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70 years of Independence: A look at Hindi cinema from 1940 to 2017


On 15th August, the day India acquired her freedom, we chart dominant themes and events in the nearly eight decades of Hindi cinema since the 1940s.

Anita Paikat

Indian cinema began in 1913 with Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's (better known as Dadasaheb Phalke) Raja Harishchandra — a full length feature based on the life of Raja Harishchandra, an upright and righteous king. During its inception, Indian cinema was more like an extension of theatre. Plays that made it big on stage, especially mythological stories, were adapted for the reel.

However, a few decades later, the real potential of cinema was recognised and cinema no longer remained only a reflection of society but became a means to influence the society. As Bertolt Brecht, the famous poet, playwright, and theatre director of the 20th century, once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Thus, films bringing awareness on social and political progress. Over the years, subjects and ideas in films changed, as per the dictates of time.

70 years of Independence: Walking down the film lane of 1947

Celebrating India's 70th, we chart dominant themes and events in the nearly eight decades of Hindi cinema since the 1940s.

1940-1949

This decade proved to be politically eventful, not only for India, but the entire world. World War II and the Indian Independence affected and brought responses from the cinema as well. Owing to the World War II, a Film Advisory Board was set up in Bombay to mobilise public support through war propaganda films in 1940. The board was given the monopoly to control the overall raw film stock in the country which resulted in the sudden drop of productions in Hindi cinema. By 1941, only 78 films were produced as opposed to 154 films produced in 1935. The monopoly was done away with only in 1945.

By the start of the decade, filmmakers were attempting to contribute to the freedom struggle, beginning with Ram Daryani’s Hindustan Hamara (1940), Shailen Ghose’s Amar Asha (1942), Najmul Hasan Naqvi’s Naya Tarana (1943),  among others. The Quit India movement of 1942 also saw severe efforts of censorship from the British Raj. References to Indian political leaders, the Indian national flag and any patriotic slogans and songs were asked to be omitted from the films.

On the other side of these films were the typical love stories. Amiya Chakrabarty’s Basant (1942), M Sadiq’s Ratan (1944), Mehboob’s Anmol Ghadi (1946), and others were tales of love.

The most commercially successful film of this decade was Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet (1943), which is said to have earned a record Rs1 crore nett. While the film was based on the identity mismatch trope, it hosted a few themes never before seen on screen — the idea of an anti-hero and the pregnancy of a girl outside wedlock. The film also included the patriotic song ‘Dur Hato Aye Duniya Walo’, which became an instant hit among the masses.

Another film from the decade that requires attention is Ramesh Saigal’s Shaheed (1948). Released the very next year after Independence, the film was based on the freedom struggle. 1948 also marked the establishment of RK Films with its first production Aag, produced and directed by Raj Kapoor.

1950-1959

The 1950s was a crucial decade for Indian cinema. It was now time to reflect on the newly independent country’s state of affairs. Two prominent filmmakers leading the pack were Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt.

While Raj Kapoor’s blockbusters Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) commented on the societal evils and paved the way for a better India, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) questioned the very integrity of the freedom, pointing towards the nation’s state of existential crisis. ‘Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai?’ song from the film was a severe criticism of the country and its leaders.

Filmmakers during this time also tried to delve into the idea of ‘India’. While Meboob’s Mother India (1957) was a cry on the concepts of motherhood and motherland, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) explored the heart wrenching hardships faced by ordinary people from rural India. Do Bigha Zamin received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival. Another film by the director, Sujata (1959) tried to dismantle the caste system, and untouchability.

V Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957), based on the subject of reformation of criminals too stressed on the inherent purity of beings; that people become bad only because of their socio-economic conditions. This film walked away with the Best Picture Award at the Berlin Film Festival and the Samuel Goldwyn International Film Award in 1958 for the Best Foreign Motion Picture.

This decade, therefore, was devoted towards the inward reflection on the political and social state of a British free India.

1960-1969

This decade again saw a shift towards the romance genre. K Asif’s period drama Mughal-E-Azam (1960) became the highest grosser with an earning of approximately Rs5.5 crore. This film was followed by many other love stories, HS Rawail’s Mere Mehboob (1963), Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964), Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969), among others.

The craze for shooting abroad began in 1964 when Raj Kapoor’s Sangam was extensively shot abroad and the trend of family drama began with Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965).

Another important trend setter was Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome that became a precedent for the success of low budget films. Owing to the subject and popularity of Bhuvan Shome, the Film Finance Corporation, founded in 1960, declared its a new policy of backing low budget, offbeat films.  

However, in 1969 came the superhit Aradhana that brought all attention to the new star Rajesh Khanna. And with him came the romance dramas that primarily revolved around a couple, their separation and the subsequent union.   

1970-1979

Picking up on the success of Bhuvan Shome, a new group of filmmakers emerged with films that were not only meant for the box office. Often based on the lives of ordinary people, the films were made in low budgets, often using new artists.

