Arif Patel is a retired teacher based in Preston and London, UK, with an extensive knowledge of the history of cinema. Arif is particularly interested in the way in which Hindi commercial cinema has developed over the 20th century and ensures he keeps on top of both mainstream films and the more obscure Indian films.
In this blog, Arif Patel traces the history and development of mainstream Hindi cinema, the wider industry in contemporary India and explains why there is always a great demand for this art form around the world.
Hindi cinema is probably the most popular and well known part of Indian cinema for those outside of the country.
Otherwise known as ‘Bollywood cinema’, Hindi cinema specifically refers to the part of the Indian cinema industry that focuses on producing films in Hindi.
Where is the popular Hindi cinema industry based?
Before it was commonly known as Bollywood, Hindi cinema was often called ‘Bombay cinema’. And so you won’t be surprised to hear that Hindi films are made in Mumbai (formerly Bombay under Colonial rule).
Mumbai is a hugely important Indian city, which changed its name from the British Imperial moniker ‘Bombay’ in 1995. As the capital of Maharashtra, Mumbai is not only the most populated city in India (with more than 12.5 million people living there), but is also widely considered to be the financial centre of the country.
So, to have a film industry based in Mumbai that challenges Hollywood films in popularity is not at all surprising.
Why is Hindi cinema often called ‘Bollywood cinema’?
Bollywood is often used to describe Hindi films and is a portmanteau of ‘Hollywood’ and Mumbai’s old name ‘Bombay’.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, Hindi cinema is part of the even larger Indian cinema, which includes all kinds of smaller industry sectors as well as the well known ‘South Indian cinema’.
The history and development of Hindi cinema
Way back in the very last few years of the 19th century – in 1896 to be precise – the very first movies shot by anyone in the world were shown in Mumbai (as explained above, at the time the city was called Bombay).
These films were made by the Lumiere Brothers, the very first pioneers of the global film industry. And Indian popular cinema was not far behind.
Due perhaps to the fact that India was then part of the British Empire, a photographer known as Save Dada (real name: Sakharam Bhatavdekar) saw the film played by the Lumiere brothers and immediately ordered himself a movie camera.
Save Dada learned from the best and soon produced what has come to be considered the first official clip made for the Indian industry. It was a recording of a live wrestling match and, appropriately enough was title The Wrestlers.
Screened in 1899, this movie was the very first that anyone saw that featured Indian actors and made by an Indian filmmaker.
The first foray into classic Hindi cinema
Hindi films are of course Bollywood films. Here’s a quick run down of how this key part of the Indian film sector started.
Dadasaheb Phalke was responsible for filming and releasing the first ever feature film in 1913. This was a silent film – as all Hollywood movies were too at that time – called Raja Harishchandra.
This became the first Indian movie to also be screened in England, with a showing of the melodrama in London in 1914. As was common in the very early years of film making, Phalke was not just the director, but also the cameraman, writer, art director, make-up artist… basically he was responsible for every role.
Early movies in Hindi cinema
Phalke was responsible for 23 movies coming out of India between 1913 and the end of WW2 (1918).
And while this is obviously pretty impressive for a fledgling film oeuvre, Bollywood movies were not being made anywhere near as quickly as those coming out of Hollywood.
Throughout the 1920s, many more production companies for Indian movies sprang up. Mostly, these Indian films concentrated on historical epics.
For example, popular cinema releases prior to the talkies taking over would generally cover episodes from Ramayana or Mahabharata (ancient Indian Sanskrit epics).
The Talkies arrived for Indian cinema and Hindi films in the 1930s
The very first talkie was made by Ardeshir Irani. Titled Alam Ara, the movie hit the big screen in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1931.
This was also the first time popular cinema films came with sound of any kind. Accordingly this began a new era in Indian film, focusing not just on the storis in the movies but also the melodrama and the music.
Alam Ara was the first of the Hindi films to include songs, the first of which was sang by W M Khan and was titled De de khuda ke naam par (translates as Give it in the name of God). The film’s music was directed by Alam Ara.
An explosion in popularity of Hindi cinema
The Hindi film industry really took off in the 1930s, with lots of new production companies springing up.
In 1931, there were 328 Hindi films made and released compared with 108 four years earlier.
This was also the time that popular hindi cinema led to many movie theatres being built due to the massive growth in interest from people in India.
The latest Hindi movies could be enjoyed by everyone, and the popularity of actresses, actors, songs, scenes, comedy and more inspired filmmakers to respond to the growing demand.
It was during the 1930s and 1940s that many now very famous cast members first appeared. This includes such greats as Nitin Bose, Debaki Bose, S S Vasan and Chetan Anand, among others.
Growth of regional film industries in India
So far I’ve concentrated mainly on the growth of Hindi cinema, but it’s important to note that other regions were also becoming popular for their movies too.
For example, in 1917 the first Bengali movie was made. Called Nal Damyanti, it actually featured actors from Italy.
A couple of years later, the South Indian cinema industry released silent movie Keechaka Vadham, which was made by R Nataraja Mudaliar of Madras (now Chennai).
Post WW2 growth of Hindi cinema
During WW2, the Hindi cinema industry declined to a extent, leading to a rebirth of the new India film industry in 1947.
This was when Hindi movies transformed the whole industry, with filmmakers such as Bimal Roy making mini-series and action films designed to directly appeal to the masses.
Rather than only making a story from historical sources, the Hindi movies took all kinds of current social issues from real life and transformed them into dramas and comedy films.
Hindi cinema in the 1960s
This decade also saw renowned Hindi cinema directors focus on real life issues. Mainstream Hindi cinema featured stories based on the ‘angry young man’ trope and common societal issues.
And this was when the popularity of Hindi cinema spread around the world.
Hindi movies in the 1970s
For many, this is considered one of the golden eras for Bollywood movies – the Masala movies.
These films were designed to allow the audience to escape from real life and lose themselves in the consciously designed dream sequence world conjured up by the director.
A riot of colour, music, life affirming fantasy lit up the films and proved incredibly popular for people to watch.
For the next couple of decades, many Bollywood cinema actors became famous around the world, and directors began to be rewarded with international audiences and awards.
Hindi movies in the 1990s
People outside of India knew what to expect from Hindi movies by the 1990s. And the latest Hindi movies showed off to global audiences the national identity of new India.
Bollywood films became a watchword for riotous story lines and colourful scenes.
Ten years or so later, new generation of actors elevated Indian films to a more serious level. For example, A R Rahman got two Oscars for the music soundtrack the phenomenally popular movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Bollywood cinema today
Hindi cinema has had a huge influence on the country’s collective identity.
It has become part and parcel of India’s history and story, particularly post colonially. Bollywood expert Meghna Desai says that Bollywood “… has actually been the most vibrant medium for telling India its own story.”
This story, he says, includes India’s independence struggle as well as its entertainment factor.
One thing is for sure, Bollywood cinema is here to stay!
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