Bollywood and Indian Cinema: Changing Contexts and Articulations of National Cultural Desire

Veena Naregal. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.

One may justifiably regard the recent attention that Bollywood has evoked among distributors and audiences in the West as but the latest twist in a story where the first steps towards shaping a recognizably Indian cinema began just over a hundred years ago. The development of Indian cinema may most profitably be seen as part of creative struggles on the subcontinent to shape a cultural modernity through an engagement, firstly, with the agenda of the colonial state and, subsequently, with that of its postcolonial counterpart. In sketching the role of the commercial film industry in shaping distinctive cinematic institutions and practices, as well as cultural identities, this chapter points to several overlapping and often contradictory strands, whereby international trends have been simultaneously absorbed and resisted, even as the medium was used to reshape the patterns of cultural and linguistic diversity on the subcontinent into mass popular forms to reach new audiences.

As one of the most important sites through which the Indian experience of capitalistic modernity was mediated and a general public—beyond elitist, upper-caste reading audiences—was both constructed and contested, cinema occupies a unique position among Indian cultural institutions. And yet, on account of its “lowbrow” status—and its far-from-liminal presence notwithstanding—the commercial film industry has failed to win recognition from the Indian state or mainstream sectors of the economy until recently. This gulf between official discourse on cinema and the evident cinephilia of the moviegoing public affects all aspects of its production and consumption, including industrial organization, aesthetics, regulation, reception, and appreciation. Except for the interlude where a government-funded, neorealist “parallel” cinema movement was able to thrive between the 1970s and the mid-1980s, state patronage for the Indian media industries, up until the deregulation of the media sector in the 1990s, was directed mainly towards maintaining a monopoly over radio and television. Recent government moves to encourage financial institutions to invest in film production notwithstanding, and despite producing the largest number of films annually in the world, the Indian film industry has not been self-sustaining and remains dependent on informal sectors of the money market. The forms of mainstream, “parallel,” “middle,” and regional Indian cinemas and their consumption have been shaped not only by these political and industrial contexts but also by debates pertaining to patronage and other critical issues in the fields of theater, literature, and performance.

This account will focus mainly on cinematic developments in the second half of the 20th century but always with the implicit assumption that this narrative has been necessarily shaped by a larger temporal and spatial cultural dynamic. Interestingly, despite their popular following, the realms of commercial cinema and popular music were dismissed with utter disdain until recently by the Indian English-language press and sections of the liberal-nationalist and left-oriented intelligentsia. This attitude stemmed partly from bourgeois anxiety over the possible contamination of middle-class culture from contact with the “lowbrow,” but it also illustrates the conceptual intricacies of what constitutes the “popular” in an intensely stratified and linguistically divided postcolonial society such as India’s (Nandy, 1998a).

The subaltern studies project did not explicitly address the making of modern audiences. Nevertheless, in problematizing the relationship between elite normative discourses and subaltern agency and consciousness, this body of work foregrounded how difficult it has been to the-matize the disjunctures that define a colonial-modern popular culture. It also implicitly acknowledged that colonialism enduringly altered key parameters of subjectivity, social belonging, and cultural production. However, in trying to recover the voice of nonelite subjects from the historical record of colonialism and nationalism, the core work of subaltern studies largely discounted the dynamics of the cultural mainstream established through institutional shifts introduced during the colonial era. All the same, the subaltern studies analyses fed into the critique, emerging in the 1980s, of the nation-state and Third World nationalisms. They also underscored the questions postcolonial theory and cultural studies posed regarding the processes of cultural representation and co-option underlying national cultures and postcolonial/transnational flows.

All these intellectual currents increasingly brought home the need to think about the nature of Indian middle-class dominance and its relation with lower-class/caste perspectives and the making of a national cultural mainstream. Although the most influential work addressing such questions of culture and power focused mainly on print and the discourse of colonial/postcolonial intellectuals, the late 1980s saw the first serious attempts to engage with the codes and history of Indian commercial cinema as a significant cultural artifact, partly inspired by the “media revolution” taking place in India around the same time (Nandy, 1998a; Rajadhyaksha, 1986; Thomas, 1985; Vasudevan, 1989). This led to further work analyzing the distinctive modes of address, narration, and reception of popular Indian cinema (Chakravarty, 1993; Nandy, 1998b, 1998b; Vasudevan, 1993, 2000a). Not surprisingly, the only-too-obvious intersections between institutions of cinema and politics that have evolved in India—especially in the four southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala—also invited attention to the linkages between cinematic representation, ideology, and political power (Pandian, 1992, 1997, 2000). In surpassing the limited nature of print audiences, Indian cinema represented one of the most important sites where the experience of a general public was approximated and contested. More recent work has further probed the connections between large collectivities such as cinema audiences and debates about cultural values and political behavior (Prasad, 1999; Srinivas, 2000). With the erosion of middle-class support for secular nationalism since the late 1980s, the recent ideological shifts to redefine India as a Hindu nation have inspired a series of analyses on how these shifts are articulated and consumed through popular cinema (see Niranjana, 2000; Vasudevan, 2001).

And yet, despite this very rich and stimulating body of work, a number of important questions remain unaddressed about the structures of patronage, including the influences of the state and market forces mobilized in shaping the circuits of production and distribution of popular cultural products in postcolonial India. Most interestingly, as against the patronage available to print media from national and provincial business elites, as well as for broadcasting through state funds, commercial cinema has survived mainly through exploiting surplus merchant capital available through parallel money markets. Thus, quite uniquely perhaps, the links between mainstream and informal sectors of the economy have been integral to disseminating a “lowbrow” cultural mainstream, impinging thus in important ways on the public sphere. The implications of these connections between informal networks of finance and distribution and the contours of the public sphere within the scenario of Indian capitalistic modernity have seldom been analyzed, and yet in the attempt to understand the particular trajectory of Indian modernity, the need cannot be overemphasized to address conceptually the role of such intersections in defining arenas of ideological/cultural production, distribution, and consumption, as well as the disjunctures between statist/elitist and mass/popular discourses. This chapter is an initial venture in that direction.

