This quasi-documentary made by Krishna Shah (Shalimar) explores the history of Hindi language cinema against the political and socioeconomic developments of the 20th century, and by examining the quintessential Indian audience. Shah’s innovative approach is to film a “screening” of the documentary—narrated by Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Zeenat Aman—in a real movie theater, in front of an audience which I assume was partly real and partly staged. I really enjoy the audience participation, which on more than one occasion eclipses what’s happening up on the screen in front. The documentary itself is a bit of a mixed bag: there are some lovely bits and pieces of really old, rare films and interesting snippets of information, but the narrative is uneven and falls into the predictable by the end.
Hema Malini starts us off on the journey by talking about the silent era. I am thrilled to see scenes from Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra:
and Birth of Krishna (1918):
Phalke’s special effects were extremely advanced for his time—and apparently word of them reached Hollywood.
Hema tells us that back in the day, Warner Brothers ordered 200 prints of Phalke’s films! Of course now I need to know: Did Phalke send them? Where are they? Have they maybe been preserved?! HAS ANYONE LOOKED FOR THEM?!!
Some of Shah’s narrative strikes me as a bit disingenuous. Amitabh informs us that during and after World War I, the British, German and American film industries fought over the Indian market. I’m thinking that they *might* have vied for the attention of the English and upper-class Indian audiences, but I somehow doubt that foreign filmmakers ever targeted a majority of the Indian population.
In this battle for viewers, the Germans are portrayed as the wily innovators:
Everything I’ve read on the subject says that Himansu Rai went to the Germans, not the other way around. In any case, we all know that however it happened, it resulted in some wonderful films! I personally think Rai should get most of the credit for that, though.
Around this time, an official film board was established, made up of Indians and Raj representatives. There is a cute animation to illustrate their arguments over what kinds of films Indian audiences should see, and the insistence by the Raj on a British film quota.
The Brits speak in a hilarious Angrezi-accented Hindi: “Nahi hona sakta!” I seriously don’t know how Indians don’t crack up every time I speak Hindi (instead of, you know, most of the time).
Shah also somewhat strangely chooses to use clips from post-Independence-era films as Dharmendra talks about how Indian film producers cleverly turned heavily censored WWII British propaganda stories into films pleading for India’s freedom. The only one made during WWII that he shows is Sikandar, and the voice-over informs us gravely that it was banned by the Raj! I fail to see how Hindustan Hamara (1950) or Shaheed (1948) prove his point either, and wish Shah had dug up some actual (and released) examples from between 1940 and 1945.
I am happy to see gorgeous Chandramohan, though. Hopefully someone will put out a subtitled version of Shaheed one of these days.
Zeenat Aman is introduced, appropriately enough, to discuss censorship in Indian film.
How funny is this billboard!
Most of the rest of the documentary is routine stuff, showing clips from often-seen classic films and outlining the staple ingredients in masala fare (music, religion, Maa and coy romance).
I am not quite sure who Krishna Shah made this for. He is patronizing towards non-Indians:
but it seems likely that many Indians would not find his content that new or earth-shattering. The documentary presents facts rather than analysis; when he does attempt to analyze he falls short. And he is very careful at the beginning to establish his “Hollywood” credentials, explaining that he lives half the year in Bombay and the other half in southern California; the script often has a defensive edge to it.
However, this is where the audience scenes really pay off in spades for me. I recognize the actress Kim (Disco Dancer) as half of a pair of lovers who respond to clips from romantic scenes by cozying up, to the great disgust of an old man a few rows behind them.
One guy shouts out Gabbar Singh’s dialogue as scenes from Sholay are shown, and another sings along to a song from a 1949 film. “This is my father’s favorite song!” he announces to the audience at large.
When the sound disappears during a Shammi sequence, the audience shout their disapproval at the projection booth staff. During clips of comedy sequences, a businessman rolls his eyes while his wife giggles at the onscreen antics. He finds it all too crude and childish.
Not that I would know, but it seems like a nicely balanced representation of a 1979 pre-multiplex Indian audience. Two young guys identify Bharat Bhushan as Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kapoor, respectively, and the old man sharply sets them straight. Another pair of young would-be lovers look surreptitiously at each other across the girl’s saree-clad mother, who glares at each in turn from her seat between them. When Rajesh Khanna is shown singing the Holi song from Kati Patang a group of men get up and dance along spontaneously.
By the end, I feel like I’ve sat through the documentary with an Indian audience. (It may also be more fun this way than in an actual theater—at least for someone like me, for whom Hell is other people, extraneous noise and having soda spilled on her.) If only the documentary itself were better, more concerned with context and the finer, more obscure aspects of Hindi film. Still, I am very glad to have seen the clips from Phalke’s and other silents, and anything which contains Fearless Nadia footage is more than okay with me!
Note: Cinema Cinema is readily available on an unsubtitled VCD; but if you need subtitles, scrounge around on the net for this version.