Cinema Cinema (1979)

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.

I’m waiting!

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.

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48 Comments to “Cinema Cinema (1979)”

  1. Great great post. Your comment about the angrezi accented hindi:
    “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).”

    Actually, there are Indians who speak like that–even today you will find some old fossil or the other. Indians sadly are used to these kinds. The Brits didn’t deign to speak Hindi. Tom Alter’s character was not commonplace.

    • Tom Alter is a serious student of Urdu and Hindi, from what I understand. I’m jealous!!! But the accent does make me giggle, even if I’m laughing at myself too. You always hear it in western productions about the Raj (eg The Far Pavilions, or the Jewel In The Crown series) and occasionally in Hindi films (eg Bob Christo) :D

      • Too bad Obama is no Bob Christo.

        “Tom Alter is a serious student of Urdu and Hindi.”

        and that used to make it all the more funny in an odd way.

        Did this film had a scene of audience throwing coins on the screen. I caught color version of Mughal E Aazam in a theater in Maharastra. Just like old days some guy was actually throwing coins on the screen when the song ‘Jab pyaare kiya toh’ started. For ‘Teri mehfil mein kismat’ the audience was clapping and singing along. It was a really strange experience which was different than the usual theater experience. The usual meant that everyone in the theater is continuously talking, passing comments and laughing.

        And here’s something on Phalke:

        It’s a project by film maker Kamal Swaroop (of ‘Om Dar ba Dar’).

  2. Memsaab, I think this doco got a lot of press coverage then. Krishna Shah as you have rightly pointed out is setting it out clearly that he lives in California and is in India part of the time. He is trying to establish his credentials as a NRI yet he does not show any understanding of his years of stay abroad and is patronising about non Indians.

    On another note, you will love watching a hindi movie in a local theatre in India (not the multiplex but a free single screen cinema) if you get a chance. This kind of theatre have a good representation of all classes of society (highest ticket to the front bench) and their reaction is something to be experienced. Only draw back would be a un-subtitled hindi film for you as hindi movies are not subtitled within in India.

  3. sorry meant to say “theatres” in plural in the above comment.

  4. Another of those films I never saw, though I heard about it – I never realised it was a documentary. Your review of it reminded me of a TV programme years ago, hosted by Benjamin Gilani, that examined what happened behind the scenes in cinema, specifically Hindi cinema – how SFX were done, how stunts were done and so on. I still remember (this was maybe 25 years ago?) an episode in which he showed how a fight scene was filmed so that the dhishoom-dhishoom happened realistically enough. There was one scene in which a stuntman goes sliding along a tabletop right till the end. They reduced the speed of the shot vastly and zoomed in, to show a pair of rollerskates falling off from below the stuntman’s stomach: he was balanced on them to help him slide along the top of the table.

  5. I loved this film when I saw it as a child. Now I realize, it was for the audience bits. Though at that time, we were actually seeing films with a very similar audience. Now sadly, it’s all mutliplex. Crass.

  6. Looks like despite making Shalimar, Krishna Shah had his heart in the right place. :)
    One of my many, many ambitions in life is to learn whistle loudly like my wife – we need to introduce the audience participation culture to the bored (and boring) multiplex audience. :p

    • Hey if she could teach me that too I would love her forever. It’s a very useful skill!

      • Sunil

        On my visits to India, I have seen movies in the Multiplex. I I think these days in India, among the educated urban middle class who frequent the Multiplex (coz of high ticket prices i think the others are left out), it is chee-chee to make jokes or comment on stupid scenes and seetee (whistling) bajoing I think is very much a No-No-No. I am glad that there are quite a few of us who miss the charm of the “actual Indian
        viewing experience”

  7. Is that Kim?! She doesnt look very Kim-like, here. No jazzy clothes and no flashing neon lights in the background! ;-)

    I dont remember hearing of or seeing this documentary. There was a TV show called Cinema Cinema years ago – though I dont remember what it was all about, now.

    Anyhow, just got my copy of this and cant wait to watch it!

