Indian Cinema: A Story of Flawed Means and Perfect Endings

For much of its existence, the ideals that Indian films showcased on the silver screen conflicted quite directly with energies that sustained it as a viable commercial proposition.

This is the fourth article in a series on the history of the Indian film industry. Also read: Part I Part II | Part III

“The cinema, the stage, the race-course, the drink-booth and the opium-den—all these enemies of society that have sprung up under the fostering influence of the present system that threaten us on all sides.”

∼ Mahatma Gandhi’s speech in Rangoon, from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Delhi Publication Division, Government of India, 1965

Respect and acknowledgement of their craft was important for early film makers. Most of them were from the ‘upper’ castes – dilettantes who had the luxury and networks to indulge and invest in a growing art form. By contrast, the unit that made their vision possible consisted of erstwhile performers and musicians from kothas, amateur actors from the theatre or people who generally belonged to this circle. So it was not surprising that early filmmakers used every attempt to legitimise a profession that was seen as a prurient one, within the social circles they operated in.

Himanshu Rai, for example, introduced Enakshi Rama Rau, as “a beautiful Cashmere girl from a distinguished Brahmin family” for her debut vehicle, Shiraz (1928). Respectability was important because it meant an acknowledgement from the powers that be, institutional recognition and financing. It was definitely not an altruistic pursuit, because beyond the not so intricate window dressing, working conditions at the unit level were bleak.

1945 was the year when Nalini, a junior artist who worked on the sets of the K. Asif film Phool, was assaulted by her casting agent. “Seven years for Raping Film Girl”, screamed the Filmindia headline once the verdict was announced. “Respectability” therefore was merely a prize, a nod, from the powers that be, that the early filmmakers hoped to secure, because with respect came the financial heft the industry required to sustain its growth.

The Indian Cinematograph Committee, set up in 1927, was therefore broadly welcomed as an establishment-led initiative, for the government to deliberate on the working conditions of this budding new industry. Its report, published in May 1928, together with its four volumes of evidence, is a strong indictment of what had to change in the industry. It is littered with exchanges such as these:

Chairman (Diwan Bahadur T. Rangachariar) to a film studio owner: “Do you think that the present conditions in your studio are satisfactory, sufficient to attract respectable actors and actresses?”

Answer: “Oh yes, we are catering for respectable actors and actresses”

Chairman: “I mean, what arrangements are made for housing them?”

Answer: “We keep the respectable characters in separate rooms, and they are quite aloof from the others.”

The Indian Cinematograph Committee’s report went to great lengths to establish the legitimacy of the Indian cinematic art form, though the conclusions it drew from its report had the air of a chiding parent – that the industry needs close monitoring, and censorship. The Committee’s report and its recommendations were not implemented, but it continues to be an important document that serves as ready reference for every film historian.

Following the country’s independence, there were other opportunities for the inner workings of the film industry to be shone. Despite M.K. Gandhi’s contempt for the medium, the Government of India attempted to bring the wild and burgeoning Indian film industry to heel.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

This investigation took the form of “The Film Enquiry Committee Report”, published in 1951. Building on the Indian Cinematograph Act in 1919, and the various committees including the ICC of 1928 and other amendments that influenced the censorship structure for Indian films, the committee exercised themselves to the task of co-opting Indian films for nation building. A major byproduct of this exercise was the Indian Cinematograph Act, 1952, which set up the Central Board of Film Certification. The other consequence of this report was the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI, 1952), building on the conclusions from the Film Enquiry Committee report around the need for the Indian film industry to gain exposure to international fare in order to engender “the education of masses and nation building”.

The first IFFI was a rare moment of glitz for an otherwise staid establishment that was grappling with the travesties of partition, communal strife and a tenuous experiment with democracy. Many in the first cabinet were being thrown into jails when the talkie era was taking wings. Their lives were far removed from the workings and the commercial considerations that drove the business of making movies. Their engagement with the film industry, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the first information and broadcasting minister R.R. Diwakar, was an acknowledgement of the distance traversed by the talkie in its 20 years of existence.

For the film industry that was experiencing an unprecedented filming boom following the Second World War, driven by speculative financing models and the beginnings of the star culture, this was an opportunity to share the stage with the establishment that had kept it at arm’s length until then. For the various state-led delegations in attendance, it was a mission in cultural exchange, with the optics of the iron curtain and the cold war looming in the background.

Among the films exhibited during the exhibition were Bicycle Thieves (1948) by De Sica and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) by Cecil B. DeMille. A parade of stars from Mumbai participated, adding glamour to the proceedings and drawing unprecedented crowds to the open theatres and other venues built for this extravaganza. Dev Anand rubbed shoulders with Frank Capra whereas the Soviet delegation made a statement of intent with a nine-member delegation. The stars played a cricket match in Chennai where Raj Kapoor flummoxed the opposition with his bowling skills.

