The Genres of Indian Cinema

Published: 2021-09-01 10:20:16
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The noted Hindi film comedian, filmmaker and resident wit I. S. Johar, was once asked why India only made musicals. Never at a loss for an answer he replied, “We not only make musicals but also dancicals. ” This may have been said in jest but the answer reflects the state of genre films in India. They simply don’t exist and all Hindi films can be wrapped together in a slapdash embrace-all variety which Johar chose to call “musicals and dancicals” or more formally “socials”. But more of that later!
The first feature films made in India were mythologicals. In fact, the first seven years of film production (1913-1919) saw the production of a little less than two dozen films – a majority of which were mythologicals. The exceptions were a historical The Death of Narayanrao Peshwa (1915) and a social Vichitra Gutika or The Enchanted Pills (1920), both directed by S. N. Patankar. The concept of an industry did not exist and, even if it did, it was more as an extension of the Swadeshi movement, almost a cottage industry!
Dadasaheb Phalke who made the first Indian feature film Raja Harishchandra in 1913 wrote about the moment he first dreamed of making an Indian film in the November 1917 issue of Navyug: “While the life of Christ was rolling before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualizing the Gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell … I felt my imagination taking shape on the screen. Could this really happen? Could we, the sons of India, even be able to see Indian images on the screen? The mythological, therefore, became the first genre of Indian cinema and it remained so till well into the 1920s when the fledgling trade acquired the size and extent of an industry.
The stupendous commercial success of Phalke’s Lanka Dahan – the monies earned by the film is said to have been carried away in bullock carts – first showed the cash-potential of the film trade. Other entrepreneurs were attracted to the business and in a matter of a few years there were several film-producing companies, the more enduring f the lot being Kohinoor, Sharda, Krishna, Maharashtra, Sagar (all on the western coast), Surya, Mahavir, Associated, Star of the East (in the South) and Madan (in the East). The dynamics of the genre were also unwittingly defined by Phalke. Searching for a truly Indian look for his films, Phalke gravitated towards the paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, best known for his visual depiction of scenes from the Puranas. Raja Ravi Verma was the first Indian painter to use human models to depict Indian Gods and Goddesses.
In 1894 he set up a lithographic colour press in Bombay (later shifted to Lonavala) so as to take his art to the widest possible audience. The masses loved his litho prints, particularly those depicting divine beings and, to this day, that is the image that any devout Indian carries in his mind. It was, therefore, natural for Phalke to borrow heavily from Raja Ravi Verma’s portraiture and drapery for the visual look of his films. Story-writers, as yet an unknown breed, scoured the Puaranas as well as the two main Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to come up with stories for the screen.
Other sub-genres which flourished within the realm of mythologicals were devotionals like Sant Sakhu and Sati Toral, legends like Vanraj Chavdo, classicals like Ratnavali and Chandan Malaygiri, costume dramas like Surya Kumari and Chandrakanta, fantasies like Princess Badar and Gul-e-Bakavali. The other genre that surfaced during the silent era was the historical making its first appearance as early as 1915 but more regularly from the mid-1920s. Films like Poona Raided, Prithviraj Chauhan, Life of Buddha and Sati Padmini were made in 1924 itself and the historical as a genre came to stay as a part of Indian cinema.
V. Shantaram made his debut as a director with a historical Netaji Palkar in 1927 and so did his guru Baburao Painter with Sinhagad (with the young Shantaram playing Shivaji) in 1919. The two directors who were to later specialize in this genre also made their debuts during this period: Bhal G. Pendharkar with Bajirao Mastani in 1925 and N. D. Sarpotdar with Prabhavati and Chandrarao More in 1925. A majority of the historicals made during this era concentrated on the life and times of Shivaji and his revolt against the Mughal empire.
Some like Dha Cha Maa dealt with political intrigue under the Peshwas while a minority like Prithviraj Samyukta were historical romances. Mature directors like Sarpotdar and Pendharkar used the genre to convey to the audience intensely patriotic messages. Often they got away with it but sometimes a film like Chandrarao More ran into trouble with the hawk-eyed British censors. The so-called “socials” (an Indianisation for dramas on contemporary life) also made their debut during the silent era, the first ones being S.
N. Patankar’s Vichitra Gutika or The Enchanted Pills in 1920 and actor-producer Dhirendranath Ganguly’s Bilet Pherat or England Returned (Nitish Lahiri/1921). As its title suggests, Ganguly’s film was a biting satire on anglicized Indians who were “more British than the Britishers”. Though he also directed a few mythologicals, “DG”, as he was fondly known, became synonymous with social comedy. This particular sub-genre was to become an immensely popular staple of Hindi cinema in the years to come.
