Importance of Culture in the expansion of Indian Cinema

If Indian cinema wants to seep into the hearts of the general populace, then the people need to be shown the same Indian cultural values they have been fed like a tonic since childhood. Every one among us has grown up listening to the religious tales from the ‘Puranic corpus’, along with the timeless sagas of innumerable brave hearts.
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Representative Image- CroppedAnnie Spratt (Unsplash)

If Indian cinema wants to seep into the hearts of the general populace, then the people need to be shown the same Indian cultural values they have been fed like a tonic since childhood. Every one among us has grown up listening to the religious tales from the ‘Puranic corpus’, along with the timeless sagas of innumerable brave hearts.

Dadasaheb Phalke was a pioneer in making countless films on Indian culture. Treading the path of his success, other filmmakers too made such films. Looks like that bygone era is coming back.

In 1913, when Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’ came up with India’s first feature film name ‘Raja Harishchandra’, a genuine question arose. 

Why did he choose that particular topic for his film?

To lure people, he could have chosen stories like ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Alibaba and the Forty Thieves’, etc. which were popular among the masses in those days. However, by choosing a ‘Histrio-Puranic’ narrative for his silent film, Phalke not only clarified his narrative but also showcased his farsightedness.

Phalke knew that if Indian cinema wants to seep into the hearts of the general populace, then the people need to be shown the same Indian cultural values they have been fed like a tonic since childhood. Every one among us has grown up listening to the religious tales from the Puranic corpus, along with the timeless sagas of innumerable brave hearts. This was the key reason behind ‘Raja Harishchandra’ being the first silent Indian film. In the coming years, the ‘Religio-Puranic’ and ‘Histrio-Heroic’ remained popular genres among filmmakers. Slowly, social issues and patriotism became the topic of many films along with literary texts. However, most of these films were colored with the color of ‘Indianness’ in them.

Silent Era

If we talk about the initial phase of ‘Silent Era’ then, Phalke was: The “one and only producer”. During this period, he made films like ‘Satyavan Savitri’ and ‘Lanka Dahan’. In 1918, when Phalke went to Nasik and opened ‘Hindustan Film Company, he used the banner to make ‘Krishna Janma’, which laid a strong foundation for purely religion-centric movies. After this, Phalke made ‘Kaliya Mardan’, whereas other filmmakers too started coming up with films like ‘Ram Janma’, ‘Kans Vadh’, ‘Sati Parvati’, ‘Bhakta Vidur’ and ‘Krishna-Sudama’.

In the ‘Silent Era’ itself, films on ‘Puranic’ characters like ‘Saint Tukaram’, ‘Shakuntala’, ‘Valmiki’ and ‘Bhishma’ started rolling out. On the other hand, in 1922, ‘Madan Theatre’ decided to bring to life the historical character of ‘King Ashoka’ on the silver screen through the film ‘Ashok’. During the ‘golden age’ of ‘Silent Era’ (1925-26), films like ‘Parshuram’, ‘Kalidas’, Sant Namdev’, ‘Raja Parikshit’, ‘Tulsidas’, ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’, ‘Veer Bharat’, ‘Rana Pratap’, ‘Durgesh Nandini’ and ‘Shivaji’ had given a direction to Indian cinema. In 1931, when the era of ‘Talkies’ started, films on our kings and their families became abundant. Numerous films like ‘Ayodhya kaa Raja’, ‘Prithviraj-Sanyogita’, ‘Meerabai’, ‘Raja Gopichand’, ‘Chandragupt’, ‘Rooplekha’ and ‘Vasavadatta’ were produced. Religious texts like ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, along with their various main characters became the topic of a fast and continuous process of film production.

Global narrative, Indian in essence

In 1947, when India became independent, along with ‘Religio-Puranic’ films, ‘historical’ narratives were also being made. Subsequently, films on the ‘idea’ of an independent India, and brave heroes of the independence struggle, became new additions. Within this period, films on social issues, love stories, and crime started getting produced at lightning speed.

With this, the range of narratives started widening day by day. The plots of the movies may have been different; however, most films were common in sparking a sense of ‘Indianness’. This is the reason why different films made on the same issue were successful in mesmerizing audiences. People used to feel a sense of belongingness while watching these films.

