The Uniqueness of Indian Cinema – Part 1 of 4

“There is one more state in this country, and that is Hindi cinema. And Hindi cinema also has its own culture… quite different from Indian culture but it is not alien to us, we understand it.”

Javed Akhtar in ‘Talking Films’

Indian filmmakers depart from their Hollywood counterparts in different ways. Whereas Hollywood filmmakers strive to conceal the constructed nature of their work so that the realistic narrative is wholly dominant, Indian filmmakers make no attempt to conceal the fact that what is shown on screen is a spectacle, an illusion, a fiction.

A number of elements invest Indian popular cinema with a clear identity but they can rarely be considered authentic images of Indian society or reality. However, they do reflect Indian society, seen as it were, through a distorted or broken mirror. Among the distinctive features are the following:

-Indian popular films are, in most cases, not realistic and not rooted in any specific culture within India as they aspire to reach out to all-India audiences. In fact, often a great effort is made to make sure that it cannot be identified with any particular region of India.

-Acting is exaggerated as it is derived from the traditional Indian folk forms.

-Melodrama has an abiding presence in terms of plot, character and use of background music.

-The use of the camera is often flashy, drawing attention to itself. The editing too is obtrusive which sometimes stand in contrast to Western concepts of continuity.

-Characters are rarely unique individuals; they are often social stereotypes or archetypes.

-Songs and dances are crucial components of a film’s appeal. They intervene into the narrative flow, often without much justification. Thus, films are not always ‘organic’ in the Western sense but neither is there much need to make it so. This may be the reason why Western audiences resist this form of cinema, i.e. for its lack of organicity.

-Films rarely fall into genres as it is understood in case of American cinema. Rather, every film is typically a combination of different genres. Hence the concept of the masala mix or the thali meal.

Indian popular films never pretend to be wholly realistic. They are governed by conventions commonly shared between filmmakers and audiences. These conventions have evolved historically and have reached a measure of stability. Indian popular films cannot be judged by the realistic yardstick applied to Western films.

It is an open secret that Indian cinema’s greatest weakness is the screenplay.The craft of writing has rarely been taken seriously in the Indian popular cinema and this reflects in the fact that scriptwriters are usually poorly paid, if at all. That also explains the vicious circle why serious writers do not want to venture into screenwriting. All this stands in direct contrast to the way films are made in Europe or America where the screenplay is the bedrock of film financing and screenplay development is a huge industry. Hollywood, in particular, invests huge amounts of money in developing screenplays, only a small fraction of which actually find their way to production. In India, development funding for films is rare or non-existent.

“It is much more difficult to write a screenplay for Naseeb than for a Western or ‘art’ film, where you have a straight storyline. A commercial Hindi film has to have sub-plots and gags, and keep its audience involved with no story or logic.”

(K.K. Shukla, scriptwriter of Naseeb)

The assertion that Hindi films have ‘no story’ is sometimes confusing to those unfamiliar with the genre. “Who cares who gets the story credits. Everyone knows our films have no stories”, and, in fact, the story credits are often given to friends or relatives for tax adjustment purposes. What is meant by ‘no story’ is that the storyline will be almost totally predictable to the Indian audience, being a repetition, or rather, an unmistakable reworking of many other Hindi films, and also that it will be recognised by them as a ‘ridiculous’ pretext for spectacle and emotion. Films which really have ‘no story’ i.e. non-narrative, or are ‘just spice of life’, or have the comparatively single-stranded narratives of many contemporary European films, are considered unlikely to be successful.

“The difference between Hindi and Western films is like that between an epic and a short story.”

Javed Akhtar

There is of course good evidence that Hindi films have evolved from village traditions of epic narration, and the dramas and the characters, as well as the structure, of the mythological epics are regularly and openly drawn upon. Film-makers often insist that: ‘Every film can be traced back to these stories ‘, and even that ‘There are only two stories in the world, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.’ In fact, it is the form and movement of the narrative that tends to distinguish the Hindi films, the crux of this being that the balance between narrative development and spectacular or emotional excess is rather different.

