Bollywood – A History, by Mihir Bose


That India’s coastal regions should have taken a lead is not surprising. The British conquest of India had meant that the coastal towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, towns that the British had either created or, like Bombay, received as a present from the Portuguese and then developed, had usurped the historic position of places in north and central India, which had been the birthplace of Indian culture and civilisation over the centuries.

However, this conquest also created a dilemma. There was no common language spoken in these three centres. Most of the people in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras had their own mother tongues, which were very distinct from Hindi. It was Bengali in Calcutta, Tamil in Madras and Marathi in Bombay. And, while Bengali and Marathi shared some common roots with Hindi, Tamil did not. Nevertheless, a picture made in Bengali or Marathi would make little sense to a Hindi speaker. In contrast, there was little or no film activity in the heartland of the regions where Hindi was the mother tongue. Lucknow, the capital of the United Provinces, as it was called then had, as our 1938 list shows, a solitary film company. Otherwise, the Hindi belt of the north of India barely registered. Lahore did, but Urdu was the main language there, not Hindi.

Rai’s decision to choose Bombay, and to make films in Hindi, had highlighted this aspect of the Indian cinema. Indians had to find a language to make films and then make it acceptable to all Indians. Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own has explained how ‘the Jews, in building Hollywood, imposed their own version of America: These were Jews, immigrants from Eastern Europe, keen to be accepted by mainstream America. However, one thing that Hollywood did not have to worry about was to find a language. The language was English.

The British had imposed English on the Indians but this was spoken at best by a tiny minority, a figure of 2% was much quoted. It could not be the language of an Indian film. Indian film-makers had to figure out which of the many Indian languages they should use. Although Sanskrit is the mother language of most Indian languages, it had been a dead language for centuries, only used by Hindus for prayers. A film in Sanskrit would make little sense. Subhas Bose, impressed by how Ataturk had Romanised the old Turkish script, had argued that the common language should be in the Roman script. This would never be accepted.

A common language for India had long been a very controversial political issue in India. The British, seeking to justify their occupation of India, had debunked the Indian nationalists’ argument that India was a nation by pointing out that there wasn’t even a language common to all Indians. The Congress decided that once India was free, Hindi would become the national language. It was the mother tongue of more Indians than any other language, and was generally understood in most parts of the country, apart from the south still not spoken. There would be a reorganisation of the provinces along linguistic lines once the British left. The British had put together huge provinces that suited the administrative convenience of a conquering power. The Congress planned to divide the country into many more states according to the language spoken in a particular region. The idea was that every Indian would speak two languages: his or her own mother tongue and Hindi.

But all this was in the future. The linguistic reorganisation of India did not start until the 1950s, and it is still going on, with the result that India is forever creating new states. In the 1930s, with the arrival of sound and film-makers seeking to appeal to a very diverse country, a decision had to be made on the language of an all-Indian film. Despite the fact that the heartland of the Hindi speakers in the north made little or no contribution to the development of the new medium, Hindi was chosen. But this left the film-makers with a huge problem—it meant most of them were working in a medium which was their second language at best, and sometimes their third. It also meant that making a film involved shooting, it in more than one language.

The great film-makers of the 1930s were always having to work in a language which they had learned fairly recently. So, in Calcutta there was Prince Barua, whose native tongue was Assamese, and who also spoke fluent Bengali and English; in Poona, V. Shantaram, whose native tongue was Marathi; and the two partners of Bombay Talkies, Rai and Devika Rani, were both products of Bengali culture. It is interesting to note that when in 2003 V. Shantaram’s son, Kiran, wrote a joint biography of his father, he used the Marathi term for mother `Aai’ throughout the book. Yet film-makers all had to try and make films in Hindi. Even in Madras, speakers of Tamil were becoming producers of Hindi films.

It could not have been easy for the film-makers of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to accept Hindi. Bengal prided itself on a long tradition of Bengali culture which had already thrived for four centuries going back to the era of Chandidas andVidyapathi. The Marathi language also had a long literary heritage, including revered poet-saints of the thirteenth century, and the beloved Tukaram of the seventeenth century. As for Tamil, it claimed a literature going back at least to the fourth century.

In comparison to all this, Hindi was a new development with a very limited literary hinterland. For many producers it was as devoid of associations as Esperanto. Yet the complex nature of the Indian linguistic map meant a film that wanted to reach out beyond its regional borders had to be in Hindi. It did, however, leave a legacy. If many observers have found in Indian films an increasing rootlessness, one reason may be that many of its finest talents have had to exert themselves in a language not of their own, and spoken by people from whom they were both physically, and culturally, removed. This became, and remains, one of the great agonies of Hindi films.

