Despite its vacillation between the two extremes of sometimes being awfully responsible and at others outright sensational, Indian cinema’s efforts in mirroring social reality deserves to be applauded. If popular perception is an indicator, a major part of the social transformation in India can be attributed to cinema’ social reformist role. The drive to link success of a film to box office returns have undoubtedly led to cinema’s commercialisation at the cost of its social and developmental goals. But, despite the commercially driven attempts to cater escapist and fantasy-oriented entertainment, a good part of Indian films continues to be social theme carriers. These films enjoy a unique advantage of remaining out of the censor tangles. Of course, a prominent question remains to be answered is whether cinema can influence and change society. This paper attempts to answer this question through a historical review of the Hindi films.
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Lumiere brother’s pet invention ‘cinematograph’ on December 28, 1895, destined to emerge as ‘second opium’ of the people, completed hundred years of awe-inspiring journey in India. It was in 1912 the first Indian feature film ‘Pundalik’ was released followed by the Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s fully indigenous feature film ‘Raja Harischandra’ in 1913. There was no looking back, Indian cinema kept on adding innovative features, both technical and artistic, from time to time to emerge as one of the greatest and most influential film industries in the world. The original camera, the projector, and the screen used by the France brothers have undergone metamorphosis to a stage of cinema’s complete digitalization, thanks to innovations in technology. The transformation in characterization and sequencing of narratives is no less important, and so also the cinematic themes. From a stage of being viewed as an art, culture, and entertainment cinema has gradually emerged as an industry driven by profit. The change, indeed, is amazing. But, of the few features which continues to be nurtured is cinema’s role as a tool of social transformation.
Cinema arrived to India on 7th July, 1896 and first screened at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay, latter to be shifted to the Novelty Theatre, by two employees of the Lumiere brothers where in living photographic pictures – pictures of man and women, who breathed, moved and danced, were screened. So intrigued and overwhelmed at the screenings at Bombay that many of those who viewed the screenings themselves took to the business of film screening by the very next year.
Film making activity started in India by the turn of the 20th century, the earliest short films being photographed in India included such titles as ‘Cocoanut fair’ ‘the Wrestlers’ ‘Splendid new views of Bombay’ and ‘Taboot procession’. Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatvadekar shot a ‘wrestling match’and ‘training monkeys by wandering madaris’ as India’s first ‘factual films’ then called ‘topicals’.
Feature film production in India began with Dada Saheb R.G. Torney’s Pundalik (Silent, 1909-1911), a devotional subject adopted from a popular stage play. The film was shot with the assistance of a cameraman of Bourne and Shephard, a local firm of photographers and photo equipment, developed and printed in London and released on May 18, 1912 at the coronation Theatre. Dhundraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra’was released at the Coronation Theatre, Bombay, on May 13, 1913, as India’s first fully indigenous full length feature film. India’s first film comedy, first satire and one of the earliest to have a contemporary theme, making a radical departure from the prevalent trend of devotionals “England Returned” (Bilet Pherat) was made by Dhirendranath Ganguly in 1921.
The Modern era of Indian cinema began with the production of talkies beginning with Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara in 1931. The invention of talkies boosted the growth of Indian film Industry, and the number of feature films produced in India registered a steady increase year after year. During 1930s and 1940s filmmakers tried to reflect tough social issues on screen or used the struggle for Indian independence as a backdrop for their plots. With India attaining freedom, the issue emerged as a popular topic of Indian cinema makers. Films like Majboor-1948, Shaheed-1948, Samadhi, 26 January rode in popularity.
In the late 1950s, Bollywood released its lavish romantic musicals and melodramas casting successful actors like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor and actresses like Nargis, Meena Kumari, Nutan and Madhubala. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, romance movies and action films starring actors like Rajesh Khanna , Dharmendra, and Manoj Kumar had the sway. By mid-1970s, romantic confections made way for gritty, violent films about gangsters and bandits which created stars out of Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty and Anil Kapoor supported by actresses like Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan and Rekha.
In the mid-1990s, family-centric romantic musicals returned with resounding success of films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) based on the artistic acumen of actors such as Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan and actresses such as Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor and Kajol. Nana Patekar, Ajay Devgan, Manisha Koirala, Tabu and Urmila Matondkar were among the critically acclaimed actors of this generation.
In the 2000s, spreading of Bollywood’s popularity at the global level drove Indian film making to new heights in terms of quality, cinematography and innovative story lines as well as technical quality advances. Big production houses, like Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions came to the fore front of film making. In the new millennium the Hindi film industry started its transformation into an industry that tried to get to grips with the business realities of moviemaking. The gradual corporatization of Bollywood resulted in increasing investment, efficient use of resources, generating accountability and reducing monetary losses by curbing piracy and enforcing transparency. Corporate entities Adlabs, Applause films, IDBI, EXIM etc. participate at various stages of the film industry like exhibition, funding, film making and processing, or all. Profit emerges as the driving force of film making in the country.
