The world’s movie capital is not Hollywood but Bollywood. Bollywood is the nickname for the Indian film industry located in Bombay now known as Mumbai. The first film made in India by photographer called Harischandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar who made Indian ‘motion picture’ history. His short ‘reality’ film screened in 1899 was called The Wrestlers and was a simple recording of a local wrestling match.
It was only after the turn of the century that Indian entertainment underwent a sea change when the Father of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, released his pathbreaking film of the Silent Era, Raja Harishchandra. The film, based on a mythological character, was released in 1913 and was India’s first full-length feature film. Yes, Bollywood had finally arrived!
Bollywood’s film production center is a government-owned studio facility known as “Film City” in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. Bollywood traces its start to 1911 when the first silent Indian feature film was released by D.P. Phalke. The industry boomed and today there are over 250 theaters in Mumbai alone.
The growth of technology and the excitement it generated the world over eventually gave birth of India’s first ‘talking and singing’ film – Alam Ara made by Ardeshir Irani and screened in Bombay in 1931.
Finally, India’s actors had found a voice. They could talk, they could shout, they could even cry, and they could do one more thing – sing for their audiences! It was a gift that remains the signature of the quintessential Hindi film to date.
Developments in the world of Indian cinema were rapid and the 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of film personalities such as Debaki Bose, Chetan Anand, S S Vasan and Nitin Bose, among others.
In the meantime, the film industry had made rapid strides in the South, where Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films were taking South India by storm. By the late 1940s, films were being made in various Indian languages with religion being the dominant theme.
Indians are in love with movies, even though most films follow a similar format called masala (the word for a collection of spices). Movies are three to four hours long (and include an intermission), include dozens of songs and dances (featuring 100 or so choreographed dancers), top stars, the story between the songs of boy meets girl (without any kissing or sexual contact), lots of action (though no bloodshed), and always – a happy ending.
India’s struggle for independence in the 1950s finally parted the curtain on the Golden Age of Indian cinema. This historic period provided a strong impetus to the industry, with themes changing to social issues relevant at the time. Sure they were entertaining but the movies were now also a potent medium to educate the masses.
But it was the Golden Age – 1950s and 1960s – that produced some of India’s most critically acclaimed films and memorable actors of all time. Among those in Bollywood’s hall of fame are Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Balraj Sahani, Nargis, Bimal Roy, Meena Kumari, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar.
So while the Guru Dutts and Bimal Roys held audiences in a trance, Indian cinema moved one step further with the release of K Asif`s Mughal-e-Azam in 1960. The film kickstarted a trail of romantic movies all over India.
While Indian commercial cinema enjoyed popularity among movie-goers, Indian art cinema did not go unnoticed. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ritwik Ghatak, Aravindan, Satyajit Ray, Shaji Karun and several other art film directors were making movies that took India to international fame and glory.
The masala film – the quintessential Bollywood entertainer – burst onto the scene only in the 1970s. And audiences were enthralled by the histrionics of actors such as Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Tanuja and others.
This was Bollywood’s heyday, a time when director Ramesh Sippy gave us his iconoclastic Sholay (1975). The film, which has been internationally acclaimed, also clinched the title of ‘superstar’ for Amitabh Bachchan, who already had well over 30 films under his belt by then.
The 1980s saw the rise of several woman directors such as Aparna Sen, Prema Karnath and Meera Nair. It was also the decade when sultry siren Rekha wooed audiences with her stunning performance in Umrao Jaan (1981).
The 1990s ushered in a mixed genre of romantic films, thrillers, action movies and comedy films. Gradually, the face of Indian cinema was changing once again. Technology now gave us Dolby digital sound effects, advanced special effects, choreography and international appeal. This brought investments from the corporate sector along with finer scripts and performances.
It was time to shift focus to aesthetic appeal. And stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Rajnikanth, Madhuri Dixit, Aamir Khan, Chiranjeevi, Juhi Chawla and Hrithik Roshan began to explore ways to use new techniques to enrich Indian cinema with their performances.
Indian cinema finally found global mass appeal at the turn of the 21st century. As the world became a global village, the industry reached out further to international audiences.
Apart from regular screenings at major international film festivals, the overseas market contributes a sizeable chunk to Bollywood’s box office collections. Investments made by major global studios such as 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros was confirmation that Bollywood had etched itself on the global psyche.
Prominent Indian corporate firms such as Zee, UTV and Adlabs also jumped onto the Bollywood bandwagon, to both produce and distribute films. This coupled with the multiplex boom across India made fame and fortune soar to new heights.
Such was the excitement in the industry that by 2003, as many as 30 film production companies had been listed on the National Stock Exchange.
The stars of Bollywood are very popular and highly paid, considering the budget of the films. The lead star in a film often receives as much as 40% of the US $2 million budget for the typical masala film. Stars may be in such high demand that they’re working on ten films at once. Photographs of Bollywood stars grace shop windows and homes throughout the country.
Providing three to four hours of escapism is the primary objective of Bollywood and it’s a recipe done well. Cinema in India remains the single largest entertainer to date. And despite technology such as Direct-to-Home TV bringing the movies straight into the living room, the marquee still rules!