Cinema of India

The Indian film industry is the second in the world in terms of number of films (877 feature films and 1177 short films made in India were released in the year 2003 alone) (Central Board of Film Certification of India); compared with over 2,000 Nigerian videos[1]; and 473 films released in the US in 2003 (MPAA U.S. Theatrical Market: 2005 Statistics).(dubious assertion—see talk page) Movie tickets in India are among the cheapest in the world (the average ticket costs US$0.20; in comparison, the average ticket in the US in 2005 cost US$6.41). India accounts for 73 per cent of the Asia / Pacific admissions currently estimated at $2870 million. The Indian cinema industry is also home to the biggest film studio in the world, Ramoji Film City [1]. The industry is mainly supported by the vast cinema-going Indian public. The Central Board of Film Certification of India cites on its website that every three months an audience as large as India’s billion-strong population visit cinema halls). Indian films are gaining increasing popularity in the rest of the world, especially in countries with large numbers of expatriate Indians.


1896 – 1910

Cinema was introduced to India on July 7, 1896. It began with the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematography, unveiling six silent short films at the Watson Hotel in Bombay, namely Entry of Cinematographe, The Sea Bath, Arrival of a Train, A Demolition, Ladies & Soldiers on Wheels and Leaving the Factory[2]. The Times of India carried details of the “Living Photographic Pictures in Life-Size Reproductions by Mssrs. Lumiere Brotheres”. In the same year, the Madras Photographic Store advertised “animated photographs”. Daily screenings of films commenced in Bombay in 1897 by Clifton and Co.’s Meadows Street Photography Studio.

A dancing scene from The Flower of Persia


A dancing scene from The Flower of Persia

In 1898, Hiralal Sen started filming scenes of theatre productions at the Classic Theatre in Calcutta, inspired by Professor Stevenson (who had brought to India the country’s first bioscope)’s, film presentation alongside the stage production of The Flower Of Persia; his debut was a contribution to this presentation. He continued making similar films to complement theatrical productions, which were shown as added attractions during intermission, in private screenings for high society households or taken to distant venues where the stage performers could not reach.

Lord and Lady Curzon on Elephant, Coronation Durbar, Delhi, 1903


Lord and Lady Curzon on Elephant, Coronation Durbar, Delhi, 1903

Harishchandra Bhatvadekar


Harishchandra Bhatvadekar

Harischandra Sakharam Bhatvadekar alias Save Dada, who had attended the show, imported a cine-camera from London at a price of 21 guineas and filmed the first Indian documentary, a wrestling match in Hanging Gardens, Bombay, in 1897. In 1901, he recorded the return from Cambridge of ‘Wrangler’ Ragunath P. Paranjpye, who had secured a distinction in mathematics from Cambridge University, and M M Bhownuggree, considered the first Indian news film. [3][4]. He also filmed Lord Curzon (the Viceroy of India)’s Delhi Darbar that marked the enthronement of Edward VII in 1903.

The commercial potential of cinema was also tested during the time. F.B. Thanewala’s “Grand Kinetoscope Newsreels” is one successful case. J.F. Madan was another highly successful film producer, who released hit films like Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra and Bilwamangal; also, he launched Madan Theatres Limited, which became India’s largest film production-distribution-exhibition company and the biggest importer of American films after World War I. His films were marked by a high degree of technical sophistication, facilitated by his employment of experienced foreign directors like Eugenio De Liguoro and Camille Legrand. This expertise was complemented by grand sets and popular mythological storylines which ensured good returns.

Cinema houses were set up in major Indian cities in this period, like one in Madras (in 1900 by Major Warrick), the Novelty Cinema in Bombay (where newsreels from the Boer Wars were shown) and the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta (set up by J.F. Madan in 1907). Apart from these, a number of film shows were arranged in tents; examples are: shows arranged by two Italians, Colorello and Cornaglia, in tents at the Azad Maidan Bombay, J.F. Madan’s tent cinema at the Calcutta Maidan. Another popular mode of broadcasting films was the touring cinema. In 1904, Manek Sethna started the Touring Cinema Co. in Bombay and a year later, Swamikannu Vincent, a draughtsman for the railways set up a touring cinema going around small towns and villages in the South of India. Pathe, the famous film production company set up an Indian Office in 1907.


A scene from Raja Harishchandra


A scene from Raja Harishchandra

The first feature film made in India was a narrative named Pundalik, by N.G. Chitre and R.G. Torney. The first full-length Indian feature film was Raja Harishchandra (3700 feet as compared to 1500 for Pundalik), made in 1913 and released commercially in May that year, by Dadasaheb Phalke. Phalke had attended a screening of The Life of Christ at P.B. Mehta’s American-Indian Cinema and was inspired to make films himself. He was convinced of the possibility of establishing an indigenous film industry by focussing on Indian themes. In this regard, he said Like the life of Christ, we shall make pictures on Rama and Krishna. The film was about an honest king who for the sake of his principles sacrifices his kingdom and family before the gods, who are impressed with his honesty and restore him to his former glory. The film was a success, and Phalke went on to make more mythological films till the advent of talkies, and commercialisation of Indian films lessened his popularity.[5].

