By the time India gained freedom in 1947, cinema already had a storied history and had become a sophisticated art form across the world. Yet, films came to occupy a unique position in free India—as building blocks of a new nation striving to define its character, concerns, aspirations and anxieties.
While India has produced a breath-taking variety of films in the last seven decades, one can identify certain broader trends reflected in the films of particular periods.
Unsurprisingly, the first decade after Independence is characterised by stories that reflected the tumult of a nation’s birth. The films of this era are often sociological, depicting the divide between urban and rural India, the rich and poor, the old and new, and the still-fresh wounds of Partition, in the backdrop of Nehruvian socialism.
Nagarik, Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpiece, completed in 1952 but released in 1977, tells the story of East Bengali refugees in Calcutta, contrasting the older generation’s nostalgia for a lost home with their children’s cautious optimism for a new future. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), inspired by a Rabindranath Tagore poem and Italian neorealist cinema, dealt with the exploitation of small peasants by landlords, and the inhumanity of the zamindari system against the backdrop of an industrialising economy. It tells the story of Shambhu, played by Balraj Sahni, a poor farmer deprived of his meagre landholding and forced to survive in an unforgiving Calcutta.
The 1960s saw a shift in focus to movies that portrayed colours and progressive values. Satyajit Ray gave us Mahanagar (1963), the story of a middle-class homemaker who enters the workforce. The film reflects the growing consciousness of women’s emancipation and the biases they face at home and at work. Chemmeen (1965), a Malayalam movie directed by Ramu Kariat, and Vijay Anand’s Guide were released the same year. Both questioned social norms and showed women characters unhappy being accessories to men in a marriage.
The 1970s in India bore the imprint of a very different kind of ‘nationalist mother’. Indira Gandhi, who became prime minister in 1966, had emerged as the matriarch of the country. She was larger-than-life and consolidated her place in politics as well as in the popular imagination. Under her patronage, the Films Division of India produced films like Our Indira (1973) and The Indian Woman: A Historical Reassessment (1975), portraying her as the compassionate, yet firm maternal neta overseeing progress at home while representing India at international fora, like the UN.
The 1970s was also about the “angry young man”—a disaffected, disillusioned young male Indian portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan and created by the writing duo of Salim-Javed. Prakash Mehr’’s Zanjeer (1973) and Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975) were stories about growing urban poverty, crime, and a corrupt system that exploits the weak. The suffering of these films’ protagonists often reflected the broken promises of the state.
Beyond the limelight, a quieter revolution was underway. Shyam Benegal made his directorial debut with Ankur (1974) carrying forward the “parallel cinema” pioneered by the likes of Ray, Ghatak, and Dutt. The success of this film, which examines the feudal structures that still oppressed people in rural India, ushered in a new era for parallel cinema. Benegal would go on to cement his status as a pioneer of this form with Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976)and Bhumika (1977).
The following decade was a chaotic time for popular Hindi cinema and is regarded as its low point. Movies of the 1980s had a garish aesthetic and focused on sex, romance and violence. Mithun Chakraborty’s portrayal of a working-class boy who rises to become a Disco Dancer (1982) was met with hoots and whistles in the theatres. Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) broke Bollywood taboos on sex and nudity, with its depiction of Mandakini’s character under a waterfall in a white sari drawing crowds and ruffling feathers.
It was also a decade where noir cinema flourished. In 1983, Govind Nihalani released Ardh Satya (1983) where Om Puri portrays a jaded cop, blurring the line between upholding the law and breaking it. There was also Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) offering a glimpse into the psyches of gangsters. Mani Ratnam’s Nayakam (1987) in Tamil was a Godfather-inspired gangster film, rich in storytelling and technical finesse.
The 1990s were marked by shifts, both in Indian cinema and society. The 1991 economic reforms opened the Indian economy and birthed an aspirational, consumerist middle class. The slapstick comedies of Govinda were accompanied at the box office by traditional family dramas, like Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) and Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). Romance musicals like Yash Chopra’s Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) struck a chord with audiences. Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) became exceptionally popular and heralded Shah Rukh Khan as the king of romance. It also reflected an increasingly international sensibility, with non-resident Indian (NRI) characters straddling the line between traditional family values and following their heart, and living independent lives.
If the 1990s were about the world coming to India, the 21st century was a time for a self-assured country to go out into the world. A new nationalism was explored, with Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya (2004)portraying a directionless city boy who finds meaning in military service. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) told the story of Delhi University students going from a carefree bunch to becoming firebrand revolutionaries against a corrupt system. Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007) brought patriotism to the sport field, with its rousing story of a Muslim coach leading the Indian women’s hockey team to victory in the face of an Islamophobic backlash.
After 2010, there has been an explosion of films that might have once been considered arthouse cinema. As the lines between mainstream and parallel blurred, Anurag Kashyap’s gritty Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) acquired a cult following, with its epic saga of three generations of gangsters in the coal mining district of Dhanbad. Films have begun to take audiences from the big cities to smaller towns and villages of India. These included Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), and Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), films that focused on evocative storytelling instead of glitz and glamour.
Over the last few years, streaming has taken India by storm, and the popularity of OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and DisneyPlus Hotstar has changed how films are created, distributed, and consumed.
The Covid-19 pandemic, with which this decade began, has also had its impact on Indian cinema. With theatres shut, streaming is becoming important. Viewers, too, have become more discerning and demanding as they consume content from around the world, watching Spanish and Korean television series and films. This has raised the bar for Indian content, which must now compete with the high production values and technical prowess seen in world cinema. With audiences around the world available at the other end of a streaming platform, this is a golden opportunity for India’s film industry to go global.