Projecting Desire: History, Politics and Cinematic Form through 1975

This section of the analysis falls into three parts, focusing on the initial foundations of India’s cinema, the implications of the shift to talkies, and the roles of cinema in the period between Independence in 1947 and the 18-month state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, which was a watershed moment in recent Indian history.

Commercial Theater to Silent Film

The antecedents of Hindi commercial cinema lie in the forms and circuits established through the Parsi theater, a genre named after the wealthy mercantile community of Persian origin settled in western India. As shipbuilders, brokers, financiers, and active collaborators in colonial trade, the Parsis emerged as one of the dominant groups to form the Indian bourgeoisie. An important marker of their cultural distinction was their patronage in establishing a colonial-hybrid urban theatrical practice in 19th-century Bombay. Backed by the popularity of itinerant Parsee theater companies, this served as the model for commercial showbiz traditions that emerged through the subcontinent. Most notably, these plays amalgamated a medley of influences, ranging from themes of heroism derived from Persian poetry, Elizabethan stage conventions, and spectacular effects picked up from European opera to indigenous courtly and folk musical forms. As these troupes flourished, forms such as the historical, the romantic melodrama, and the mythological, all replete with song and dance sequences and extravagant special effects, provided the bases for the transition to film.

The foremost example of how Parsi capital, aided by its significant connections with international trade, played a leading role in establishing early film distribution infrastructure in India is provided by Jamshedji Framji Madan (1856-1923). Belonging to a family that combined entrepreneurial talents with an enthusiasm for the theater, Jamshedji Madan went on to found Madan Theatres, a joint-stock film-importing and production company and distribution empire, which, at its peak in the late 1920s, owned 172 theaters and controlled half the country’s box office. Initially, Madan theaters mainly imported and exhibited British newsreels and silent films, but after World War I, they were increasingly importing Hollywood films. Soon spurred on to production by the success of indigenous silent films, including those by Dhundiram Phalke, Madan Theatres’ first productions included filmed versions of their in-house theatrical successes, followed by a series of big-budget Indo-European collaborations, all presenting classical Hindu myths (“mythologicals”) with interesting Orientalist overtones, such as Nala Damayanti (1920, Eugenio De Liguoro), Dhruva Charitra (1921, Liguoro, Triumph of Devotion), and Savitri Satyavan (1923, Giorgio Mannini).

Born to a Brahmin family in Nasik, Maharashtra, and after his initial training at the colonial art schools in Bombay and Baroda, Phalke (1870-1944) worked as a portrait photographer, stage makeup artist, and magician. Seeing the film Life of Christ in a Bombay cinema in 1910 inspired Phalke to dedicate himself to harness cinema’s resources to contribute to the anti-imperial swadeshi movement by projecting Indian images for Indian audiences. Despite his modest background, Phalke’s ambitions to found a modern filmmaking practice along industrial lines led him to England in 1912 and 1914 to learn the craft and procure equipment. Although only a small fraction of his work survives, Phalke is said to have made 44 silent features. Clearly reveling in experimenting with cinematic effects and animation techniques, Phalke introduced the mythological genre, through which he was able to exploit traditional narratives to introduce obliquely coded anticolonial messages. Other significant initiatives of the silent era included the Kohinoor Film Company (Telephone ni Taruni [1926, Homi Master, The Telephone Girl]; Bhaneli Bhamini [1927, Homi Master, Educated Wife]; GunSundari [1927, Chandulal Shah, Why Husbands Go Astray]), established in 1919, which transformed production from Phalke’s notion of a family-based cottage industry unit to one using methods resembling those of the Hollywood film factories. It also notably included the Imperial Films Company (Mumbai Ni Biladi [1927, Mohan Bhavnani, Wildcat of Bombay]; Cinema Girl [1930, B. P. Mishra]), set up after the decline of Kohinoor by Ardeshir Irani in 1926. This produced films in at least nine different languages—including Tamil, Telugu, Burmese, Malay, Pushtu, and Urdu—best known for their “socials” and historical costume-dramas, including Alam Ara (the heroine’s name), the first Indian talkie, released in 1931.

Talkies: Regional Cinemas and the Bombay “Social” Film

If the silent era saw film production assume its institutional and generic dimensions through its attempts to reach pan-Indian audiences, it also highlighted what has been an enduring and distinguishing characteristic—namely, that the unique popularity of India’s commercial cinema has lain in its embeddedness in visual and cultural idioms largely outside the realm of the modern. The coming of sound rapidly curtailed Hollywood’s share in the domestic market, allowing indigenous industry, especially the Hindi cinema emerging from Bombay, to enhance its claims to a national market, even as the new technology also created avenues for the birth of regional cinemas, especially in the larger linguistic zones of Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu. Amidst much ferment and reorganization in the industry, new studios were founded in Calcutta, Bombay, Pune, and Madras, which attracted talent from cultural elites and progressive voices, including a host of Hindi-Urdu writers, starting with Munshi Premchand, K. A. Abbas, and Manto. If the social and literary reform movements had provided the core debates about Indian modernity in the 19th century, typically from the 1940s onwards, the melodramatic mode emerged as the dominant channel through which these values and conflicts could attain their cinematic extension as popular discourse. The first decade after the talkies had seen the secular “social” film share its popularity with other genres such as “mythologicals,” stunt films, and the “historical” or the devotional film, but the “social” melodrama emerged as the dominant commercial genre from the interwar years onwards. The imminence of Independence was undoubtedly a dynamic force field that drove the rearticulation of subjectivities and desire, and the film industry responded with generic narratives that attempted to meld together the promise of social transformation and nationalist aspirations with anxieties over modernization and cultural authenticity.

