The Tale of Hindi Cinema

The Origins:

The history of – one of India’s most financially lucrative industry – “Bollywood” goes back to the 19th century. In 1896, the films shot by the Lumiere Brothers were shown in Mumbai.

However, history was created when Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar shot his first film in Mumbai “The Wrestlers” screened in 1899. It was a simple recording of a wrestling match and is considered as the first motion picture of the Indian Film Industry. Father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke released the first ever full-length feature film “Raja Harishchandra” in 1913. The silent film was a huge commercial success.

The Beginning:

The initial growth of the Indian Film Industry was not as fast as that of Hollywood. Numerous new production companies began to emerge in the early 1920’s. Films based on mythological and historical facts and especially episodes from Mahabharata and Ramayana dominated the 1920’s. Imports from Hollywood, primarily action films, were well received by Indian audiences, and Indian producers quickly began to follow the suit.

By the 1930’s, 200 movies per year were produced in India. The first Indian film with sound (takies) was “Alam Ara”, premiered in 1931. Six years later, in 1937, Kisan Kanya became the first Indian color movie.

The Golden Age:

It was around 1947 that the industry went through significant changes. One could argue it was during this period that the “Modern Indian Cinema” was born. The historical and mythological stories of the past were now being replaced by social-reformist (Neorealistic) films, which turned a critical eye on the various ways of society. The 1950’s saw directors like Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray focusing on the lives of the lower classes, who until then were mostly ignored as subjects.

Inspired by social and political changes, as well as cinematic movements in both U.S. and Europe, the 1960’s saw the birth of India’s own New Wave, founded by directors such as Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak. Driven by a desire to offer a greater sense of realism and an understanding of the common man, this era (1950’s and 1960’s) is considered to be “the golden age” of  Indian cinema.

1960’s also saw the release avalanche of the two genres that were previously seldom used – action and romance. This caused resurgence of movie super stars.

Rise of Bollywood:

The word “Bollywood” is a play on Hollywood, with the “B” coming from Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The word was coined in the 1970’s by the writer of a magazine gossip column, though there is disagreement as to which journalist was the first to use it.

The 1970’s saw the advent of “Masala Movies” in Bollywood. Prominent and successful director, Manmohan Desai was considered by several people as the father of “Masala Movies”. According to Manmohan Desai, “I want people to forget their misery. I want to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there are no beggars, where fate is kind and god is busy looking after its flock.”

Early 1970’s was dominated by musical romance films but by the mid-1970’s, the romantic confections had given way to gritty, violent, crime and action films about gangsters. Some Hindi directors, such as Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Govind Nihalani, however continued to produce realistic parallel cinema throughout the 1970’s.

New Bollywood:

Hindi cinema experienced a period of stagnation during the late 1980’s, with a box-office decline due to a rise in video piracy. The middle-class family audiences began abandoning the cinema. Eventually a blend of youthfulness, family entertainment, emotional intelligence and strong melodies lured audiences back to the big screen. It formed a new template for Bollywood movies which defined 1990’s.

Known since the 1990’s as “New Bollywood” contemporary Bollywood is also linked to economic liberalization in India, it brought back into spotlight – musicals, family-centric romantic story lines, comedies and action films. The decade marked the entrance of new performers in art and independent films, some of which were commercially successful too.

The 2000’s saw increased Bollywood recognition worldwide. The growth of the Indian economy and a demand for quality entertainment in this era led the country’s film industry to new heights in production values, cinematography and screenwriting as well as technical advances in areas such as special effects and animation. Even super hero and science fiction films are now emerging as new sensations.

In the current era Indian cinema is emerging as a global phenomenon.

The profile of the Indian audience is rapidly changing. There is an increasingly sophisticated audience exposed to world cinema and to internet. With a vibrant creative community, new technology and investment interest, we are on the verge of seeing Indian cinema project it’s creative influence around the world.

As per the PwC report, India is poised to be the third largest cinema market in the world by 2021 and the Indian media and entertainment industry is slated to grow steadily over the next four years. The industry is expected to exceed Rs 2, 91,000 crores by 2021, growing at compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.5% between 2017 and 2021.