The American-style “action film”, made in the best traditions of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks also made its debut in the fading years of the silent era. Action stars like Madhav Kale, Ganpat Bakre, Jairaj, Master Vithal vied with one another to capture the top spot and many even acquired sobriquets which compared them to Hollywood favourites: Master Vithal was known as the Indian Douglas. Action films would develop into important staples in the years to come – being known in a condescending manner as “stunt” movies – but would gain “respectability” only in the 1970s.
This then was primarily the scene during the silent era with the definable genres being mythologicals, historicals, socials and action films. The production of silent films continued well into 1934 – three years after the talkie was introduced in India. The richer producers immediately made a switch to talking films but the poorer ones – most of them churning out low-grade “stunt” movies – could not make the switch. If Chaplin could resist the talkie for years why couldn’t they? The difference was that his reasons were artistic but theirs were economic!
The first Indian talkie was a costume fantasy Alam Ara and so were a majority of the 24 talking films made in that year, 1931. The year saw five socials and only one historical. The balance was still heavily tilted towards mythologicals and its associated sub-genres with as many as 18 films. Costume films topped at 6 with mythologicals come second at 5. Five years later, in 1936, there was a definite shift towards the making of “socials” – as many as 51 being made out of a total output of 134 films.
Costume films were a reasonable second with 30 releases but only 7 devotionals and 2 mythologicals saw the light of the arc lamp. And ten years later, in 1941, 50 out of the 79 films released in Hindi were socials. The rest comprised action films (12), costume films (5), devotionals (4) and so on. What had happened was that the absolute numbers of social films made had remained more or less constant but the percentage of social films to the total had increased from 38 per cent to 63 per cent. (These are rough and ready figures and may not stand statiscal scrutiny but the conclusions drawn are valid. Something else more significant had happened: the “socials” had now come into the mainstream of filmmaking and the other genres like the mythological and action – though still being made in significant numbers – had been relegated to the B and C grade. The reasons for this were not too hard to discern. With the film medium having attained the dimensions of an industry more committed people were being attracted to it. Three film producing companies which had made their debuts in the final years of the silent era had now risen to the fore: New Theatres in Calcutta, Bombay Talkies in Bombay and Prabhat in Poona.
All three companies were headed by men of vision who were keen to use the still fledgling medium to tackle the ills of society. From this desire emerged a whole set of path-breaking socially relevant films like Admi, Duniya Na Mane, Padosi (from Prabhat), President (from New Theatres), Achhut Kanya, Kangan, Bandhan, Jhoola (from Bombay Talkies). The smaller companies could only imitate what their more successful counterparts were doing. Socials, therefore, soon became the staple of Hindi cinema hough they were not of the same standard or class. It was often unkindly suggested that the socials were actually mythologicals in a modern garb. Indeed the characterization and presentation techniques used by some of the smaller companies reinforced the idea. For example, the superhit film Charano Ki Daasi is nothing more than a reworking of the mythological Sant Sakhu story. One sub-genre of the social which had barely registered its presence during the silent era through the films of Dhirendranath Ganguly was that of social comedy.
During the early talkie period of 1931-1947 this sub-genre prospered. Filmmakers like Master Winayak (Brahmachari, Brandy Ki Botal), Sarvottam Badami (Ladies Only), Jayant Desai (Char Chakram, The Cat), Chaturbhuj Doshi (Musafir), Kishore Sahu (Kunwara Baap, Shararat) gave an upper middle-class to the genre. Straddling the decades of the 1940s and 1950s was the genius of P. L. Santoshi who created the sub-sub-genre of the musical social comedy in films like Khidki, Sargam, Shehnai and many more. This is not to say other genres suffered.
They may have relegated to a lower status but they also flourished. Action films inspired by the Hollywood model began to be made in increasing numbers though the genre itself was more suited to the silent format. Homi, the younger of the Wadia brothers, directed the Fearless Nadia through countless such adventures all through the early talkie period. Their Diamond Town series became a classic of the genre. Master Vithal continued to swish his sword through several swashbuckling adventures made for Imperial Film Company.
Two interlinked events occurred in 1947 which changed the very nature of the industry and which had a far-reaching impact on genres. India became independent on August 15, 1947 but much before that, it was partitioned into two nations. It was an exciting but turbulent period for Hindi Cinema. As Charles Dickens wrote in a somewhat different context:, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the best of times because the euphoria of newly-won independence had imbued the script of every Indian as the country looked forward to a whole new exciting future.