The nature of the country as a continent with many languages, dictated the way the film industry developed, and throughout the 1930s the geographical pattern of the Indian film industry underwent many changes. Almost from the beginning, two opposing trends were at work. One tendency was for each language area to develop a production centre or centres of its own. This trend appealed to regional pride, made efficient use of talent speaking the local language, and created regional stars. It had the disadvantage that a wide range of technical services could barely be supported by every language area.

A concentration in three large centres emerged—Bombay, Calcutta and Madras—each producing in the language of its area but also attempting, often through imported talent, to reach into and exploit other language areas. From the beginning, the larger centres felt that they needed to work in more than one language and to spread their wings beyond their immediate geographical area. The smaller centres, on the other hand, concentrated on one language.

Sometimes, a film script, after proving a success in one language, would be acted in another language, with an entirely new cast. Devdas, after its success in Bengali, was repeated by New Theatres in Hindi and later in Tamil. A producer, however, could save costs by shooting two or more versions simultaneously. The `double versions’ began almost immediately. Each separate shot was done first in one language, then in another. The operation sometimes called for two complete casts, although dance numbers often served both versions.

On the studio floor, the shout of ‘Bengali take!’ would be followed a few minutes later by ‘Hindi take!’ It became a very common cry in New Theatres and in other Calcutta studios. Occasionally, a bi-lingual actor would appear in both films of a double version. But the prevailing tendency was to use double casts, and this was one reason why film companies grew rapidly in size. The large companies acquired acting staffs representing two or more major languages.

Calcutta almost immediately achieved a monopoly over Bengali production, using this as a base for forays into other language markets, especially Hindi. The Bengali-Hindi double version became a standard activity at New Theatres and other Calcutta companies—such as the East India Film Company, which was launched in 1932.

Bombay and nearby cities, including Poona and Kolhapur, meanwhile took charge of Marathi production, using this as a base for incursions into Hindi and other language areas. In theory, Calcutta should have cornered the Hindi market. Bihar was the neighboring state, and beyond that was Uttar Pradesh, both strongholds of Hindi. But Calcutta was a more distinctive Bengali city, while Bombay did not quite belong to the native Mahrastrians.The Mahrastrians were not a majority in the city; there was a large Gujarati and Parsi population which spoke Gujarati, and the city boasted of being cosmopolitan. Bombay even had its own cricket team, distinct from the Maharashtra team. As Bombay grew in prosperity, and more Hindi-speaking people were attracted to the city in the form of villagers, who migrated from the rural areas to the urban areas of Bombay, the city began to take a more prominent role in Hindi production and also to develop its own brand of Hindi, which became known as ‘the Bombaiya Hindi.’ In time, Hindi films would take this film language nationwide and make it almost a distinct language.

 Excerpted from Pages 120-123 



It is a truism to say that Bollywood has never made a true comic film. In Hollywood, the genre is well-established and the list of comedy films runs into several pages. But, even in Subhas K. Jha’s The Essential Guide to Bollyivood, which has a foreword by Amitabh Bachchan, and which makes a determined attempt to list Bollywood movies by genre from 1950 onwards, the section on comedy is one of the thinnest, with just seventeen films in fifty years, eight of which date from 1980. Many may question whether the films listed are real comedies, in the sense of a film having a comic denouement, such as in Gentlemen Prefer BIcnides, rather than ones with more comic situations than most other Hindi Films. The fact is, Bollywood does not do full-length comedy films but all its movies have some comic sequences, even the most tragic ones.

Benegal has argued that one reason for this was the fact of Hindi cinema had to create a film that would cater to all the language groups right across the country, as he told me:

Take American comedy: that is essentially New York comedy, which is very Yiddish comedy. It came because of the Ashkenazi Jews who had come from Eastern Europe.This comedy of the Jewish people eventually became the American national comedy.You got that sort of thing in regional cinemas in India.There are characters in Ray’s films, such as Middle Man, or the Bengali actor, Bhanu Bannerjee, who are great comic characters; there are no characters like that in Hindi movies. In that sense, regional cinema like Bengal cinema, had greater depth. Their comic actions were central to the story. They would release the comedy front social setting of the story. That could only happen in the regional cinema. There is a certain cultural specificity to comedy which Hindi cinema could not bring out. With Hindi cinema you have to appeal to a pan-national audience. And if you are going to a pan-national audience then you cannot have cultural specificity of any kind. As Hindi cinema developed in the absence of cultural specificity, the films had to create a never-never land.

