Words. Sounds. Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in IndiaAmit Khanna
880 pages|Rs 1499
The new Indian elite of civil servants, engineers and doctors, educationists, businessmen and merchants were often educated in English in schools and colleges set up across India in the nineteenth century. A few took to western way of life but largely retained the family structure and value system of their forefathers. Some businessmen made big money trading, even abetting, their British masters, but many also were philanthropists and reformers. They spent their fortune to help build institutions and infrastructure. They helped preserve social, religious and cultural traditions. So much of our present-day syncretic heritage comes to us because someone was kind enough to help keep it alive through difficult times.
The first half of the twentieth century is best remembered by Indians for the freedom movement but it was also the time of modern conveniences like electricity, water, sanitation, education, healthcare and of course media and entertainment. The two world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) in the last century not only killed millions amid destruction and misery but also changed the map of the world. Yet mankind made unprecedented progress in the first half of the twentieth century, which altered our life on this planet.
Science and technology accelerated this dramatic transformation. Telecommunications and air travel increased the interaction between nations and peoples. While manufacturing industries made various goods available to more people at affordable prices, there were still millions in abject poverty, often without food, clothing and shelter. Millions died in the two wars and more due to famine and disease. After the war ended in 1945, the world had polarized around a capitalist America and a communist Russia, which would ultimately divide the world ideologically. Fortunately,after almost 200 years, colonial rule was heading towards a sunset. Media, especially print and radio, played a significant role in these times. Films had by then emerged the dominant mass entertainment form around the world including India. In the West, television was about to go on an expansion spree in the 1950s.
India woke to light and freedom on 15 August 1947. There was a political,social and economic turmoil as a traumatic Partition killed a million people and displaced many more millions. Post-Independence, India was filled with optimism and idealism, despite widespread hunger, disease and poverty. Adopting a socialist economy meant Indians grew up in frugality and shortages. Rapid urbanization and a large-scale migration of people, driven by joblessness, famines and natural calamities, created a paradox of hope and despondency.
Nestled in the cradle of optimism and idealism, India was ready for a renaissance. Driven by the left ideology (India had chosen the socialist economic model) hundreds of idealistic men and women led the new charge. Progressive writers, artistes and intellectuals helped in building a resurgent India. New institutions of learning and propagating the arts came up. Films and newspapers, which were in private hands albeit with governmental controls and regulations, reflected the mood of the times.
I, as a child in the 1950s, the decade of the paradox of hope and despair, grew up in a frugal India faced with perpetual shortages of essentials. Some of us were lucky to be born in comparatively privileged families and enjoyed luxuries such as electricity, telephone, radio and even a rickety old car. We went to picnics, fairs, circuses, and yes, movies. Cinema and film songs were the staple entertainment in urban India, sixty years ago as they are now.
Indians were and are obsessed with films (and songs), religious celebrations and cricket in differing order. Newspapers were read (or read to) by millions who then transmitted them by word of mouth to millions of others. A small minority of Indians had a radio at home and people would often go to a café or shop or a neighbour’s house to listen to their favourite programmes or cricket commentary. News about important political happenings, disasters, elections and war was caught on radio somewhere. Surprisingly, India made a large number of films(100+) every year in several languages even in 1950 and was one of the few countries which could withstand the Hollywood onslaught.
Classical music and dance suffered a bit as the small kingdoms and principalities where they were being kept alive were abolished. Government started to support classical artistes through various academies and institutions. All India Radio and gramophone records were the main platform for most performers, apart from music conferences and public concerts. In spite of various hardships, India produced some of its greatest singers, musicians, dancers, writers, painters, actors, film-makers, journalists, broadcasters and scholars during this time. Amateur dramatics, music and dance festivals, university cultural groups and artist communities like the progressive writers and artist groups too helped further the cause of creativity.
The 1950s and 1960s are said to be the golden period of Indian cinema, which we discuss in detail later. Films are a social document of our lives and times. If you look at a cross section of Indian films of that era you discover
myriad Indias, which coexisted in different spaces and times simultaneously.
From the most artistic cinema to the archetypical masala film, the sheer variety of talent and genius amazes you. Even the most inane potboiler had some intrinsic merit, which clicked with a disparate audience then. Some of this cinema has withstood the test of time.
There were big stars, heartthrobs, visionary directors and tall writers and musicians about whom we shall read in the book. In a phenomenon not seen anywhere, Indian film music has remained the most popular music since 1930s. Often five generations have hummed the same song. India did not have the wherewithal to get the latest equipment. Our studios were old, recording rooms outdated with little infrastructure for film-making. At the end of the 1960s, over 300 million people every year went to a theatre, often dilapidated, and laughed, cried, sang and danced along. The success ratio of films in India has always been poor, yet brave film-makers not only kept making movies with passion but manged to create a few classics as well.
Often people speak of masala films. We have to keep in mind the long Indian folk theatre tradition of song-and-dance-filled melodrama interlaced with comic interludes to understand the popularity of masala films. Popular cinema adopted this format. It started with archetypes but then soon landed in stereotypes. However, even in the 1950s and ’60s leading filmmakers made films about human values and idealism. A few even explored neo-realist cinema. Action, romance and mythological were other popular genres. Many actors came from a stage background and brought tremendous sensitivity to their performances. The stars reigned supreme and popularity of music was an important ingredient of box office hits.
The 1970s and ’80s were a time of disruption. The evolution of new technology had created new media, formats, techniques and form of entertainment. The tiny silicon chip ushered in the age of computers and other devices. Offset printing and colour entered publishing in a big way in India. The 1980s brought in scanners. New magazines entered the market and newspapers expanded their reach. A new generation of reporters went out to the hinterland and remote areas, highlighting the failures and triumphs which had so far remained away from print.