As per the recent FICCI-EY report “despite comprising only 17% of the films made in the country, Bollywood contributes almost 40% to the net box office collections annually. Films made in almost 29 other Indian languages, contributing around 75% of the films released. But they contribute approximately 50% to the annual domestic box office collections. The balance is constituted from Hollywood and international films.

Considering the intriguing evolution of Hindi Cinema from “silent films” to “talkies” to “Eastman color” to “CGI’s and VFX’s”. Here’s my recommended 10 epic Hindi language movies:

Number 10: Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) 1 & 2 (director: Anurag Kashyap)


This two-part epic of changing power equations is bleeding brilliance in almost every frame with flamboyant violence. The dark, dubious, deadly and daringly complex crime-drama remembers “revenge is best served hot” and glorifies the portentous biblical adage about “the sins of the father being visited upon the children”. The two-part epic is also darkly funny and electric, Kashyap’s insane masterpiece shows the intersection of organized crime, capitalism, and civic government in exacting details. It is a violent and terrifyingly intense work of art.

(A wicked scene from the Gangs of Wasseypur)


Number 9: Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) (director: Kundan Shah)


It is a dark satire on the rampant corruption in Indian politics, bureaucracy, media and business. The satire explores the escapades of innocent virtue against greed and power in an unbelievably comic tone, but never loses its purpose. The film is peppered with jibes about society, rib-tickling, but also cynical, intelligent, and very, very dark. With themes like corruption, inflation and inequality running through the story, the director weaves these contemporary issues around a humor-laden but scathing script. One of the finest comedies of Bollywood.

(The funniest scene from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro ***Spoiler Alert***)


Number 8: Paar (1984) (director: Gautam Ghose)


No flamboyance, no artificiality, no fiction, no sci-fi effects and no fantasy. Without a show of vulgarity or extravagance, based upon human fighting spirit. Paar is a movie on how human spirit can fight against all odds and keep the soul happy. The movie showcases the stark realities of our society which indeed is effective even today in some parts of the nation. Paar is an adaptation of Samaresh Basu’s story Paari and is a poignant narrative of how sectarian and caste rifts can snowball into disastrous consequences. The movie offers us just the proper dose of introspection and touches the right chords.

(A scene from the Paar)


Number 7: Deewaar (1975) (director: Yash Chopra)


It was Deewar, which cemented Amitabh Bachchan’s place as “The Angry Young Man of India”. The film is flooded with iconic, impressive and memorable dialogues. The script is layered in metaphors and symbolic significance. The film captures several realities that we associate with the 1970’s – the real estate boom, labor strikes, clout of the underworld, victimization of the poor etc. Arguably the most iconic film of Bollywood. Probably because it came at a time when the phase of weepy romantics was over, and the youth was getting discontented with the State about the lack of jobs and a growing divide between rich and poor. Deewar is a tale of good versus evil, where the director and the writers masterfully create twists and turns that invariably make us love the angry young man’s heroics even though he is a grey character.

(An iconic scene from the Deewaar)


Number 6: Guide (1965) (director: Vijay Anand)

Guide (1965)

Based on R K Narayan’s novel “The Guide”, Vijay Anand’s film is an odyssey which gently leads us through the story of a passionate soul. Imbued with his fair share of venalities – ambitions, insecurities and jealousies, which leads him to ponder over and seek answers to the ultimate spiritual question – the path to his own emotional salvation. “Misery, it is said, can lead to sublimity” – that is how the journey towards his eventual redemption unfolds. Vijay Anand handles the complex subject with maturity and flair. Every song in the movie is soul-stirring. Despite some non-insignificant weakness, Guide remains a fine film and one of Bollywood’s best. Strong screenplay of passionate romance and a narrative that feels dramatic yet embraces gritty realism over fantastic melodrama. This thought provoking, soul-searching, heartbreaking movie keeps you glued to your seat and is widely considered as a text book material for various aspects of film-making.

