Ninety-nine years ago, Dadasaheb Phalke made a movie about a king who never lied. The king couldn't have lied even if he wanted to. The film was silent. But today, with so many films being made in so many languages, what will we be celebrating, really, when we raise a toast to a century of our cinema?

The National Awards, over the years, have made something of a habit of surprising us. Sometimes, the surprise is that an actor is honoured for a harmless role, one that required all the apparent effort of chewing a stick of gum. Sometimes, the surprise is the actor himself, an unfamiliar face, someone who isn't in the movies we usually see and isn't on television either, entreating us to buy a pair of this, a bottle of that. Sometimes, we are surprised by the ability of the jury to juggle, like the leader of a jerry-built political alliance propped up by contentious parties, the actual merits of the films under consideration with the practical impulse to give no single state cause for complaint. And sometimes, like it happened this year, we are surprised by how little we still know about our nation. The award for Best Feature Film was shared by “Deool”, made in Marathi, and “Byari”, a drama named for the dialect spoken by the people in it. The surprise, to some of us, wasn't that a film in the Byari language won. The surprise was that a language named Byari existed.

Like the nation of India, the notion of Indian cinema is simultaneously specific and frustratingly vague. What is Indian cinema? Cinema that is made in India, certainly. But what else? Is it the cinema that spins stories about India and Indians? In that case, would “Gandhi”, the story of the most famous Indian of them all, qualify as Indian cinema, even if its makers are from outside India? Or is Indian cinema identified by narration in a particular style, a recognisably Indian style, hearts on sleeves, songs and dances? By that definition, Thiagarajan Kumararaja's “Aaranya Kaandam” may not quite be Indian cinema. Though made in Tamil and mounted against heated Tamils, it speaks a clinical language of film from cooler climes. Does Indian cinema denote the films made after the country was freed from her fetters? In that case, “Raja Harischandra”, whose centenary has sparked these celebrations, isn't really an Indian film because it was made in a British colony. We should have to wait for Independence to begin talking about Indian cinema.

Is Indian cinema really the Bhojpuri film and the Tamil-Telugu masala movie, the on-screen equivalent of dal, homely comfort food in which the millions of men on the street can sop their day's disappointments? Will art movies and the newfangled multiplex movies, then, attuned to English-thinking markets, not come under Indian cinema, because the people who consume them have modelled themselves after Americans? After all, how many Indians are like Sid, needing warm-hearted exhortations to wake up? Most of them do not have the luxury of sound sleep. What about films made by Indians but set outside India, keeping in mind the Indians living outside India? Do those count, those lush melodramas on which we sneeringly slap the label “NRI film”? And what about the opposite? If a film were made in the country, like “A Passage to India”, but featured primarily westerners, would that be Indian cinema?

Reasons to celebrate

While it is difficult to define, precisely, what Indian cinema is, it's easy to see why its hundredth year, in 2013, is going to be celebrated. It's a matter of national pride, like a hundred hundreds in cricket — and in at least one sense, there's genuine cause. Ours is the only cinema — let's ignore, for now, the slightly thorny issue of identifying “our cinema” — that has not been squelched under the Hollywood juggernaut. In most other countries, American cinema insidiously assumes a pitch-perfect local disguise, either through dubbing or subtitling, and nudges out the national cinema, which comes a distant second — in terms of the numbers of movies being made, in terms of the money earned, in terms of what the locals prefer to watch. We, on the other hand, like our Hollywood films, we welcome their arrival on our shores the same day as everywhere else in the world, and those of us who don't know English slip into versions of these films where James Bond lets loose his bons mots in irreproachable Tamil and Telugu — and yet, our numerous film industries continue to thrive. Large numbers of movies are being made in Indian languages and being seen by large numbers of Indians.

We might even celebrate the gradual encroachment of Indian cinema not just into New York but also onto the august pages of the New York Times, where Indian films are now reviewed like films in other foreign languages. But the tone of these reviews is a slap of cold wind, a blustering reality check that our films are treated, mostly, with arch amusement and a benign tolerance for a crazy people who sing and dance and just cannot be taken seriously. Our art cinema, of course, is treated with seriousness and showcased in reverent retrospectives — but Indian cinema is mainly commercial cinema (there; perhaps that could be the definition), and it doesn't carry, in the eyes of the well-travelled cineaste, the consequence of cinema from other nations — French cinema, Italian cinema, Spanish cinema. The names of Indian filmmakers just don't leap off the lip like the names of Almodóvar or Nanni Morretti, whose entertaining films are also regarded as essential.

We could claim, of course, that this doesn't matter, that a nation whose other great passion has passed from the hands of M.A.K. Pataudi to Mahendra Singh Dhoni does not care, any longer, for the white man's endorsement. Our movies, however we define them, are made for us, and they are as distinct in flavour as our cuisine. Indeed, how can we expect the Westerner to understand and appreciate “Indian cinema” when even we don't? The India of the villages sees one kind of Indian cinema. Urban India, which has become westernised to an unrecognisable extent, pays a few thousand rupees on a weekend to watch another kind of Indian cinema. The cinema of India, today, encompasses everything from rousing sagas where an immaculate hero beats up twenty-five villains with a single fist to the light-hearted romantic comedy whose protagonist feels not a speck of guilt as he falls in love with his brother's fiancée, a turn of events that the other India would denounce as the very depths of perversion.

Valuing our heritage

But even as we celebrate our unique (and split) identity in cinema and look forward, it is vital to honour the past that brought us to this day. Film preservation is practically non-existent in the country — it's not just the black-and-white silents that have been consumed by the chemicals that created them but also films from later decades, as late as the 1980s, whose prints are either lost (even the directors, lamentably, are at a loss, for they didn't think it important to hold on to the original negatives) or retrievable only as 10th-generation copies on DVDs, where these films are bundled up with a bunch of other movies, in a mournful echo of the buy-one-get-one-free ads. Almost all our films from the pre-digital era are damaged in some form, and even if we don't have — as Hollywood does — a system of enshrining classics in National Film Registries, we might at least ensure that acceptable prints are available to future generations.

The other hope I harbour while commemorating this centenary is that subtitles be made mandatory for films made in every Indian tongue, even Hindi, which, contrary to the Centre's assumption, isn't exactly a nationally understood language. Perhaps we'd be better equipped to define Indian cinema if we saw films in Malayalam and Marathi and Bengali and Assamese, perfectly in harmony with each moment (and not just a vague sense of the plot). Just recently, I found my appreciation of a film enhanced immeasurably through subtitles — and the film was in Hindi, a language many of us are quite familiar with. “Paan Singh Tomar”, however, does not speak the Hindi of Hindi cinema, but a dialect glutted with colourful colloquialisms that I would have missed had they not been translated, colour intact, for my benefit. If this is what subtitles can add to a film you would have understood a fair amount of even without them, imagine what they could do to a movie made in Byari.