And yet despite its evident keenness to lend itself to the task of modern nation building, given the socially and ideologically composite nature of Indian film audiences, this efflorescent cinematic activity only underscored how modes of address and viewing characteristics of the silent era would retain their relevance despite the advent of sound. These conditions of production and reception created idiosyncratic cinematic forms with a limited scope for linear narrative structures satisfying assumptions of “pure” realistic address directed towards the individual spectator. In contrast to the dominant mode of Hollywood cinema, the mode of address deployed by mainstream Indian cinema makes little attempt to subordinate spectacle and visceral effect to reinforce the realist illusion. Song and dance numbers, fight sequences, fantasy elements that include exotic costumes and settings, and direct frontal address into the camera that periodically ruptures the quasi-realistic plot all remain key elements in the aesthetic of what has been described as the typically disaggregated form of the Bollywood melodrama (Prasad, 1998).

Prominent among the new studios were New Theatres, Calcutta, Prabhat Studios, Kolhapur-Pune, and Bombay Talkies (see Bandyopadhyay, 1993). A major aim for B. N. Sircar in founding the impressively equipped New Theatres (1931-1955) was to create cinematic equivalents of acclaimed literary texts. The studio had several directors and stars on its payroll and counted the populist devotional aboutChandidas (1932), a medieval saint, and the Hindi and Bengali versions of Devdas (Barua, 1935) among its principal successes. Founded through a partnership between V. Shantaram, Vishnupant Damle, Fattelal, Dhaiber, and Baburao Pendharkar in Kolhapur, Prabhat Studios (1929-1953) moved to Pune in 1933 to produce several acclaimed films, some made simultaneously in separate Hindi and Marathi versions. Capitalizing on the talents of well-known figures of the popular Marathi stage, Prabhat established its initial reputation through mythologicals and historicals, such as Baji Prabhu (1929), about an 18th-century historical figure, and Ayodhyacha Raja (1932, The King of Ayodhya). Prabhat also boasted of its excellent in-house facilities, and its later films included such “reformist” classics asKunku/Duniya Na Mane (1937, Society Will Not Allow It), Manoos/Aadmi (1939, Man), and Shejari/Padosi (1943, Neighbour).

Set up by Himanshu Rai, Bombay Talkies (1934-1955) probably holds a unique place in Indian film history in attracting the support of leading financial institutions in Bombay. Best known for its impressive array of European technicians, Bombay Talkies launched the reputations of several leading stars, such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar, and directors such as N. R. Acharya (Naya Sansar, 1941, New World) and Gyan Mukherjee (Kismet, 1943, Destiny).

The conjunction of Independence and Partition in 1947 saw the film industry multiply its landmarks: The years 1945 to 1947 saw a threefold increase in the total number of films produced in the country, with the figure going from 99 to 280. And yet, interestingly, as Ashis Rajadhyaksha (1996, p. 29) has pointed out, despite this burgeoning output, Partition did not feature even once in the cinematic enterprise during the period when Indian commercial cinema forged its distinctive idioms. Thus, although Bombay and other regional cinemas carry the definitive influence of Muslim talent and Islamic culture, it is striking that even as early as the 1940s, their emerging forms of address were marked in relation to an unnamed but implicitly Hindu, upper-caste, patriarchal identity, within which religious or ethnic minority characters typically figured as subordinate allies or antagonists of the hero. “Muslim” themes and narratives could be significantly foregrounded only through separate marginal genres—which, nevertheless, have supplied some of the biggest “evergreen” hits of Indian cinema—such as the “historical” courtly love dramas, featuring extravagant period costumes and sumptuous music and dance sequences, or the “Muslim social” that dealt with the Muslim North Indian middle class and its social problems, especially the need for education and reform, through narratives that were liberally laced with scintillating ghazals and qawalis.

From Independence to the 1975 National Emergency

Under Nehru, India embarked on a growth strategy built around state-led capitalistic growth, promotion of heavy industry, and a bureaucratized approach to issues of poverty. Hindi was recognized as one of India’s official languages, along with Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and more than 10 others. However, thanks to a largely economistic vision of progress during this period, the state seemed quite happy to relinquish any responsibility for all other cultural aspects of nation building to emergent forces or the market. This hands-off attitude towards cultural development policy partly stemmed from elitist/bourgeois anxieties about the contamination of respectable modern culture through contact with the “lowbrow.” Such biases influenced official perceptions of the commercial film industry, which was largely viewed, at best, as a lucrative source of revenue and, at worst, as a source of moral corruption threatening “less enlightened” citizens and youth. Left to grow largely outside of state support, Hindi cinema (and its regional counterparts) could not remain unaffected by these conservative strands within cultural policy thinking. As the film industry proceeded to produce spectacular, if bastardized, versions of the nation’s “tryst with destiny” that approached the values of citizenship, industrial progress, and secular wisdom through the rhetoric of kinship and melodrama, commercial cinema seemed to uncannily foreshadow the increasingly populist directions that state policy itself was to take in the 1970s under Mrs. Gandhi’s premiership.

