Since the beginning of the 20th century, cinema has emerged as an influential medium of information, entertainment, news, education and historical memory. Cinema is not only a powerful means of communication but also a mirror of society, a cultural agent of change and subject-matter and a source of history.
It is true that during colonial rule many filmmakers were not able to express explicitly their political concerns and aspirations because of the obnoxious and politically inspired censorship policy of the British.
But it should be kept in mind that the language of cinema is not restricted to dialogues alone; it is also about action, gestures, sentiments and symbolism. Most often these symbols are part and parcel of a certain social and historical context and they generated emotions and excited a large number of masses. These symbols play an important role in creating 'appropriate emotional response among the audience in the climate of freedom struggle.
Indian cinema just like other industries was not given any kind of encouragement during the British rule. Moreover, the arbitrary and politically inspired censorship machinery of British throttled any portrayals of democratic ideas and revolutionary spirit in the films. Many a times, Indian filmmakers resorted to the use of allegory and metaphor to convey the desired meanings in the films.
The first motion picture of the world was exhibited on December 28, 1895 in Paris. And India’s connection with cinema began on 7 July 1896 at Watson Hotel in Bombay where an agent of Lumiere Brothers, the founders of movie camera held the first screening of the motion pictures.
India's first motion picture was shot with a Lumiere camera in 1896 which was a wrestling match by Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar (known as Sawe Dada). Such films were known as ‘topical’ and Hiralal Sen of Calcutta was also a pioneer in this field.
India's first film was Ram Chandra Gopal (R.G.) called "Pundalik" that was released on May 18, 1912. The film was based on the legend of a famous Maharashtra saint and was a huge success.
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke or Dada Saheb Phalke’s film “Raja Harishchandra” that was released on May 3, 1913 was a milestone in the journey of Indian cinema It was a forerunner of the genre of mythological films..Phalke's long lasting contribution to Indian cinema earned him the title of ‘Father of Indian Cinema'.
There was an emergence of studio system in 1920s. The studios employed individuals on a monthly salary, on more or less permanent basis, and they covered all facets of filmmaking from acting, technical know-how to exhibition. By 1921, there were twenty one such studio existed in India.
In the 1920s, all genres of films were attempted: historical, social, comedy and stunt. An important aspect of 1920s and early 1930s cinema is that the female lead roles were mostly played by males or Anglo-Indian women as this profession was seen as degrading for women of respectable families.
India popular theatre had a profound influence on its cinema. It is from these theater performers’ Indian cinema appropriated the heritage of song and dance and has become an intrinsic characteristic of Indian films.
The journey of Indian talkie began on March 14, 1931 when full length talkie Alam Ara was released. The talkies in India were loaded with songs, dances and music. In the initial days of talkies, number of songs in some films was more than fifty.
Themes of Films were based on Mythologies. Historical and biographical theme was another important genre. The Gandhian movement had made impact on Indian cinema. A number of films on the literary works of Indian languages as well as foreign classical literary works were also made into cinema. The genre of stunt or action films was another significant trend in early cinema. The early films were based on neorealism or an expression of everyday reality.
Indian cinema underwent a significant journey from its beginnings to the Independence of the country. The early pioneering efforts of Dada Saheb Phalke and others during the silent era laid the foundations of Indian filmmaking. The obstacles and constraints during the colonial rule provided an opportunity to filmmakers to experiment and spread their ideas in diverse ways. During the early era of filmmaking, the short films or ‘topicals’ served as important sources of education and documentation.
The emergence and growth of film studios, which acted as huge magnates, attracted a horde of talented and promising filmmakers and technicians into the business of film making. The films of this period exhibit undercurrents of patriotism, zeal for social reform, advocacy of democracy, peasant and industrial concerns and desire to attain independence.
During the Second World War, the circulation of black money in the film industry gave rise of 'star-system' and collapse of the 'studio-system.' The roots of the formula films of today can be traced back to the Second World War. The new class of capitalists and financiers hired big stars, directors and music directors and started making the formula film of song, dance and star-appeal that continues even today.
As the years dragged on, a large number of escapist entertainers and musicals started to flood the film theaters and continues to do so. This gave birth to the formula films which are primarily entertainers, even though some path-breaking films were also being made along its side.