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Coming of age

Friday, August 31, 2012

This is the third of six articles on Indian cinema in the last century, tracing its evolvement through the 1940s and the 50s

Time for Experimentation

THE end of the Thirties brought World War II to India's doorstep. The Defence of India rules brought in regulated distribution of raw stock, compulsory showings of all approved films and footage restrictions.

After Partition, both Bombay and Calcutta suffered heavy losses . This paved the way for the phoenix of the film industry, Madras!

Madras Magic
As the Forties proceeded, the studio system crashed soundlessly throughout the country. With economic restrictions, most producers were freelancing, allowing the distributors to dictate their terms. The infamous 'star system' also developed during this time.

It was only in Madras that the banner and institution still spelt magic. S.S Vasan's Gemini, B.N Reddi's  Vauhini, A.V Meiyappan's AVM, L.V Prasad and others became extremely powerful banners. It became a matter of prestige and box-office rating for Bombay stars to bag South Indian projects. Simultaneously, these banners also formulated an efficient, disciplined manner of production, one that remains unrivalled to date.

It was the Tamil genre of lavish mythologies that really caught the imagination of the audience. The Tamilians' pride in their heritage found its expression in costumed spectaculars and para-historicals. There were also successful experiments in other genres like the family drama, the social film and even comedies.

Incidentally, the strongest anti-Hindi political outfit at the time - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — was led by a group of activists from the film industry!

Tamil cinema's high point came in 1948, with the release of SS Vasan's Chandralekha.

The film opened all over India, broke all existing box-office records, and set standards of excellence for Hindi films. In effect, it opened the floodgates for Tamil films in the Hindi market. Eventually, the South gave Hindi films the swashbuckling hero, Ranjan and heroines like Bhanumathi, Vyjayanthimala, Padmini, Ragini, Waheeda Rehman and Sarada.


The Forties were a free-for-all time for experimentation. Although the success of Madras was largely due to their lavishly mounted mythologicals, the producers down South made a variety of films, including family dramas like Nalla Thangal and Grihalaxmi. Jawar Seetharaman introduced for the first time in India, the French classic, Les Miserables!

Prabhat, meanwhile, was on a social reform tirade, and P.C. Barua continued with his idealistic, self-absorbed romantic style. Under Devika Rani's leadership, Bombay Talkies produced what is probably India's first film on the fourth estate (press), Naya Sansar, and the hugely successful Kismet, both starring Ashok Kumar.
However, the laissez-faire attitude of the Twenties and Thirties vanished, as the censors became paranoid and prudish about kissing and other scenes of physical proximity.

1940 — Himanshu Rai, founder of Bombay Talkies died.

1941 — D.M Pancholi's Khazanchi became a trend setter for its music by Ghulam Haider.

1944 — Dadasaheb Phalke passed away.

1946 — Dharti Ka Lal, directed by K.A.  Abbas, won critical acclaim at home and abroad.

Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

1947 — Two prominent stars of the 20s and 30s - K.L Saigal and Master Vithal — passed away.

Ram Rajya, Shah Jahan, and V. Shantaram's  Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, films of different genres, were shown at the Canadian National Exhibition at Toronto.

1948 — World-renowned dancer, Uday Shankar's lavish musical ballet, Kalpana  received rave reviews at home and abroad.

1949 — Censorship became a federal function and separate certificates for (A) exhibition were instituted.

 (Content provided by Amrita Bharati)

Here Come The Censors

IN 1954, 13,000 housewives submitted a petition to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, stating that cinema posed a threat to  “the moral health of the country". Even All India Radio stopped playing Hindi film songs, surrendering its entire audience up to Radio Ceylon (now Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp.) However, the Patil Commission  firmly declined the accusations thrown at the industry.  The fruits of this goodwill were to culminate in the formation of of THE FILM FEDERATION OF INDIA in 1957. The same year saw the birth of Vividh Bharati.

Bengal Bohemians

Although the fifties also saw the rise of cinematic legends like Raj Kapoor, Mehboob and Guru Dutt, the limelight was clearly stolen by the masters of a new, poetic vision from Bengal.

In 1955, inspired by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji’s famous novel Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray, then a visualizer in  an ad. agency in Calcutta decided to make a film on the subject.Three years later, Satyajit Ray completed Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) …making a mark that defined Indian Cinema for decades to come! The film – a look at Bengali rural life through the eyes of two children,  Apu and Durga __ was promptly picked up for international distribution, even without sub-titles! It won numerous awards including the “Best Human Document” award at Cannes.

Ray followed Pather Panchali with Aparajito (which won the Lionne d’Ore at Venice) and Apur Sansar, thereby completing the Apu trilogy.

Two other Bengali geniuses were Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak. Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen (1953) won international acclaim and awards at Cannes and Karlovy. The film, starring Balraj Sahni in the role of a dispossessed peasant, became a landmark in Indian cinema. Roy followed it up with two major blockbusters – Devdas (in '56 catapulting Dilip Kumar to stardom) and Madhumati (in '58).

Ritwik Ghatak, the Dhaka-born irrepressibly original genius was one of the very few Indian filmmakers who remained entirely uninfluenced by the West. Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy, 1958) Bari Theke Paliya (The Runaway 1959) and Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star, 1960) made him a cult figure (although unappreciated in his lifetime) for serious students of filmmaking.

In the south, M.G Ramchandran, Sivaji Ganeshan, Gemini Ganeshan (Tamil), N.T. Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao (Telugu) and Dr Rajkumar (Kannada) acquired the status of demi-gods in their respective states, playing patriarchal roles in mythological and family dramas. A fresh departure was S.S Vasan’s Mr Sampat, a hilarious spoof on politicians, film stars and religious men. Based on a R.K. Narayan novel, the film had veteran actor Motilal in the lead ‘roles’.

1951 – Formation of the Central Board of Film Censors.

1952 – The first International Film Festival was held in Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Calcutta. Minerva Movietone released Jhansi Ki Rani, India’s first Technicolor film.
Sivaji Ganeshan, Tamil Nadu’s legendary hero, made a powerful debut in Parasakhthi.

1954 – The National Film awards were instituted. P.K Atre’s Shyamchi Aai won the Presidents' Gold Medal for Best Film Of The Year (’53). Raj Kapoor released his Boot Polish, a statement against child labour.

1955 – V Shantaram released his lavish Technicolor musical  Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho won the Grand Prix at the Karlovy Vary Festival. Children's Film Society’s Jaldeep won first prize at the Venice Festival of Children's Films.

1957 – Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival for music. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa became a critical and commercial success.

1958 – V. Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Bara Haath won the Silver Bear at Berlin, the Samuel Goldwyn International Film Award and the ‘Best Foreign Language film’ award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association!

Nargis won the Best Actress award at Karlovy for her role in Mother India (’57) The film became the first Indian production to be nominated for the Oscars. It lost in the third round by four votes!

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