In 1916, Universal Pictures set up Hollywood’s first Indian agency (see Hollywood meets India, below). The first South Indian feature was Rangaswamy Nataraja Mudaliar’s Keechaka Vadham, released in 1916. The following year, he made the film Draupadi Vastrapaharanam, featuring Anglo-Indian actress Marian Hill who played the role of Draupadi.[6]

Regional film industries

Official statistics categorise Indian films according to the languages in which they are distributed. This system has some relevance, since states in India are divided according to languages (after reorganisation of states between 1952 and 1970). However, while this system is followed by Indian historians as well[2], it does not necessarily indicate the geographical origins of the films or its directors. For example, the Bengali director Mrinal Sen made films in Oriya (spoken in the State Orissa), Telugu (spoken in Andhra Pradesh) and Hindi (believed by many to be the national language of India), spoken in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan).

A cinema hall in Delhi


A cinema hall in Delhi

India is a large country where many languages are spoken. According to the 1991 Census of India there are about 10,400 ‘raw mother tongues’ in India. By general linguistic methods, the number of ‘rationalised’ mother tongues was 1576, and on further grouping, the total number of Indian languages was concluded to be 114.[7] Of these, films are produced in about 30 languages. Each of the larger languages supports its own film industry: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam. Indian cinema became more regional and vernacular with the advent of sound cinema in 1931.[2]According to some, sound in cinema compensated “through [its] languages, songs and music for the massive illiteracy of Indians.”

  • The Hindi film industry, based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is called ‘Bollywood’ (a melding of Hollywood and Bombay).
  • A still from Bhakta Prahlad (1931)


    A still from Bhakta Prahlad (1931)

    The Telugu film industry (sometimes called Tollywood) is based in Andhra Pradesh’s capital city, Hyderabad. Telugu is the second largest spoken language in India. After Bollywood, more movies are produced every year in Telugu than any other language. The state also has the largest film studio in the world, Ramoji Film City. The first studio for telugu talkies was Vel Pictures, constructed in 1934 by PV Das, located at Madras. The first film made here was Sita Kalyanam. The first film made by a telugu person, R.S. Prakash, was Bhishma Pratigna (The Pledge of Bhishma, 1922). Another important telugu personality of this era was YV Rao (Yaragudipati Varada Rao ,1903-1973), an actor and director, whose silent film (directing) credits include Pandava Nirvana (1930), Pandava Agnathavaas (1930) and Hari Maya (1932). The first big movies in Telugu were made by the Surabhi Theatres troupes.[3] They produced the first telugu talkie, Bhakta Prahlad, directed by Hanumappa Munioappa Reddy in 1931. In the first few years of telugu talkies, films were all mythological stories, taken from the stage. In 1936, Krittiventi Nageswara Rao made the first telugu film not based on myhtology, Premavijayam; The film influenced other telugu film-makers into making such films. Some popular themes of these films (often called ‘social’ films) were the feudal zamindari system (Raitu Bidda, 1939), untouchability (Mallapilla, 1938), and widow remarriage[8]. Since then, there have been both ‘social’ (contemporary) and mythological or folk stories in Telugu cinema. Telugu cinema has had many ‘superstars’ throughout its history. The earliest superstars were popular stage actors who migrated to films[9]. The first notable ‘legend’ of Telugu cinema was Chittoor V. Nagaiah. The most popular stars who made a permanent mark on Telugu film industry are Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) followed by his rival Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR).

Anniyan(Tamil)(2005) the biggest ever Indian blockbuster


Anniyan(Tamil)(2005) the biggest ever Indian blockbuster

  • The Tamil film industry, based in the Kodambakkam area of Chennai, is sometimes called ‘Kollywood’ is the second biggest film industry in India. Kollywood is one of the most successful film industries in India. It is popular not only in India but also worldwide. Tamil films are especially popular in countries like Sri Lanka, Japan, Malaysia, United Kingdom,Canada, South Africa and United States. They also get dubbed into other languages, thus reaching a much wider audience. Examples of those dubbed into other languages include such hits as Minsaara Kanavu, Roja and Bombay. Anniyan, a recent Tamil film became the first Indian film to be dubbed into French.
  • The Bengali film industry, long centred in the Tollygunge district of Kolkata (Calcutta), is sometimes called ‘Tollywood’.
  • Dr.Rajkumar in a movie