The narrative of the Indian popular cinema is often built upon a simple opposition between good/morality and evil/decadence, and connotations of ‘traditional’ and ‘Indian’ are appended to morality, which is an ideal of social relations which includes respect for kinship and friendship obligations, destiny, patriotism and religion (and religious tolerance) as well as restrained sexuality. Evil or decadence is broadly categorized as ‘non-traditional’ and ‘Western’, although the West is not so much a place, or even a culture, as an emblem of exotic, decadent otherness.

Filmmakers are quite aware of building their narratives around terms of an opposition so basic that audiences cannot easily avoid immersion:

“Kinship emotion in India is very strong – so this element always works – that’s what ‘lost and found’ is about. It does not work so well with educated audiences who go several days without seeing their families, but it works with B and C grade audiences who get worried if they don’t see a family member by 6.30 P.M., whose family members are an important part of themselves and their experience of the world “

(K.K. Shukla, screenplaywriter)


When we examine the evolution of popular Indian cinema, there are certain forces that merit closer analysis. These are:

1. The two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata;
2. Classical Indian theatre
3. The folk theatre
4. The Parsi theatre
5. Hollywood
6. Television

Let us examine each of them in a little more detail so as to gain a clearer understanding:


It is unarguably clear that the Hindi film, whatever view one might hold of its general quality, is deeply embedded in certain mythic structures which have defined the contours of Indian civilization. Manmohan Desai claimed that all his films were inspired by the Mahabharata, and on occasion everything in the Hindi film, from the archetypal figure of the mother to the anti-heroic hero, appear to spring from the epics. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have played a crucial role in shaping the thought, imagination, and life-styles of the vast mass of Indian people.

The two epics have often supplied Indian film producers with themes and plots. The very first Indian “talkie”, Raja Harishchandra, was based on the Ramayana, and since then scores of films have drawn on the epics for plots. In addition, certain thematizations related to motherhood, patrimony and revenge, for instance in Mother India, Awaara, and Zanjeer respectively, that repeatedly find articulation in Indian cinema can be directly traced to the influence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

In order to understand the uniqueness of the Indian film discourse, we must understand the structure of narrativity in popular Indian cinema. Although Indian cinema has been heavily influenced by Hollywood, the art of narration with its endless digressions, circularities, and plots within plots remained distinctly Indian. Here again, the influence of the two epics is unmistakable.


Sanskrit theatre constitutes one of the richest and most sophisticated legacies of classical lndian culture. The Natya Shastra, the classical treatise on Indian dramaturgy, defines drama as a “mimicry of the exploits of the gods, the Asuras (demons), kings as well as the householder in this world.” According to another important treatise, the Dasharupa, drama is the imitation of situations. Hence, the idea of mimicry or imitation is fundamental to the concept of Sanskrit drama.

The Sanskrit theatre was highly stylized; it’s mode of presentation was episodic laying the utmost emphasis on spectacle. In it, music and dance coalesced magnificently to create a wholly satisfying artistic unity. Sanskrit theatre was guided by strong injunctions related to the selection of plots, heroes and heroines, use of language, and the structure of the narrative. Poetry constituted a very important element in Sanskrit drama. Indeed, from the very earliest times, drama was considered a branch of poetry. Poetry served to offer moral comments, intensify emotion, and conjure up vividly in the minds of the audience, the background of the action of the drama. Mime and dance form an integral part of the classical Indian theatrical experience. The Sanskrit word natya, meaning “drama” is derived from the root nritto, dance.

We can identify a number of features of classical Indian drama which have an interesting bearing on the structure of popular Indian cinema. Sanskrit plays were spectacular dance-dramas in contrast to the tightly organized plays of the West. They were non-naturalistic and stylized and demanded the imaginative response from the audience. As much of the force and vigour of the Sanskrit theatre was derived from conventional and traditional vocabulary of theatrical expression, the more one was acquainted with the tradition, the better equipped one was to participate in the experience. Sanskrit dramas were heroic romantic-tragic comedies with a strong lyrical flavour. The ultimate aim of the classical Indian dramatist was the creation of a dominant aesthetic emotion (rasa) in the spectators.

Though popular cinema has a more direct link with folk theatre rather than classical theatre, the Sanskrit theatre’s importance remains crucial as it is the source of the folk theatre forms.

