INDIA @75: Very filmy evolution of silver screen – show goes on

From starting as a medium to counter British oppression to becoming a vehicle for promoting family values, from the era of superstars to the OTT boom, Reya Mehrotra traces the evolution of Bollywood over the past 75 years

INDIA @75: Very filmy evolution of silver screen – show goes on
The Indian audience swooned over him and crooned with him as he sang Mera joota hai Japani… phir bhi dil hai Hindustani, thus evoking a strong sense of nationalism and pride only a few decades into the country’s independence.

When Charlie Chaplin captivated the world as a tramp with a cane and a smile in the silent era of films, he evoked laughter, empathy, and a sea of emotions. By 1918, he had become a global name. The era of Indian cinema had just begun to take shape back then. Enter the golden era of Bollywood in the 1950s and 60s, and Raj Kapoor gained reputation as the Indian version of ‘the tramp’, as he channelled Chaplin with as much originality. The Indian audience swooned over him and crooned with him as he sang Mera joota hai Japani… phir bhi dil hai Hindustani, thus evoking a strong sense of nationalism and pride only a few decades into the country’s independence.

Also Read| India at 75: Top patriotic movies to watch this Independence Day

Patriotic fervour

In the pre-independence era, especially between 1921 and 1947, the Tricolour became a symbol of strength on screen. While people across the country were engaged in a struggle for independence against the British Raj, filmmakers did so through the patriotic lens while also addressing social issues. Films like Duniya Na Mane (1937) advocated widow remarriage, Brandy Ki Botal (1939) encouraged Gandhian morality and songs like Aaj Ka Hindustan’s Charkha Chalao Behno (1940) boosted the morale of the Indian audience to gear up for the fight. As the call for independence grew louder, films echoed the sentiments of the people. The 1947 film Ek Kadam showed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in its poster.

In the post-independence era, the focus shifted to the battlefield as films featuring wars evoked a strong sense of nationalism. In the 2019 film Uri: The Surgical Strike, Vicky Kaushal’s character asks his battalion, “How’s the josh?” and they shout back “High, sir!” The dialogue became a rage. In fact, stories revolving around the India-China war, India-Pakistan skirmishes, 1999 Kargil War, the Kashmir conflict and the surgical strike have always worked on screen. Some examples are Rang De Basanti (2006), Kesari (2019), Border (1997), Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), Sardar Udham Singh (2021) and Major (2022), among others, which carried strong patriotic narratives. Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India, says, “One of the reasons (for the success) is that these stories unite people from across the country. They have been great entertainers and have very high engagement rates, which means people have loved these stories.”

It is no doubt then that filmmakers continue to invest in patriotic projects. Vicky Kaushal’s upcoming film, tentatively titled Sam Bahadur, too, narrates the story of former chief of army staff Sam Manekshaw.

Bigger and better

An independent country meant that things were settling, and the economy was growing. The impact reflected in cinema—actors became superstars and films became bigger and better. Cinema became a channel for celebration, and costumes and makeup were inspired by the British in the first few decades. While Dilip Kumar’s Devdas explored the frailties of a man, Mughal-e-Azam showed larger-than-life depiction of a historical romance. Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna magnified the brother-sister relationship while his Guide went ahead of its time to show a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage and wanting to follow her dreams. Rajesh Khanna’s Amar Prem showed a woman sold to a brothel while 70s’ superstar Amitabh Bachchan thrilled audiences with performances in Don, relationship dramas like Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie, and as a messiah fighting for the rights of workers and the underprivileged in Namak Haraam, Mard, Zanjeer and Coolie. Actors became superstars and were treated no less than gods and worshipped by masses.

