If you had a little idea of what Bollywood is like, perhaps you will conjure up images of brightly-colored productions featuring elaborately choreographed song and dance numbers. Through Bollywood, we see India and its colorful and rich culture. But what is the history of Bollywood, India’s national cinema? How did it became one of the most financially lucrative film industries in the world?
The term “Bollywood” is a play on the word “Hollywood,” with the letter B derived from Bombay – now known as Mumbai, the center of Indian film world. This term was coined during the 1970s by a writer of a magazine gossip column, but there is disagreement as to who was the first to use it. But Bollywood actually dates all the way back to 1913.
In 1913, the silent film Raja Harishchandra was the first-ever Indian feature film that gave birth to Indian cinema. Its producer, Dadasaheb Phalke, was the first Indian cinema mogul and oversaw the production of 23 films from 1913 to 1918.Yet unlike Hollywood, initial growth in the industry was low.
The early 1920s saw the rise of new production companies. The films made during this era were either historical or mythological in nature. There were film imports from Hollywood – mostly action films – and were well-received by Indian audiences. Because of this, producers began following suit. During this era, filmed versions of Indian classics and mythological literature like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana still dominated throughout the decade.
By the 1930s, the industry was making over 200 films a year. In 1931, Ardeshir Irani produced the first Indian sound film AlamAra was released, and it became commercially successful. This film paved the way for the future of Indian cinema.
The 1930s to 1940s were tumultuous times for Indian cinema and the world. Like most countries, India was buffeted by the Great Depression and World War II. During these times also rose the Indian independence movement and violence of the Partition. Indian films back then were escapist films, and a number of filmmakers tackled tough social issues and the struggle for Indian independence as backdrop for their films. During the WWII, there was a decrease in the number of films produced, but each year saw an impressive rise of ticket sales.
Soon, color films began to appear, as did early animated films. The first Hindi color film was KisanKanya (1937), which was also produced by Irani. However, color did not become popular until the late 1950s.
Golden Age of Bollywood / Indian New Wave (late 1947 to 1960s)
After India’s independence in 1947, the film industry went through significant changes. The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s is regarded by film historians as the Golden Age of Hindi cinema. Some of the most critically-acclaimed Hindi films of all time came from this era.
The historical and mythological films of the past were replaced with social reformist films that turned a critical eye on ancient social practices like polygamy, prostitution, and the dowry system. Many of the films also explored social themes, primarily dealing with working-class life in India.
While the commercial Hindi cinema was thriving, the 1950s also brought the emergence of parallel cinema movement. This was a film movement that originated in West Bengal, but also began prominence in Hindi cinema that offers an alternative to the mainstream commercial Indian cinema. Early examples of parallel cinema include DhartiKe Lal (1946), which was based on the Bengal famine of 1943. Parallel cinema movies has been lauded abroad, and its commercial successes paved the way for Indian neorealism and the New Wave.
In the 1960s, Indian filmmakers were inspired by the political and social changes, plus the cinematic movements in both US and Europe, giving birth to the New Wave of Indian cinema. The producers and directors were driven by a desire to offer a greater sense of realism and understanding of the common man. The films during this era differed from commercial productions which were mostly colorful escapism.
Some of the best epic films of Hindi cinema was also produced during this era. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) was the first Indian film nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. This movie defined conventional Indian cinema for decades, spawning a genre of dacoit films. Gunga Jumna (1961) was the film that defined the genre of dacoit films. The movie was about a crime drama involving two brothers on the opposite sides of the law (a theme that has become common in Indian films during the 1970s).
Masala Films (Classic Bollywood)
The Masala film is Bollywood as we know it today. Masala is the most popular commercial genre in Bollywood since the 1970s, which freely mixes different genres including romance, comedy, action, drama, melodrama, along with the world-famous musical numbers. Masala films generally fall under the musical genre, of which Bollywood has been the largest producer since the 1960s. Manmohan Desai was considered by many as the father of the Masala film, and was one of the most successful Bollywood directors of the 1970s. Desai created Masala films so people would forget their misery. The hodgepodge of action, romance, comedy and musical numbers is a theme that still dominates the Bollywood industry until today.
During the 1970s, Hindi cinema was stagnant when it comes to themes, as musical romance or Masala films dominated the big screen. However, the paradigms shifted when gritty and violent crime films about the Bombay underworld and dacoits popularized the crime films in India. Screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar caused a paradigm shift in Indian cinema, revitalizing the industry. The Salim-Javed duo pioneered the Bollywood-blockbuster format. Their films were inspired by the themes of earlier classics Mother India and Gunga Jumna. These action, crime films reflected the socio-political and socio-economic climate in India during the 1970s, and channeled into mass discontent, growth of slums, poverty, corruption, and crimes.
During the 1970s, some Hindi filmmakers continued to produce realistic parallel cinema. However, the decade saw the rise of commercial cinema, starring films such as Sholay (1975) that cemented Amitabh Bachchan’s status as the biggest Bollywood star of the period.
The 1980s was another period of stagnation for Bollywood, but it still produced quality films. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), was one of the most internationally-acclaimed Hindi film of the decade. This movie won at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and the Camera d’Or, and was also nominated for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
During the 1980s, Bollywood experienced a box-office decline due to increasing violence, rise in video piracy, and decline in musical quality. One of the turning points came with films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), offering a blend of youthfulness, strong melodies, family entertainment and emotional intelligence. This film brought back audiences to the big screen, and became the template for Bollywood musical romance movies that defined the 1990s Hindi cinema.
New Bollywood (1990s to present)
Since the 1990s, Indian cinema industry was known as the “New Bollywood.” The contemporary Bollywood is connected to the economic liberalization in India during the early 1990s. During the early 1990s, the films focused towards the family-centered romantic musicals, introducing a new generation of popular actors. The three Khans – Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and Shah Rukh Khan – were three of the most popular actors of the era who starred in the most top-grossing Bollywood films. The Khans have dominated the Indian Box office for three decades, since the late 1980s.
The ’90s also saw the entrance of new performers in independent films, some of which were successful in the box office. One influential example was Satya (1998), which became a commercial and critical success, leading to the emergence of Mumbai noir. This new genre reflects the city’s social problems, leading to the resurgence of parallel cinema by the late 1990s.
In 2000s, Bollywood enjoyed increased worldwide recognition due to its growing Desi and NRI communities around the world. The growth of Indian economy led Bollywood to new heights in cinematography, production values, screenwriting and technical advancements.
The 2010s saw big-budget masala films with established stars being a commercial success, although the films were not often praised by critics. Some films starring Aamir Khan has been credited with modernizing the Masala films with a distinct brand of socially-conscious Bollywood.