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The exposure provided by IFFI inspired the likes of Bimal Roy, who went on to create works such as Do Bigha Zameen (1953), inspired by Bicycle Thieves. Others like Boot Polish (1954) and Footpath (1953) followed. However, as the theatres built for the festival were dismantled and the star parades faded away into memory, the hustle and churn of Bombay’s film economy took over. This inflationary film economy, driven by a post-Second World War surfeit in cash supply, fuelled an unprecedented upsurge in the production of films.

Between 1945 and 1946, the number of Hindi films produced jumped from 99 to 200. Accompanied by this was the influx of one-time producers who borrowed funds at interest rates as high as 40% per annum to finance their projects. The casualty of these events was not just Nehru’s vision for the film industry as a tool for nation-building, but also the studio system, which was already on its last legs. The unprecedented demand for film artistes led to many leading actors and technicians of that time becoming “professionals” – meaning they were independent, and could work with multiple production companies at a time.

The production companies themselves were dime a dozen, as there was no requirement for them to own or build fixed assets like a sound stage or a studio. The owners of old studios, like Sagar Movietone, Ranjit Studios, Filmistan and Mehboob, became landlords for these fly-by-night production houses, renting out their premises on a shift basis. In the period between the onset of talkies and the year 1956, over 1,040 producers entered the business of making movies. Seventy percent of them wrapped up their business after their first production.

The government, having set its ambition with the IFFI, did not really follow up with any systemic changes in the tax framework or institutional support for the financing of films. Banks and institutional lenders continued their arms-length relationship with the industry. Entertainment tax, which was first introduced by the colonial administration to restrict mass gatherings at popular public places, stayed in place, allowing the state government to tax the proceeds at the box office, while staying oblivious to the downstream sources of that revenue.

An entrenched system of creating voucher books recording fake expenses became a matter of routine in run-down offices of production houses. The real accounts of payments made to actors, directors and technicians were retained in the “kacha” books in these offices, whereas the ”pucca” book showed a fraction of that amount. Outside the dingy offices of production houses though, film stars were trotted out in delegations to the Soviet Union and to banquets as cultural ambassadors. They officiated at cricket matches and appeared in political rallies to whet the public’s appetite.

The early successes built a new aura around stars like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. The stars built their own winning teams that spun dreams, images and songs that defined the golden era of films. However, much of the cost of their vehicles between this period, between the 1950s and ‘60s,  were borne by Bombay’s mercantile class who largely operated outside the realm of institutional investing. The film industry was still not recognised as an industry by the government, but the era of the superstars was well and truly underway.

As the ‘50s turned into the ‘60s, redeeming features of the star system created by the film economy shone. Stories borrowed from the idealism of the nationalist struggle for independence and its values, class inequality, societal ills and reformist views found ample expression, even though the sources of finance that funded these projects remained in most cases legitimate, but opaque. The creators of the medium, including the triumvirate of stars – Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, had a modicum of control, imparted by the star system, over their products. The ‘50s and the ‘60s saw the coexistence of opaque film financing and the ideals that the finished products actually propounded. As with everything that is inherently incompatible, this period did not last, and the reason is also down to the early choices of the newly independent country.

The Nehruvian model advocated a controlled economy, with five-year plans, import restrictions, licence-permit raj and high taxation. All through the ‘50s and ‘60s, for example, the highest marginal income tax rate (for Band 11) was set at 97.75%. This led to higher barriers for technology, trading of commodities and metals together with a bureaucratic apparatus that was either ill-equipped or only too willing to tweak the rules that it was supposed to implement. Imported goods started disappearing from bonded warehouses,  dhows were used to smuggle gold into the country, protection and extortion rackets thrived.

In the ‘80s and with the textile mills in their death throes, criminal elements infiltrated the labour unions to orchestrate land deals. Supari killings followed. Income from these endeavors went on to finance the growing metropolis and its various real estate projects and other businesses like gambling and prostitution. Some of this money started flowing into the financing of films as well.

Haji Mastan with Sanjeev Kumar, Firoz Khan and Mayur Madhvani. Photo: Bolly.com

Bombay was not the most fertile ground for trying out the Gandhian social vision either. This was borne out shortly after the Morarji Desai-led state government passed the Bombay Prohibition Act in 1949. In its immediate aftermath, bars and nightclubs pulled down their shutters. This was followed by an unprecedented boom in hooch manufacturing. Illicit liquor trade meant illicit cash profits and their circulation in the parallel economy, which had its tentacles extended into film financing.

