Movies and Film: India


Unlike Africa, India has had an indigenous movie industry from very early on; the first Indian feature film—Rajah Harishandra—was released in 1913. During the silent era the region was producing 100 movies per year.

Director's Cut

At 900 feature films, shorts, and documentaries per year, India, not the United States, produces the most films on earth. It accounts for one fourth of the global output. About a quarter of this output comes out of Bombay industry, known popularly as "Bollywood." This is attributable in part to the fact that the population—at 900 million—is more than three times the American population. Further, television was not accessible to the Indian public until relatively recently.

As with American cinema, Indian cinema's bread and butter has been the entertainment film produced within a studio system and dependent in some measure on a star system and conventional genres. (There has been a significant independent movement in the post-World War II era, also producing mainly entertainment.)

The musicals are especially interesting because they are at the same time so like and so unlike our own. As in America, the first all-talking film in India was a musical—Beauty of the World (Alam Ara, 1931). Its popularity assured the continuation of the formula. The degree of adoration that singers (often providing their voice to lip-synching actors) is reminiscent of American audience's affection for Mario Lanza, Jeanette MacDonald, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. But the moments at which actors burst into song seems unmotivated by the plot. It is difficult for Western audiences not to squirm at these moments because they seem like almost surreal interruptions of the narrative.

We have included the most famous Indian director—Satyajit Ray—in the section on directors (see "Film Directing". After Ray, probably the most famous classical-era Indian film star—Raj Kapoor—was also a respected director/pro-ducer, whose films, though popular, often contained significant social commentary. These films include The Vagabond (1951) and Boot Polish (1954).

However, the late 1960s saw the rise of a more truly alternative Third Cinema. "Parallel cinema" was independent and took on social issues. Generally acknowledged to be the first such film, Mrinal Sen's Mr. Shome (1969) is about a small-minded, conventional government official whose life is shaken up by an unconventional village girl. Its success opened up government funding for other such films through the 1970s. The most polished and successful of the parallel cinema directors is probably Shyam Benegal, whose most significant films include The Seedling (1974), The Obsession (1978), and The Essence (1987).

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at