In this never-never land, comedy played a curious part. Every Hindi film, of whatever type, had to have a comic role for an actor who did nothing but essentially ‘bit’ comic roles. This may explain why nearly all the great comedians of Bollywood had very foreign-sounding names, one of the best-loved named after the Johnny Walker brand of Scotch. A large proportion of them were also Muslims, although this may have been just a coincidence.

It has been argued that having a small comic role in every film was in keeping with Indian tradition. Bharata, in his Natyashastra, the foundational treatise on Indian dance, drama and poetry, written in the golden age of Hindus in around AD 500, specified that hasya (laughter) was one of the eight rasas. A vidushak (comedian) was always part of the Indian stage. But ancient Sanskrit drama never had a full-blown comedy, just as it never had Greek-style tragedy. So it has been with Bollywood films.

Sanjit Narwekar, in Eeena Meena Deeka, The Story of the Hindi Film Comedy, has summarised it rather well:

… because comedy is often one of the many elements of a Hindi film, the concentration has always been on the gag-related comedy in which a kind of visual (and often verbal ad-libbing) routine developed between the hero and his comic sidekick (all through the 1950s and 1960s) or two comedians who are woven in the story for comic relief, and generally have a separate track unrelated to the main story (often a pair of servants). Much of Hindi screen comedy—from Noor Mohammed Charlie to Johnny Walker to Johnny Lever—is based on the development of the cinematic gags which are actually very short stories within the framework of the main story, usually with some dramatic climax—the “punch-line.” It is the performance of the gag that often makes it funny, rather than the story itself.

The comic situation in Bollywood can depend on mistaken identity or in a character telling a lie, which leads to all sorts of situations or comedies based on fads and foibles of the middle-class. But, as Narwekar says, “There are very few examples of comedies of characters in Hindi cinema, primarily because most Hindi films use comedians as stereotypes rather than etching special characters for them.” Bollywood has not been helped by the fact that while Indians, contrary to their perceived image, have a sense of humour, and can laugh at themselves, when it comes to film, as in writing, they like serious work. For a person to be considered a good actor, he had to be serious; to prove his sincerity. Comedy is regarded as frivolous and those who wanted to be taken as serious actors could not dabble in it.

Bollywood audiences liked to see the same stock characters play comic roles in films, just as they found it hard to accept that an actor like Pran, who early in the 1950s had established himself as a villain, could play anything other than a villain. Bollywood greats did occasionally play comic roles, but this was a rarity. So much so that, when in 1967 Dilip Kumar played his one and only comic role in Ram Aur Shyam, it created a sensation.

Dilip Kumar was then going through a mid-life change. In the previous decade, he had tried to get away from being typecast as the tragic lover. This had so got him down that he had consulted two psychiatrists in London, one of them D.W.S.D. Nicol, who also counted George VI and Anthony Eden as his patients. There had been further psychoanalysis in Bombay with Dr Ramanlal Patel. All this had made him take on different roles, and the year before he made his comic movie, he finally married the actress Saira Banu, who was almost twenty years his junior.

The film was a remake of a remake. A Tamil film, Enga Veetu Pillai, had been based on The Prince and the Pauper. Ram aur Shyam was the Hindi version of the Tamil film made, appropriately, by the south Indian producer, Nagi Reddy. Dilip Kumar played a double role: Ram, the serious character, and his long-lost twin, Shyam, the buffoon, with a lot of the action in the movie in the great tradition of slapstick revolving round mistaken identity. The film proved to be one of the biggest hits of Bollywood and Kumar’s role has been the model for other Bollywood films, such as Seeta aur Geeta, Chalbaaz and Kishen Kanhaiya.

Interestingly, in Hollywood’s slim selection of comedies Kumar’s wife, Saira Banu, was to feature in a film released the following year, Padosan, which many consider the funniest Bollywood movie of the last fifty years.

A decade after Ram aur Shyam, Sanjeev Kumar, another serious actor, who will always be famous for playing the angry police chief seeking revenge on gangsters in Sholay, played a married man with a roving eye in convincing comic style in Pati Patni Aur Wo.

But these are exceptions. In Bollywood, actors who want to be taken seriously, just do not do comedy. Dhirendranath Ganguly’s Bilet Pherat, as we have seen, was an early Indian comedy and after that several actors emerged who took to comedy, but they remained bit players. None of them was taken seriously as an actor.

In the heyday of Ranjit Studios, there were several comedians who were compared to Hollywood’s classics. There was even an Indian Laurel and Hardy. The fat Manohar Janadhan Dikshit—his film name was Dixit — who, weighing 220 lbs, modelled himself on Hardy, and the slim Nazir Mohammed Ghory, who was the Indian Laurel. They acted until 1947, when Ghory left for Pakistan. Two years later Dixit died of a heart attack.

 Excerpted from Pages 245-247