To be precise, patriotic themes of Indian cinema made way for social reform, which undergoes change to embraces fashion of the day while still carrying messages of social reform, then turns out to a fighter to protect the institutions of democracy and freedom. A gamut of issues got representation in Indian cinema-from freedom to unemployment, from poverty to exploitation, from dowry to women’s emancipation, from social conflict to national integration, from education to fantasy oriented entertainment. With the transformation of the society, the issues confronting it kept on changing and so also the themes adopted for film making.
1.1 Films on Social Issues
Cinema is a mirror of social reality holds good beyond doubt if one looks back at the thematic treatment of India’s mainstream cinema. From the very early years, Indian feature film developed the admirable ability of focusing on different facets of Indian life. The cinemas concerns with social problems continue to be overtly expressed from the thirties, right through to the sixties, in a handful of most significant films.
Hindi cinema’s golden period in the thirties and the forties did bring forth films not merely presenting but tackling burning issues. How intellectual labour fights al-mighty capital, how young girls revolt against marriage with an old man, how life supersedes love, how inter-communal bliss is thrown asunder by the outside forces, how widows could be remarried and fallen women resurrected , how dowry could lead to tragedy and how convicts could be reformed, how the veneer of westernizing could ruin marriage and friendship, how the rural economy could be freed from the clutches of landlords and money lenders, how the untouchables and other underdogs could be given a more humane life and several such thorny problems were flashed across the country’s screens. In case of fatalism and tragic end, it was a mute protest mean to arouse the collective conscience against the various barriers. Films which talk so directly and movingly about the wrongs of society went onto influence it and shape it along better lines.
Dhirendra Nath Ganguly’s film ‘the England returned’ made in 1922, was used as a means to get the audience to think of a social situation in which Indians had been imitating their foreign rulers and creating for themselves new problems within their own society. In 1925, Baburao Painter made the film ‘Savkari Pash’ which painted an extremely realistic picture of the Indian poor, in the rural vast land, focusing on rural-indebtedness, feudal oppression, the poverty of the peasantry and myriad of problems. In the most outstanding film of the silent era of Indian cinema ‘Savkari Pash’, V, Santaram and Kamaladevi enacted the role of an oppressed farmer couple having to suffer both famine and the oppression of the Zamidari system. There were brave efforts to create similar thematic films commenting on the other social ills of Indian society.
It is the arrival of the ‘talkie’ film which brought to fore the contribution of Indian cinema in bringing about social awareness among the Indians to improve their status and remove age-old taboos which young India could ill afford. The period between 1931 and 1946 should be considered as the golden era of cinema of social comment. One is left amazed at the variety of films which Indian cinema of its time picked up for public debate. It is necessary to recall some of these films and their themes to impress upon the reader that Indian cinema even at its worst, was far better in its commitment to its audience and its society.
Indian cinema tackled the problems of western culture clashing with Indian (Indira Ma, 1934); protested against arranged mirages and social barriers (Dev Das, 1935); protested against the caste barriers and religious bigotry (Achhut Kanya, 1936), Achhut (1940), promoted Hindu widow remarriage (Bal Yogini, 1936); fought against marriage of young girls with old persons, Duniya Na Mane (1937) and highlighted economic and social disparity (Adhikar, 1938).
Indian cinema fought against rural indebtedness in K.A. Abas’s Dharitri ke Lal (1949); highlighted the problems of alcohol in Brandi Chi Batli (1939), Angoori (1943). The welfare of scheduled castes was highlighted in Malla Pilla, while widow remarriage was the theme of Sumangali. The ills of Zamidari system were highlighted in Raitu Bidda (1940), while the problem of the educated unemployed were best described in Vande Mataram(1948).The problems of unwed mothers was described in film Devta; while the events of dowry was best complimented upon in Dahej(1950). Achhut kanya suggested inter-caste mirages between high and low caste people. Mehbbo’s ‘Aurat’ and ‘Mother India’, Vimal Roy’s ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Sujata’, Dilip Kumar’s ‘Ganga Jamuna’ and Sunil Dutta’s ‘Mujhe Jeeno Do’ focused on the socio-economic causes of the very Indian problem.