(A thought-provoking scene from Guide ***Spoiler Alert***)


Number 5: Mother India (1957) (director: Mehboob Khan)

Mother India

Mother India, the nationalist epic is a sprawling, three-hour melodrama with visually high-strung emotions and situational comedy. It is not great cinematic art but a powerful and professional interpretation of all that was Bollywood. The movie provided the blueprint that the Bollywood industry would follow for the next fifty or more years, it is a film whose themes still are relevant and powerful even today. The film starts out in realist spirit and soon descends into melodrama. Despite various flaws, the imperfections add to the overall feel and originality of performances. One of Mother India’s greatest strength is the way in which Mehboob Khan gives a sweeping and intimidate feel to Radha’s (the protagonist) hardships. Nargis was outstanding in the lead role. She represented the heart and unwavering strength of Mother India, and Sunil Dutt’s character Birju is the rage of the poor. His unharnessed energy as the rebel represents the anger of the impoverished.

(A classic scene from Mother India)


Number 4: Devdas (1955) (director: Bimal Roy)


Based on the novel Devdas by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhya (a popular romantic narrative of India ever since early 1900s) Bimal Roy’s film treats the unraveling of the “loser in love” with a lot of dignity. It’s a melancholic film underlining the stark emotional shifts in the lives of flawed but achingly human characters. The film’s characters are ordinary people caught within a rigid and crumbling social system, torn by driving passion and inner turmoil. Devdas was the first film within mainstream Hindi cinema to gamble on a protagonist whose narcissism, passion and inner-conflict is pitted against the two women in his life, Parvati and Chandramukhi, as independent women with minds of their own, who are stronger than he is. The movie possesses the charm of a realistic and imaginative story. Dilip Kumar’s poignant acting as the drunken protagonist explores some of the outer limits of human experience, from emotions like self-destruction and defiance of society.

(A legendary scene from the Devdas)


Number 3: Sholay (1975) (director: Ramesh Sippy)


Often described as a “curry western” (the Indian version of the “spaghetti western”) Sholay became a benchmark in Bollywood with cult dialogue, stylish cinematography and a soundtrack that’s still legendary. A simple narrative that will make three hours pass quickly with comedy cameos and Amjad Khan’s debut as the menacing Gabbar Singh – setting new standards for Bollywood villains. An exciting action film with enough action and drama providing as much entertainment as possible. The pulsating drama gets most of its throb from the engaging action-packed confrontations. The ultimate masala film.

(The classic villain scene from Sholay)


Number 2: Pyaasa (1957) (Director: Guru Dutt)


Pyaasa is a tale of a struggling poet ostracized by a hypocritical society. The film epitomizes the hapless state of the Indian youth in the post-colonial India. Pyaasa’s intense and thought-provoking plot captures a unique sense of intellectual idealism and unfettered romanticism. Themes of individuality and independence stand as an angry shout against a soul-sucking materialism that runs rampant across all strata of society. A scathing satire on the traditionally cliche-ridden escapist society. Extolling the value of art and altruism in a capitalistic society, it wages an ideological war with ethical and financial poverty.

(An enlightening scene from Pyaasa)


Number 1: Anand (1971) (Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee)


Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand is laced the tears with laughter. The hallmark of this great movie is a story that leaves a sublime imprint on the conscience. A story of a dying man with a positive attitude, this is a film that keeps its protagonists dry-eyed but makes even the stoniest blink with emotion. Rajesh Khanna as “Anand” is brilliant, his finest performance. Anand is an unforgettable character who can laugh at the face of death. Mukherjee balances Anand’s bursts of positivity by affording us glimpses into his inner anguish. The movie feels realistic with humor and emotions, however the impending tragedy of time slipping away remains hoovering in the background. This juxtaposition is captivating. The character’s last scene is one of the most lump-in-the-throat evoking scenes ever filmed in Bollywood.

(An inspirational scene from the Anand ***Spoiler Alert***)


Thanks for reading. Cheers.

3 thoughts on “The Tale of Hindi Cinema

  1. If not everything else,I certainly agree for the number 1 spot. Anand is undoubtedly the best of Indian cinema. Missing out Mughal-e-Azam from the list was intentional or a mistake??

  2. If not everything, I certainly agree with the number 1 spot. Anand is undoubtedly the best of Indian Cinema. Missing out Mughal-e-Azam was intentional or a mistake?

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