Humans live their entire life as just as a spontaneous reaction" ~ Unknown
Our story of Indian Films starts with the British megacorporate trading company, The East India Company. When they came so did European theatre to the educated Indian audience and Bengal being the epicentre, saw many Bengali actors performed English plays. Films were made by adapting popular western literature or popular Bengali novels and stories by Parsee writers who were well versed in Urdu.
Bombay on the other hand, had popular commercial theatres owned by rich Parsee entrepreneurs who later extended to Bengal too. The new urban theatre is popularly known as Parsi theatre. This genre was an interesting mixture of Western Naturalistic drama, opera and several local elements. Spectacle based on huge settings and colourful backdrops was an essential part of it. Sexual fantasies and visions of love and beauty were already there when films appeared. The origin pre-dates Mohenjodaro, Harappa and the Kama Sutra. Indian theatre has an unbroken history of over two thousand years. The aesthetic theory of rasa briefly but cogently expounded in Natyashastra influenced Indian aesthetic theory and practice for more than a millennium.
Hindu mythological pictures were printed in Germany then imported to India via British firms. Their vast nineteenth century image manufacture transformed the nature of Hindu belief and worship but also through the illusionist work of artists like Ravi Varma (1846 - 1906) and several of his counterparts. In a sense 'classical' Hindu mythology was revived, romanticised and circulated all over the country. This set in motion a process of reconfiguration of the culturally heterogeneous Indian space into a more homogeneous Hindu space based on a commonly shared new iconic visualise.
The film medium with its optical manipulation, close-up and movement is just too influential not to exploit the female form. When the light dim and the silver screen glows and brings immortal beautiful people to life, the audience is captivated in a spellbound gaze. In the 20s J.F.Madan’s Madan theatres brought fetishizing of women as sex objects in Indian films. The studio kept Anglo-Indian and Jewish scantily cladded dance girls to provide “visions of transparent promise”. Sulochana who appeared in films like Anarkali and Heer Ranjha, became India’s first sex symbol.
The visual culture of the modern society is about ‘spectacle’. Spectacle itself is not a single concept; instead it holds different meanings depending on the time period and geographical location. But spectacle became identifiable during the Modern period, when commercialization, mass media and globalisation altered how societies spent their everyday lives, how they spent their leisure time and expressed themselves.
A new and expanding class, the working middle class, emerged as societies exploited internal labour and external raw materials. This new class began fundamentally re-shaping their societies, challenging the exclusiveness of the past fixed order. Dadasaheb Phalke was the first Indian to go to London to study filmaking. His films is a dreamy, ideal world of glossy hardships of the underdog who finds a happy ending. Every filmmaker worth her/his salt knows you cannot ignore your biology. Every Adman knows how objects in relation with other objects, their interactions, give meaning and add qualities to the objects that didn't exist. It is a way to communicate like language but more powerful as the meaning and the object becomes one. Deliberate manipulation to associate meaning, adding a fantastical element and desirability, making it more attractive. It gives objects a new context in our life which makes it more meaningful and builds an emotional relationship with the viewers. Thus an object of decoration becomes an important meaning that defines the identity of a society. It transforms itself from mere functional to something that's magical in the sense that it can affect how you feel or think of yourself. The actual use value becomes taken for granted after such remaking of the observer’s perception and habits.
The integration of sound and moving images can reorganise space, time and narrative. In visual media, violence is shown and is seen as a means of resolving problems, and reaching goals. Zubeida started in the first talkie, Alam Ara, where she successfully portrayed innocence with eroticism. This was the era of famous Parsee playwrights and poets. These were Parsi theatre influences, which "blended realism and fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, integrating them into a dramatic discourse of melodrama. The Parsi plays contained crude humour, melodious songs and music, sensationalism and dazzling stagecraft." This worked well as India has a strong folk tradition of narrating mythology, history, fairy stories and so on through song and dance; which became popular from around the 10th century with the decline of Sanskrit theatre. These regional traditions include the Yatra of Bengal, the Ramlilaof Uttar Pradesh, and the Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu.
