The first 50 years of Indian cinema, largely ignored in the Centenary celebrations, subtly contributed to a cultural awakening.

Even as India is celebrating the Centenary of Indian Cinema, the general focus and fanfare are about the second half of the century. Obviously because the audience is more familiar with the stars of this period and the first 50 years are almost forgotten.

In a brief sketch, it is impossible to list out everyone who had made their mark or every film that was important. One has to be choosy. The criteria I have chosen is to see who, and which films, made a significant social impact.

Among all the Afro-Asian nations which were European colonies, an organised film industry was born only in India. The rest were dependent on films imported from America, England or France. In my opinion, Indian Cinema contributed to Indian nationalism in the first place, by just being Indian. This happened in two ways:

First, from the silent cinema era onwards, our films projected anecdotes from the Hindu mythology, glorifying ancient Indian themes, resurrecting in the memory of a people, their glorious past and tradition. Everyone knows that Dadasaheb Phalke’s ‘Raja Harischandra’ (1913) was the first Indian feature film and it set this trend.

The Second element of Indian Cinema having a national identity came with the arrival of Sound. Inheriting the tradition of the ancient Sanskrit Theatre, which was an amalgam of drama, opera and ballet, the Indian Cinema also became an amalgam of songs, dance and dialogue. The tradition of the Sanskrit theatre, which suffered in the medieval period, was kept alive by folk theatre in different parts of India with local names such as ‘Therukoothu’ in Tamil Nadu, Jatra in Bengal, ojapali in Assam, Leela in Orissa, Swang in Punjab, and Jashn in Kashmir.

When the Indian Talkie was born, it absorbed on the one hand, the technology of cinema from the west, and the aesthetic form of India’s folk theatre on the other. Thus the Indian film became unique as songs and dances were an integral part of it, unlike cinema anywhere else in the world. Released in 1931, Ardeshir Irani’s ‘Alam Ara’ – the first Indian talkie – faithfully established the formula.

In these and other subliminal ways, Indian cinema contributed to the cultural awakening of India irrespective of whether aesthetic or technical quality of individual films were good, bad or indifferent.

Challenging orthodoxy

When Indian films began to portray contemporary Indian life, they came to be known as Social Films as against the mythological ones or the folklore. Although most of these films dealt with boy-meets-girl stories or the drama of perennial conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, they were daring as they questioned orthodoxy and provoked change.

After the passing of the Sarada Act in 1929 (which prohibited child marriage), a new member was introduced to the Indian family – the ‘adult unmarried daughter’. This was a major watershed of social change. Indian cinema contributed to this revolutionary change in its own way. While the majority of films were escapist entertainment, without any conscious social message, they subliminally contributed to social change.

Let us look at some important films, made with a conscious effort to communicate social and political messages to the people of pre-Independent India. Himanshu Rai’s ‘Acchut Kanya’ (1939) under the banner of Bombay Talkies, featuring the glamorous Devika Rani and newcomer Ashok Kumar, was a love story between a Harijan girl and a high caste boy. It became a huge box office hit. Master Vinayak’s ‘Brandy ki Bottle,’ propagated Gandhiji’s ideals of prohibition in a dramatic manner. Rama Brahmam’s ‘Riatu Bidda’ (Telugu) earnestly advocated the leftist ideology, with the hero forming an agricultural cooperative society and opposing the Zamindari system. B. N. Reddy’s ‘Sumangali’ (Telugu) boldly advocated widow remarriage. B. N. Sircar of New Theatres used Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ (later chosen as the national anthem) as the title song for his ‘Udhayar Pathey’ (Bengali).

Because of strict political censorship, filmmakers avoided direct nationalist themes, but often showed their inclination incidentally and subtly. For instance, some filmmakers showed their affiliation to the national struggle by showing the portraits of Gandhi, Nehru, Rajaji or Netaji and occasionally Karl Marx hanging in the living rooms of the ‘heroes’. There was ‘Dooor Hato Hai Duniyawale, Hindustan Hamara Hai,’ the famous song in the film ‘Kismat’ (1942).

Sometimes even folklore, historical and mythological films had the message of freedom struggle implanted in them. For instance, in J.B.H. Wadia’s ‘Amar Raj’ showed the hero dethroning a tyrannical king and declaring ‘democracy’ although he could have taken over the throne as the winner. Sohrab Modi’s ‘Sikandar’ on Alexander’s invasion of India, featuring Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor, evoked passionate nationalist sentiments. Prabhat’s devotional, biographical film on the saint, ‘Eknath’ propagated the Gandhian ideals of abolishing ‘untouchables’. Interestingly, the British censors objected to the original title of this film, which was ‘Mahatma,’ and the producers were obliged to change it to ‘Dharmatma.’

Between 1936 and 1942, K. Subrahmanyam made some of the most socially significant Tamil films. His ‘Balayogini’ chastised Brahmin orthodoxy and portrayed the sufferings of widows. His ‘Seva Sadhanam’ (in which M. S. Subbulakshmi was introduced) poignantly dealt with the tragedy of a teenage girl marrying an old man. His ‘Bhaktha Chetha’ portrayed a Harijan getting God-realization. His celebrated film ‘Thyagaboomi’ (1939) was important in several ways. It was banned by the British Government for propagating nationalist sentiment and promoting the Indian National Congress. It was also a landmark of Indian cinema in its advocacy of woman’s freedom – a film in which the wife becomes successful after being driven away from the husband’s home, and later comes forward to offer alimony to him in the courtroom!

The 1940s saw two very politically important films. Kwaja Ahmed Abbas made ‘Dharti ke Lal’ – the story of the Bengal famine with a unique style of mixing actual footage of the famine in Bengal with his recreated scenes. Abbas wrote the screenplay for another immortal film, directed by V. Shantaram. ‘Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani’ dealt with the real story of an Indian doctor who served in China during the world war in response to a call from Jawaharlal Nehru.

More often than not, films produced after independence reflecting the glory of heroism of a people during the freedom movement are classified in popular perception as films of the freedom struggle. They are no doubt, important. But when you celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, it is even more important to salute those brave hearts of the first half of the century. For, in a real sense, they were participants in the freedom struggle by making the kind of films they did.

(The writer is a documentary and television filmmaker and a recipient of the Padmashri Award. He is the co-author, along with Prof. Erik Barnouw, of Indian Film - Columbia University Press & Oxford University Press- widely considered the pioneering authentic study of Indian Cinema.)