Money was flowing into the film industry in ever-increasing amounts. Audiences, tired of the deprivation and sacrifices of the War years, were flocking to cinema houses in search of entertainment. The film industry itself was getting bigger, brighter and better. It was also, from hindsight, the worst of years because the seeds of many an evil which is rampant today (instability, indiscipline, freelancing, black money, the star system etc. ) were sown during this heady period. The root cause of everything was, of course, economic.
Huge unaccountable profits had been made on the black market by unscrupulous traders and get-rich-quick businessmen during the Man-created scarcities and shortage of the War years. These potential investors were looking out for a safe haven where they could “park” their ill-gotten wealth and in the fast-changing pattern of the film industry they found just such a haven where they could double and even triple their stakes while wallowing in the glamour as an added fringe benefit. A patriotic streak was given all this since the Government being duped was the then British Government — and unwanted, alien authority.
With the star and star technicians (mostly directors) realising that they had a greater worth in the open marketplace than in the closed confines of the studio system, they began to desert the systems or at least bargain with it for exponentially increasing salaries till the studio could no longer afford them. The individual had, at last, become greater than the system which supported him. These cross currents and changing patterns in the film industry inevitably led to the collapse of the carefully nurtured studio system.
With the migration of star talent the studios — even the major ones like Prabhat Film Company, Bombay Talkies, New Theatres and Ranjit — could not hold their own in the marker place. Though many of the major studios survived well into the early 1950s (New Theatres till 1954, Prabhat till 1953, Bombay Talkies till 1952, it was quite obvious that they were on their last legs. Devika Rani retired from Bombay Talkies in 1945 while S. Mukherjee and Rai Bahadur Chunilal had left a year earlier to form Filmistan, V. Shantaram left Prabhat to form his own Rajkamal Kalamandir in 1942.
With their major talents gone, the organisation lost their all-India character. Prabhat was reduced to making Marathi films while New Theatres discovered that none of their Hindi version from 1948 to 1954 (Anjangarh, Manzoor, Naya Safar and Bakul) did well at the box office. With the collapse of the studios and the emergence of the star system, a whole new set of parameters began to surface. Since the star was the most precious commodity, it was the star who was the first to be selected with the rest of the elements of the film being tailored to his/her satisfaction or image.
It was the Star who directly or indirectly determined what kind of story was to be chosen, who the other artistes would be, how and where the film would be shot and sometimes even who would direct it. What eventually emerged from all this was a cinema centered around the stars. With star salaries shooting up with every other hit, the economics of filmmaking started going wonky. Of course, not all this was evident at the start of the 1950s. A new kind of euphoria pervaded the atmosphere – the euphoria of building a new nation – which spilled over into the film industry.
Reinforcing this euphoria was the influx of new money and talent and the generation of more and more returns at the box office thanks to the fact that the movies were being played to an almost captive audience which, after the rigours and denials of the war and three-century-long alien rule, was increasingly mesmerised by the light-hearted, breezy frivolity that unfolded before them in film after film. All this naturally had an effect not only on the kind of films being made but also the presentation of these films. Socials” had already evolved as a catch-all genre which included everything from films of social relevance to two-handkerchief melodramas. Thus this peculiarly Indian genre became the vehicle for every kind of cinematic content. The content itself took a leaf from the book of the Filmistan style of filmmaking (pioneered by S. Mukherji, who had broken away from Bombay talkies to form his own company), wherein song, dance and romance was expertly blended together to sugar-coat the bitter pill of message – if there ever was a message!
So a peculiar kind of cross-genre film evolved which had a bit of everything to cater to the heterogenous masses of India: romance for the western coast audience, family drama and values for the south Indian audience, action for the north Indian crowd and emotions for the east Indian viewers. The filmmaker, who was now bereft without the solid financials of a studio was now merely hedging his bets so that he could appeal to an all-India audience and thus make his film a great success. From this emerged a kind of “ideal” formula which every filmmaker began to use: A situation is introduced to the viewer at the beginning of the film.
It could be a happy family (Grihasti) or a young man on the threshold of romance (Nau Do Gyarah) or respectable family man respected in society for his learning and uprightness (Do Bhai). Something happens to disturb this status quo and a problem is posed to the characters in the film and through them vicariously to the audience. The happy family could be threatened by the existence of a second wife, the young man could meet a runaway girl on his way to claiming his inheritance or the respectable society gentleman could be accused of murder.
