Bollywood behind the screens


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The Indian movie industry is the largest in the world. Since the first silent film ‘Raja Harishchandra’, based on a Hindu legend, was made by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (Dadasaheb) in 1913 — and the first talkie was produced in 1931 — the industry has grown in to a mammoth production line with an annual output of 1,600 films.

Although the Mumbai-based Hindi language film industry, known as Bollywood,has become synonymous with the Indian movie industry, Hindi moviesconstitute only about 20% of the filmsproduced in India.Films made in the regional languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi and Bhojpuri reach domestic audiences that far exceed the reach of Bollywood.

In fact, the rise of Bollywood was a relatively recent phenomenon started by the Hindu Punjabi refugee outflow from Lahore, the former capital of Punjab arrogantly declared by the British as he capital of the newly created Pakistan in 1947.

Prithviraj Kapoor, the pioneer of the Kapoor clan that has produced four generations of Bollywood superstars — with his sons Raj, Shamsher (Shammi) and Shashi and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma Kapoors — was one of the pioneers of Bollywood.Prithviraj Kapoor also is credited with the introduction of a more ‘natural’ style of acting to Hindi cinema, together with actors Motile, Balart Shane and Ashok Kumar.

It was these Urdu-speaking Punjabis who were behind the Bollywood movie industry that is still based on the depiction of extroverted culture and rituals of the Punjabis. It was the declaration of Hindi the official language of India following independence that elevated the Bombay-based regional Hindi movie industry to a national one.

Prior to the 1950s, the Bengali movie industry was the most prolific in India, since the first silent Bengali movie Bilwamangal was produced in 1919.It also produced the first major film-star — an actor named Pramathesh Barua who directed and acted in a film adaptation of Sarachchandra Chatterjee's popular novel Devdas. The earliest female Bengali starwasan actress named Kanan Devi.

Bengali language film industry based in the Kolkatalocality Tollygunge, therefore nicknamed Tollywood, has made a strong presence through filmmakers considered India’s best, producing internationally renowned art movies; Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) was awarded Best Human Document at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and his contemporary Ritwik Ghatak spearheaded the more political avant-garde cinema.In the ‘70s; Mrinal Sen depicted the rise of radical politics in West Bengal. Later in the nineties, (the late) Rituparno Ghosh made impressively arty movies such as Chokher Bali (2003).

The Royal Bioscope Company of Bengal, started by Hiralal Sen, in 1899 with his brother Motilal Sen for making short films is considered the first movie venture in Bengal. Reflecting the national mood at the time, the film industry took up the cause of Independence from the British with a film documenting the Anti-Partition Demonstration that took place on 22 September 1905at the Calcutta Town Hall, ending with the rallying cry for freedom, Vande Mataram. New Theatres Ltd., established in 1930 began dominating a new film studio system that accompanied the advent of the talkies in the early 1930s, also making Hindi versions of its Bengali films for the larger ‘all-India’ market.

The famous director Bimal Roy, who went on to become one of Indian cinema’s most celebrated directors in the ‘50s, was a New Theatres product. The studio also created the first singing stars K. L. Saigal and Kanan Bala together with its most iconic star duo in Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen who remained mega-stars until Uttam Kumar’s untimely death at the age of 54, in 1980.

This golden era of Bengali movies also produced pioneers in Bengali film music including Rai Chand (R.C.) Boral, Pankaj Mullick and K. C. Dey (who had become completely blind at the age of six, and was also famous for training the great music director S. D. Burman and his nephew, the singer ‘Manna’ Dey). Other great composers such as Sudhin Dasgupta, Salil Chaudhary, Nachiketa Ghosh and Hemant Kumar also emerged from this system. A large number of popular playback singers in Hindi films such as Hemantha Kumar, Kishore Kumar (who shed their Bengali names and acquired ‘Kumar’ as the Bollywood surname), Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, Shaan, Alka Yagnik, Shreya Ghoshal have Bengali origins.


The rise of Bollywood was due to music

Songs have been the defining feature of Bollywood movies since their very inception: it is the evocative song and dance routines that set Bollywood movies apart from the rest. Songs played to heighten emotions relating to situations in the plot later become ‘hits’ even after the movie has flopped! Songs that portray dream sequences, and others that are not related to the storyline at all, but with catchy tunes fall in to this category.

In fact, it was the introduction of professional playback singing in 1936 by director Nitin Bose and composer R.C. Boral in a movie named "Dhoop Chhaon" that spurred the meteoric rise of Bollywood movies:in early Bollywood, film sounds could not be synchronised at the time of filming, due to the noise from the low-tech equipment used, and dialogue and songs had to be dubbed post-production. This dubbing later led to the use of ‘professional’ singers with more ‘emotive’ voices as playback singers, starting in the 1940s. The new opportunity spawned a generation of actor-singers (e.g., K. L Saigal, Noor Jehanand Suraiya) who looked and sounded more appealing to the audiences.