1.2 Sex and Violence in Indian Cinema
Bollywood’s sense of commitment to mirror social reality has hardly remained untouched by market force influences. Despite cinema being born in a form to creatively portray social reality, the drive to link success of a film to box office returns eventually led to its commercialisation. Profit prioritisation overpowering its social and developmental goals, obscenity and lewdness emerged as an integral feature of Indian cinema.
The official censor history reveal that the film MERI AWAZ SUNO (1981) was first granted an ‘A’ certificate, but was subsequently suspended citing that the film depicts excessive violence. In 1994, the film BANDIT QUEEN was suggested for 17 cuts especially scenes of frontal nudity. The film KAMA SUTRA- A TALE of LOVE (1996), was denied a certificate citing it pornographic only to be certified after two scenes of nudity were erased. The film FIRE (1998), which explicitly screened the homosexual relationships between two women (often termed as ‘lesbianism’), resulted in violent protest against it which forced the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to refer it back to the Censor Board for review. The anti-war and anti-nuclear documentary film Jung-aur-aman (War and Peace) as the censors claimed, suggested a bias against the minority Muslims when aid was distributed after the Gujrat earth quake 2001.
The list of such films touched by censor wrangles for depicting sex and violence gets longer even if the country emerges as the most prolific film producing country in the world. At times it is sex, at times it is excessive violence (Aakrosh, 2003), at others it is kissing on screen (Khwaish), even at others it is smoking on screen (God Mother, 1999, Pyar -To-Hona Hi Tha). Though the issues of censor contention generally revolved round sleaze, sensuality, sexuality, nudity and permissiveness, overdose of obscenity and lewdness has been doing more harm to the image of the Bollywood. Sometimes sex and violence is deliberately incorporated to attract viewers, though family melo-dramas are no less popular.
1.3 Social Impacts of Films
Any discussion on films and society confronts a vital question ‘dose cinema have any impact on the society’. There are two schools of thought on this issue among film makers. One line of thinking believe that films can never affect or reform the social body or the events taking place within it, but the other believes that the medium does have a direct or indirect impact on social streams, even though it may not be immediately perceptible. The former cites the example that ‘just after a couple of excellent anti-war films were exhibited, the second world war engulfed humanity’ hence cinema cannot and should not offer any solutions for social problems raised by its writer and directors, by its content and style. The mere exposition of the problem is enough and there ends cinema’s artistic obligation as well as compulsion. The later, however, stretches cinema’s role further to promote a thought process and line of action where by the viewers are provoked into trying a change for the better. Films, which talked directly and movingly about the wrongs of society, go on to influence it and shape it along better lines.
The most important contribution of cinema to society is that by sheer usage it has grown to be a standard reference for most kinds of questions and situations, where elementary knowledge and practice are needed (Rangoonwalla, 1995:7). The mass mind picks up such points largely and stores them in some mental corner, to be reactivated while seeking or giving answers and guidance. Some of the life patterns and conclusions propagated by them could be having social repercussions below the outer of everyday life. Violence, crime and sex are made to look easy and frivolous, without much of retribution to follow.
The magic of cinema is virtually unfathomable. The very mention of cinema conjures up a rainbow of captivating images. A vital aspect of Indian cinema is its unifying character. The Indian films have been subtly albeit consistently promoting the ideas of national integration and communal harmony. A part of the socio-economic cultural transformation can be attributed to the cinema as films usually generate social mobility, fluidity and an overall sense of oneness among people of different backgrounds (Rangoonwalla, 1995:7).The society is ripe with cases of crimes and criminals being emulated from the screen and so also the attitude to suicide as a way of dejection, mostly in love. Fashion including smoking and drinking, in many cases, are inspired from cinema characters. The vast fan followings of stars like Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachhan, Mithun Chatkrabothy are eloquent testimony to the social impacts of films.
A study by Dr. Sativa Bhakry shows that Cinema can play both positive as well as negative roles in society. It can have positive impacts in terms of providing entertainment, enhancing information and knowledge, sensitizing people about urgent issues of society, in creating sociability and offering catharsis. It offers release from tensions of daily life. Cinema can also play an equally negative role in teaching wrong values, generating social and sexual violence and crime, providing escape from reality into a dream world of fantasy instead of facing up to the problems of life, encouraging adoption of destructive role models and in encouraging cynicism about social institutions (Bhakhry, 1995:71-76).
1.4 Freedom of Artistic Expression and its Limits
Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees to every citizen of India the right to freedom of speech and expression; also assures the freedom of media, though it is not separately stated. This right to freedom of speech and expression includes within it, the right to collect and receive information from anywhere and through any legitimate means, the right to disseminate information and express opinion (Sawant, 1997).
