The Roots of South Indian CinemaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Cinema made its appearance in India at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the country was poised for major social and political changes. A society that had remained unchanged for centuries was being transformed in the face of technological innovations. Cars, airplanes, radio broadcasts and photograph records had recently been introduced, bringing with them new status symbols as well as access to foreign ideas. At the same time, the press had become a new force in the formation of public opinion as regional language newspapers, including those in Tamil, were being published around the country. It was against this background that cinema arrived. In the decades that followed it was to assume the dimensions of a major socio-cultural force.
The role of cinema as an agency of modernization is discussed by Daniel Lerner in his book, The Passing of a Traditional Society, a study of mass media in the Middle East. When cinema appeared in South India, it played a similar role. First of all, it created a space in which all castes could come to gather, purchase a ticket and watch a common entertainment. That had never happened before. Whereas traditional entertainment forms and recreational facilities had catered to exclusive sections of a rigidly stratified society, cinema was an entertainment form that anyone could afford and attend. It cut across the hierarchical strata of caste and class.
Unlike dance, music, sculpture, painting and literature, cinema is not indigenous to India. It came as a new mechanical medium of visual narration at a time when the visual arts and the narrative arts were at low ebb, after a century of colonial rule. Bypassing the need for literacy on the part of the audience, cinema arrived among a predominantly illiterate people. It opened up a new world of vicarious experience to large masses whose span of experience was severely limited by poverty and restrictions on travel.
In a way that no other medium had done before, films began to influence public opinion on matters relating to nationalism, social reforms and war. Regular commercial cinema shows began by 1900 in Madras, and soon permanent cinema houses came to be built. In 1912 the first Indian film, "Raja Harishchandra," was made in Bombay and in 1916 the first south Indian feature film, "Keechakavatham" (The Destruction of Keechakan), was made in Madras. Both were based on stories from well-known myths. The first studio in Madras, India Film Company, was established in 1916.
While films from America and Britain were flooding the market, the films made in Bombay and Madras were looked upon as completely Indian films and they were the first true Indian representation on the screen. This was the time when nationalistic struggle was gaining a mass basis. The mythological story was one of the reasons for the instant popularity of cinema among people.
The films made in Madras began to reflect, however dimly at first, the dynamics of the contemporary social and political currents. As cinema was becoming established as a popular entertainment in south India, the Non-Cooperation Movement aimed against British rule brought about a political awakening and Gandhi emerged as a national leader. Although the silent cinema in Madras did not have any pretension to ideological or political activism, it certainly acquired overtones of political consciousness. For instance, in the film "Baktha Vidur," depicting an episode from the Mahabharatha, one of the main characters is imprisoned and in his cell he is depicted spinning thread and wearing a Gandhi cap, both palpable symbols of nationalism.
Political expression in films first appeared with themes of social reforms to which Gandhi had given a prominence in national politics because issues such as eradication of untouchability and emancipation of women formed part of the Gandhian program. While most of the early films were mythological, the first film on a contemporary theme was made in 1929, titled "The Devoted Wife" (Dharmapathini). It had a sequence demonstrating how alcoholism could ruin domestic peace. This set the tone for temperance propaganda in films, which was to assume the proportions of an obsession in later years. In fact, in all the social reform films, there was an obligatory anti-drinking scene, which was an important part of Gandhi's program of social uplift.
Another film made in 1930, "The Elevation of the Downtrodden," told the story of the dalit (untouchable) farmhand Nandan and preached against untouchability. Injustice to women was a frequent theme in films with contemporary stories. "Orphan Girl," made in 1931, was about a young woman who is forsaken by her angry father because she wants to marry the man she loves. She suffers much hardship but eventually marries her man. This was one of the earliest apologies in south India films for marriage by choice. The tradition of the socially conscious cinema was slowly developing. These films were not mere entertainment, but were charged with nationalistic ideas.
Even as some Indian filmmakers touched upon Gandhian ideas in their films, the British government realized the force of cinema and how it was being used for political propaganda. The British government, in an attempt to prevent the depiction of these ideas in films, tightened film censorship, which had been introduced in 1918. The censorship machinery was particularly sensitive to issues such as the Indian princes, labor, communist ideas, the Gandhian program and Hindu-Muslim relations. As a consequence, the filmmaker confined himself to predominantly non-controversial entertainment. This was the origin of the tradition of escapist cinema in India.
