One Hundred Years of Indian Cinema (The Art and Technology) – H.N.Narahari Rao

Tracing the history, birth and evolution of Indian cinema is always an exhilarating experience. According to historians, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar (Save Dada, 1868-1958) and Hiralal Sen were among the pioneers who produced moving images in India for the first time. Bhatwadekar was part of the audience which attended Lumière’s actuals screened for the first time in India, at Watson Hotel in Bombay by Lumière’s agent, Marius Sestier, in 1896.

Bhatwadekar was so impressed by the images he saw that he decided to make them in India. He had some experience of capturing images as he owned a still photography studio. He had to mobilize all his resources to import a camera and shoot a wrestling match and then send it to England for processing. He finally screened it in 1901. This is how moving images – what we now call cinema – arrived in India.

D.G. Phalke

Cinema developed fast, and its popularity grew immensely when image-makers started telling stories through moving images. Even during the silent era (up to 1931) cinema made an immeasurable impact through its ability to reach the people in a big way. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, (D.G.Phalke, 1870- 1944), was totally captivated by the effect of cinema when he saw the silent film, The Life of Christ, in 1910.  Phalke, who had a short stint as a photographer and then as a printing press owner, decided to take up filmmaking as his career. He travelled to London to procure filmmaking equipment and learn its process. After his return, he made India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, and released it in 1913. He went on to make a series of other films, fulfilling his ambition of showing Indian gods on the silver screen. Thus, Phalke became the father of Indian cinema.  It is now 100 years and time to celebrate.

Aesthetics of India Cinema

Cinema by its very nature is deceptive. This was evident even during the early stages of its emergence (1900-1903), when French illusionist Georges Meliès used the camera to produce trick visual effects. Later when German Expressionist cinema asserted itself during the silent era, films mainly dealt with horror, mental illness, basic emotions etc. They were presented on the screen in an artistic style and studio sets were created with peculiar geometric designs, lighting and shadows that looked totally different from the straightforward narration used thus far. Many films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Last Laugh (1924), Metropolis (1927) were direct products of expressionism.

It is interesting to note that while Hollywood filmmakers, particularly stalwarts such as Alfred Hitchcock and others who specialized in crime drama, were totally influenced by this style of filmmaking, Indian films made during the silent era or even after it, never came under the influence of expressionist cinema. This is probably because Indian cinema, during its early years (covering both the silent era and the first talkies) stuck mainly to the mythological and the historical. These films were total replicas of the popular stage productions of that time. As a result of this, Indian cinema maintained its own identity.

Music in Indian Cinema

The first Indian talkie,  Alam Ara (1931), we are told, was a big success. It had so many songs that people who had seen it say it was composed more of songs than of dialogue. What made Indian cinema distinctly different from other cinemas was this practice of using songs in films, a tradition which has persisted till date and probably will continue forever.

In the early decades – during 1940s, 50s and 60s, known as the golden days of Hindi songs – pioneering music composers posted some outstanding achievements and made a rich contribution to the Seventh Art through songs that remain immortal. In the 40s, the famous New Theatres Company from Calcutta promoted legendary composers such as R.C.Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Timir Baran, and many others, while celebrities such as Kundan Lal Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Khurshid, Parul Ghosh, Umadevi, Kanan Devi, Juthika Roy enriched film music with their melodious voices. Bombay Talkies, the film company of Bombay, also took the cue from Calcutta, with Saraswathi Devi and Anil Biswas creating some outstanding tunes for films songs.

It was in 1950s that Hindi cinema saw its finest period when the popularity of Hindi film songs reached its peak. The immortal voices of Lata Mangeshkar, Noor Jehan, Suraiya, Amirbai Karnataki, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mohammed, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar captivated the hearts of music lovers. Equally eminent were the lyricists – Kavi Pradip, Prem Dhawan, D.N.Madhok, Kidar Sharma, Shailendra, Hasarat Jaipuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Kamar Jalalabadi, Bharat Vyas, Gulzar and many others. A galaxy of music composers – Khemchand Prakash, Husnlal Bhagatram, Naushad, C.Ramchandra, S.D.Burman, Hemant Kumar, Roshan and Madan Mohan created some memorable tunes for these songs.