The film industry in India witnessed an explosion of content and genres during the reign of each superstar. Genre-bending scripts were translated into great films that remain iconic. It was also the time when masala commercial films rose to prominence and became the recipe for success. The cult multi-genre film Sholay (1975) that had stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, and Hema Malini is an example. The 1970s, in fact, became the decade of commercial successes—be it romances like Bobby, tawaif-themed films like Pakeezah, relationship dramas like Abhimaan and Aandhi, action crime dramas like Deewar and Don, and comedies like Gol Maal. As cinema moved into the next decade, the 80s saw romance and revenge dramas, coupled together, take charge. Films like Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Arth, Nagina, Saagar, Karz, Khoon Bhari Maang, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili explored budding romances, revenge, and the narrow-mindedness of society.

The following decade of the 90s further explored crime and action dramas with films like Satya, Vaastav and Bandit Queen. A new superstar came to the fore—Shah Rukh Khan—whose Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge released in 1995 and continues to play even today at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir. It proved to be a turning point in Bollywood’s romantic age. The decade also began the reign of the three ‘Khans’ (alongside actors Sunny Deol, Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt and Govinda)—Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan—as their films Pardes, Baazigar, Biwi No 1, Khamoshi, Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Saajan, Andaaz Apna Apna, Dil Se and Raja Hindustani became commercial successes.

The obsession with romance was carried on from the 20th into the 21st century with films like Veer-Zaara, but the decade also featured refreshing themes with films like Three Idiots, Omkara, Taare Zameen Par, Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya, Lagaan, Guru and Parineeta getting a touch of reality. Refreshing and entertaining romantic comedies like Golmaal Fun Unlimited, Masti, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and Lage Raho Munna Bhai, too, found good audiences as the world witnessed a recession towards the end of the decade. This also marked the end of the superstar era.

In the 2010s and 2020s, newer stories and genres have found prominence, so have newer actors far from the image of the quintessential hero and heroine of yesteryear. Today, one would watch a movie because it stars proven actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Sayani Gupta, Rasika Dugal, Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Vijay Varma or Ayushmann Khurrana—none of them possessing the qualities of a quintessential Bollywood hero or a heroine. They may not have the abs, well-toned bodies or beautiful faces, but embody the ordinary man or woman.

Actor Jitendra Kumar, who has worked in popular series like Kota Factory and Panchayat alongside successful films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, says, “The audience makes stars but now they are looking at different things. New actors eventually become stars and this will happen with good actors on OTT, too, after some time.”

With this, the great Indian romantic film era has ended. Several romantic films have recently failed at the box office while unconventional films like The Kashmir Files have become the year’s highest grossers. Gautam Jain, partner, Ormax Media, says, “Romantic films, as a genre, are struggling not just in Hindi cinema, but cinema across Indian languages and worldwide as well. This is primarily due to the fact that most conflict points between the lead characters in a romantic film like social divide or familial conflicts have reduced in importance or don’t exist anymore.”

Women’s world

Back in the day, a filmmaker needed only Sridevi to make the film a hit. Her acting prowess and persona magnified the content fourfold. In films like Chandni, Sadma, Judaai and English Vinglish, she outdid her male counterparts. Rekha was an equally strong force with films like Khubsoorat. Today, the industry has witnessed several strong female actors and filmmakers emerge and tell a story with a strong presence and voice. From Alia Bhatt’s Highway to Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture, Kangana Ranaut’s Queen to Deepika Padukone’s Piku, women no longer need a ‘male star’ alongside to entertain masses and get a message across.

From being sexualised onscreen to talking about their sexuality—women in Bollywood have come a long way. Actor Sobhita Dhulipala plays an ambitious woman who tricks her husband into marrying her yet one sympathises with her in Made in Heaven. Shweta Tripathi, Rasika Dugal and Shriya Pilgaonkar were as much an important part of Mirzapur as the other members of the ensemble cast. There are stories like Gangubai Kathiawadi, Pink, Thappad, Bulbbul, Bombay Begums, Made in Heaven and Aarya that show women in a strong light. However, women still have a long way to go as the majority of OTT content and films function with male leads. Actor Aahana Kumra says that a series like Paatal Lok could have been written with a female cop. “Women are still going to take longer than men to reach there because roles are written a lot more for men than for women,” she says. Even with the content being written for women in the OTT space, subjects tend to range from sexuality, domestic violence and finding a voice, like in Bombay Begums, Lust Stories and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare.