The ban on gambling, or matka, did not work any better. Derived from satta which originated in the latter half of the 18th century with a booming cotton futures trade, matka turned over Rs 500 crore a month in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Mumbai underworld had its hands in every pie, and since most of the business was conducted in cash, it was very difficult by this time to tell which sources were legitimate and which were not. The financing of films, at least the front of it, comprised rich traders, businessmen, real estate agents, builders and jewellers, however they lived in an ecosystem where the distinction between money gained from legitimate sources and others had disappeared.

The film industry’s traipse with the underworld began in the early 1970s. The early optimism of independent India was by then a distant memory, as a new generation of leaders, who had not known or were less associated with the spirit of the independence struggle, were in charge. The political establishment was in a churn, with Indira Gandhi splitting the Congress cynically and establishing the beginnings of a culture based on cult following and sycophancy. The statehood agitation movement and the rise of the Shiv Sena added fuel to the cauldron. Bombay, as it was then known, was no longer the cosmopolitan melting pot that the colonial administration projected it as once. It was bitter and divided.

It is difficult to say whether art imitates life or the reverse, but these societal changes shone on the silver screen as the country moved into the third decade of its independence. The stories from this time, manifested in the form of “The Angry Young Man”, had fantastical plots, embellished representations, “lost in the village fair” tropes, caricature led villainy and heroism together with a gradual diminishing of independent feminine symbols in popular imagination. The financing of films grew murkier, but the difference this time was that the stories did not have a redeeming factor either. In a perverse way, it was as if these stories were giving vent to the failed promise of a nation that became independent in 1947.

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The year 1982 saw the coming of Asian Games to New Delhi together with the advent of television in the Indian middle-class household. By 1995, over 400 million viewers had tuned in to watch over 100 television channels. The film industry was faced with newer challenges in the form of rampant piracy. The tried and tested process of releasing films territory by territory to whet the appetite of the cinema going audience had to be ditched. For a brief period, before the advent of digital, producers had to consider all-India releases instead of the established practice of releasing in Tier 1 cities first.

There were other headaches for filmmakers as well, because by the late 1980s the underworld was actively competing for distribution rights for major releases, using the only way they knew – extortion and the power of the gun. While at it, they summoned cinema stars to their parties in Dubai and cricket matches in Sharjah, to get some tinsel to rub off on them.

Dawood Ibrahim with his entourage in Sharjah. Anil Kapoor is photographed with him in this picture. Photo: Twitter

The late ‘90s and the early 2000s were perhaps the most difficult years for the Indian film industry. The content was poor, the songs were ribald and risqué. The sophistication that the industry cultivated through its ambassadors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman and others of their generation were replaced with a new generation of stars that crowded badly made multi-starrers. Shrill stories and worn-out tropes of Ma, Mitti and Mai ka laal were regurgitated film after film. Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna had lost their Midas touch with an ineffectual flirtation with politics. It was as if a race to the bottom was underway.

The tide had slowly but surely begun to turn though, with the onset of the millennium. By the mid-’90s, the prohibition legislation was watered down to an extent that it was in effect toothless. The dismantling of the licence permit raj cut down the smuggling and protection rackets. Piracy was controlled through the onset of digital media. Encrypted disks were sent to exhibitors instead of nitrate rolls in cans. Doordarshan attracted a new crop of actors, directors and technicians from the Film Institutes of India, and they in-turn made their way into the film industry to contribute to a smorgasbord of edgy films that took on social issues in a refreshing, powerful and compelling way. Institutional funding commenced through the National Film Development Council. Multiplexes came in to rescue the independent filmmaker. The exhibitor did not have to worry about filling a 2,000 seat theatre. A 300 seat multiplex at 60% utilisation for a few weeks, two to three shows a day, was good enough for profits, for the rightly budgeted film.

Unlike other stories though, in this one, the villain did not just die. The influence of the underworld faded away owing to a combination of factors. The Mumbai bomb blasts that followed communal riots and the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 brought enhanced scrutiny into the activities of the underworld. As with everything else, the government machinery moved slowly but surely, even though all through the ‘90s and well into the first decade of the millennium producers were on tenterhooks dreading that extortion call from a “Bhai”.

The investments made by the big studios, Fox, Disney and others, into the distribution and production businesses, together with the uptake of OTT platforms, has made the industry less individualistic, and more corporatised. This has taken the initiative further away from the underworld’s preferred mode of operation. The granting of industry status to films by the government, in 1998, also opened new sources of affordable institutional financing.

Today, the Indian film industry is a vibrant, dynamic and professional outfit that caters to the one of the biggest entertainment markets in the world, both in India and abroad. For a nation that has so many stories to tell, it has taken a long time to get to this point. After being seen as frivolous at best or as a liability at its worst, for much of its life, the opportunity to bring about change beckons. Will the industry step up to this challenge? Will it be allowed to do so? Your guess is probably as good as mine.

Manoj Kumar is an England-based information security specialist who moonlights as a blogger with interests in cybersecurity, pop culture, politics and films.