All of this perhaps explains why Indian cinema has successfully resisted Hollywood’s domination, unlike in other parts of the world, including Europe, where Hollywood controls 70 to 80 % of occupancy in the theatres.  Our Hindi cinema, or Bollywood, which laid its foundations in the 50s, adopted its own formula, different from the one Hollywood had established in early 1930s. Hollywood hired talented filmmakers to make films with a story embodying dramatic elements, hero, heroine, love and romance, a bit of religion, fight sequences, etc and a treatment with a universal appeal in order to attract a global audience. This strategy has been successful in large measure. Indian Bollywood, on the other hand, adopted a formula which included a hero with multi-dimensional talent who could accomplish absolutely anything, a heroine with a noble character, who was also a devoted life partner, and ready to undergo any suffering in life for the cause of her family’s welfare, their romance enhanced by songs, a villain or a vamp who torment the couple, sentimental melodrama, a fight, the end of the villain – and ultimately all ends well. Sometimes the film may be a tragedy too in which the hero or heroine becomes a martyr.

This perceived formula percolated down to the regional cinema industry as well, successfully attracting mass audiences to cinema. Hollywood cinema, on the other hand, failed to bring in a large public, except in a few urban pockets. It was hindered as much by the language barrier as by the fierce competition from local films which provided better entertainment. Economically speaking, it is gratifying to know that we have our own very large, independent and rapidly growing film industry. There is, of course, degeneration in quality, but that is a matter for another discussion. D.G.Phalke probably never imagined that the Indian feature film industry, whose foundation he had laid, would become the largest film industry in the world, churning out, against innumerable odds, more than a thousand films annually.  Hollywood is now thinking of capturing the Indian market by dubbing its films in the regional languages and pushing them through T.V. channels and local theatres.

Arrival of the New Cinema

India had its first International Film Festival in Bombay in 1952, and the Neo-realism films screened there made a big impact on our filmmakers. This marked the beginning of the New Cinema movement, engendered by the release of Do Bigha Zameen (1953) and Pather Panchali (1955). The well established formula of Bollywood films with music and dance was dispensed with here and low-budget films, particularly in the regional languages, started making  their presence felt in a big way, both nationally and internationally. However, while many of the new cinema productions do win awards and laurels, they are yet to establish their economic viability by reaching people through regular commercial releases.

The Advent of Technology

Basically, cinema is a gift of science to art, an art which is composite in nature. Its growth, in terms of both technology and art, has been phenomenal, and its development particularly in its technology and format has been incredibly fast, making it exceedingly difficult for its practitioners to keep up the pace. It all began with the loading of celluloid films onto a camera and shooting the action as per the screenplay. In its technology, cinema, absorbed many innovations. Sound and dialogue entered in a big way in the early 30s, then it got its images painted in pleasing colours, and innovations in camera made it possible to work wonders in the field of special effects. However, despite these innovations, cinema remained basically in the celluloid format with 24 frames per second, with action being captured on film reel and stored in cans. Today, this concept is undergoing a sea change. The new digital technology has arrived, with a potential so immense that it has totally revolutionized both the production and the projection systems.

To put it simply, digital cinema involves storing a film in a disc, like the hard disc of a computer, similar to DVDs, and projecting it on the screen by a digital projector. Astonishingly enough, it enjoys the great advantage of satellite projection from one centre to other centres. The quality of the image depends on the resolution, now commonly known as 2K file, which, in turn, depends on the kind of camera used.  Research and development are continuous and relentless, with many innovations entering the market every day.