During World War II, this black economy experienced a surge. When large quantities of products and resources were allocated to the war effort, the general public experienced acute shortages of daily necessities. Scarcity, government controls, and private hoarding stimulated the growth of the parallel economy. In a nation still struggling with wicked problems of mass poverty, migration, madness of female foeticide and honour killings; the Indian public feels secure by turning to the comforts in established, idealised, one-dimensional, ‘tribal’ ideas of ‘our’ and ‘other’ women. The shift happened with Independence as the elitist films of the colonial era failed to meet the desire of the Indian audience. India was still an agricultural economy unlike the industrialised West. Kissing scenes disappeared from the silver screen not because of censorship but because of pressure from social and religious groups. The heroine had to “uphold Indian traditional and moral values” by being virgins. The sex appeal could only be show if the women were western dressed “vamps” or items girls (“nautch girls”).
I think this distinction is important as history shows that with the discovery of agriculture and rise of civilization around fertile beds, the position of women became less important and that of men became more and more powerful. As a nomadic hunter, the women symbolised by the moon (not the sun as in agricultural societies) had more power as all hunts take place at night. The berries and fruits she collected was a mutual exchange for the man’s hunt. But patriarchal revolution took place in Persia, Egypt, India, and Arabia and amongst the Hebrews and Christians. They could no longer hold property, take legal action, sign contracts, had to cover their heads etc. In the words of K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake, “according to the Manusmriti, which had a profound effect on shaping the morals of Indian society, a female should be subject in childhood to her father, in her youth to her husband and upon the death of her husband to her sons.” A woman’s life was hence defined by her role as either a daughter, wife of mother. Otherwise, outside this boundary, a woman is sinful. Men overwhelmingly dominate the Hindi film industry as executives, producers, directors, writers, editors, and staff and for decades, girls and women in films have been stereotyped according to male images, expectations, and desires, stereotypes that, in general, reflect socio-economic patterns.
Out of a fear for women's sexuality, patriarchy has maintained double standards about 'morality'. The male protagonist is identified by the male audience as if they are looking at themselves in the mirror, wooing a fantastical woman and saving the day; whereas the women audience sees the male protagonist as a perfect or ‘complete man’ who is powerful to bring a ‘happy ending’. The female audience accepts these fairy-tale portrayals of women in Hindi films. These characters never need to mature because they are picture-perfect and unspoiled. Idealization sanitizes women.
Hindi films encourages the idea that women duty is to uphold the cultural traditions like, visiting temples, maintain relationships with family (both own and in-laws). This idea of women was epitome by Nargis as Radha in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (a remake of his film, Aurat). Men’s duty is to be physically strong (to protect the victimised damsel in distress) and provide for the family. A woman does not have the choice to mother a child outside of marriage and conversely, she does not have the choice to stay childless within marriage. That’s the absence of a woman's right to choose for herself, for her own body. The message being that living without a man, often means the risk of social stigma and increased vulnerability to sexual invasion. During the 1940s too cinema in South India accounted for nearly half of India's cinema halls and cinema came to be viewed as an instrument to revive of Indian traditional values and cultural.
Cut-off from the world during the Cold war era, India as a nation looked for a temporary fantasy. These Hindi films along with romantic fantasy also expressed social themes mainly dealing with working-class urban life in India. Unfortunately they were all made to target the male audience. Madhubala (one of India’s significant pin-up girl) starred in many male-centric films that made her a household name where she successfully combined vulnerability with aggressive eroticism. The RK Films was launched in 1950 with Barsaat. It was the same year when the Central Board of Film Censors was set up with Mr Justice Agarwal, the former Judge of the Patna High Court as its Chairman.
This was a time which led to perfecting romantic genre with films like Awara, Shri 420 and Barsaat that were box office hits. Another super-hit film, Pyaasa depicted a male protagonist ends up living on the streets, with Gulab, a courtesan (depicts Indian tradition, so not immorality) with a golden heart, who falls in love with him and his poetry. In Mughal-e-Azam (1960) the courtesan falls in love with the Prince but she is terrified of the King so she compromises but when the Prince hears of this he is furious, and loses respect for her. He tells her that she is not worthy of his love and that is what prompts the courtesan to sing that now famous song “Pyar kiya to Darna Kya” in front of the King.