The speculative economic boom at the end of World War II had brought new money into the film industry, leading to the rapid decline of old studios by the early 1950s and the emergence of new production banners such as Navketan, RK Films and Bimal Roy Productions, and many others that included the vast majority of freelance investors who saw the film industry as an avenue for quick returns. These developments only accentuated the gap between mass/popular and elitist/state-centered cultural agendas and perspectives. Consequently, one of the first policy initiatives vis-à-vis the film industry was the decision to raise the entertainment tax to 50% in Central Provinces and up to 75% in West Bengal, which led to nationwide protests from the industry. The comprehensive S. K. Patil Film Enquiry Committee Report, submitted in 1951—the same year as the First

Five-Year National Economic Plan was announced—only confirmed the mistrust with which the film industry was viewed in official circles and called for major state investment to produce a more salutary and “authentic” cinema. Similar elitist biases also led to an effective ban on film music on state-owned All-India Radio in 1952-1957. On its side, the Pakistani government responded with its own statist bigotry by officially banning the import of Indian films in 1952.

The core realistic melodramas produced by the three major filmmakers of the 1950s, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, and Bimal Roy—which also mark IPTA’s contribution to mainstream commercial cinema—can be read as expressions of the shifts that nationalist utopias underwent as the Indian state attempted to assert its ascendancy as the arbiter of resources over the role of “high” culture and the economy. Scripted by K. A. Abbas, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (Raj Kapoor, 1951, The Vagabond) and Shri 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955, Mr. 420) attempted to reconcile class divisions and the tensions of a transition to urban modernity through sentimental love stories, where the tramplike hero acquires legitimacy and status via a narrative journey that marries capitalism and feudal paternalism, social justice and order, “authentic” tradition and urban modernity.

Guru Dutt’s tragic classic, Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957, Eternal Thirst), depicted the struggles of a romantic artist, Vijay, neglected by family and society, only to be acclaimed as a best-selling hero after he is thought dead. Making powerful use of brilliantly framed shots and intense lyrics, the film presented an anguished reflection on the state of the nation and the fate of those displaced by a corrupt commercialism. Do Bigha Zamin (Bimal Roy, 1953, Two Acres of Land) is the story of a small peasant, Shambhu, forced to go to the city to try and earn enough to redeem his small plot of land from the unscrupulous money lender, who has designs to sell it to urban brokers. Its more realistic elements clearly resonated with conflicts of the post-Independence period, but these were offset by its nostalgic evocations of rural “innocence” and sentimental depictions of urban working-class neighborhood solidarity.

More than any other, Mehboob’s Mother India (1957) raised these motifs of an upright struggling peasant, a greedy money lender, and the long-suffering but strong Indian woman, who will sacrifice “everything” except her virtue to defend the honor of her family and kin, to the status of mythic stereotypes that endured throughout subsequent mainstream cinema. Equally, all these 1950s realist melodramas made available a lexicon of images representing rural and working-class lives as the mark of an “authentic” Indianness that the later, self-consciously neorealist “parallel” cinema movement also adopted.

In 1960, almost a decade after the S. K. Patil report, the government established the Film Finance Corporation and the Film Institute in Pune. Inspired in some measure by the success with both Western and Bengali audiences of world-renowned Bengali director Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali (1955, Song of the Road)—a project partly funded by the West Bengal State government—these twin initiatives aimed at fostering an “independent” cinema comprising realist films of so-called “good standard.” Along with the two sequels (apparently made at Nehru’s suggestion) that make up the Apu trilogy, Ray’s early films embody an introspective, often nostalgic, depiction of the cultural moorings of the Bengali bhadralok (an often-used Bengali term for cultural elite). The evocation of Bengal’s past through the internationalist idioms of cinematic realism expressed itself in Ray’s work of this period, above all, through a focus on a highly elaborated atmospheric accuracy. This clearly marked a deliberate break with the less aestheticized depictions of the transition to modernization in the realist melodramas of Bombay’s commercial cinema. Ray’s cinematic aims resonated in interesting ways with the Nehruvian desire for coherent narratives of the past that implicitly insinuate its movement towards the modern present while also simultaneously complementing and going beyond the propagandistic style of Films Division documentaries of this period. In 1964, following this cultural policy logic, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

In its first six years, the FFC gave out production loans for some 50 films, including Ray’s Charulata (1964), Nayak (1966, Actor), and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), followed by its support of the work of a generation of young filmmakers, including Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome, 1969), Mani Kaul (Uski Roti [1969, Bread], Ashaad ka Ek Din [1971, A Monsoon Day], and Duvidha [1973, In Two Minds]), Kumar Shahani (Maya Darpan [1972, Mirror of Illusion]), and M. S. Sathyu (Garam Hawa [1972, Hot Winds]). In 1971, a ministry directive explicitly described the FFC’s obligations as developing “film in India into an effective instrument for the promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment (through) loans for modest but off-beat films.”

Significantly, these efforts to support a “high” cinematic aesthetic that was selfconsciously Indian and yet did not interfere with the nation-state’s rationalization of the cultural process went hand in hand with the government’s emerging interest, beginning from 1959 and more rapidly from 1965 onwards, in establishing a nationwide television apparatus that could provide technological solutions to “cultural barriers,” such as illiteracy and linguistic diversity, that were hindering national development processes.