Having posed the problem, the filmmaker now leaves it aside and gets down to the task of entertaining the audience with songs and dances. A better class of filmmaker could move a little ahead with the story intermittently but most just begin to concentrate on the song and dances. Post-interval, one-and-a-half hours later, the audience has now had its fill of songs, dances and romance and can now settle down to watch the elaboration of the climax wherein the problem is resolved. This idea was perfect since it resulted in an 18-reel film which is was the audience wanted: a full three hours of entertainment.
In fact, many scriptwriters of the 1950s and 1960s became experts at expanding the 10-reeler Hollywood film into an 18-reel Indian extravaganza. Of course, some of the genre films continued to retain their character but they continued to be relegated to the lesser grades. Mythologicals and action films continued unabated but they had lost their respectability except in a few cases like Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya, which was publicized as “the only film Mahatma Gandhi had seen”! Action films ontinued to be haunted by the likes of Dara Singh, Randhawa, Azad and the innumerable Kumar clones till the genre was rescued from the morass by Amitabh Bachchan who gave it the respectability of A-grade. The mythologicals were rescued from the pits by the super-success of the two television serials Ramayana and Mahabharat. Other lesser serials followed but none could replicate the success of the first two. The tragic outcome of this brief popularity was that the genre was soon relegated to television and vanished from the cinema screens.
By the late 1960s there was something brewing behind the scenes. There were several filmmakers who were tired with excesses of Star cinema and the way films were being made in Hindi cinema. They wanted to break out of the shackles that had been imposed on them by the ubiquitous “formula” which was now all-pervasive in the star-oriented Hindi cinema of the 1960s. Not that there had been no experimentation in Hindi cinema. There had been experiments aplenty: As early has the 1930s V. Shantaram had made a film with only sound effects — that is, no background score.
Duniya Na Mane (1937) had proved to be great success. In the same year, the Wadia Brothers produced an action film Naujawan which had no songs at all. The Chopra Brothers, B. R. and Yash, repeated this experiment once again in Kanoon (1960) and Ittefaq (1969). In 1948 the noted Indian dancer Uday Shankar produced, directed and acted in Kalpana, which was entirely in dance form. In 1961 was produced Ingeet, which had no spoken word. On the technical front, apart from the usual list of technical “firsts”, there were several experiments.
The most noteworthy and far-reaching of these being the blowing up of a film shot in 16 mm to 35 mm for final exhibition. This technique first used by Mohan Bhavnani in Ajit aka Rangeen Zamana (1948) and Mehboob in Aan (1952) was to prove cost-saving for the producers of regional films who continue to use it to this day. So, experiments there had been in Hindi cinema but never in an uninterrupted flow. The New Wave brought together filmmakers of several ilk and ideologies — all bonded together by the common resolve to break out of the claustrophobia of the formula-ridden mainstream cinema.
At one time the range of filmmakers who were supposed to belong to the New Wave ranged from the austere Mani Kaul to the sensationalist B. R. Ishara. In between the two extremes were the middle-of-the-road filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. In a sense and in their own ways they were all creating a new idiom for Hindi cinema, an idiom which was more rooted in the milieu from which the cinema was born. And because much of Hindi cinema had fallen into a rut vis a vis the stories being written for it, the first revolution that was needed was to bring it back to its rich literary traditions.
Much of the New Wave was, therefore, an attempt to explore social reality through the existing literature of the time but there was a sliver of it — expressed through the films of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, John Abraham, Aravindan and others — which attempted to explore new forms of presentation. Many of these forms were rejected by viewers and critics for being derivative of the French New Wave but a few like those evolved by Aravindan and Mani Kaul were given due respect though not widely imbibed by other filmmakers.
The true death knell of the New Wave was sounded by veterans like Satyajit Ray who, in a widely-publicised acrimonious correspondence with premier film critic Bikram Singh, rejected the premise that anything new had ever been presented as part of the New Wave. Add to it the resurgence of mainstream cinema in the mid 1980s and the movement began to flounder and eventually die out. In spite of the Indian New Wave and the subsequent resurgence of mainstream films, not much has changed in the matter of genres. “Socials” continue to dominate but at least a few other genres are more clearly defined.
Teeny-bopper films like Ishq Vishq and Dil Pagal To Hai have suddenly come to the fore as a sub-genre of the socials. Two-handkerchief melodramas which had almost vanished in the era of Bachchan’s Angry Young Man movies have also staged a comeback with Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gam, Mohabbatein and Kal Ho Na Ho. The super success of a war movie like Border (based on the actual Battle of Longewal fought in the deserts of Rajasthan) created one more genre which has rarely been seen in Hindi films except in the work of Chetan Anand (Haqeeqat, Hindustan Ki Kasam).