The freedom granted under 19(1) (a) is not absolute, and is subject to restrictions contained in Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution. The restrictions have, of course to be reasonable meaning there by that; they must have a direct nexus with ground on which they are imposed. But, to extend the scope of censorship to considerations of public taste and ban a mater which does not fall within the limits of the reasonable restrictions clause would not be legal”(Vasudev,1979). Again, the media, when run as a business, is also subject to the restrictions, which may be imposed by the state on any business, under Article 19(6) of the constitution. Cinema as a medium of mass communication is also subjected to restrictions contained in article 19(2) of the constitution and set out in section 5-B of the Indian Cinematograph (Amendment) Act, 1959.
In a celebrated Supreme Court judgment in 1970, in the case brought before it by K.A. Abbas, regarding his film “A Tale of Four Cities” declared that, “Censorship falls under constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression and that while pre censorship of films does not contravene those guarantees per se, is still a justifiable issue and cannot be decided by a government official” (Dayal, 1987). The Supreme Court said, ” Censorship in India (and pre-censorship is not different in quality) has full justification in the field of exhibition of cinema films” and “the censorship imposed on the making and exhibition of films is in the interest of the society. If the regulations venture into something, which goes beyond the legitimate opening to restrictions, they can be questioned on the ground that a legitimate power is being abused. We hold, therefore, that censorship of films, including prior restraint, is justified under our constitution (Vasudev, 1978).
Plato’s polemics of art and artists urged strict censorship of the arts because of their influence on moulding people’s characters. Using his theory of forms, Plato claimed that artists and poets couldn’t usually explain their works; as they are seized by irrational inspiration, a sort of “divine madness.” Therefore, the vital opinions of the community could be shaped by law and that men could be penalized for saying things that offended public sensibilities, undermined common morality, or subverted the institutions of the community.
Acclaimed film critic and a spiritual champion of the right to freedom of expression, Noel Burch (1973) claimed “……I doubt if anybody will advocate freedom from interference of the state machinery to be extended to the commercial exploitation of a powerful medium of expression and entertainment like cinema. One can imagine the result if an unbridled commercial cinema is allowed to cater to the lowest common denominator of popular taste. Freedom of expression, therefore, cannot and should not be interpreted as a license for the cinemagnates to make money by pandering to and thereby propagating, shoddy and vulgar taste.
While emphasizing the role of cinema as a vehicle of modernism, India’s first Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru has also advocated some amount of social control to ward off its bad effects (Vasudev, 1978:107). Tanuja Chandra claims that “the artists have every right to give expression to the work of art and viewers have an equal right to reject it, if they do not like it either in part or whole. The entertainment part of cinema, she argues is of much important than the emotional part. Veteran actor turned Member of Parliament Satrughna Sinha claims that “in a country like India films reach the widest possible and most diversified audience. As a medium of mass communication it can exercise the most tremendous and potent influence on the public. The rampant use of blatant sex and gruesome violence (as commodities for sale by the producers) can terribly shake a nation; the ruinous elements can easily shatter the society before the common law can give protection” (TOI, 2006).
John Dayal Claims that “more and more people, especially the younger, look forward to watch the blatant display of sex and violence on the screen. If this virus is allowed to the artery of our national blood, the society will be infested with unruly elements with hardly any care for our social values and traditional tenets, which will eventually lead to chaos and anarchy in the society. Curbs are, therefore, necessary to protect the moral health of the nation and to ensure that cinema does not hurt the sensibilities or interests of the extraordinarily heterogeneous people that constitute the Indian nation” (Dayal, 1987:61).
1.5 Research Design and Methods
Analyzing a complex issue like social impacts of films demands a multidisciplinary approach. A historical review of the Hindi films reveals the presentation of social issues in contrast to other issues in Indian cinema. A review of cinema as a means of artistic expression provides pertinent clues about the social impacts of cinema. Constitutional and legal provisions, judgments of Supreme Court and High Courts, observations of various committees and commissions, legal adjudications on film censorship decisions, decisions of the Censor Board, and the policy guidelines issued from time to time provide an appropriate background for understanding the legal status of right to freedom of expression and its’ limits. The existing theories on film-society linkages, the research studies on social impacts of films, in addition to the study of the legal back ground mentioned above revels the ideal limits of artistic expression and moral decency in India.
Of late, growing recognition of freedom of expression as a fundamental human right and the arguments against any kind of restriction on that right, coupled with the digital communication technology enabled scope for duplication and delivery of contents questions afresh the role of social films, of course, the socio-cultural conditions of a nation is an equally important factor. So it is the public opinion, defined and redefined by the changing socio-cultural environment that can be a real indicator of the social impacts of films and the need for films on social themes in the country. As such, the study primarily builds on the social survey method of research, a pre-structured questionnaire being the principal tool of data collection. The opinion survey constitutes the primary data, where as the secondary data culled from newspapers, journals, books and of course the Web provides significant input to the study.