Equally, these interventions on the part of the state also highlighted the film industry’s continued inability to be financially self-sustaining and its dependence on outside sources for finance. The annual output of the Bombay industry would surpass the 1947 record figure of 183 Hindi films only in the year 1985. Nevertheless, by 1971, the Indian film industry’s total output already made it the largest producer of films in the world. Taking advantage of a growing national market, the Bombay industry responded to the FFC program with an increasingly standardized “hold-all” entertainment formula that incorporated and subordinated elements of earlier indigenous genres into a narrative form designed to cut through regional and linguistic differences. Described as the “all-India film,” this notion that the Hindi film has, by default, served a culturally integrative function has been high among the industry’s claims about its own importance. Marking a partial shift since the days of the Patil report, the idea was also partly endorsed in official circles, implicitly acknowledging the limitations of the government’s cultural policies and the increasing dependence of the state-run broadcasting sector on film music and other film-based formats to fill its own programming needs.

Indeed, this was a crucial period in Indian politics: Ruling ideologies came under increasing pressure as democratic processes brought new groups and regional elites into the political arena, accentuating regional, class, and rural-urban disparities. The late 1960s and 1970s marked the beginning of a protracted period of political discontent. Regional movements in Orissa, Maharashtra, and South India pressed for territorial reorganization according to linguistic boundaries. Around the same time, the initially peaceful peasant uprisings in West Bengal turned into violent insurrection directed against individual landowners, spreading first to other rural bases in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, and by 1970 had acquired the support of radical student groups in Calcutta. Indiscriminate police and military force was used to quell these upheavals, only to see the following years witness further mounting protests over inflation, food shortages, and labor unrest. Mrs. Gandhi’s response to these challenges to the government’s authority consisted of a series of populist and authoritarian initiatives that gave the state unprecedented centralized coercive powers. Simultaneously, she mobilized a highly emotive political rhetoric that sought support for government campaigns, such as her 20-point program, mainly by casting the state as the supreme victim of conspiracy by “antinational” forces.

The shrinking space in India for deliberation and dissent in addressing fundamental political problems found its reflection in the field of mass culture through three important films—Sholay, Deewar, and Jai Santoshi Maa—released in the same year as the declaration of National Emergency by Mrs. Gandhi in 1975. A huge box-office hit and revenge drama, Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, Flames of the Sun) revolves around Gabbar Singh, the dreaded rural bandit who is evil incarnate and strikes terror in the hearts of the innocent villagers of Rampur. Gabbar can only be subdued through extralegal means in the form of the ex-police officer, Thakur Baldev Singh, and with the help of two brave-hearted crooks, Jai and Veeru, played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra.

Deewar (Yash Chopra, The Wall) turned the conventional plot of two brothers, one of whom is a model cop and the other a gangster, into a powerful box-office hit that established Amitabh Bachchan in the persona of the melancholic, angry young man, who single-handedly seeks justice against a corrupt social order. The film reworks this customary pattern of mainstream cinema of a clash between the laws of kinship and state into a narrative that mobilizes sympathy for the working-class rebel, only to culminate in Vijay’s death at his brother’s hands, who is exhorted to perform his duty by the mother. Interwoven with several contemporary references—and made at a time when official rhetoric did not hesitate to paint Mrs. Gandhi as a benevolent mother-figure that the poor could look up to—the film’s conclusion seemed to endorse the use of authoritarian means to overcome challenges to the power structure.

Another film to catch audience attention in a big way that year was Jai Santoshi Maa (Hail! Mother Santoshi) (Lutgendorf, 2002). Reviving a genre that had not been used in Hindi cinema in nearly two decades, the film’s success has been linked to its difference from earlier mythologicals in its being much closer to the mundane problems of Indian family life. The film turned a little-known mother-goddess, Santoshi Maa, into a deity with a huge following among urban working-class women.

The wave of peasant uprisings echoed by rising urban dissent brought home the urgent need to bridge the rural-urban divide. This political juncture coincided with a host of films aimed primarily at urban upper-middle-class audiences, taking rural life and/or social unrest as its themes, including Benegal’s rural trilogy Ankur (1973, Seedling), Nishant (1975, Night’s End), and Manthan (1976, The Churning);Karanth’s Chomana Dudi (1975, Choma’s Drum); and Karnad’s Kaadu (1975, The Forest)—all of which were made under the auspices of the advertising industry or state funding.

Simultaneously, in an effort to shore up the nation-space, the government embarked on a new phase of its mass communications policy. The early 1970s saw an expansion of terrestrial broadcasting beyond Delhi, the only city to have had a daily TV service since 1965. Bombay acquired its television center in 1971, a year after the second Indo-Pakistani War, followed in the next year by Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, and the northern city of Amritsar, ostensibly chosen on account of their proximity with the border with Pakistan. Similar efforts to induct the rural population at large into the national mainstream saw the launching of SITE (the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment), intended as a blueprint for the use of satellite technology for a nationwide network. Transmitted from Delhi and Ahmedabad, in its first phase, SITE beamed out educational programs about hygiene, health care, family planning, and the use of technology in agriculture to specially distributed community TV sets in about 2,500 villages spread across six states.

Changing Institutional Contexts: Post-Emergency to 1992 and Beyond

The major forces that shaped media policy and distribution after 1975 were the expansion of the television sector, the arrival of video, the gradual dismantling of economic and industrial protectionism from the early 1980s onwards, and consequent shifts in the state’s control from active participant to the new phase where its authority was asserted mainly as final arbitrator in the economic process. In addition, we will need to take into account the growth of an exclusivist Hindu nationalism symbolized by the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque by a fundamentalist Hindu group and the terrible Bombay riots that ensued. The directions that film production took in the 1980s and 1990s need to be understood in light of the challenges and issues that the industry needed to contend with during this time.