While commercial Indian cinema was thriving, the period also saw the emergence of a new Parallel movement. The emergence of drama school theatre following the establishment of National School of Drama, an autonomous institution funded by state, in Delhi. Inspired by the example of RADA in UK where he received training, Ibrahim Alkazi set up the curriculum and conceived the training and production of the new school along the rigorous lines of modern Western theatre aesthetics. On the other hand his successor, BV Karanth, trained in Yakshagan traditions of Karnataka, Indianized theatre practices by pressing traditional techniques into the service of Modern theatre.
The first International Film Festival of India, which was held in early 1952 at Bombay, had great impact of Indian Cinema. The first film in techni-colour was Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani (1953). During the 1960s, Indira Gandhi's intervention during her reign as the Information and Broadcasting Minister of India further led to production of off-beat cinematic expression being supported by the official Film Finance Corporation. The Film Institute was started in Pune in 1960 on the former Prabhat Studio premises. It coincided with the starting of the Institute for Film Technology in Madras. Asha Parekh & Mala Sinha (Nepali) were quite popular in Bollywood films of the sixties and early seventies. Unfortunately the realist "second wave" parallel cinema by filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani of the 60s-90s did not last. By 1980s there was a complete decline in alternate cinema.
Raj Kapoor's film Sangam popularized the trend for shooting on foreign locales. This was the also the moment when Beatle mania caught on in India. Since the sixties, a new brand of electoral politics has seen leaders succeed who cater to specific regional, caste, religious, or linguistic communities as well as distinct private lobbies. Nepotism in the allocation of government contracts and the siphoning-off of public sector funds occur on a large scale. Insufficiently low wages are generally characteristic of the lower levels of bureaucracy, and therefore most simple government services require bribing to be obtained. Ironically, this was the time of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, ‘licence raj’ and Indo-Pak war over East Pakistan (Bangladesh). The mood of the nation was to overcome repression through aggression. This was reflected in Hindi films as it moved from romantic and poetic genre to the ‘angry young man’ action genre. The anti-hero to centre stage as the depiction of physical power and breaking all rules became admired and the position of women in Hindi films became trivial.
Zeenat Aman captivated the nation’s imagination as she delighted male viewers by appearing in wet clothes showing the fabulous figure of this “Miss Asia”. Mumtaz wearing snug-fit blouse and a low-hip orange sari, exposing a subtle navel ousted the vulgar cleavage as the selling factor. Young love became popular (Raj Kapoor’s Bobby) and doll-faced girls wore jeans when they symbolised being naughty or spoilt and don’t do hard work. They drive cars rashly, are arrogant and it requires a “decent” Indian man to come along and teach them a “lesson”. Soon this spoilt brat is “tamed” by the hero and she becomes obedient. She stops wearing western attire and change into Indian one after marriage. This is also the period when Indian films “South” began to outdo Hindi films in terms of portrayal of women as sex objects.
During the 70s Amitabh Bachchan, bell bottom, butterfly collar shits, fitted suits era; we lost the art of storytelling and the actors became "superman", the ultimate alpha male. The hero (popularity) now had to carry the film. So in the 80s, films began to fill the vacuum left by the decline of good storytelling culture. Colour television changed our living rooms. The writers went further back into the darkness. Films began to be filled with superficial add-ons like, multi-starrers to carry the film and then with item numbers (sex) to, hopefully, get the film through. Micheal jackson and Mithun's disco fever caught India. Without storytelling, a film became just another commodity, advertising a one-line concept; a fast-moving product that would soon need marketing to sell it. The story itself is secondary. Influenced by the new global culture and Hollywood, the Indian film industry went through major changes in the 1990s and began to depict the aspirations of the growing middle class for the ‘good life’ along with ‘traditional values’. For example, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), the male protagonist is shown as a rich boy who falls in love with a simple hardworking girl who is always shown wearing Indian clothes. The ‘bad’ girl is mean, calculating, lazy and a gold-digger (the daughter of the villain) and is dressed in smart western clothes. This was a time for formula masala action films to glow brightly before dying. In Mohra, a film where the heroine is a newspaper journalist, she is shown merely for erotic impact. All the old awe and shock had shined one last time before fading away. There were 124 flops out of 132 Hindi films made in 2002. However, this decade saw the comeback of popular songs with the help of romantic movies. The sales of audio cassettes soar.
