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A 100 Years Of Entertainment With Substance
By Kavitha Srinivasa
Although 2013 officially marks the centenary of movie-making in India, cinematic history in the country was set rolling when Ramchandra Gopal, popularly known as Dadasaheb Torne, made 'Shree Pundalik', a Marathi film in 1912. Yet, because of technical reasons, producer-director-screenwriter Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's silent film 'Raja Harishchandra' came to be considered as the country's first full-length feature film.

This century of Indian cinema has also been a century of audiences giving the thumbs up to stories that are centred on social and political themes. Every era has had its share of cult films that took a closer look at the life and times of the 'aam admi' and 'aam aurat', who have been walking into theatres to enjoy the larger-than-life portrayals of their otherwise mundane existence.

Politically conscious stories made their debut around the Forties and Fifties with the rise of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), the communist art movement that raised funds for the 1943 Bengal famine through plays. Impressed by IPTA's work, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas made 'Dharti Ke Lal' (1946), a film that captured socio-economic realities against the backdrop of World War II.

Besides the writers, this genre also inspired actors. Nargis, the star of yesteryear, rose above the crest when she played the lead role in Mehboob Khan's 1957 film, 'Mother India'. Her Radha represented India, a nation struggling to survive in the turbulence of the post-Independence era. This gripping film became "an all-time Indian blockbuster". According to boxofficeindia.com, a website that reports the box office collections of Hindi films, it grossed a whopping Rs 4 crore in its time.

According to Pankaja Thakur, Chief Executive Officer, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), "Initially, patriotic films like 'Charkha' and 'Hindustan' revolved around the freedom struggle. Later, Chetan Anand's 'Haqeeqat' reflected the India-China War. These films went on to become a part of the collective consciousness of Indians of that generation."

Movie enthusiasts are still attracted to such content, evident from popular films like 'Black Friday' (2003), 'Raajneeti' (2010), and 'Chakravyuh' (2012).

Incidentally, political reflections have been an integral part of vernacular fare as well. Noted Tamil film historian, S. Theodore Baskaran, reveals, "When sound came to Tamil cinema in 1931 with 'Kalidas', the artistes from company drama moved into studios. They were already a highly politicised community, having actively participated in the freedom struggle." For instance, although 'Kalidas' was mythological, it had a song in praise of Mahatma Gandhi. "Soon cinema became an instrument of political propaganda and actors began taking active part in politics. Some went as delegates to national Congress sessions and others appeared on political platforms," elaborates Baskaran. According to him, Thirties artiste K.B. Sundarambal campaigned for the Congress and she was India's first film artiste to enter the Madras legislature in 1958 as a Congress nominee. Today, actors like Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar have floated their own political parties.

Intensifying the nationalistic flavour of films has been the musical score - and this, too, has not changed with the changing times. 'Kismet', a 1943 Bombay Talkies offering, created a record for having had a continuous run of over three-and-a half years in Calcutta's Roxy Theatre. What powered this dream run? It was a song. Ganesh Anantharaman, author of award-winning book 'Bollywood Melodies' says, "Kismet's song 'Door haton aye duniya walon Hindustan hamara hai' was the crowd-pleaser. People used to ask theatre owners to rewind the reel and play it over and over again. Kavi Pradeep, who wrote its lyrics, had to go underground to evade arrest from an alarmed British administration." The song captured the popular sentiment of the time, particularly in the light of the Quit India movement that had been launched the previous year. 'Kismet' went on to becoming the decade's biggest revenue grosser. Other songs echoing the Independence struggle were also chart toppers - 'Vandemataram' from 'Anand Math', 'Hai preet jahan ki reet sada' from 'Poorab aur Paschim' and 'Taqat watan ki humse' from 'Prem Pujari' became youth anthems.

Storytelling that combined the social with the political gathered momentum during the late-Fifties, as filmmakers struck a chord with the audiences by portraying burning issues such as unemployment and industrialisation. Raj Kapoor's 'Jagte Raho' showcased a villager's tryst with city life; 'Naya Daur', released in 1957 and starring Dilip Kumar, made cinematic history grossing net earnings of Rs 2,25,00,000.

Of course, this fare was not just strong on social messages; its entertainment quotient was high, too. "Initial films like Bimal Roy's 'Do Bheega Zameen', which had a socialist theme, gained an iconic status. Later, 'Hare Rama Hare Krishna', 'Prem Rog', 'Bombay', 'Taare Zameen Par' and 'Pipli Live' created awareness about socially relevant issues. Some of these films have been taken seriously and one saw public debate, legislations and positive response from their government after their release," observes Thakur.

Today, socio-political films have been striking a dialogue with diverse audiences through new media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Facebook unveiled the plot of Sujoy Ghosh's 'Kahaani', a film that explored feminism and motherhood in a male-dominated society. The 2011 film, 'No One Killed Jessica' took a social stance by creating a mobile app for women to dial up and report against harassment. Movie-lovers have raised a toast to the new crop of social films like 'Black', 'Page 3' and 'Jail' as well.

Regional fare has added to the repertoire. Bengali greats such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak have sensitively captured poverty and pathos on camera, while Malayalam filmmakers have explored pre-marital and later extra marital relationships. Over the years, this trend has carried on.

Kavitha Lankesh's Kannada 2003 film, 'Preethi Prema Pranaya', told the audience that there was nothing wrong with a lonely middle-aged widow looking for companionship. There were no 'bold' scenes, but the idea itself was previously unexplored in Kannada cinema. The film won the National Award for the Best Regional Film. Commenting on the success of her film, Lankesh says, "Times have changed; people have less patience and no time for sermons. A film needs to strike the right chord with the viewers." The 2010 Telugu film, 'Yem Maaya Chesaave' did just that, tackling the age difference between the lead pair with the help of a convincing screenplay. The heroine was older than the hero, a fact that is not uncommon in contemporary times.

Once again, well-written and composed songs played their part in sentising people to their larger social realities. Says Anantharaman, "Socially relevant songs have shaken us out of our prejudices." From 'Dil ka haal sune dilwala' and 'Saathi haath badhana' with their socialist leanings to 'Aurat ne janam diyan mardon ko' from the 1958 movie, 'Sadhna', that became notable as it outlined the pathos of a woman's situation in a man's world, to 'Aali Re' (2011) and 'Gustakh Dil' (2012) that have given voice to the emotions and struggles of the modern woman, different decades have given songs that challenge the existing social order.

Importantly, within the socio-political genre, gender issues have always registered their presence. Caste and gender were central to films like 'Achhoot Kanya' (1936), 'Aurat' (1953) and 'Sujata' (1959). While 'Achhoot Kanya', a Bombay Talkies production, was a sensitive tale of a Dalit girl, cine-goers were treated to romance between a Brahmin and an untouchable woman in 'Sujata'. More recently, 'English Vinglish' (2012) showed one woman's journey of self-discovery.

It's a moment of truth: after 10 decades, social and political themes continue to have a successful and uninterrupted relationship with audiences. Today, of course, it comes with a young, international flavour.

(© Women's Feature Service)

News Updated at : Sunday, July 21, 2013
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