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‘Words Sounds Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India’ review: Brave new digital age

A serendipitous meeting with a matinee idol opened the doors of cinema for Amit Khanna while still at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He would go on to spend 45 years in the industry from “helping with Navketan,” writing lyrics, entering the world of TV production to heading Reliance Entertainment and more. Khanna’s new book, Words, Sounds, Images, is a fascinating ringside history of media and entertainment in India.

Growing up in the 1950s, post the joy of Independence and trauma of Partition, a period of hope and despair, he writes that his family like other Indians was obsessed with films and songs. Even in 1950, India made a large number of films, at least a 100 plus. Running to 800-odd pages, Khanna takes readers through the decades, starting with the ‘golden age’ of cinema of the 1950s and 1960s glittering with names of big stars, heartthrobs, visionary directors and musicians.

Bombay Talkies

“Undoubtedly, one of the all-time great studios in India was Bombay Talkies, established in 1934 by actor, producer and director Himanshu Rai, his wife, actress Devika Rani, and businessman Rajnarayan Dube,” says Khanna. Ashok Kumar, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, S.D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Ismat Chugtai, Kamal Amrohi and a host of others were associated with Bombay Talkies, which produced 115 films, including hits like Achhut Kanya.

In the east, around the same time, New Theatres was being set up by B.N. Sircar. Its first production would be the Bengali film Dena Paona, directed by Premankur Atarthi with music by Raichand Boral, often called the father of film music in India. Khanna writes that Raichand Boral, son of a dhrupad singer of Calcutta, received his training from masters like Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana (vocal), Masit Khan (tabla), and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (sarod). In 1927, he joined the first radio station, Indian Broadcasting Company, as a composer. Boral is said to have launched Saigal’s career.

Musical soirees

The anecdotes on films, music, radio, dance, theatre in India are a delight. We are told, for instance, that Dev Anand had a huge collection of books and music, and musical soirees were regularly held at his Juhu home; that he loved his travels and the cap he wears in Jewel Thief was bought in Copenhagen. Or that often “sarangi players, excellent singers themselves, trained well-known vocalists.”

Though not in great detail, Khanna also takes into account what was happening in regional cinema as well, particularly Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali films. He recalls an evening at film producer Suresh Jindal’s home in Delhi where renowned director G. Aravindan sang till dawn. There was a syncretic relationship between filmmakers of diverse regions and they kept themselves informed of what the other was doing. K. Balachander’s 1974 film, Aval Oru Thodar Kathai, says Khanna, was inspired by Ritwik Ghatak’s classic Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960).

The first film festival of India was held in 1952 with films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves on show, inspiring two iconic Indian films, Bimal Roy’s Do Beegha Zameen (1953) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali(1955). The 1950s and ’60s were followed by a “time of disruption” and evolution of technology creating new media, formats and forms of entertainment. By the 1980s, television overtook cinema as the medium of mass entertainment, he writes. Post-liberalisation, multiplexes arrived with plush seating, satellite TV was beamed into homes and by the end of the 1990s, life had turned digital.

Blips, and way forward

But this is not a roses-all-the-way biography, Khanna also takes into account the myriad problems of the industry from ratings (the veracity of true television viewership data is a sore point), piracy, ownership of copyright, lack of monetisation, over-production of films, and so forth.

Acknowledging the role of personal computers, mobile phone and internet in creating a networked society, he says India is now part of an ‘always on attention’ economy where everything from elections to war is fought on TV. But he also points out that if YouTube had democratized creativity, over-the-top platforms like Netflix were giving all sorts of films a chance.

The other issue that he highlights is that the potential of the Indian entertainment industry is yet to be realised. India leads in terms of films produced, TV households, number of channels, mobile phones and internet users but not in revenue or maximum monetisation. The total investment in the sector is under $10 billion, he writes. The Indian media and entertainment industry is “under invested, under developed and under ambitious.” Is anyone listening?

Words Sounds Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India; Amit Khanna, HarperCollins, ₹1,499.

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