Owing to a number of causes, Sanskrit drama began to decline after the tenth century. Concurrently, numerous dramatic forms sprang up or matured in the various provinces which, preserved and embodied the essence of the classical tradition. The Yatra of Bengal, Ram Lila and Krishna Lila of Uttar Pradesh, Tamasha of Maharashtra, Nautanki of Rajasthan, Bhavai of Gujarat, Bhagavata Mela of Tanjore, Terukkuttu of Tamilnadu, Vithinatakam of Andhra and Yakshagana of Karnataka are the most prominent among them. These various regional dramas, which are essentially creations of untutored folk-artists, have one central feature in common, namely that in varying degrees of competence and reliability they embody in a living form, the distinguishing traits of the classical Sanskrit theatre.

When, after the tenth century, the classical Sanskrit language splintered into vernaculars and took root in the form of regional languages, the Sanskrit drama — petrified for many centuries — was replaced by the growing folk theatre. In this way, the tradition flowed not from the folk to the classical, but from the classical to the folk. The folk-theatre inherits many of the classical conventions. This is, of course, not to suggest that all folk- dramas of India have been derived from the classical tradition. However, what is important to observe is that in all those rural dramas which have survived up to the present day, the influence of the classical tradition is clearly perceptible. In the use of humour, music and dance, the structure of the narratives, the informing melodramatic imagination, the folk-theatre of India has no doubt exercised a profound influence on the makers of popular cinema.

iv)PARSI THEATRE:The Parsi theatre is the most vital cultural antecedent of the Indian popular cinema as much as the vaudeville was a cultural forerunner to the early American cinema. The Parsi theatre, which came into existence in the nineteenth century is a crucial link between India’s traditional narratives, performative traditions and its incorporation within the format of the technologically-driven medium of the cinema.

There were a number of Parsi theatrical companies touring the country and performing before crowded audiences.. These dramatists had a practical cast of mind and were more interested in commercial success than artistic achievement. The Parsi theatre excelled in both social and historical plays. Stylistically, they displayed a curious amalgam of realism and fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, lively dialogues and stage ingenuity, all welded within the framework of melodrama. These plays with their melodious songs, crude humour, sensationalism, dazzling stage craft were designed to appeal to the broad mass of people, and they did. The Parsi theatre which drew on both western and Indian modalities of entertainment represented an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Thus, we notice that these plays bear an uncanny resemblance to the generality of popular Indian films. If the folk-dramas were based on rural areas and presented the vocabulary of traditionally inherited theatrical expression, the Parsi plays signified an urban theatre exposed to western styles and sensibilities.

Most importantly, the Parsi theatre introduced the concept of the proscenium theatre in India where traditional theatre performances were held with a central stage and audiences were seated all around it. Even the actors would enter into the stage through the audience. Parsi theatre (or Company Nataka, as it was known in Eastern India for its association with the East India Company), while incorporating the themes and stories of traditional Indian theatre, started using the Western concept of the stage with actors frontally addressing the audiences from a stage which was closed on all three sides, ushering us into the now-prevalent format of the theatre stage. This paved the way for the camera to record the scenes from the point of the view of the audience in the front row. With a central stage and audiences on all sides, the camera – which was so heavy in those days that it had to be stationary – could not have captured the performance on-stage. Thus, the Parsi theatre helped make the transition from traditional Indian theatre to cinema, not only in terms of thematics but also in formal terms.

“The American cinema’s apparently natural subjection of style to narrative in fact depended on a historical accident: the movies’ origins lay in late nineteenth century whose predominant popular arts were the novel and the theatre. Had cinema appeared in the Enlightenment or the Romantic period, it might have assumed the shape of the essay or lyric poem. Instead, it adopted the basic tactic and goal of the realistic novel. Conscious ‘style’ would be effaced both to establish the cinema’s illusion of reality and to encourage audience identification with the characters on the screen.”