    • Yes, it’s definitely Kim. I know her well from all my 70s Stardusts—she was living with Danny Denzongpa at the time, so even though her career wasn’t really taking off she was featured a lot. Plus, when I saw her I went back and looked at the credits, and there she was! :)

    • Bollyviewer, see my comment above – Cinema Cinema, I think, was the name of that TV programme hosted by Benjamin Gilani.

  8. I had heard of this documentary at the time, but never saw it. Enjoyed the review very much.
    As for the accent, I think it is something that for some reason the British find very hard to get rid of: or maybe they just enjoy the we-can-never-be-anything-british.

    Here, where we have large numbers of other Europeans resident, most other nationalities will lose their original accent over the years, but most of my British colleagues still have that strong accent after 20 years of speaking Spanish…I really think its an art form :)

    My father says that in the 30s, 40s, or even 50s, it would be common for people to throw money at the screen whenever there was a dance scene (like they would when seeing live singers), and cinema-owners loved this extra collection.

    Maybe that is another reason for putting in all those songs??

    You may watch this video at 1:49, 3:20 and at 4:46 to see how this still works

  9. I watched “Cinema Cinema” when it was released. Those were the days when I was into watching just about every movie that was released in the local movie halls.

    The maker of this movie was the same person who had made the most overhyped Bollywood movie of all time viz “Shalimar” and I was one who had bought into his hype and I had hed ‘Shalimar on the first day ,first show – the only movie forwhich I did it, and I felt badly let down.

    Those were the days when any movie was preceded by a mandatory government of India documentary film in Black and white. So I was used to watching documentaries.

    I watched “Cinema Cinema”, fully aware what to expect. I knew that it was a three hourslong documentary, and that is what it was. I in fact liked it.

    Those days,when I was into my teens, I was not much into history and so whatever little history was there in the movie was good enough for me. I, alongwith most movie goers wasooking for clips of recent movies, rather than old movies. So any disappointment on my part was for less footage of newer movies, not for less footage of old movies.

    If I watched it again, I am sure I will feel the same way as you, that there should have been more history in it.

    Considering that 30 years have passed since, it would be interesting to find out if the memorablia used in this movie from archives are still around or some of it has been lost.

    In case some of the archives have been lost, then I would say (in fact you have already said it a few posts ago) that these self styled custodians are hoarders , rather than true custodians, if all they do is to watch these priceless documents rot away while there are fans who would dearly like to have them. Many of these fans will take much better care of these historical archives, I am sure.

    • Shalimar is one of my “guilty” pleasures. It’s bad, but I love it. Mostly for the music and Shammi and Dharmendra, but Sylvia Miles is such a loon too that I am sad when she’s killed off so early.

      I didn’t mind that it used later clips so much as nothing very interesting was added. It was just an MTV video. Perhaps back in ’79 it was more unusual for the audience to see those kinds of montages though.

      I really do wonder if Warner Bros. would still have Phalke’s films lying around in some vault somewhere. What a find that would be, if something GOOD were then done with them—like Criterion got their hands on them! :) A girl can dream, I guess.

  10. Totally agree with you Atul.

    An example is that the best record collections are those by private individuals, and at least are being made public over the internet.

  11. Oh yes! The experience of watching a film in single theatres is totally different. All those seetis and taalis and thumkes. Such involvement with a film I think is unique. And yes, another reaction from the audience would come on the entry of the main/popular characters.

    I remeber watching a video clip on youtube, I think, which showed audience reaction to Hrithik’s entry in Jodha Akbar.

  12. You mentioned wanting to see the 1948 Shaheed starring Dilip Kumar with subtitles, right?

    They have it available on if you’re interested – HERE.

    The quality isn’t that great, but it does have subtitles. If I remember correctly the subtitles went a little off and it seems like there may be some scenes missing.

    But it is out on DVD with subtitles!

  13. It was mentioned that Cinema Cinema may be available with subs somewhere on the net… any advice where to start looking? Dying to see it, thanks!