Recent films in this genre like LOC Kargil and Lakshya have opened to a good box office. With the emergence of the war movie as a legitimate Hindi film genre, Paki-bashing has also become a favourite sport of movie-makers. Films like Sarfarosh, 16th December and Deewar deal with the relations between the two countries quite frankly and many of the situations depicted are straight out of newspaper headlines. Police films have always been a popular genre in Hindi cinema and several like Zanjeer and Vardi have proved immensely popular particularly in the era of Amitabh Bachachan and Vinod Khanna.
Recent films in the genre include Kuruskshetra, Khakee and Aan. Films dealing with underworld figures like Rangila Ratan, Deewar have also been very popular with audiences and recent successes have included Vastaav, Maqbool. There is a certain amount of production of such films in the B-grade circuit like Satta, Chot but every once in a while a mainstream success of a B-class film like Chandani Bar enables the director (in this case, Madhur Bhandarkar) to emerge from the shadows and take his place in the limelight. Another genre which has proved very popular though it is still in insignificant numbers is the horror film.
The genre had no takers till the 1970s when two observant assistant directors Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay, sons of producer F. U. Ramsay, realized that a particular horror scene in their home production Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi was being applauded by the audience. They made what could be called India’s first horror film Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neechey and the genre was born. It remained in the B and C-class for three decades before Ram Gopal Verma brought it into the mainstream with Raat and more recently, Darna Mana Hai and Bhoot.
And coming now young Sidharth Srinivasan’s first film Amavas. Except for a few such mainstream films the genre continues to flourish in the lower grades. Yet another genre which was born and continues to flourish in the B and C-class circuit is that of sex. Indians have always been sanctimonious about the use of sex in their films so obviously “sex films” is a genre which has always been frowned upon though it is accepted as good box-office masala. Way back in the 1970s filmmaker B. R.
Ishara created a sensation with movies like Chetna, Zaroorat, Society, Bazaar Band Karo and even inspired several imitations but the wave died down. It has resurfaced once again with the films emanating from the Bhatt camp: Jism, Murder, and, outside it, Julie and so on. But the genre which has shown a tremendous resurgence is the comedy films. Though it is often said that humour is not a very strong Indian trait, comedies have been the mainstay of literature and theatre in all the states. True, this is not evident in the cinemas of these regions except possibly Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bengal.
Even in Hindi cinema, as we have seen, the comic film flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s before comedy itself was integrated into the “socials” as an ingredient. Some of the best comic artistes like Kishore Kumar, Johnny Walker and Mehmood worked as part of the Hindi film scene but they rarely made an entirely comic film. In the 1970s directors like Basu Chatterji and Hrishikesh Mukherji worked with talented artistes like Utpal Dutt, Amol Palekar and several mainstream stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna to create successful comedies.
Chatterji’s Rajanigandha and Chhotisi Baat and Mukherji’s Golmaal and Chupke Chupke are classics in the genre. In the 1990s, however, the comic genre came into the mainstream with an added vengeance. Govinda, who began with conventional mainstream socials, combined with director David Dhawan to give a series of superb No 1 movies: Hero No 1, Coolie No 1, Jodi No 1 not to speak of Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan, which also had Amitabh Bachchan pitted against Govinda. Dhawan also worked with other stars like Salman Khan (Judwa) and Sanjay Dutt (Chal Mere Bhai), who are better known for their action films.
Probably there is no genre in the history of cinema which has not been, at some time or the other, been reflected in Indian films. It may appear as an independent genre or as a sub-genre of the catch-all variety in “socials” but it can be found. Even the genre of science fiction which is not too popular in India has made an appearance in at least two films, decades apart: one was the little known C-grade film Wahan Ke Log, directed by actor-filmmaker N. A. Ansari (who eventually migrated to Pakistan in the late 1970s) and the other was the science fiction venture by Govind Nihalani called Deham.
Genres have not been given much importance in Indian film production – unless it is in the B and C circuits, where certain standard genres have traditionally played a part. What is more important for the producer is the FORMULA which decides the right mix of “entertainment” and “message”. If the filmmaker can get this mix right he has a hit on his hands. If not, nothing can save him except a freak success. With producers not giving much importance to genres, Indian film reviewers also do not stress genres in their reviews and worse, given the poor standards of film criticism in the country, genre analysis is an ignored realm.

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