Mahesh Bhatt speaks on 60 years of Indian Cinema


By Mahesh Bhatt, IndiaFM

The journeys of individuals are the journeys of nations

A few days ago, I was sitting in a plush seven star hotel, with the top

bosses of an International media company, narrating the story of my first

truly global film, 'The Suicide Bomber' to him. As I looked at my potential

future partners, who seemed to be riveted by the tale I was sharing with

them, I was suddenly reminded of a similar situation, thirty six years ago.

The difference was just that instead of these sophisticated westerners, a

bizarre, flesh eating Mystic had sat in front of me, chanting Sanskrit shloks,

while the sound of a thousand bells resonated in the Benaras evening air.

Nothing had changed; I mused, and yet, so much had! These well informed

men and the tantric were both means to the same end, as both of them

were gateways to funds for my passionate heart to make movies. However,

while the venture capitalist was asking me questions relating to my vision

for the film and how he could help me; the mystic was giving me voodoo

charms in the form of scraps of dead human flesh to be fed to the potential

financier that I was engaged in wooing. I was a young lad of twenty one

then, scouting around with a friend of mine for finance, so that I could tell

the stories that coursed through my heart; and my potential financier was a

gun-wielding landlord, who made money out of the oppression of the poor

farmers, and who lived in Gaya, the town where the Buddha received

'enlightenment.' What a journey it has been for me alone in these last thirty

odd years, and similarly, what a journey for India! I have literally moved

thousands of years, from the dark ages into the global arena in less than

half a lifetime!

The early years

When I began my journey thirty six years ago, the entertainment scene

in India was drastically different. The honeymoon phase of freedom had

faded and India had woken up to the innumerable problems that it was

facing. Poverty and illiteracy weighed down the spirit of the nation. As a

result, two schools were born. One was the neo-realistic school, which

engaged in films rooted in social reality, and whose tallest icon was Satyajit

Ray, who put Indian cinema on the world map but was restricted to 'art

house' cinema circuits. The other was completely escapist fare, which was

committed to making products according to the needs of the current trends

in the box office, symbolized by makers like Raj Kapoor. The average

Indian used a Bollywood film as a drug to escape from his heartbreaking

reality. Historians say that this was the period in which Indian cinema went

'pulp' and lost its earlier links with literature. In the metros a sizeable

section of the English speaking population regularly watched Hollywood

films. The impact of Hollywood on Bollywood is tremendous. Infact there

is no denying that the mainstream cinema has been shaped by


In the 70's and the 80's the Indian cinema slowly it began to lose its

inherent coherence and grace, as well as its intellectual and creative

sharpness. During this period the government did all it could to fund and

support what was called the parallel cinema but it just failed to take off.

This in a way marked the end of the cinema of commitment, and which

peaked with the arrival of MTV and the satellite age.

Then as audio- visual images from all over the world began to flood

our homes, not only in Metros but all over the country, as a result of the

open policy of the Govt; globalization suddenly became a reality for us,

and not just something that we read about in the newspapers.

The implications of this were devastating. The Indian film industry, in

its efforts to go global and come on par with Hollywood, thematically as

well as commercially, began to woo the non-resident Indian.

This was the era when our Indian films surrendered their 'Indian ness'.

Despite of our leaders' having indulged in long, tiresome debates on the

new international information order, where developing nations for years had

expressed their anxieties regarding the terrifying imbalances in the

international flow of information and media products, the fact is that India

couldn't fight the hegemony of the overpowering influence of western

culture and the technological revolution.

The Bollywood landscape began to be ruled by Film makers who

produced films for the Non Resident Indian audiences, which portrayed an

Indian lifestyle completely removed from anything that existed in reality,

right from the mega opulent mansions, to the attempts to uphold the so

called 'traditional Indian values', of family togetherness, kinship, and

ritualistic reverence to religious beliefs and the scriptures. These were the

times when the real Indian from small town India simply faded away from

the screen. He just ceased to exist. Indian cinema just turned its face away

from the real social issues, and instead focused on the problems of people

with too much wealth.