Filmmaker and writer Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who has helmed projects like Bareilly Ki Barfi, says, “In the new-age phenomena of seeing stories through the lens of pop culture and with the changing dynamics of individual stature in society, there is an emerging voice of equal opportunity between both the sexes to tell a story from a female perspective. Gender should not be the criteria to determine the capability of an individual. When there are more female voices, the narrative of personal experience and take away from life, of how they would want to see their characters in cinema is equally proportional to how they want women to be perceived in real life. When the thought process changes, stories from women fronting in all areas of storytelling emerge.”

Family dramas

When Shabana Azmi walked out a free woman from her turbulent marriage, became independent and even adopted a child in the film Arth (1982), it turned out to be one of the few feminist films back then. She portrayed a strong woman ahead of her times. In those days, films like Silsila, Arth, Mandi, Masoom and Aandhi were a rarity. Filmmaker Sooraj Barjatya excelled in portraying the ideal Indian woman and family on the screen. Hum Saath Saath Hain showed a huge joint family celebrating and dealing with lows together while Vivaah showed the ideal Indian match. Films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Maine Pyaar Kiya too had the backdrop of perfect relationships in families.

However, as content is no longer restricted to formulas, modern-day relationships have been explored in films like Life in a Metro, Highway, Saathiya, Tumhari Sulu and Main Meri Patni Aur Woh. The intricacies of relationships have also deeply been explored in series like Modern Love and Hiccups and Hookups.

Music and the musicals

From having classic songs from four to five decades ago that still remain popular to today’s mass productions that are easily forgotten, the music industry has seen a massive boom and decline all at once. The late 20th-century films delivered strongly on good music. Umrao Jaan’s In Aankhon ki Masti inspired many royal courtroom compositions; Khamoshi: The Musical’s Baahon Ke Darmiya topped the charts when it was released; every song in Roja’s album was a hit. However, as originality took a backseat, the 2000s witnessed the age of remixes.

In the recently released film Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, its title track was re-used, so was the case with Ek Villain’s Galliyan that was rehashed for the sequel. In the recently released Jugjugg Jeeyo, Kavita Seth’s popular song Rangi Saari was used. This seems to be a continuing trend for films.

“Indian film music has its roots deeply seeped in Indian folk music, be it Punjabi folk, Braj, Awadhi, Rajasthani, Bengali, Tamil, Malayali—a lot of our popular film repertoire comes directly from folk songs, so much so that we have mostly forgotten the originals and now only remember the ‘filmy’ versions of those songs; Inhi Logone, Kajra Mohabbatwala, Banno Tera Swagger, Engine Ki Seeti and Genda Phool are just a few examples,” says singer, music composer and lyricist Sona Mohapatra. “It’s nothing new for us to be drawing from our past. The biggest difference is that the songs are being sung more and more in native languages rather than Hindi or Urdu and the arrangements and style of presentation, or the packaging is designed to appeal to a younger, cooler demographic,” she adds.

Mohapatra says, “I don’t think folk music, bhajans, ghazals or nazms are dying. I think they are ripe for reinvention and repackaging in a new way. The sufiana kalaam and bhajans from the soundtrack of my film, Shut Up Sona, have been very well received on streaming platforms. I’m very hopeful that if we give this open-minded young India some authentic and fresh options, they will tune in, as they always have.” Her documentary Shut Up Sona premiered on ZEE5 in July this year.

Punjabi music, too, has found its place in the industry. One of the most noted music directors of Punjabi music industry, Arvindr Khaira, who has helmed songs like Akshay Kumar-starrer Filhall and Filhall 2, Harrdy Sandhu’s Kya Baat Ay and Arijit Singh’s Pachtaoge, to name a few, says: “I believe we are in the golden age of Punjabi music and cinema—what was once considered regional, is ruling the charts as well as trends all across the world.