    Dr.Rajkumar in a movie

    The Kannada film industry, based in Karnataka, is sometimes called ‘Sandalwood’, as Karnataka is known for its sandalwood; however, this term does not seem to be in widespread use. The Gubbi Veerana Company, or Veeranna’s Sri Chennabasaveshwara Krupa Poshita Nataka Sangha[10] and other groups established themselves first as theatre troupes, and later went on to dominate kannada cinema into the 1960s. “They provided all its key directors like H.L.N . Simha, B. R. Panthulu and G. V. Iyer, its stars led by Rajkumar and Leelavathi and most of its early commercial hits: Bedara Kannappa (1953), for instance. The first big success in Kannada cinema, adapted a Gubbi Company stage play written by G. V. Iyer to introduce the mythological adventure movie into that language.”[3]

  • The Malayalam film industry, based in Kerala, is sometimes called ‘Mollywood’.
  • The Marathi film industry is based in Mumbai & Pune.
  • The Kashmiri film industry, which had been lying dormant since the release of Habba Khatoon in 1967, was revived after a 39-year hiatus with the release of Akh Daleel Loolech in 2006. Cinema halls had been shut down for a long time in Kashmir, by militants protesting against the New Delhi based Government. There are few cinema halls and a handful of directors have been returning to shoot in the region. Though the region was favoured by many producers as a scenic locale in pre-militancy era Bollywood movies as a romantic backdrop [11], the regional industry was not very strong, due to lack of finances and infrastructure.[12]

Language-wise break-up of Indian Feature Films produced from 1990 to 1999


Language-wise break-up of Indian Feature Films produced from 1990 to 1999

The Bollywood industry is usually the largest in terms of films produced and box office receipts. Many workers in other regional industries, once their talent and popularity is established, move on to work in other film industries, nationally as well as internationally. For example, A. R. Rahman, one of the best known film music composers in Indian cinema, started his career in Tamil cinema in Chennai but has since undertaken ventures in other spheres, including international film and theatre. Similarly, films that succeed in one language are often remade or dubbed in others. Films like Padosan and Roja, for example, were re-made or dubbed from their original Bengali and Tamil versions respectively, into Hindi. The trend of simultaneously making a film in multiple languages was started in South Indian cinema because of the high cost and poor result of dubbing films into other languages. For example, the Tamil-dubbed version of the Telugu film Keelugurram, called Maya Kuthirai did not do as well as the original, due to poor dubbing. Since then producers started to remake films rather than to dub them, as it cost little money (since most actors then were bound by contracts to work under a single banner) and solved the problem of proper lip-synchronisation etc. encountered by the dubbing process.[13]

Conventions of commercial films

  • The principal difference between American and Indian commercial cinema is that Indian films usually feature periodic song-and-dance routines (thus they can be considered musical films) which, in a good movie, are expected to move the story forward (in mediocre movies, they are poorly integrated into the story). Songs are sung by professional play-back singers and lip-synched by dancing actors and actresses.

Indian commercial films, in whatever regional centre they are made, tend to be long; they are usually two to three hours long, often with an intermission. They tend to be melodramatic and sentimental, but may also feature romance, comedy, action, suspense, and other generic elements. Unlike commercial Western films, there is almost no nudity at all in Indian films. Such scenes are classified as obscene in the Constitution of India and are usually removed by the Indian Censor Board. film industry

Art cinema

In addition to commercial cinema, there is also Indian cinema that aspires to seriousness or art. This is known to film critics as “New Indian Cinema” or sometimes “the Indian New Wave” (see the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema), but most people in India simply call such films “art films”.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the art film was usually government-subsidised: aspiring directors could get federal or state government grants to produce non-commercial films on Indian themes. Many of these directors were graduates of the government-supported Film and Television Institute of India. Their films were showcased at government film festivals and on the government-run TV station, Doordarshan. These films also had limited runs in art house theatres in India and overseas. Since the 1980s, Indian art cinema has to a great extent lost its government patronage. Today, it must be made as independent films on a shoestring budget by aspiring auteurs, much as in today’s Western film industry.

The art directors of this period owed more to foreign influences, such as Italian neorealism or the French New Wave, than they did to the genre conventions of commercial Indian cinema. The best known New Cinema directors were Bengali: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Bimal Roy. Some well-known films of this movement include the Apu Trilogy by Ray (Bengali), Meghe Dhaka Tara by Ghatak (Bengali) and Do Bigha Zameen by Roy (Hindi).

Art cinema was also well-supported in the state of Kerala. Malayalam movie makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, T. V. Chandran, Shaji N Karun, and M. T. Vasudevan Nair were fairly successful. Blessy made success in his first two film Kazhcha and Thanmathra. Starting in the 1970s, Kannada film makers from Karnataka state produced a string of serious, low-budget films. Girish Kasaravalli is one of the few directors from that period who continues to make non-commercial films.He is the only Indian director after Satyajit Ray to win Golden Lotus Awards four times.