These were the times when film production costs went out of control,

block busters of ever diminishing merit began to be worshipped and

manufactured, and a mania for sequels at the expense of innovation, took

root. Films became progressively good - looking, but inside were hollow

and dead, with no inner core. Cinema as a mass entertainer lost its clout to

television. Soon, the whole production, distribution and exhibition system

began to focus on the so called elite, which consumed films in multiplexes,

where tickets are sold at exorbitant cost. With this, the 'first day, first

show' audience, which constitutes the mass audience, faded into history,

because it did not have the money or the desire to see movies that did not

reflect its world. This was soon followed by the addition of a 'discerning'

middle - class audience, which trickled into the cinema halls, after reading

reviews and consulting their peer groups. And that brings us to the current

scenario…. Today marketing skills and gigantic publicity budgets confuse

appearances with reality, and films have become 'events' which now form

part of an entertainment weekend, where the only target of filmmakers is to

get bums on seats and not to create an enduring shelf space in the hearts

and minds of the audience. You could say that in some was we have hit

rock bottom.

And today…

Today in India, cinema is serving the short - lived entertainment thrills

for the anglicized urban elite, whose numbers are only increasing by the

day. The Indian exhibition sector is undergoing dramatic changes; in fact it

is being re-structured. It seems that in times to come, while the affluent will

have a vast network of cinema multiplexes, offering an integrated package

of shopping, entertainment and leisure, which will offer several Indian and

foreign films within the same complex; the ordinary Indian will become

socially and economically ineligible to avail of such expensive up market


But what is bizarre is that while, just a few years ago, when one

mentioned the word 'Bollywood' to the average westerner, he perhaps

would have thought you had mispronounced the name of the global

cinematic capital, Hollywood! However, that is no longer the case. Today

it is the average westerner who is in fact looking at Bollywood as a

lucrative investment opportunity. The Indian film producer today is being

wooed by mighty nations from the west from Switzerland and Australia, to

small dots in the ocean such as the Reunion Islands.

Why has this change taken place so suddenly? One of the reasons is

because the vast NRI and indigenous Asian population abroad have made

Indian cinema a lucrative business there. And its growing popularity has

not escaped the investors in U K and USA. The other reason is more

complex. The Yorkshire Film Development Council is aggressively

promoting the idea of making joint Indo- British productions. The IFFA

Film Awards for this year was staged in Leeds. The British Government

wishes to promote Bollywood in the U K because it is through these films

that it hopes to soften the British Asian youth, who are gravitating towards

militant Islam. They feel that stories and cultural modules will work when

lectures don't. Stories are perhaps the most effective communication tool

ever used. All the world's great religions use tales and parables to preserve

and transmit beliefs and values. At least the U K Film Council feels that in

the 21 st century, Bollywood is perhaps playing that role rather well.

Giorgio Armani dressed up Bollywood Diva Aishwariya Rai for the

London premiere of BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and Judi Dench wore an

outfit for the latest Oscar ceremony designed by famous Indian designers

Abu and Sandeep. In the suburbs of Mumbai, the commercial and

entertainment capital of India, dozens of young Indian men and women

have been contracted to do sophisticated special effects work for

Hollywood, a domain hitherto only monopolized by Los Angeles.

Therefore it's hardly surprising that the Americans are worried about losing

jobs even in the high tech service sectors to skilled workers in India and


But globalization does not only mean Westernization. Production

houses from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Singapore are working

out ways and means to initiate joint film productions with Bollywood. Our

company recently created 'history' by releasing Awarapan simultaneously in

India and Pakistan.

India is on the verge of becoming the largest theatre country in the

world, an opportunity waiting to be tapped by potential investors. For a

country as large as India, film exhibition and distribution are quite diverse

from one another. Today around 12,000 theatres in the country are being

serviced by around 250-300 celluloid prints released for a mainstream

commercial film. As these prints are insufficient, they are first released in

'A' class cities and thereafter re-circulated to 'B' and 'C' class cities in the

country. After having run for a couple of weeks in 'A' class cities, the

quality of such prints deteriorates considerably. This impacts the

occupancy rates in the already run down theatres and also the ticket prices.