Kundan Lal (K.L.) Saigal (1904–1947) became the first real superstar of the Hindi film industry in the mid to late 1930s, still centred in Calcutta.Born at Jammu, Saigal was hired by Calcutta-based New Theatres studio on the recommendation of the musical maestro R. C. Boral on a contract of Rs. 200 per month. This incredible phenomenon of Saigal—who could sing the most complex ragas in the manner they should be sung, was in fact a typewriter salesman — had never received any formal musical training, and is known to have emptied a bottle of whisky a day. Saigal’s brilliant rendition of the Raag Bhairavi-based thumri, 'Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye' in the movie Street Singeralone would be sufficient to immortalise his musical genius.


He sadly died prematurely at the age of 42 due to the effects of long-term alcoholism.Saigal's distinctive singing was revered and idolised by the first generation of Hindi film playback singers including Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar who have acknowledged that Saigal was their musical inspiration.

It was he move of Saigal to Bombay,in 1941, after acting in seven Bengali movies that is considered to have triggered the decline of Tollywood, if not the rise of Bollywood.Many successful early Bengali film directors like Bimal Roy and playback singers Hemant Kumar, ‘Manna’ Dey and Kishore Kumar followed. The 1949 movie Barsaat (Rain), directed by a 25-year-old Raj Kapoor launched the playback singer Lata Mangeshkar and the music directors Shankar and Jaikishan who were active well in to the 2000s.

Many notable playback singers who came to prominence in the 40s, 50s and 60s include Amirabad Karnataka, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dust, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, ‘Manna’ Dey, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. These playback singers, because of their immortal melodies, have gained legendary status.

The first film songs composed by great music directors of the Golden Era of Bollywood — of the 1950s and 1960s — including R.C. Boral, Anil Biswas, Roshan, C. Ram Chandra, Naushad, Madan Mohan and S. D. Burmanwere heavily influenced by Indian classical music, and the songs they composed were based on classical ragas and talas, leading to the lingering memories of the songs long after the movies they contained in have been forgotten.R.C. Boral, credited with introducing full-fledged orchestra for film music, and considered the father of Indian film music was bestowed the highest movie industry award, the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1978.

Many young music directors who have emerged on the scene in the new Millennium have moved away from this practice of classically-based compositions, to reflect the perceived interests of the new ‘market’ for Bollywood movies in the West. The new breed of Bollywood music directors appear to increasingly bringin in elements from various foreign music genres including hip-hop and rap, and other beats.Compilations of songs from different movies as a separate ‘product’ signifies the dominance of song over the Bollywood movie.


Bollywood - a Galaxy of stars!


Bollywood is full of stars who are hero-worshiped all over India.The original generation of Bollywood superstars Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor gave way to Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. The Pakistan-born Muslim Mohammed Yusuf Sara Khan who entered the screens in 1944,camouflaging as Dilip Kumar, revolutionised acting as it was known then. The last 20 years have seen the rise of many other Khans led by Shahrukh.

Among the early heroines, Meena Kumari (Biju Bawra) Nutan, Asha Parekh and Waheeda Reman carried Bollywood through the 50s, 60s and 70s with the Carnatic singer and Bharath natyam dancer Vyjayanthimala breaking through the south Indian barrier through films like Devdas and Madhumati. Noor Jehan, a trained classical singer emerged through the movie Mirza Ghalib. Nargis in Mother India made her debut in the industry at the age of 6 and was in many popular movies in the 1940s and 1950s. Saira Banu who debuted in the film Junglee alongside Shammi Kapoor appeared inother popular movies including Aayi Milan Ki Bela.


Suraiya (Suraiya Jamal Sheikh), (1929-2004) was a singer-actress who mesmerised Bollywood movie audiences in the 1940s and early 1950s. After making her debut at age 12 in Taj Mahal (1941), Suraiya appeared in scores of films between 1946 and 1950, and at her peak was one of Bollywood’s highest-paid stars. She co-starred in many movies opposite Hindu matinee idol Dev Anand, and was widely rumoured (with sound basis) to have an off-screen alliance with Anand who was a lesser star than her at the time. Prospects of a real-life union between them ended unhappily in 1951 when her Muslim family (mainly the grandmother) refused blessings. Dev Anand eventually went on to marry an actress named Kalpana Kartik, and Suraiya never married. She made only a few films after 1952 and retired in 1963 at the age of 34, and shunned public life until death in 2004.

With all its flaws, there seems tobe much in the Bollywood movie industry, worthy of appreciation, especially when compared to the sad and pathetic sate of the Sri Lankan movie industry.

Speaking of the movies, it was Alfred Hitchcock who said: "Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare."

Unfortunately, Sri Lankan cinema seems to be unable to wake us up from the nightmare!

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