Interestingly, some of the earliest evidence of the trend towards economic liberalization came in the wake of the government’s space satellite program and the introduction of color television—the latter even being part of the Congress Party agenda for the 1980 elections, which saw Mrs. Gandhi return to power. Initially, incentives were offered to indigenous manufacturers of color TV sets, but soon major multinational electronic companies were given licenses to import unassembled TV kits. Furthermore, corresponding with India’s largest loan hitherto of $5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), government cultural policy began to reflect a growing concern with India’s image abroad, leading to the successfully mounted massive campaign to market Indian culture in Western capitals in the form of the Festivals of India, which featured India’s best traditional and contemporary talent. Similarly, the hosting of the Ninth Asian Games was seen as an opportunity to showcase India’s technological capabilities to the rest of the world, providing the context for the launching of a countrywide primetime TV network for transmissions emanating from Delhi, as well as the introduction of color TV.

Color telecasting was inaugurated with Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi films, Sadgati (Deliverance) and Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) on April 25, 1982. Coinciding with a time when the size of Indian media audiences was accelerating significantly, thanks to the growing consumer base among the urban and semi-urban population, these developments gave the national government a magnified opportunity for a centralized and monopolistic dissemination of political images. One significant index of the growing audience size was the fact that in the 1980s, the circulation of regional-language newspapers surpassed that of the English-reading public for the very first time since Independence. Not surprisingly, then, in light of the growing influence of market forces over state policy, one of the first major decisions of the new Rajiv Gandhi government in 1984 was to do with the selling of primetime slots to private advertisers and content producers, making Doordarshan, the national TV broadcaster, a fully commercial channel in 1985. Hum Log (We, the People)—aired over 1984-1985, modeled on Mexican “pro-development” soap-operas, and instrumental in making its sponsors, Nestlé Foods, a household name in India—was followed by several privately produced teleserials, leading to an approximately tenfold increase in TV set ownership just from 1984 to 1986.

Simultaneously, video was emerging as another alternate delivery option. The size of the Indian video market was huge, relying as it did on the flourishing informal sector of the economy for its production and distribution circuits: By 1984, it was estimated that there were approximately 1 million VCRs in India and 30 million videotapes, pointing to a turnover of about 300 crore rupees (Rs 3 billion), already about one third the film industry’s (Rajadhyaksha, 1990).

The industry had always felt that the treatment that it had been meted out by successive post-Independence governments had been far from sympathetic: For instance, in 1978, the industry had paid 187 crore rupees (Rs 1.87 billion) out of its declared turnover of 247 crore rupees (Rs 2.47 billion) as entertainment tax (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1999, p. 27). The scarcity of distribution outlets in India has always been a bottleneck for the industry. In 1980, although the country had only 6,368 permanent and 4,024 touring movie theaters for a population of more than 800 million, government initiatives towards creating alternative cinema production through the FFC and the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) did not include any serious interest in augmenting the distribution network. But now, wedged between the state’s centralized control over television production and the almost entirely illegal video market, the film industry found its territorial distribution arrangements, in place since the decline of the studios in the 1940s, being severely challenged. Moreover, the state was not averse to using the issue of antipiracy laws as a bargaining point to secure the industry’s resources, personnel, and glamour to promote Doordarshan’s expansion plans.

The impact of these changes on both mainstream and new Indian cinema was equally evident: The mid-1980s saw almost every single name associated with the “parallel” cinema movement, including such key figures as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalini, Saaed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, and Vijaya Mehta, move into television production. Major commercial filmmakers, too, such as Ramanand Sagar and B. R. Chopra, followed suit in responding to what clearly was a significant juncture, with state and market pressures combining to produce major shifts in media production and policy.

Accentuated by expanding media audiences and new groups claiming access to the public sphere, the protracted ideological crisis facing the Indian state took a fresh turn in 1986, when the Rajiv Gandhi government allowed the dispute between Hindus and Muslims over worship rights at the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to be reopened. These decisions were echoed by major switches in television policy, which, despite recent changes, had been hitherto premised on the Nehruvian ideal of upholding the official neutrality of state institutions. Although it was true that since the 1950s, the playing of mostly Hindu devotional music on government-run radio had been justified as promoting “national integration” and/or “folk culture,” nevertheless the decision to allow Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana to be aired on the national network, to a primetime Sunday morning audience, marked a historic shift from prevailing norms and, arguably, a turning point in legitimizing the political ideology of Hindutva.

Proposing that the Ramayana was at once “universal” but “essentially Hindu,” the then Secretary for Information and Broadcasting, S. S. Gill, who showed a keen interest in telecasting the serial, justified the use of state media, arguing that the epic epitomized Mahatma Gandhi’s own notion of ram-rajya (kingdom of Ram) as the exemplary indigenous model of the welfare state (Rajagopal, 2001, p. 85). Peak ratings showed viewer figures as high as 80% of TV households, and yet their implications were ominous. The same year saw massive protest demonstrations by Muslims, countered by rallies of militant Hindus determined to “reclaim” the Babri Masjid site. These were followed by the laying of the foundation stone for a temple at the disputed site in 1989 and culminated eventually in December 1992 with the attack on the Babri Masjid and bloody confrontations throughout the country.

The 1980s were therefore a challenging period for the film industry. The major big box-office draws in the early part of the decade included the big-budget Manmohan Desai films, which recycled the rebel-vigilante Amitabh-centered plots of the late 1970s into a series of semiparodic extravaganzas celebrating lumpen power (Naseeb [1981, Fate], Coolie [1983], Mard [1985, Macho-Man]).