Typically serious in content, and aimed at a niche audience the films that came to be categorized as ‘arthouse’ films were Basu Chatterjee's Sara Akash (1969), Rajinder Singh Bedi's Dastak (1970), Mani Kaul's Uski Roti (1971) and Duvidha (1973), Kumar Shahani's Maya Darpan (1972), Avtar Kaul's 27 Down (1974), MS Sathyu's Garm Hava (1974), and Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1974).

Rajesh Khanna had catapulted to stardom by the end of the previous decade. From 1970-1979, on an average, he starred in five films each year. These films were more often than not love stories, with an angle of societal evils added in. Few examples are Kati Patang (1970), Anand (1971), Mehboob Ki Mehndi (1971), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972), and Amar Prem (1972).

Amitabh Bachchan, on the other hand, came with a new twist to Hindi cinema with the image of the ‘Angry Young Man’. After a few side roles in Reshma Aur Shera (1971) and Anand (1971), he came with a bang as Inspector Vijay Khanna in Zanjeer (1973). This was followed by Deewaar (1975) and Sholay (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Don (1978).

Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer

The Indian public, exasperated by two years of Emergency which was established in 1975, welcomed this young angry man with open arms. He became their representative on the big screen, angry and fighting the system and its oppression.

1980-1989

Colour TV was introduced with a live telecast of the Independence Day speech by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 15 August, 1982. This was followed by the Asian Games which were held in November - December of the same year, in Delhi. (source: Doordarshan website)

According to an India Today report, the audiences were so amazed at the sight of colour on TV that they were ready to spend as much as Rs8,000 on an Indian set and up to Rs15,000 on the imported version. This came as a hit to the film industry as a diminishing turn out at the cinema halls brought them tremendous losses.

Films were made, but the decade saw a mix of themes on the big screen. Films like Arth (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Katha (1982), Mirch Masala (1987), and Ustav (1984) came from the arthouse stable.

Romance films like Chashme Buddoor (1981), Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), Silsila (1981), Hero (1983), Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), called for the advent of love stories set against the backdrop of Indian culture and traditions.

1990-1999

This decade was predominantly dominated by the big budget films from the stables of Dharma Productions [Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)], Rajshri Productions [Hum Aapke Hai Koun...! (1994) and Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999)], Mukta Arts [Taal (1999)], and Yash Raj Films [Dil To Pagal Hai (1997)]. The characters in these films were larger-than-life, who lived in a larger-than-life Indian cultural setting.

Hum Aapke Hai Koun...! became the biggest hit in the history of Hindi cinema, estimating a total gross of Rs69.75 crore nett in 1994 (source: Boxofficeindia.com).

A still from Hum Aapke Hai Koun...!

The violence in the early years of the decade also affected cinema. The communal riots that began in 1992 in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, reached Bombay with 10 bombs exploding through keys areas. In 1995, Mani Ratnam’s Bombay released in three languages, Tamil, and the dubbed versions of Hindi and Telugu. The film won two National Awards [Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration and Best Editing], and two Filmfare Awards [Best Film (Critic) and Best Performer (Critic)].

2000-2009

The turn of the century also marked a new era for Hindi cinema. Films now had more drama than ever. Beginning from Kaho Na... Pyaar Hai (2000), Mohabbatein (2000), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham... (2001), Devdas, (2002), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) to Koi... Mil Gaya (2003), and Main Hoon Na (2004). The underlining theme of these films was parental love and family culture, showcased with melodrama in overflowing quantities.

Interestingly, this decade also marked the rise of film franchises. Sequels to box office hits became almost a norm, for example, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), Koi...Mil Gaya and Krrish (2006), Sarkar (2005) and Sarkar Raj (2008), Dhoom (2004) and Dhoom 2 (2006), Raaz (2002) and Raaz: The Mystery Continues (2009).

2010-2017

By the end of the last decade, the film audiences were saturated with drama and were ready for plots closer to reality. Years from 2010 to the present have tried to fulfil just that. A plethora of themes floated around — from book adaptations [Aisha (2010)] to women empowerment [English Vinglish (2012), Pink (2016)]; from biopics [Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Paan Singh Tomar (2010)] to modernistic experiments [LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhoka (2010), DevD (2009)]; from crime gangland stories [Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2 (2012)] to social issues [Peepli (Live) (2010), Vicky Donor (2012)]; and from action [Singham (2011), Dabangg (2010)' to comedy [Jolly LLB (2013)].

Hindi cinema has come a long way. In the last two decades films came to be measured not for their content but the star cast. This trend, too, is slowly turning around.

The recent failure of star studded films like Tubelight, Jagga Jasoos and Jab Harry Met Sejal, prompt that the audience now is not looking for faces in a film, but stories. Offbeat actors like Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have enjoyed meteoric rise in the industry for their stellar performances. 

Actors and actresses from India are also exploring avenues on international grounds with Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Irrfan Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and others bagging important roles in Hollywood productions.

The future of Hindi cinema is bright and worth looking forward to for the next 70 years.

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