By 2003 as many as 30 film production companies had been listed in the National Stock Exchange of India, making the commercial presence of the medium felt. In the new millennium, films elaborated on the idea of traditional and lifestyle and romanticised and glamorised the idea of Indian women. A popular slick film of that time is Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, released in 2002 and depicts different combinations of the family members, their wives and their girlfriends. Although the censor's ban on kissing was lifted in the 1980s, the industry has maintained a self-imposed ban, with only a few exceptions. The more sensual and erotic aspects of love are depicted instead in the song and dance sequences.
The large scale production of films with intricate network of distribution, advance technology and exhibition is exactly like any other capitalist industry. They are made for mass consumption. The commercial Hindi films are intentionally (because of large investments), melodramatic and filled with slapstick humour, and like the fashion industry planned to profit by fuelling hype and quickly grabbing mass attention. In India our films are our comic-books, every character is presented as caricatures so that it’s palatable to our audience.
Out of the 4000cr film finaced annually, big studios like Disney-UTV Motion Pictures (UTV Spotboy), Viacom-Studio18, Fox-Star Studios and Indian production houses like UTV, Relience Big Entertainment or foreign production houses like 20th Century Fox, Viacom (with or without independent producers) fund 60% of the films. The rest is funded by small production firms (some floated by actors) and old-fashioned distributors. Big studios 1:2 portfolio i.e. for every big star-big release film there is balanced with two low-budget experimental or targeted audience films which may do well by chance (example: Kahaani cost 8cr but grossed 106cr). It’s all about innovatively packaging and marketing a generic story, an stylistic presentation that will awe the audience. A well-delivered advertising of a fast-moving product, such that, the real storytelling doesn't matter anymore. The film has a much smaller window of 72-hours to swim or sink, whereas previously it had 4 to 6 weeks. Cost recovery is within the first two weeks and the rest is "surplus". Plot with gaping holes don't even register with the audience and good acting is a bonus in Hindi films.
As they say, we go to watch a movie to get pleasure, to relief tension. Indian audience wants to see new fantasy and not real life. Through media our world is filled ‘magical’ seducing objects that symbolises Ideas that have been distorted (partially highlighted and partially hidden) to design a fantasy. Films open with a song with the larger-than-life hero, and show off some "wow" moves. The gross exaggeration of muscle power in action films has had a comeback in Hindi films (it was always popular in Chinese or Hollywood films). Prakash Raj’s wrathfully witty villain Gani Bhai in Wanted, set the ball rolling. His corrupt local politico act as Jaykant Shikre in Singham sent his star billing soaring. Romantic movies since the 90s brought back popular music. Women are there for the excitement (sex) factor. Item numbers are popular than ever. White background dancers or extras are "visually good". The exploitation of the female form did not start with films in India. The “workers” (artists & technicians) have become slaves to a medium that requires a lot of money. A big budget mainstream film spends 50% to 70% of the money on publicity (one and half month before release) and a small budget regional/national film spends 10 to 15%. Out of which, today anywhere between 2% to 6% (and rising) is spent on online publicity. Much of the funding is from unorganized and sometimes even questionable sources. On paper, these distribution rights are sold for a much lower amount. After the film's release, the investor claims the box office returns as 'clean' profit i.e. white money.