The universe for the study primarily comprises the academic community, including students, teachers and other academic staff of the universities. To represent the academic community Berhampur University (Odisha), Aligarh Muslim University (Uttar Pradesh), and Gauhatii and Nagalandi universities in the North-Eastern Parts of India were selected. The sample respondents were selected applying the stratified random sampling method. The academic community of the selected universities were identifies as three distinct groups- students, teachers, and academic staff of which 100, 40, and 20 respectively were selected randomly to constitute the sample for the study. While selecting the respondents gender and age have been kept in mind to make the sample a true representative of the universe, despite majority of respondents being post graduate students. All the 160 sample respondents so selected were administered a pre-structured questionnaire comprising 15 questions on various aspects of filming practices and impacts of films on the society in India. The researcher could collect a total of 128 completed questionnaires of which 80 representing the students, 32 representing the teachers and 16 of the other academic staff. The responses so collected are codified and presented in tables 1-7.
The codified and tabulated opinions are analysed using simple statistical techniques including the weighted average method. The alternative responses (say N) to a question are assigned priorities from 1 to N by the respondents. The responses from 1st to Nth priorities are assigned weightages N to 1 respectively and are multiplied by their respective frequencies n1,n2,n3……nN-1,nN (number of respondents giving the same priority to a response).The weightage of each priority of a response are added to calculate the total weightage of a response. As such, the total weightage of a response is calculated to be:
TW=NXn1+(N-1)Xn2+(N-2)Xn3+. . . . . . . .+N-(N-2)XnN-1+N-(N-1)XnN
= NX(1st priority frequency)+(N-1)X(second priority frequency)+(N-2)X(3rd priority frequency)+ ……………+2(N-1)th priority frequency+1(Nth priority frequency)
The extracts of the personal interviews of a number of Bollywoodii personalities including actors, directors, producers on the issue of cinema censorship, published in sections of the media, have been incorporated to represent the views of the Indian film industry.
1.6 Public Perception on Cinematic Obligations
The respondents were asked to mention the kinds of impact films have on society by selecting the appropriate alternative. The responses so obtained are presented in table-1, which evinces that 14.84 % of the respondents feel that films have positive impact on the society where as 20.31 % of them feel that films have negative impact. But a whopping majority (53.90%) of them agree that films do have impact, positive, negative or both, on the society.07.03 % does not see any impact of films, where as 3.91 % have no idea about social impacts of films.
Table-1: What kinds of Impact does films have on the Indian Society?
No of Respondents
Both positive and negative impact
The respondents were asked to mention in order of preference the mentioned positive impacts of films on the society. The responses presented in table -2 revels that the respondents strongly believe that films do have positive impacts in sensitizing the people about urgent social issues. The respondents are also impressed with the role of films as an entertainer. What closely follows these are films release tension and they keep the audience informed and educated on important issues confronting the society.
Table-2: Positive Impacts of Films
Inform and educate
Sensitize about urgent social issues
Instil positive values
TW (Total Weightage) =1st priorityX5+2nd priorityX4+3rd priorityX3+4th priorityX2+5th priorityX1
R (Rank) = rank of total weightage
Table-3: Negative Impacts of Films
Teach wrong values
Promotes sex and violence
Provide escape route from real problems to a dream world
Encourage destructive role models
TW (Total Weightage) =1st priorityX5+2nd priorityX4+3rd priorityX3+4th priorityX2+5th priorityX1
R (Rank) = rank of total weightage
Among the negative impacts of films presented in table-3, promoting sex and violence tops the list. The audience closely believes that films provide an escape route from real problems to a dream world. The third major impacts mentioned are teaching wrong values, and encourage destructive role models.
A question was asked regarding what should be the primary goal of film making. The respondents were asked to mention the mentioned alternatives in order of priority and the responses so obtained are presented in table-4.
Table-4: What should be primary goal of film making?
Presentation of social issues to public notice
Generate Social Change and development
Eradication of social evils
Promote pro-social values
TW (Total Weightage) =1st priorityX5+2nd priorityX4+3rd priorityX3+4th priorityX2+5th priorityX1
R (Rank) = rank of total weightage
Data in table-4 transpire that film maker’s first and foremost artistic obligation should be to try for positive social change through films, closely followed by the goal of promoting pro-social values. Notably, the artistic obligation of creatively presenting a social issue before the public without expecting or suggesting any social change from it, which is the line of thinking of the Avant Garde film makers finds third priority among the respondents. Equal
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