However, soon interesting shifts emerged. The advertising potential of Doordarshan, backed by its several film-based programs featuring popular songs, had underscored the importance of catchy tunes and innovative music for the successful marketing of commercial cinema. Parallel to this, the audiocassette market had rapidly expanded since the late 1970s, and now the increasing profits to be made from the presale of music rights resulted in a growing integration between the music business and film production. The career of Gulshan Kumar, the self-proclaimed “audiocassette king,” best illustrates these shifts: Starting off with an audiocassette repair shop in Delhi but sensing that the market was ripe for expansion, Kumar made huge profits initially through pirated versions of expensive HMV cassettes and, later, by issuing cheap remixed “cover versions” of old and new film songs. He eventually went on to head a business empire that spanned a range of products from soap and detergents, electronics, CDs, and video and film production. These conditions brought back the genre of the teenage love story, replete with sentimental songs and shot in a glossy advertising style with “cutesy” visual effects made up of lush colors, brilliant contrasts, trendy costumes, and other objects of consumerist desire, including motorbikes, neon signs, fluffy toys, and the like. The biggest hit of 1988, Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (Mansoor Khan, 1988, The Day of Judgement), introduced this trend and was quickly followed by Maine Pya Kiya (Sooraj Barjatya, 1989, In Love). These two films launched two of the biggest stars to dominate Hindi cinema in the 1990s: Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, respectively.

In the 1990s, the work and career of the South Indian director Mani Ratnam perhaps best illustrates the changes under way. Ratnam first hit the national limelight with his Tamil film, Nayakan (1988, Leader),which refigured The Godfather to feature the Tamil mafia in Bombay. His next two films, Agni Nakshtaram (1989, The Fire Constellation) and Anjali (1990), saw him successfully exploit an MTV-inspired style making extensive use of back lighting, diffuse camera, flare filters, and songs with innovative rhythms and well-choreographed dance sequences. Anjali was an equally big hit in its dubbed Hindi version, clearly showing that Ratnam had tapped a nerve with respect to emerging audience tastes. Equally, his success on the national market showed the growing influence of the regional film industries in South India, whose total annual output had consistently surpassed the corresponding number of Hindi films produced each year since the late 1980s. Mani Ratnam’s next film, the controversial and highly successful Roja (1993), once again released in Tamil and Hindi versions, was the story of a newly-wed Tamil hero who proves his patriotism by fighting antinational Islamic terrorists who kidnap him while he is on an assignment to assist the Indian army in Kashmir. With its demonization of Muslims as fanatical terrorists, an enemy and threat to the nation, in contrast to the benign cosmopolitanism of the Hindu hero and his bride, the film’s politics echo the escalating majoritarian ideological backlash that has, since the 1990s, sought to claim India as a Hindu nation.

The contents and reception of his next film, Bombay (Tamil/Hindi, 1995), proved equally controversial. Bombay is a love story between a Hindu journalist, Shekhar, and a Muslim woman, Bano, that begins in a Tamil village but is played out against the rising tide of fanaticism in Bombay and the terrible riots that shook the city in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In its bold use of documentary footage and direct references to contemporary events, Bombay marked a departure from the typical commercial film. However, both Roja and Bombay renormalized Hindu identity with modernity, patriotism, and the voice of reason. Furthermore, Mani Ratnam’s claims to neutrality were compromised when, fearing objections from the extremist Bombay-based pro-Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, over the film’s alleged “concessions” towards Muslims, he sought and gained Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s approval for the Hindi version before the film’s release, mainly by agreeing to cuts the latter suggested.

The politics of these films resonates with a host of other recent mainstream offerings such as Border (J. P. Dutta, 1997) and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (Anil Sharma, 2001, Revolt: A Love Story), which similarly fed off and into Hindutva sentiment through a hypermasculine and militantly espoused anti-Pakistani nationalism.

Expatriate Audiences, International Markets

If these attempts to mobilize a self-righteous, middle-class, ultra-patriotic address saw popular Hindi cinema turn its back on previous strands that had foregrounded issues of class and inequality (even if these themes had been delineated in ways that ultimately reinforced the status quo), these narrative changes were highlighted by other shifts indicating alterations in the composition and location of audiences for India’s commercial cinema. By the early 1990s, the Bombay film industry had gained a degree of control over its losses from video piracy; nevertheless, mounting pressures from the rise in raw film stock prices and the growth of cable and satellite television in the wake of economic reforms clearly made the industry eager to tap new markets.

In recent times, Indian film producers have found that international markets have proved a much more reliable source of revenue than the domestic circuit. Earnings from foreign markets still remain a small part of the film industry’s revenues, but they have been increasingly attractive to filmmakers as well as to other parties with a stake in distribution revenues. The latter indeed was borne out by the shooting attack in late 2001 on film producer Raakesh Roshan, apparently over Bombay mafia demands for the international rights of his recent hit, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (2001, Say You Are in Love) (see “Cash Boost for Bollywood,” 2001). The current overseas interest has mainly been for the Bombay film; however, South Indian films have also proved a less important but still attractive export, with interest coming not just from émigré Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the West but also from mainstream or cult audiences in countries such as Japan and England. In contrast to these moves to exploit foreign markets for Indian films, reports show that efforts by Hollywood companies to push dubbed versions of U.S. films in the Indian market or to collaborate with the Indian industry over investment and distribution deals, have met with only limited success (Rajadhyaksha, 1996, p. 28).

Such alertness to their changing constituencies has been the hallmark of India’s commercial cinemas, which, as Ravi Vasudevan (2000b) points out, rather than address any fixed set of linguistic and cultural markers, have “from the period of sound cinema onwards, sought to fashion products which could move amongst a series of markets” (p. 120). In Britain, the first movie theaters catering to Asian audiences emerged in the 1970s: six in Birmingham, four each in Leicester and Bradford, and two in Derby (Tyrrell, 1998, p. 21). Video and, subsequently, the airing of Hindi films through Asian satellite TV channels, such as Zee and Sony, almost killed off this localized exhibition circuit. However, from 1993 onwards, commercial screenings through private hires of multiplexes by Asian entrepreneurs have been followed by the showing of Indian films in independent cinemas by non-Asian exhibitors.