Digital Cinema – Production

Digital cinema production just needs a Digital video camera, recording tapes to record the images and computer and software to edit them. The biggest advantage of digital video is the cost-benefit. Shooting on the conventional film reel is cumbersome and hundreds of times more expensive. Equally important is the easier digital editing process. Digital editing is abundantly used by filmmakers now even for films shot on reel. They convert the film footage into digital format for post production and then back to film. This conversion process is costly, though, and the quality of the image suffers. However, digital cinema need not go through this process. It can opt directly for editing. In fact, the moment a digital film is shot, the result can be seen immediately as no processing required. It can go for post production right away, bypassing laboratory processing. If results are unsatisfactory, repeat shots can be taken on the spot at no extra cost.

Digital Cinema – Distribution

Film distribution through the digital system has many advantages. In the celluloid process, the cost of making a 35mm print in the conventional way is around Rs. One lakh, while a film’s simultaneous distribution in 1000 centers for instance, with 1000 prints, will cost approximately Rs.10 crores. In the digital system, a hard drive disc of a film will cost around Rs 10, 000/- which is almost one tenth of a 35mm print.  Encrypted discs can also help avoid piracy. Yet another advantage is that the disc can be programmed for projection and, by providing codes for the servers, its unauthorized and illegal use can be avoided. Moreover, the cumbersome, bulky and costly process of shipping of film reels to and fro to the screening venues is easily overcome. Digital discs can be easily shipped through the courier system.

Digital movies are simple computer files. They can be transmitted through broadband cables and played in hundreds of theatres simultaneously. It should also be noted, though, that copying these files is far simpler than copying reel films. Hence care should be taken to protect them properly from piracy. If a film is successful at the box-office and needs more shows, it can be quickly connected to other theatres with the digital signal.

Digital Cinema – Projection

Ultimately, what matters for the audience is the quality of the image and sound experienced when the visuals are projected onto the screen in cinema houses. According to experts, images – particularly those of landscapes – are of far better quality on film than on digital video. We do experience this while watching films in theatres. We notice a marked difference in the colour quality of the images. However, it is the considered opinion of users that while a film reel gets degraded after repeated screenings, the quality of the digital files remains unaffected.

Taking Cinema to Rural Places

In many villages in India, there are no regular theatres for film projection even today. People are deprived of watching films unless they go to the district or taluk headquarters. The lack of economic viability is the main reason. But recent developments show that the problem can be solved by using the satellite projection system and digital projectors. Small theaters with a seating capacity of around 100 to 300 can be constructed at a nominal cost and run by satellite projection; and the use of LED projectors can also help overcome the problem of outages. LED projectors need minimum power, and this can be managed with a maximum of 1 KW diesel power with UPS backup. An investment of around Rs 20 lakhs can earn handsome monthly returns. We can simultaneously run the show in several villages and small towns on the same day as the release of a film in major cities. It is a viable proposition for the film industry’s exhibition sector to take cinema to the country’s rural interiors.

Growing apprehension

There is a growing apprehension in the minds of many intellectuals that these fast paced developments may make a big difference to the quality of cinema, or what we call The Tenth Muse.  A growing number of people will be able to capture visual images more easily; images may be created through software graphics on the computer without any actual shooting; even music is created and reproduced through software nowadays.  However, while such a process has the advantage of easy access to cinema, it may not be able to portray the real human element that we experience even today when we see the great classics. This will be a big blow to cinema’s prestige. There may a huge spurt in the number of films produced, but at what cost? That is the question. And who knows whether the world will even call this process ‘film’, since ‘film’ in its present ‘reel’ form will not be there at all. It will be in the form of a disc or files. For all that, storytelling through the audio-visual medium is always enjoyable and loveable. Let us enjoy and celebrate its centenary.

   “Mr H N Narahari Rao is a longstanding film society activist, author, teacher and film critic. He is also the President of Federation of Film Societies of India, South, the founder and former President of Suchitra Film Society, Bangalore, and editor of e-Cineindia.”.

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