Actually, what the you think does not actually matter anymore as there are less screens even if the content improved (screens are linked to the retail & real-estate sector since multiplexes have only 1200 screens in all of India but account for 70% of domestic box-office earnings). Hence, Worldwide/Overseas satallite telecast rights (30% of outright cost recovery), digital rights (10% and reducing due to piracy but increasing now because of online rights), domestic satallite cable TV telecast rights (150 channels and rising containing 33% film content and 15% of total viewership count; offer better price for film rights which is expected to grow from current 15% to 25% after complete digitization), song rights on radio (low as 5% but Rs.660/needle hr if royality is to be collected by copyright owners), song rights for 3G mobile service, public performance licences, rest from selling Domestic box-office etc to cover the cost before the film has even been released. Ironically, film production risks have been intentionally reduced, as its now linked to overall entertainment sector grown and not just the box-office but releasing film is still restrictive.
It is only human to desire and communicate, as basic need as food, shelter and even air we breathe. This is also a skilled art for politicians, storytellers, artists, musicians, and even the next door silver tongued salesmen because for them to communicate means to have the ability to sell you a desire. And what bigger distraction can there be from the daily labour of life than a burning fantasy warming up your senses.
The desire for self-expression and the obvious appreciation for beauty and aesthetics led to cultural innovations in art, literature and music. Visual stimulus has a hypnotic power to demand the observer’s attention. In the West, films about man-made machines or monsters who became more powerful than humans in 'Frankenstein', 'Metropolis' and Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times' are few examples of our natural reactions like anxieties, trauma and fears gets expressed though human imagination, as in it takes the form of popular media. But unlike the West, we didn't see that Industrial era of rapid industrialization and newer technological innovations.
During challenging times, with so many insecurities, the public craves to see a mirror that would transform life into something better. Human beings have a need to show that they have achieved happiness. Films today have become the entertainment coliseums of the modern society and the newly bottled opium for the masses. The reason for spectacle in the modern society is because of this flawed understanding of how we choose to represent our intrinsic need for happiness. This is why we fetishize newer objects that we don’t even need. Trade and commodities have a direct link with our the quality of our life, not only for physical comfort but also how we perceive ourselves (identity). Without the desire to buy, we would cease to be human. That is exactly the NEED which is exploited.
Film is a mass media that tries to show us what is our identity and our sensibilities are. It can influenced a society's behaviour pattern by injecting a collective memory. They do it by communicating through association & build an emotional connection to deliver a meaning to the viewer. It used fetishism so that consumers can sustain their private fantasies (due to injected or inherit complexes/fears/disturbances, for example the desire to be alpha male or superwomen) that they have liked with the identity of the product they sell. Cantril (1940) is often referred back upon as a classic example of how the mass media can influence through the gaining of trust. It caused a widespread public panic in America after a radio station broadcast of H.G.Wells’ fictional narrative War of the Worlds. The production involved a series of news bulletins in which the reporter gave a “live” account of a Martian invasion. A lot of listeners had tuned in a few moments after the show had begun and so, apparently unaware that the programme was of a fictitious nature, believed what they were hearing was the truth and so began becoming hysterical, with some taking to the streets and others even packing up their belongings as quickly as they could and driving off in order to avoid the attacks. Cantril’s study was the documentation of media-social relations at the time and so the “invasion” pointed towards the influence that the radio had over the masses, as they truly believed the broadcast. This case has been cited as being an excellent example of the “Hypodermic Needle Model”, a hypothesis which asserts that the media are dominant agents of influence, capable of “injecting” ideas and behaviours directly into fairly inert audiences of isolated individuals.
"During the mid 1950s, I recall Pandit Nehru addressing a Conference of Newspaper Editors. He advanced the interesting notion that Freedom of Speech and Expression had not been granted to good editors alone; it was most necessary for the bad editors too. It would be easy to say that editors should use their freedoms responsibly and in national interest. Of course, bad editors would do no such thing; they would print scurrilous articles. But then who is to decide who is a good editor and who is bad? If this is left to the government, then predictably only chamchas will survive as editors and the honest ones who spoke the truth to power would be hustled off to jail as bad editors misusing their freedoms."