With its successful marketing to Asian émigré audiences, Bollywood was bound to take notice. By the early 1990s, Bollywood narratives bore signs that the taste of expatriate Indian audiences for romance and family genres was influencing their choice of themes, characters, and settings. Several 1990s “super-hits,” such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995, Brave of Heart Wins the Bride) and Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997, A Foreign Land), often shot on location in England and/or continental Europe, have featured émigré Indians in search of their roots. They invited a familiar identification from the sizable viewer communities in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, looking for ways to reinterpret their cultural heritage in the light of the opportunities and challenges of new lifestyles. As Patricia Uberoi has pointed out, such preferences of émigré audiences can coalesce in interesting ways with the aspirations and anxieties of the domestic Indian globalizing middle classes, who seek to legitimize their cultural desires by projecting them onto the figure of the expatriate, who has apparently “made it” (Uberoi, 1998).

The appeal of excessively sanitized family dramas such as the record-breaking Hum Aapke Hain Koun (Sooraj Barjatya, 1994, Who Am I to You?), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998, A Certain Feeling), and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum (Barjatya, 2001, A Little Happiness, a Little Sorrow) can be located in their successful peddling of consumerist utopias where all signs of poverty and oppression have been wished away through simple narrative choices that leave lives brimming with relentless happiness, wealth, and comfort. Along comparable lines, albeit with significant differences, the making and marketing of Lagaan (Gowariker, 2001, Land-Tax), using DTS technology to allow for easy dubbing into several languages, showed that the film was evidently made with an eye on international markets extending beyond the Indian diaspora. Launched with a massive promotional buildup, the film’s premiere at Sun City, South Africa, in June 2001 was attended by the film’s principal cast and production team and was followed by the film’s simultaneous release in the United Kingdom, the Hindi theater circuit in the United States, and throughout India. With its rerelease (after its nomination for an Academy Award) in most parts of Europe, Asia, and some mainstream theaters in the United States, perhaps Lagaan was Bollywood’s first crossover hit.


With the television boom of the 1990s and the prospect of growing profits in international markets, there have been visible signs of corporatization of the Indian media scene, and yet these new patterns ultimately reflect the specific longer term constraints under which Indian film industries have developed. Entertainment conglomerates emerged during the postreforms period such as Zee Telefilms, UTV, Ramoji Films, and Balaji Telefilms, which variously combined interests in film production, distribution, television software, CD-ROMs, advertising, and event management, pointing to a new capital base, a visible nexus between cultural corporations and reputed directors, and the adoption of managerial techniques in media production (Prasad, 2000).

An interesting aspect of this trend has been the entry of several major Bollywood stars who have entered into film/media production in an attempt to cash in on the full commercial value of their image, exemplified by Amitabh Bachchan’s controversial media conglomerate, ABCL (Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited), set up in 1995 to market a range of media products under the “Big-B” label, and by Aamir Khan Productions, launched in 2000. Alongside, in a belated attempt to regularize financial flows into film production, these developments have been accompanied by the government’s decision in 1998 to officially accord it the trade benefits of being an organized industry.

And yet despite these changes, Indian film production mostly remained characterized by the patterns of undercapitalization and fragmentation delineated by Madhav Prasad (1998, pp. 40-41). Relying on renting all requisite technical resources, filmmakers remained dependent on surplus merchant capital and on a large number of independent producers, the latter often “one-time” film entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the availability of low-wage casual labor, evidenced in the enormous pay differences between stars, “character actors,” and “extras” (Prasad, 1998). An industry report indicated that film financiers comprised mainly diamond merchants, brokers, builders, and other such individuals, with large amounts of liquid cash to spare, which they lent out at rates as high as 36% to 48% per annum (“Report on the Film Industry,” 2001a). Furthermore, in a situation characterized by an acute scarcity of exhibition outlets, where distribution and exhibition were seen as the most profitable aspects of the film business, the industry has long been seen as a distributors’ market (Prasad, 1998; see also Barnouw & Krishnaswamy, 1980, pp. 137-139, 160-169). Commercial film finance came officially from distributors and, by the end of the 1990s, music companies—the main parties to profit from a film’s success (“Report on the Film Industry,” 2001a). Industry sources, however, claimed that, at a conservative estimate, approximately 30% to 35% of films were financed by underworld money (see “Film Production,” 2001; “Role of the Dons,” 2000). Besides, the presence of mafia money was useful in securing dates from top stars to keep production on schedule (see “Cleaning Up Bollywood,” 2001). More recently, with growing international attention to Indian films, the Bombay mafia has shown a serious interest in securing control over overseas rights, mainly because of their potential for money laundering (Harding, 2001; “The Threat,” 2001).

The recent enthusiasm for Bombay cinema among Western critics and mainstream audiences may signal a closer engagement between cultures promised by the experiments with the moving image that began almost simultaneously in different parts of the world just over a hundred years ago. Even Hollywood majors such as Columbia Tristar, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Twentieth Century Fox have taken note of the emerging markets for Indian films. And yet, at least within the United States, this interest comes at a time when the overall share of foreign cinema imports distributed in the domestic market has been diminishing. Significantly, much of the interest has been in the area of distribution, rather than film production, propelled ostensibly less by cultural openness than by the quest for a share of easy profits in a lucrative market—objectives that indeed echo the ones that founded the distribution empire at the heart of the Madan media enterprise in the early years of the past century.