the first Indian film without songs or dances, Munna (The Lost Child), and numerous film scripts by R. Kapoor, which graft social themes on the modules of popular comedy in vogue: Awara (1951, The Wanderer), Shri 420 (1955, Mr. 420). Satyajit Ray, who with Pather panchali (1955, The lament on the path) marked the beginning of a profound renewal not only of Bengali cinema in crisis but of the entire Indian cinema. Awarded at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, Pather panchali thus opened the career of one of the greatest post-war filmmakers (Aparajito, 1956, L’invitto; Parash pathar, 1957, The philosopher’s stone; Apu sansar, 1959, Il mondo di Apu; Devi, 1960, La dea), showing the possibility of an Indian auteur cinema outside the rigid schemes of genres.
The story of Indian cinema then became the story of the progressive affirmation of the so-called parallel cinema alongside the fabric of commercial cinema, extraordinarily stable and free from the crises experienced by other international film markets. Together with Ray, another great Bengali director, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak, began in the 1950s, reaching full maturity in the following decade with controversial, intense and violent works (Ajantrik, 1957, The vagabond; Meghe dakha tara, 1960, The veiled star of clouds; Subarna Rekha, 1962, The river Subarna Rekha), in which the author’s intellectual destiny is inextricably intertwined with that of an entire people, divided between India and Pakistan. At the basis of modern Indian cinema, Ghatak became a point of reference, human and political as well as artistic, of the nouvelle vague that was born in the early seventies. At the Film Institute of Puna were his students Kumar Shahani (Maya darpan, 1972, The mirror of illusion; Tarang, 1984, Vibrations), Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Swayamvaram, 1972, Your own choice; Kodiyettam, 1977, The rise; Elippathayam, 1981, Mousetrap) and above all Mani R. Kaul, an unconventional and uncompromising author, linked to the deepest aspects of Indian philosophy, who stood out for a severe cinema, stripped of any commercial trappings, inspired by the lessons of Ozu Yasujirō and Robert Bresson, and for this reason it is not easy to spread. His films include Uski roti (1969, His bread), portrait of a wife, Duvidha (1973, Indecision), from a traditional Indian tale, Satah se uthata admi (1980, Emerging from the surface) which reflects on the relationship between cinema and verbal language. The new cinema was largely linked to funding from the Film Finance Corporation (1960), which since 1968 devoted itself entirely to the promotion of young authors. Among them, Govindan Aravindan (Kanchana Seeta, 1977, La Sita d’oro, modern transposition of Rāmāyaṇa), Girish Raghunath Karnad (Kaadu, 1973, The forest; Ondanondu kaladalli, 1978, Once upon a time), Basu Chatterjee (Piya ka ghar, 1971, The husband’s house). A separate place belongs to Shyam Benegal, dedicated to a cinema with a large popular impact and less authorial rigor, full of works dealing with social issues such as the oppression of women (Bhumika, 1976, The role; Kondura, 1977, The talisman), the problems of the peasantry (Ankur, 1973, Il germoglio; Nishant, 1975, L’Alba), the corruption of the urbanized industrial classes (Kalyug, 1980).
The seventies, however, were dominated by another Bengali director who, after Ray, is considered the most authoritative of national cinema: Mrinal Sen, an author with an irregular career, which began in the 1950s and marked, in 1969, by a pivotal work such as Bhuvan Shome (Mr. Shome) which gave rise to the Indian nouvelle vague. With the ‘Calcutta trilogy’ (Interview, 1970; Calcutta ’71, 1972; Padatik, 1973, Il guerrigliero), Sen tackles the problems of unemployment and poverty inspired by B. Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard. Even the following films are open denunciations of the country’s misery, of the problems of urbanization, of the hypocrisy of the bourgeois classes and of the feudal legacies in India coeval. Among these films, all marked by a subtle reflection on the art of cinema, we remember Chorus (1974), Mrigaya (1976, The real hunt), Oka oorie katha (1977, Village story), Chaalchitra (1981, Kaleidoscope), Khandhar (1983, The Ruins), the television film Tasveer apni apni (1984, frankly speaking), Genesis (1986). A native of Bengal is also Buddhadev Dasgupta, an intellectual with a Marxist background (before dedicating himself to cinema he taught economics at the University of Calcutta) who in 1978 signed his first work, Dooratwa (The distance), demonstrating the remarkable artistic sensitivity that will lead him, twenty years later, to win the appreciation of Western critics.
The 1980s saw the emergence of new talents such as Ketan Metha (Bhavni bhavai, 1980, A story of storytellers), Govind Nihalani (Aakrosh, 1980, Rabbia) and Akhtar Saeed Mirza (Albert Pinto ko gussa kyon aata hai, 1980, What makes Albert Pinto angry), increasingly oriented towards a cinema capable of recovering forms of popular entertainment. Finally, there are some Indian films that have received critical acclaim in international festivals: Ekti jiban (1990, Portrait of a life) by Raja Mitra; Salaam Bombay (1988; Salaam Bombay!) By Mira Nair, which was also successfully released on Italian screens; Ganashatru (1989, An enemy of the people) by S. Ray – who throughout the seventies and eighties had continued to make valuable works such as Aranyer din ratri (1969, Days and nights in the forest), Jana aranya (1975.