In a few weeks’ time, Cannes will be paying “Tribute to India” with a gala screening of Bombay Talkies, an omnibus film collecting four shorts by four high-profile Indian directors, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, and Karan Johar. The occasion is the centenary of Indian cinema, but the very idea of pinpointing the actual birthdate has been subject to quite a bit of debate on two fronts: the date itself, of course, but also the notion that there is such a thing as a single, cohesive national cinema that’s emerged from the Indian subcontinent.
First, the date. May 3, 1913, to be exact. That’s when “black-and-white silent film Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra) held audiences spellbound at its first public screening,” as Shilpa Jamkhandikar puts it for Reuters. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s “40-minute film, about a righteous Indian king who never told a lie, was shot mostly at his house with a motley group of actors including his young son.” As Jamkhandikar tells it, Phalke, a photographer inspired by the screening of a film in Mumbai about the life of Jesus Christ, was “determined to make a movie about Indian heroes… He traveled to London to buy a camera, selling much of what he owned to make the trip. But awaiting him at home were many hurdles, the least of which was convincing an actor to shave off his mustache to portray a woman because the idea of using female actors was unthinkable at the time. Phalke’s wife Saraswati cooked single-handedly for the 40-odd film unit, holding up white sheets as a screen for hours while her husband filmed ‘trick scenes,’ and stoically bore the sale of their belongings to fund the movie. While Phalke subsequently went on to make 95 full-length movies and 26 short films in a career that spanned 19 years, the advent of the talkies meant he died in penury since he was unable to adapt to the new technology.”
But here’s the thing, or rather, the first of two things. “A little more probing would reveal that there have been films made in the country before Phalke’s feature debut,” notes NTK at Sculpted in Time. “Shortly after the Lumiere brothers screened their ‘actualities’ in Bombay (as Mumbai was officially called then) in the late 1890s, a certain Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar, or Save Dada, a portrait photographer, made a series of factual films a la the Lumière Brothers in India.” Ignoring non-fiction film “would be tantamount to assuming that the father of film would be George Méliès and not the Lumière Brothers or Edison.” What’s more, narrative films were made prior to Raja Harishchandra, but they’ve since been lost. “[M]ost histories of Indian cinema do recognize the earlier pioneers, but since Harishchandra was the first full length motion picture made entirely by an Indian crew, at a full six reels (of which only two have survived) the film and its maker have been accorded first Indian film and first Indian filmmaker respectively.”
Secondly, “Are we really celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema or is it 100 years of Marathi cinema?” asks screenwriter Shama Zaidi in an interview with Satyen K. Bordoloi for SIFY. “How can you club all manner of cinema into one category and celebrate it in a nation of such diversity?… You see nobody will talk about the beginnings of European cinema. They’ll say the beginning of French Cinema, British Cinema, Italian Cinema, etc. How can you talk about Indian cinema where there are many regional cinemas?”
And then, there’s a third argument. Back to NTK, who explains that the idea is that “it is not with Phalke’s Harishchandra, but with Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali that Indian cinema really begins. Mrinal Sen has been the most vocal about this stance. Though there is no doubting the greatness of Pather Panchali and the fact that it paved the path for a more personal cinema in India, such a claim only amounts to elitism. Yet it could generally be accepted that few filmmakers in India before Ray approached cinema in a wholly original way without the trappings of the theatre or literature. But it does not call for overlooking the achievements of the earlier filmmakers.”
As it happens, Ray, who would have turned 92 yesterday (he died in 1992), is celebrated in Bombay Talkies, which opens today in India. For his contribution, Dibakar Banerjee has adapted Ray’s short story, “Patol Babu, Film Star”, “about a middle-aged man getting his moment of fame playing a bit role in a movie,” as Shilpa Jamkhandikar notes in a separate interview with Banerjee for Reuters. Overall, Bombay Talkies is “not a comprehensive probe into the nearly-religious fervor for the movies or the innermost workings of showbiz,” writes Sukanya Verma in a review for Rediff. “Instead what play out are four individualistic, intimate tributes by contemporary directors with a distinct approach to filmmaking. If Johar is known for glaze, Akhtar brings perspective; Banerjee’s narrative breaks new grounds whereas Kashyap scores in nuanced writing.”
Meantime, there are more than a few primers on Indian cinema in the papers today with a more or less natural focus on Bollywood. Alice Vincent presents a “beginner’s guide,” while the Hindustan Times traces the evolution of the hero, the heroine, the music, and more.
And for the Wall Street Journal, Ankur Pathak argues that “there’s another celebration of the industry that shouldn’t be missed, and it’s called Celluloid Man. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s National Award-winning film is about Paramesh Krishnan Nair, an 80-year-old film archivist. Mr. Nair founded the National Film Archive of India in 1964…. Many Indian movies were lost before Mr. Nair founded the NFAI. Mr. Dungarpur’s documentary states only nine silent movies remain out of the 1,700 produced in India before 1931. Of all Indian films made before 1950, roughly 30% remain, it says. Mr. Nair stopped the rot.”
“Since Bollywood is gonna get enough love in the media, with token references to Parallel cinema,” tweeted Srikanth Srinivasan last week, “let’s list the great Indian films that would not be discussed in the barrage of special programs on telly this week.” And that he does. Head to his Twitter account (and scroll a bit; the list was rolled out on April 27) for links to clips from many of his recommendations.
Update, 5/20: “A consistent charmer, the Indian omnibus Bombay Talkies is vibrant and colorful, that rare portmanteau film where the whole is more than the sum of its likeable parts,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen. “The four films, which are all about the same length, run the gamut from romantic melodrama to coming-of-age comedy. Director Karan Johar’s short concerns a surprising love triangle between a journalist (Rani Mukerji), her gay male intern (Saqib Saleem), and her husband (Randeep Hooda), who may have feelings for him. In the second short, based on a story by legendary Indian auteur Satyajit Ray and directed by Dibakar Banerjee, a down-on-his-luck father (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) finds himself cast off the street to play an extra in a big movie, which stirs unexpected memories in the man. Director Zoya Akhtar tells a touching story about a pre-teen boy named Vicky (Naman Jain) who decides that he’s sick of playing sports and instead focuses on his true love: dance. And Bombay Talkies ends with director Anurag Kashyap’s tale of a dutiful son (Vineet Kumar Singh) going on a quest to hunt down his ailing father’s favorite actor, Amitabh Bachchan.”
Update, 5/22: The four shorts “are of varying interest, but the overall impression they leave is watching a Bollywood sampler without the song and dance, a committee project with an impressive budget but little heart,” finds Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 5/31: Variety‘s Jay Weissberg finds that “these diverse shorts would work better as stand-alones, since grouping them together detracts from their individual merits and makes them feel even slighter than warranted.”
Update, 6/1: The Big Picture‘s posted 38 photos celebrating the centennial.
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