Further, during the period when the new releases are running in the class 'A'

cities, pirated copies from these celluloid prints are developed to cater to

such audiences in the 'B' and 'C' class cities. But all this has been changing

with great speed in recent times. Theatres across the country are now going

digital. Run down theatres in 'B' and 'C' class cities are upgrading

themselves and transforming themselves into digital theatres.

Experts say that the world entertainment and media industries will grow

faster in the second half of this decade than the one gone by. The study by

Price Waterhouse Coopers forecast that the United States would remain

the largest media market at 390 billion pounds but growing at the slowest

average annual rate of 5.6 per cent. The Asia-Pacific region, driven by

gains in China and India, was seen expanding fastest, at nearly 12 percent

per year, to reach 244 billion pounds.

There are times in the life of nations when they feel confident that they

can take on the world, that they are capable of meeting any challenge,

achieving any dream. But development can not occur without the re-

assertion of ones' identity. This means saying to the world and to ourselves

that this is who we are, this is what we are proud of and this is what we

want to be.

The Indian film industry had been one of the oldest segments of the

Indian entertainment industry. Motion pictures were brought to India in

1896 by Lumiere Brothers, and since then there has been no looking back.

Today, India has the world's biggest movie industry that churns out around

1000 movies each year. The Indian film industry is witnessing mark

improvements in all spheres - from the technology used in making films, to

the themes of movies, exhibition, finance, marketing and even in its

business environment. There is no doubt that the Indian film industry is

finally getting corporatized. In that sense, 2005 was a watershed year for

the industry. The Indian film industry stands today at an estimated INR 68

Billion. Having grown 20 percent from the previous year, experts project

the industry to maintain similar growth rates over the next 5 years on an

overall basis, though different segments of the industry will grow at

different rates. The film industry is projected to reach around INR 153

billion by 2010.

India, by the end of the next decade will become the world's largest

nation in terms of its population alone. We already are the world's largest

multi cultural, multi religious, multi ethnic, and multi linguistic democracy.

The journey of the Indian experiment in nation building in the social and

economic empowerment of a billion people is vital for the future of

mankind in the twenty first century. And in this process, movies and

entertainment have a very important role to play, particularly when the

winds of globalization are de-linking the cinema of every nation from its

indigenous cultural roots, and superimposing on it a fanciful globalized


Fortunately in India, having hit the rock bottom there are welcome

signs of a few film makers re-connecting with the Nations creative and

cultural roots. The efforts towards the resurrection of Indian cinema from

its impending downfall will require a virtual re-birthing beyond the alluring

shadows of a global culture. Indian cinema will need to re-invent itself by

reviving its links with its past traditions, thereby lending its own unique

perspective to its problems which are really not so different to problems

shared by others all over the world. We will have to lose our emotional and

intellectual timidity and assert our creative take on world issues. Only when

we begin to do that will we truly come into our own and make a


But for this, we and we alone can help ourselves. However shaky they

are, they have to be our feet and ours alone that take the first steps towards

true self reliance. Slavery comes in very attractive packages, and we have a

tendency in our country to follow rather than lead. Recently, an actress

friend of mine from Pakistan asked me a simple question. 'Why is it in

South Asia in particular, Bollywood has prospered while Pakistan, Bangla

Desh and Sri Lanka have not?' 'One of the reasons' I responded, 'is

perhaps because India is an open society.' 'What is an open society?' she

innocently asked. 'One that is free of any kind of repression. The Indian

society in spirit is committed to democracy and is pluralistic. It has a fee

press and it allows dissent. Only in such an environment can creativity take

its root. If Indian cinema is flying today, it's because our founder fathers

sowed the seeds of a free society which is now in full bloom and bearing

fruits. As long as the people of any society retain its free spirit, its cinema

will flourish… or else, it will come crashing down and make empty sterile

images which only titillate but fail to satiate.