Over the years, Punjabi content has cemented itself as pan-India entertainment and went international due to its freshness. I think the only way forward is to create content that’s more palatable across genres, regions, and themes. Given the current climate of the entertainment industry, I don’t think it’ll be wrong to say that Punjabi entertainment is already making headlines in the global market and it’s an unstoppable force.”

Beyond silver screen

In 2022, The Kashmir Files, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2 turned out to be the highest grossing films followed by Gangubai Kathiawadi and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. The numbers reflect the shift in audience sensibilities who want larger-than-life quality entertainers. Regional films have done well, dominated by the south Indian industry in the past few years. The trend started with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (2015). Tamil drama Jai Bhim, which was released on Amazon Prime Video starring Tamil actor Suriya, Prakash Raj and Lijomol Jose, became the most rated movie of 2021, as per IMDb.

However, the case is not as black and white as it seems. Gautam Jain, partner, Ormax Media, says, “While it is a popular narrative that only Hindi films have stopped working, that is not true. Apart from selective films like RRR, Pushpa, KGF: Chapter 2 and Vikram, films in other languages are also struggling to find an audience at the box office. Every decade, the audience’s taste undergoes a change, in terms of theatrical viewership and likeability of films. This was already happening from 2018 onwards. However, the pandemic acted as a catalyst and the growth in the streaming category further aided this change.”

The rise of OTT platforms has also guaranteed a plethora of options for the audience and a number of roles for actors to experiment with. It has democratised the process as now not only stars, but new actors are finding work. According to a report by Deloitte, India’s OTT market may record a CAGR of more than 20% to touch $13 billion–$15 billion over the next decade. This will be motivated by original content and pricing innovations, while the paid subscriber base is also estimated to increase at a CAGR of 17% to touch 224 million by 2026 from the present 102 million.

Rajesh Tailang, who was a part of OTT shows like Mirzapur and Delhi Crime, says: “In films that range from 1.5-2.5 hours, only the protagonist’s story is told. The content on OTT can be 8-10 hours long divided into episodes where one can delve into each and every character’s lives, plots and subplots. Even the audience is curious to know each and every character.”

Black, white & grey

There was a time when there were three principal characters in a film—the hero, the heroine and the villain. The primary plot revolved around a love story disrupted by a villain and the hero coming to the rescue of the heroine, often ending with a happy resolution. Actors like Prem Chopra, Ranjeet, Amrish Puri, Ashutosh Rana and Mukesh Rishi became the ultimate bad men of films. Their negative and dark portrayal made the audience fear them, until a messiah or a saviour came in the form of the hero who killed him and saved his heroine.

Gabbar, who chopped off Thakur’s hands and wiped out villages, has always remained one of the most popular and feared villains in Bollywood. But two heroes united to mark an end to his fearful era in the film Sholay (1975) which turned out to be a blockbuster hit.

Govinda’s Shola Aur Shabnam, a huge box-office success, followed the same recipe—Mohnish Bahl has his eyes on Govinda’s beloved played by Divya Bharti and Govinda must save her and their relationship from the evil guy. But what becomes a formula often becomes boring for the ever-evolving audience who demand variety.

The lines between black and white roles had already started to blur in the 1990s. In 1993, Shah Rukh Khan’s Darr showed the leading actor in a negative character obsessed with the heroine. In the 1993 film, Baazigar, too, SRK evokes both—fear and sympathy—in the first and the latter halves of the film as he goes on to murder his fiancée to seek revenge but a flashback reveals his side of the story.

Today, more than ever, the villain is largely dead in Bollywood. In 2015, Varun Dhawan showed off his acting prowess as a grey character in Badlapur and he seeks revenge. So did Sidharth Malhotra and Aamir Khan in Ek Villain and Ghajini, respectively. The 2022 film Gehraiyaan humanised its lead actor Deepika Padukone as she murders her love interest and cheats on her boyfriend with her sister’s fiancé—yet the audience sympathises with her. Like in real life, where there are no villains or heroes but grey characters who possess both the qualities, in films, too, the greyness of characters has finally shown its colour.

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