When it comes to ‘Religio-Puranic’ films, the name ‘Ramayana’ is the title of four flicks made between 1933 and 1960. On the other hand, in 1961 a film by the name of ‘Sampoorna Ramayana’ was released followed by another one in 1978. ‘Ram Rajya’ is the title of two films released in 1943 and 1967, respectively. Besides, ‘Ram Navami’, ‘Ram Dhun’ and ‘Ram Leela’ about 500 films have been produced related to ‘Lord Krishna’, ‘Mahadev’, ‘Goddess Durga’, ‘Lord Vishnu’, ‘Lord Hanuman’ and ‘Lord Ganesha’.

When it comes to patriotism, ‘Shaheed’, ‘Samaadhi’, ‘Hakeekat’, ‘Upkaar’, ‘Kranti’ are a few of many such films. The superiority of Indian culture when compared to Western culture has been portrayed in many films like ‘Poorab aur Pashchim’. ‘Sansaar’, ‘Gharaana’, ‘Khaandaan’, ‘Sasural’, ‘Teen Bahuraaniyaan’, ‘Grhasti’, ‘Babul’, ‘Rakhi’, ‘Maa’, ‘Mamata’ and ‘Vidaai’ are some of the innumerable films which have portrayed Indian family values and the deeply rooted relationships.

Fall in the Eighties

Indian cinema has been the flagbearer in making historical films. Filmmakers like Sohrab Modi made history by making a grand movie like ‘Jhansi ki Rani’. Along with Jhansi ki Rani, brave hearts like Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Prithviraj, Chandragupta, and Vikramaditya too became the topic of uncountable films. However, after 1980 films that talked about Indianness, India’s culture, and India’s brave heroes, started dwindling in numbers.

Erosion of ‘Indianness’ in search of ‘Neo’

There are various reasons behind the sharp fall of ‘Indianness’ and Indian cultural values in films. Firstly, with time, filmmakers have experimented with films which have made love, comedy, action, etc. the dominant genres of cinema. Another reason behind this downfall is that in the bygone era, filmmakers used to make films on the novels of Tagore, Premchand, Sharat Chandra, Vimal Mitr, Acharya Chatursen Shastri, Bhagawati Charan Verma and Gowardhanram Tripathi, which used to give a sense of ‘Indianness’ in portrayal. But now, most filmmakers make films on foreign stories and writers or remake foreign films. This is why ‘Indianness’ is stranded miles away from our movies.

Some filmmakers talk about making historical films but end up demeaning historical figures by adding fictional love stories. For example- ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is known as the biggest film in Indian cinema. However, when it comes to ‘history’ this film is miles away from the truth. The film portrays the ‘father-son’ conflict along with the ‘Saleem-Anarkali’ love story which is missing from the pages of history. In 2001, when Shahrukh Khan made a film on King Ashoka by the name ‘Asoka’, everyone facepalmed. The dose of a fictional love story is so high that even the actual history gets overshadowed.

A New Hope

Films on Indian history and Indian aesthetics are still being made, but seldom. The immense success of Bahubali movies in 2015 and 2017 has given new hope in this direction. After this ‘Padmavat’ and ‘Tanhaji’ hoisted the flag of ‘Indianness’ with pride. Known for clean films of changing times molded in Indian culture, Rajshri Productions gave us ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’, Aditya Chopra made ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaaenge’, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali made ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’. These films gave a new grandeur to Indian weddings by portraying the tradition of Indian music in these ceremonies. These films revitalized the old and dormant traditions. However, this could not continue because Barjatya-Bhansali-Chopra cannot carry the weight of the film industry all alone.

Recently, Aditya Chopra, Akshay Kumar, and Chandraprakash Dwivedi tried to revitalize the old traditions with films like ‘Prithviraj’, ‘Rakshabandhan’, ‘Ram Setu’ etc. However, all of them tanked at the box office. It is because most filmmakers focus on making films that focus more on ‘masala’ and less on substance, and mint 100-200 crores for them in the first two weeks. Even the average person was becoming a slave of ‘instant entertainment’ with fast food in theatres. But, in recent months, as most Hindi films are tanking, it looks like the audience is desperately searching for something better and new. India is a nation of stories. India doesn’t have a shortage of stories but a lack of good filmmakers. If the filmmakers become serious with their films, then, India doesn’t have a shortage of good audiences, either. 

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