  14. Hey Guys,
    Check out the video of Harishchandrachi Factory, a movie based on India’s First Feature Film by Dadasaheb Phalke

  15. Hey guys,
    Watch the trailer of Harishchandrachi Factory, a movie based on the making of India’s first feature film “Raja Harishchandra” by Dadasaheb Phalke. This movie is also India’s Oscar nomination for 2010

  16. I’ve watched this documentary but had completely forgotten. Hasn’t Krishna Shah been AWOL for ages?
    When Sargam was released, people demonstrated it was time for `change’ when Dafliwaale came on, it happened on the 9-12pm show that we watched. I was afraid they would ruin the screen with the `chillar’ and we wouldn’t be able to see the rest of the movie.
    Then there was that Tamil movie where the lights went off just before a plot twist and when power was restored, one of the main characters was missing! The movie was a K. Balachander movie and the missing actor was Kamalahasan. All we were left with was Sridevi playing avenging angel and Rajnikanth the target of her rage. It could only happen in our beloved Indian talkies.
    I loved junky-chunky Shalimar. Was really worried we would miss the Cha-cha-cha song. I’d read the novel by Manohar Malgonkar after reading it in the serialized form in `The Illustrated Weekly of India,’ – a pre-release publicity ploy, I’m thinking.
    Saw Sylvia Miles recently in `Crossing Delancy’ and failed to recognize her (no resemblance to the lithe acrobat she played in Shalimar).

  17. About “Harishchandrachi Factory” – Though the idea was very admirable to make a movie on Dadasaheb Phalake, I don’t think the movie is well made.

    For one, it has made a joker out of Dadasaheb. A movie with comic tone is one thing, but to make it look like he was a joker and it was just so simple to make the first movie, I felt was not doing justice to the person.

    The cinematography was very poor, so was the art design and costumes…

    I think the only reason the movie was sent as oscar nomination was that it was a movie about Dadasaheb, not because it was a good movie. In general, we don’t do a good job when it comes to selecting our official oscar nomination…

  18. For better depiction of the period (though still not completely authentic), check out “BalGandharva” – a Marathi movie recently released. This is about a theatre actor who acted the women characters from 1905 to I think 1920s or so. (Raja Harishchandra was made in 1913).

    This is produced by Nitin Desai, who has done art direction for many Hindi movies too. It has lovely music, wonderful acting and a very good “feel” of the period…

    I guess it will take some time for this movie to be available on DVD though…

    • Oh I would love to see that. I have one film that Bal Gandharva was in, but he did mostly do theater. I believe Nitin Desai is also the founder/owner of ND Studios in Karjat. I got to visit there once, and it was very interesting.

  19. Oh Wow!! You know SO much about the history of Indian Cinema!! I am impressed!! All over again!! :-)

    Yes, Balgandharva did only one movie, V. Shantaram had convinced him to get into a contract with Prabhat for 3 films. But he disliked the movie making so much, he liked his stage better, that after making that one movie (Dharmatma), he asked the contract to be desolved.
    There is reference to all this in the movie “Balgandharva”. And on stage, he mostly played female lead character. And sang beautifully…
    What I liked about this movie over Harishchandrachi factory was that it didn’t make everything look so simple nad hunky dorry. It also succeeds in showing Balgandharva’s personality – good parts and also not so good parts. And you see the kind of struggle he went through. The movie touches you a lot more, remains with you…

    I think it was Dadasaheb’s grand daughter who had written an article after Harishchandrachi factory became a big hit, explaining how in real life, the family had to face very difficult times so much so that his son vowed never to go into film making…

    Also, it seems when Indian film indistry became 25 years old, there was a big celebration for the same. But people had completely forgotten Dadasaheb by this time – the man who brought movies to India. It was V. Shantaram, who then invited him as his guest and then took him onto the stage … Quite sad, I think…

  20. Greetings
    I from Russia, therefore am sorry for my bad English.
    Many thanks to the author for the review.
    I long searched for this film. Thanking the Internet I could find and watch this film. I the big fan Kim. Here there was her first occurrence on the screen. The author has correctly noticed that her name often appeared in a press, in 70s. But her career has actually begun in 1980.
    On this occasion, I want to ask do You have articles on Kim from StarDust 70s?
    Also I search for film Sardaar 1984 (Kim, Raj Kiran).
    Where it is possible to find it?

  21. Dear Greta, The guy shown sitting with Kim is Mushtaq Merchant, a comedian, who also acted in many movies during the 1970s and 1980s. This is his profile on IMDB. He is credited under “self” for Cinema Cinema 1978.

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