Radio reached almost 90 per cent of the population and 80 per cent of the land mass. Commercial broadcasting and FM were launched by All India Radio. TV, which had been confined to Delhi and some experimental rural transmission, reached other cities. New auditoria in different cities encouraged people to start watching plays and live concerts. Indian performers began to travel extensively and a few achieved international acclaim.
Another interesting development was the entry of film personalities in south Indian politics. There is one dark spot in India of the 1970s: the imposition of National Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.All kinds of curbs, including a draconian censorship, were introduced. Thousands of opposition leaders and activists were arrested. Except for a few brave journalists, most preferred to crawl rather than revolt. Ultimately, the people rose in one voice and freedom was restored after elections and the formation of a new government. Media, specially print, played a critical role in this fightback. The period post emergency saw a glorious decade of journalism as a new aggressive breed of editors and journalists started to investigate and report on issues hitherto not covered by the press.
Electronics heralded the next generation of media. A tiny microchip led to computing and an entire range of technology-driven communication, manufacturing, services and home devices and appliances. There was a burst of new technologies from satellite communication to networked computing. Printing, cinema equipment, radios, music players, all were now technically superior but less expensive. The TV went colour and national as satellite communications arrived in India in 1982. India saw an unparalleled spread of TV across the country in this decade. Doordarshan (the national broadcaster) unleashed compelling programming from soap operas, sitcoms and the two epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat.
It was a matter of years before TV overtook cinema as the main medium of mass entertainment. The state still controlled news on radio and TV but the sheer reach and audio-visual nature of broadcast made teeming millionsfar more aware of what was happening, via daily news bulletins. TV also started covering major national and important sporting events live. The 1980s saw the awakening of the Indian middle class, and consumerism haltingly entered the collective consciousness. Ad spends increased rapidly and enticing commercials sold everything from soaps, toothpaste, soft drinks, white goods and contraceptives. Video and audio formats contributed in overhauling media and entertainment business models.
An obdurate film industry did not notice the straws in the wind and refused to sell TV and home-video rights. Soon pirated audio and video cassettes started impacting both the film and music industry. Cinemas began shutting down, finance became scarce and there was a general sense of despair. In spite of that, big budget multi-starrers and the one-man army of superstar Amitabh Bachchan delivered some huge blockbuster hits. TV started stealing advertising and readers from print. Cassettes replaced hard media.
In 1991, India’s economy shed its socialist garb and dismantled the decades-old Licence-Permit Raj. Animal spirits of a whole generation of eager entrepreneurs suddenly unleashed unknown potential. By the early 1990s, satellite TV entered India as government relaxed its broadcast policy. Millions of homes were wired by cables strung across buildings by enterprising, often shady, local operators. Broadcasters like Star, ZEE, Sony, ATN, ETV, and Sun, BBC, CNN and MTV competed with Doordarshan to grab eyeballs and advertising rupee. Independent production companies came up. I was one of the first entrants alongwith UTV, NDTV, TV18, ABCL, Nimbus, TV Today, Miditech, BR Films, Sagar Arts, Cinevista, Creative Eye and Siddhant Cinevision. My company Plus Channel became the first fully integrated media company with a presence across media segments.
India and the sector were buzzing as institutional finance was permitted by the government. At least two dozen companies listed on the stock exchange, while a few attracted private equity capital. In every region, there was a similar story. A variety of channels, Indian and foreign, beamed to an eager audience in India. Meanwhile, broadband and a host of devices and services experienced a digital impact. India was this time a few years behind. Mobile phones were launched by various private companies and soon you could see mobile phones everywhere.
Interestingly a new crop of film-makers rediscovered the mojo of popular cinema and Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar and others created candyfloss, feel-good family entertainment. After two turbulent decades, box office expanded as the first multiplexes with plush interiors and contemporary technology changed the theatre-going experience. Ticket prices increased substantially and the demographics of audience tilted towards urban young. For the first-time, professional event management was introduced and live entertainment and amusement parks made their appearance in India. E-mail, websites, gaming, streaming music and video were the new catch phrases. A Dotcom bust in 1999-2000 after an irrational boom only filtered the boys from men. Young, tech-savvy Gen X upset the analogue business applecart and were on the way to lead a brave new world through newly minted companies in Silicon Valley.
Life turned digital. Suddenly everyone was talking of connectivity, Internet and digitization. The runaway success of companies like Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Google and Facebook accelerated the onset of an all-digital ecosystem. New hardware and software reimagined the information, communication and entertainment (ICE) universe. A plethora of new options of communication like text messaging, mobile telephony and worldwide web altered lifestyles everywhere. Hard media including cinematograph film and recording rapidly disappeared. Film-making tools and theatres switched to digital systems. Integrated networks leveraging different technologies created an always networked society. E-mail, Internet search, streaming audio and video, gaming, and millions of websites empowered ordinary people to access an array of services, including news and information, music, movies, gaming, commerce, banking and governance.
Before the end of the decade, social media made the one-to-many and many-to-many contact and communication a reality, making a truly democratic media. However, there were new problems—intrusion of privacy, data theft, fake news, media manipulation, digital addiction. In time perhaps, solutions, technical, social and regulatory, will be figured out. As broadband, wireless and wired multiplied, algorithms were the new weapons of instant engagement mass destruction. In a society where multiple media are consumed simultaneously, traditional media are being forced to adapt.
(This is an excerpt from Amit Khanna’s Words. Sounds. Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India)