For some weeks now I have been baffled by something. Why are we celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema by talking about the top few Hindi films in the last 50 years? When did Juhi Chawla or Ranveer Singh become the face of Indian cinema? I have nothing against them; its just that 100 years of an industry that has produced an average of 800 films every year have to be more than that. Can we have some perspective here?
The first Indian film, Pundalik, was released in 1912. However, for various reasons Dhundiraj Govind Phalkes Raja Harishchandra is treated as the beginning of the Indian cinematic journey. Phalke produced, directed and processed Raja Harishchandra. At a time when most films were released for a westernised audience, Phalkes vision was to use the medium to narrate an Indian story to an Indian audience. Raja Harishchandra released on April 21, 1913, and became a hit. It went on to be released in 20 versions and eight languages.
And that brings me back to the question: why are we celebrating Raja Harishchandras anniversary as a party for Hindi film stars and hot new directors?
There are two reasons that come to mind.
One, the writers and film critics in the top newspapers and TV networks do not understand Bangla, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu or other cinemas. Fair enough. But most Western writers do not know Hindi. That, however, does not stop them from writing on Hindi or Tamil cinema. As people who analyse this business or its craft, we have access to a lot of other people who can help us understand the creative and business milestones in other cinemas. If we choose not to do it, that is lazy writing. And the onus to correct this then falls on editors, who have to insist on a pan-Indian view if they claim to be a national newspaper or TV channel.
Two, most people writing on and analysing films in India dont really care about cinema beyond Hindi and perhaps English. That is fine too as long as you dont pretend to represent Indian cinema.
It is the impact of both these things that is worrisome. This national neglect of all things non-Hindi in films has created ghettoes that are now impacting everything from a film companys ability to scale up nationally to the way lobbying takes place. In 2009, 10 years after starting what it calls the largest Asian convention on the business of media and entertainment, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) finally started organising a separate event for the South. This was because participation from the southern industry was poor for almost a decade.
You could argue, rightly, that this is just an example of an insular and conservative film industry. The Tamil Film Producers Council [TFPC] is a fiercely pro-Tamil body. It is against allowing companies from Mumbai becoming members because it believes that they [Mumbai companies] will spoil the market, says Chennai-based industry expert Sreedhar Pillai. So a Disney UTV or a Fox Star, all of which are pushing for scale across languages and markets, cannot become members of the TFPC. These, however, are entry barriers that most studios should be able to overcome. The heads of many companies are now registering as individual members of the TFPC in order to ensure smooth releases.
It is the reason these barriers come up that needs to be dealt with. The Telugu film industry is the most prolific in India, yet it is its Tamil counterpart that gets more visibility. On the national stage, it is always Hindi films, which produce the largest slice of the revenue pie, that get all the attention. So some feeling of neglect is natural. This ignorance from popular media simply makes local industries burrow deeper into their holes. Now Kolkata has its own version of Ficci Frames.
It is our inability to be one film industry that has created names such as Bollywood, Kollywood et al. Most thinking people in the film industry object to them. It is sad that the name of one of the most resilient, creative and self-sustaining industries globally has become a caricature of Hollywood.
India is, arguably, the only film industry in the world that survives without subsidies. Unlike China, in India there are no quotas on how many foreign films can be imported. Yet Hollywood has not swamped us. It accounts for between five and eight per cent of the total box office. The Indian cinematic idiom, in Hindi, Tamil, Bangla or Marathi, is celebrated across the world. Why, then, dont we celebrate it as the Indian film industry? Why dont we copy Hollywoods scale, profitability and ability to win audiences across the world instead of its name and its attitude to other cinemas?