(Satyajit Ray)

Indian film producers were also greatly fascinated by, and attracted to, Hollywood musicals in that they related in some interesting ways to the defining characteristics of traditional Indian theatre and performance. The heyday of Hollywood musicals stretched from the 1930s to the 1950s, and many of the musicals produced during these two decades had as their plot the world of entertainment itself. The narratives of these films were, by and large, conventional, while the songs and spectacle offered the opportunity both to the characters in the drama and the audience to indulge in flights of fantasy. It was through the working out of the plot that the apparent disparity between narrative and spectacle was reconciled. This, however, is not a feature commonly seen in Indian films.

The Indian commercial cinema, while drawing heavily from Hollywood musicals, adopted a different tack in that the plot was not employed in the service of healing the narrative/spectacle split. Instead song and dance sequences were and are used as natural expressions of everyday emotions and situations. The Hollywood musical sought to maintain the facade of reality with a view to legitimatise the spectacle. They not only displayed singing and dancing, but were, in fact, about singing and dancing. The Indian filmmakers, on the other hand, while seeking to intensify the element of fantasy through music and spectacle, also reinforced the impression that songs and dances are the natural and logical expression of emotion in the given situation in the filmic performance. Music contributes a vital ingredient in the cultural construction of emotion. In this way, we see both similarities and differences between Hollywood musicals and Indian mainline films.

The two basic ingredients of the “invisible” style are mise-èn-scène and continuity editing. It means that technique should be used in such a way that it will not be noticed, making itself ‘invisible’ in that sense. The ‘invisible’ style led to the principle of “centering”. Camera angles, lighting, focus, framing, costumes, set designs, all worked unitedly to keep the primary object of the narrative at the center of the frame. The discontinuity effected by editing, on the other hand, were concealed by practices aimed to keep intact spatial and temporal continuity from shot to shot. Continuing action, connecting looks, common sounds, matching successive shots by visual similarities, the 180 degree system, etc ensured the continuity of editing. Indian filmmakers, with their inordinate love for dramatic camera movements, extravagant use of colour, flashy editing and self-conscious use of sound depart sometimes from the “invisible” style of Hollywood. In the case of Hollywood filmmakers, the narrative closure, unobtrusive and non-reflexive camera, continuity of image, voyeuristic objectification, shot centering, frame balance, sequential editing sought to create in the minds of the spectator the impression that what is being displayed on the screen is an objective reporting of real events rather than a contrived and wilfully created sequence of events. In this regard, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of the concept of verisimilitude (an Aristotelian term, referring to the resemblance to life that a work of art claims) to the effect that it should not be equated with reality but interpreted as what a culture takes for reality. Hence, reality can plausibly be argued as a cultural construct.

In recent years, Hollywood has become the main hunting ground for plots, stories and characters for films to such an extent that a large number of films are Hindi remakes of Hollywood successes. This phenoemon, enabled by shot-by-shot remake through easily available DVDs, has deepened the influence of Hollywood. Importantly, European or Latin American successes are rarely, if ever, replicated by ‘Bollywood’ films.


The cultural and visual impact of television on filmmaking was felt somewhere in the 1980s, specifically with the popularity of the MTV-style editing (fast cuts). It is evident in Indian popular cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.

The pace of the films, the quick cutting, dance sequences, camera angles that one associates with modern musical television find clear analogies in modern Indian films. One has to examine the work of a filmmaker such as Mani Ratnam to recognise this. As modern Indian audiences are more and more exposed to music television programmes and these innovative techniques of presentation, their sensibilities are obviously beginning to be shaped by them. Naturally, contemporary Indian filmmakers, in order to maintain their mass appeal, are drawing significantly on the techniques of MTV. This is hardly surprising since films are where art and technology meet. It is the soundtrack which helps to construct the ‘image’ of a film and, although the relationship between filmmakers and technology has not always been easy, new technologies – e.g. digital images and virtual reality – are winning.

What we see, then, is the emergence of a distinctive genre of film-making in India as a result of the confluence of the diverse forces that we have discussed above. This genre which sought to combine reality and fantasy, narrative and spectacle, music and dance, tradition and modernity was at once deeply rooted in the cultural life and psyche of the people and accommodative of new and foreign influences. This genre, which was largely melodramatic in style, enabled the vast mass of Indian people to come to terms with social modernization while retaining their Indianness.

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