The saga of Indian cinema's greatness will roll on, long after the glitz, glamour, and noise of Bollywood will have faded
In 2011, the Central Board of Film Certification allowed 1,255 Indian films for public distribution, of which 206 were in Hindi. A century ago, when Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra, classification based on language was unnecessary, since Phalke’s film was silent, a universal language that all Indians understood instinctively.
The power was in its story, drawn from epics, which most Indians, irrespective of faith, knew because their parents or teachers at schools had told them the story of the king who would not tell a lie and who would not budge from a promise. Naseeruddin Shah said once that the plots of all Indian films owed their origin to Shakespeare or to epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Indian cinema has always been utterly reliant on the power of a narrative, and which narrative has greater richness than the Mahabharata? After all for Ved Vyas it is said, “Vyasochishtam jagat sarvam," or whatever you find said in the universe, Vyas has said it before. It is that easy familiarity with the story—or what the critic Ashish Rajadhyaksha called the power of the epic, in his biography of Ritwik Ghatak—that makes Indian cinema so accessible to so many, in a country divided by everything—language, class, caste and faith—but united by the fascination for a good story.
During a week in which Hindi cinema (which was actually born only in 1931, when Ardeshir Irani made Alam Ara) seems to have appropriated the celebrations of Indian cinema, it is worth recalling the richness of the rest of India. I love Hindi films too, but you don’t honour a national phenomenon by glorifying only one-fifth of it.
For the true love of a mother and her principles, turn to P.K. Atre’s Marathi film Shyamchi Aai (1953), which showed how good people didn’t trade principles even while living in dire poverty. Then there is the outstanding musical score of Jabbar Patel’s Jait Re Jait (1977), with the seductive Smita Patil in a story of the fragility of love. And in Akriet (1981), Amol Palekar recreates the Manwat murders and the cruelty of the upper class when gripped by blind faith.
I recall Saeed Mirza introducing Ketan Mehta’s 1980 film Bhavni Bhavai as the most important debut since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Mehta’s Gujarati film is a searing indictment of caste, inspired by Goscinny and Uderzo, who created Asterix. But the comic nature of the king and its lilting music cannot conceal the harrowing end.
Moving south, there is so much to admire in Kannada cinema: two of U.R. Ananthamurthy works stand out. Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha (1977) is about the outcasting of a pregnant widow. In Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s Samskara (1970), Girish Karnad’s Praneshacharya is a flawed progressive Brahmin who tries to do right, but succumbs to passion and is consumed by guilt. Karnad’s own Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978) was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.
Further south, in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (1981), the rat trap becomes the metaphor of the patriarchy of a closed society. His earlier film, Swayamvaram (1970), told the story of a young couple marrying against their parents’ wishes, moving to another town to start their life, and the inevitability of tragedy befalling them, and the determination of the young woman to cast her own lonely furrow. Another great film was G. Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), which showed the transformation of a village’s life, and its people’s relationships, with the arrival of electricity. And the sheer melody of K. Vishwanath’s Telugu classic Shankarabharanam (1979).
And then there is Bengal. How to squeeze that universe into a ball? Satyajit Ray, of course, with the train scene and the rain scene in Pather Panchali; the transformation of Sharmila Tagore into Devi (1960); the absurd yet amazing job interview scene in Pratidwandi (1970); the sizzling memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970); the uplifting scene of Madhabi Mukherjee on a swing in Charulata (1964), and the whirlwind entry of Soumitro Chatterjee in that film, saying “Hare Murare!" In Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (1961), the train plays a different role, of pathos, as it rushes headlong towards Opar Bangla and suddenly coming to a halt where India arbitrarily ends. And there was the skilful use of still photography in Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (1965). And the reality that women who choose to work face, in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), and Sen’s Ekdin Pratidin (1979).
Many have remained unnamed here, but the saga of Indian cinema’s greatness will roll on, long after the glitz, glamour, and noise of Bollywood will have faded. A quarter century ago I had interviewed Bharat Bhushan, the hero of yesteryears, for India Today. He had said the journey of Indian cinema over the past 75 years had been from the silent to the unspeakable. Perhaps, if you only saw mainstream cinema. Beyond that, there was always a world to explore—of riches—sometimes silent, like the kaash field before the train crossed the Bengal landscape, or noisy, like Choma’s drum.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-