At the Majestic Cinema in Mumbai (then Bombay) on 14 March 1931 the first Indian sound film went into première. It was “Alam Ara”, directed by Ardeshir Irani. The first Indian talkie was a love story between a prince and a gypsy girl (Alam Ara), based on a Parsi play written by Joseph David and was so popular that “police aid had to be summoned to control the crowds.” It included the hit song “De de khuda ke naam per”, which was also the first song of the Indian cinema. It was sung by actor Wazir Mohammed Khan who played a fakir in the film. The film was inspired by the first movie version of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1929), released by Universal Pictures. There is unfortunately no known copy of the film today.
De geschiedenis van Bollywood gaat terug tot 1913, toen de film “Raja Harishchandra” werd opgenomen. In de jaren dertig was de industrie al zo gegroeid dat er zo’n 200 films per jaar werden geproduceerd. De eerste film met geluid was dus “Alam Ara” uit 1931. As noted film director Shyam Benegal said, “It was not just a talkie. It was a talking and singing film with more singing and less talking. It had a number of songs and that actually set the template for the kind of films that were made later”. In fact, the 1932 film ‘Indrasabha’ had an overwhelming 71 songs in it.
De eerste kleurenfilm, getiteld “Kisan Kanya”, werd in 1937 opgenomen. In 1973 werd de film “Zanjeer” uitgebracht. Deze betekende een keerpunt omdat hier gebroken werd met het klassieke Bollywood-imago van in het algemeen levendige musicals die tijdloze verhalen vertellen over liefde en onrust. Nu werd echter overgegaan op rauwe actie. In de jaren zeventig en tachtig werden veel actiefilms uitgebracht, waaronder veel zogenaamde Curry-westerns of “easterns”. Een voorbeeld hiervan is “Sholay”, die gezien wordt als de meest succesvolle Indiase film ooit.
In de jaren negentig kwam de nadruk weer meer te liggen op de romantiek. In 1983 was Shekhar Kapur met “Masoom” (Innocent) een van de bekendste regisseurs van Hindi‑films geworden, maar in 1994 kreeg “Bandit Queen”, zijn controversieel biografisch portret van de vogelvrij verklaarde Phoolan Devi, bij de voorstelling op het Filmfestival van Cannes internationale erkenning, maar de film werd aanvankelijk verboden door de Indiase regering.
Een andere film die te maken kreeg met de Indiase censuur was Fire van Deepa Mehta uit 1996. Gedraaid met Canadees kapitaal schrijft Alison Darren hierover in haar Lesbian Film Guide: “Present-day New Delhi. Radha is a devoted wife to Ashok and carer to his aged mother Biji. Ashok’s younger brother reluctantly marries a young woman he does not love — Sita — and the two of them move into the house. Tensions rise as the proximity of the family members and their separate needs challenge the traditional values holding them all together. Young Sita suddenly realizes that she is in love with Radha and tells her so. The unfolding romance is observed by Biji, mute and disapproving …
Truly marvellous film, and ground-breaking, too, as far as the depiction — for the first time — of a lesbian relationship in India is concerned. The initial uncertainty experienced by the two women, the gentleness they express towards each other and the rising passion of the emerging relationship is wonderfully captured. Director Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement is to place the pair’s burgeoning relationship against the context of everyday restrictions on women’s lives. On top of this the possibility and consequence of discovery seem truly dreadful.
Sita, the younger woman, is more open in her desire to break with tradition. Her efforts initially appear simplistic, amounting to no more than wanting to wear jeans and dance to modern music. By contrast, Radha’s needs and desires, buried for so many years, seem achingly profound. Her emotional resurrection is of necessity very slow, but deeply life-affirming.
There are terrific performances from all concerned but particularly the two leads. Nandita Das (Sita) was an unknown at the time and Fire was her first film, but Western audiences may not appreciate that Shabana Azmi (Radha) is an extremely well-known and respected actress in India. When interviewed at the 1996 London Film Festival where the film was premiered, she explained how she was attracted to the role because of Radha’s dignity. She also playfully remarked that she did not believe that playing a lesbian character would harm her career — in fact, should there be any more films made in India on a lesbian theme she felt it likely that she and Nandita would be offered the roles first! Although Fire was critically acclaimed, after the film was shown in India Deepa Mehta found herself at the centre of a horrendous backlash and she received many death threats. In 1998 several cinemas showing the film were attacked and audiences threatened by extremists.” (p.74-75)