One of the dominant characteristics of south Indian cinema is its close interaction with politics. Four film stars became chief ministers in two states. The beginnings of this connection started quite early. During the silent era, the popular entertainment was commercial drama that has come to be known as company drama. There were nearly 240 touring drama companies operating at this time in the Madras presidency.
As long as cinema remained silent, there was no interaction between the drama artists and the film makers. The drama artists were mostly singers and musicians and there was no place for them in the silent screen. But once sound was introduced in cinema, the world of drama companies moved into the cinema studios. Most of the talkie films made during the first decade of the sound era were plays that had proved popular. The normal practice was to engage a drama troupe, make them enact the play and shoot it, head on, in long takes.
Remember that we are talking about 1931, when the Civil Disobedience Movement, a major event in India's struggle for freedom, was at its height. The dramatic salt march by Gandhi was part of this movement. Most of the drama companies had already been highly politicized, particularly after the Jallianwalabagh massacre of 1919, in which hundreds of people attending a political meeting were killed by 16 British police, and they supported the cause of freedom struggle through their dramas and songs. Numerous plays were banned. Many well-known actors took part in direct political action and courted arrest.
When sound came to south Indian cinema, the politicized, nationalistic group of drama artists moved into the world of films. They brought with them into cinema their ideology and a penchant for political activism. The very first Tamilfilm, "Kalidas" a mythological film made in 1931, had a song praising Gandhi. This was the beginning of politicization of south Indian cinema. Within a few years, patriotic films were produced and cinema became an instrument of political propaganda. Many film artists began taking direct part in politics and in the process lent their charisma to the nationalist cause. Some went as delegates to National Congress sessions and many appeared with national leaders on political platforms. The artists of the world of entertainment, both from the stage and the screen, gained a new respectability by their political activism.
In the wake of the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms, in the Madras Presidency general elections were held in 1937. Many film and drama actors campaigned for the Congress Party, which swept the elections and assumed office in six provinces, including Madras. They ruled for two years, until at the behest of Gandhi, the ministries resigned, protesting against India's involvement in the war. During this Congress interregnum, censorship was virtually lifted and a series of patriotic films were made.
After India gained independence became a republic, a very popular actress, K.B. Sundarambal, entered the legislature in 1951 in Madras as a Congress nominee, the first film artist to enter an Indian legislature. Thus began the process. However, the Congress leader Satyamurthi, who acted as the link between the world of entertainment-drama and cinema-and the Nationalists died. The other leaders looked down upon cinema and drama and disowned the world of film and drama.
The Dravidian movement, a reformist movement that was coming up in the 1940s, had started using the stage for propaganda. After Satyamurti's death, the artists, leaderless and directionless, gravitated towards the Dravidian movement, whose leaders offered them recognition and patronage. Many of the leading lights of the movement, including C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, were themselves playwrights and often acted in plays. Later they were to become the chief ministers of the state of Tamilnadu, one after the other. It was they, the Dravidian leaders, and bitter political enemies of Satyamurthi, who eventually inherited the force that he had assiduously nurtured and used in their journey to power, creating the phenomenon of star politicians. M.G. Ramachandran, the best known star-politician and later to be the chief minister of Tamilnadu, had in fact acted in nationalistic plays and was a khadi-wearing Congress sympathizer before he joined the Dravidian party. The interaction between cinema and politics in South India continues. In the June 2001 elections to the upper house of the Indian Parliament, two film stars were elected-from two opposing parties-in the state of Tamilnadu.
S. Theodore Baskaran, a film historian who has done extensive research on the interaction of cinema and social movements, spent the fall semester at the U-M as a Hughes Visiting Scholar with the Center for South Asian Studies. He has lectured at the University of Chicago, Princeton and The School of Oriental and African Studies, and published numerous journals. He is the author of several books, including An Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema , which won the National Award for 1996 as the best book on cinema.