In the film markets of South India, particularly the Tamil film directors such as K. Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, Santhana Bharathi, Cheran, Mani Ratnam, Bapu and Ramana, have achieved box-office hits whilst producing films that balanced art, parralel and popular elements. Such films include Nayagan, Mouna Raagam, Kannathil Muthamittal, Sindhu Bhairavi, Gunaa and Autograph.

Satyajit Ray was the most successful of the “art” directors. Many Indians knew his name and took pride in his numerous foreign awards. Prestige, however, did not translate to large-scale commercial success. His films played primarily to art-house audiences (students and intelligentsia) in the larger Indian cities, or to film buffs on the international art-house circuit.

From the 1970s onwards Hindi cinema produced a wave of ‘art films’. The foremost among the directors who produced such films is Shyam Benegal. Others in this genre include Govind Nihalani, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, M.S. Sathyu.

Many cinematographers, technicians and actors began in art cinema and moved to commercial cinema. The actor Naseeruddin Shah is one notable example; he has never achieved matinee idol status, but has turned out a solid body of work as a supporting actor and a star in independent films such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.

Indian cinema meets Hollywood

Contact between Indian and Western cinemas was established in the early days of film in India itself. Dadasaheb Phalke was moved to make Raja Harishchandra after watching Life of Christ at P.B. Mehta’s American-Indian Cinema. Similarly, some other early film directors were inspired by Western movies.

In India at least 80 percent of films shown in the late 1920s were American, even though twenty-one studios manufactured local films, eight or nine of them in regular production. American serials such as Perils of Pauline and Exploits of Elaine, and the spectacular sets of films like Quo Vadis and Cabira were popular and inspiring during the World War I era. Universal Pictures set up an Indian agency in 1916, which went on to dominate the Indian distribution system[4]. J. F. Madan’s Elphinstone Bioscope Company at first focussed on distribution of foreign films and organization of their regular screenings Additionally, J.P. Madan, the prolific producer, employed Western directors for many of his films.

A number of Indian films have been accused of plagiarising from Hollywood Movies.[14] Due to the long time taken by courts to decide a case, few cases relating to copyright violations are brought up. One of the reasons Bollywood hesitates in purchasing rights is the assumption that these would run into millions of dollars, though according to some like screenwriter-director Anurag Kashyap, this is incorrect; He argues that while the films may cost millions of dollars in the west, the rights would be less expensive for Hindi remakes because the price would be based on the audience’s buying power, the economy and the number of bidders.[15]In 2003, best-selling fiction writer Barbara Taylor Bradford brought a copyright infringement suit against Sahara Television for allegedly making a television series (Karishma: A miracle of destiny) out of her book, A Woman of Substance, without acquiring the legal rights to do so.

Today, Indian cinema is becoming increasingly westernised. This trend is most strongly apparent in Bollywood. Newer Bollywood movies sometimes include Western actors (such as Rachel Shelley in Lagaan), try to meet Western production standards, conduct filming overseas, adopt some English in their scripts or incorporate some elements of Western-style plots. Bollywood also produces box-office hit like the films Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kal Ho Naa Ho, both of which deal with the overseas Indian’s experience.

However, the meeting between Hollywood and India is a two-way process: Western audiences are becoming more interested in India [citation needed], as evidenced by the mild success of Lagaan and Bride and Prejudice. As Western audiences for Indian cinema grow, Western producers are funding maverick Indian filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha (Bride and Prejudice) and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). Both Chadha and Nair are of Indian origin but do not live in India, and who made their names in Western independent films; they have now been funded to create films that “interpret” the Indian cinematic tradition for Westerners. A similar filmmaker is Deepa Mehta of Canada, whose films include the trilogy Fire, Earth and Water.

Indian cinema is also influencing the English and American musical; Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) incorporates a Bollywood-style dance sequence; The Guru and The 40-Year-Old Virgin feature Indian-style song-and-dance sequences; A. R. Rahman, a film composer, was recruited for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams; and a musical version of Hum Aapke Hain Koun has played in London’s West End.

Some Indians have succeeded in the Western film industry purely on their own terms without showing any Bollywood influence, such as filmmakers Manoj Night Shyamalan and Jay Chandrasekhar.


The National Film Awards, commonly known as the National Awards, are arguably the most prestigious and prominent film awards in India. The Awards are presented annually, in a ceremony, by the President of India. Declared for films produced in the previous year across the country, they hold the distinction of awarding merit to the best of Indian cinema overall, as well as presenting awards for the best films in each region and language of the country. The National Awards are very prestigious in Indian cinema, and compared favourably to many other awards.

Indian films bring export income and foreign prestige to India. In turn, the Indian government gives the Dadasaheb Phalke Award annually as recognition of a lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. The award is in memory of Dadasaheb Phalke, considered the father of Indian cinema.

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2 Responses to “Cinema of India”

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