855 pages is a lot. (Including the preface and images, over 900 pages) But when it opens with the Harappan Civilization and ends with the web-show streaming revolution, you realize that considering this range, perhaps, 855 pages is tad too slim.
Words Sounds Images: A History Of Media And Entertainment In India was published last year by Harper Collins. It is written by media mammoth, Amit Khanna, who has spent over 45 years in the media and entertainment ecosystem, having written the lyrics of over 250 films, written, directed, and produced feature films, documentaries, commercials and TV Programs. The founder chairman of Reliance Entertainment until 2015, he was the first Indian to serve on the international Emmys jury.
His earliest memories, that of summer evenings in Delhi watching Boot Polish in a football stadium where the screenings would take place tethers the sprawling book. Decades later, the landscape, both of film production and distribution has radically altered.
What becomes quite clear, is that this expertise springs from a throbbing and enduring affair with the big screen and its appendages. His earliest memories, that of summer evenings in Delhi watching Boot Polish in a football stadium where the screenings would take place tethers the sprawling book. Decades later, the landscape, both of film production and distribution has radically altered. Khanna investigates this.
Here are 5 things from the book that I found fascinating.
1. During the 30s and 40s, with the coming of the talkies, Indian cinema took rapid strides. The first stars had emerged. Attempts at making socially relevant films were made. Music became a USP of popular Indian cinema, some movies like Madan’s Indra Sabha having almost 69 songs.
With the coming of the war, the government imposed strict rationing of raw stock (unprocessed film) and a permit system was introduced during the Second World War. Speculators who made a killing during the war and black money hoarders entered the film industry. By independence, many of the studios were on their last leg and new stars were ready to rule.
2. In the 50s, post India’s independence, India was producing about 200 films in 15 languages, regularly screened across 8000 cinemas across the country. (Today about 2,000 films are produced annually, screened across a dismal 9,000 screens- the failure rate and number of unreleased films predict tougher times ahead) In the 1950s, the average ticket price was 1 Rupee for the upper stall (about 75 Rupees today) and 25 paise for the front stall.
This motion-picture industry was growing without any structure or system. Finance and distribution were ad-hoc and unorganized. The government appointed SK Patil (a Congress politician) Committee to look at the problems. One of the outcomes of that is the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) popularly known as the Censor Board, was set up after the Cinematograph Act was passed by the Parliament in 1952.
3. When Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) premiered at New Delhi’s Regal Cinema, it was an instant disaster and the crowd started hooting. Dev Anand would, years later, recollect how Dutt was completely shattered by the reaction. He never officially directed a film after this. He turned to beteran director M. Sadiq to make a Muslim social film to stave off his creditors. The film, Chaudavin Ka Chand (1960) would become Guru Dutt’s biggest commercial success.
The 1960s, when the film released itself, saw the rise of black money in the film business. Owing to extremely high income tax, stars began to ask for payments in cash and financiers too, happily pumped in unaccounted money, creating a vicious circle. In addition, because of the high entertainment tax on cinema tickets- more than 100% in some cases- many cinemas in mofussil towns would under-report box-office collection and pocket cash from ticket sales. Some of the cash would flow back to the distributors and producers. The bigger producers would leverage their past libraries to make new projects.
Smaller producers just went out of business after a flop. Often when a film bombed or was left incomplete, technicians, smaller actors and suppliers would remain unpaid. Some producers just kept on borrowing money.
This system of film financing continued till the 1990s.
4. The All India Radio (AIR) played an important role in popularizing classical and folk music across the nation. It was also the only source for listening to Western classical. The Minister of Information and Broadcasting BV Keskar detested film music and banned it from the AIR. (This ban would be rescinded in 1957 after a heated debate in the parliament) This ban resulted in the birth of Radio Ceylon, a special service started for South Asian listeners of film music on an old BBC short-wave transmitter in Colombo. Needless to say, it became immensely popular.
Binaca (later Cibaca) Geet Mala, a sponsored weekly hit parade presented by Ameen Sayani became hugely popular. Binaca Geet Mala often determined the fate of singers, composers, and lyricists and often even sale of music records.
5. The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 impacted the film industry badly. Absurd censorship rules were implemented and even an image of a liquor bottle or a spot of blood was cut. Action sequences were limited to six in number and only ninety seconds in duration.
Any film personality who did not tow the government line or fulfill Sanjay Gandhi’s demands was punished. Kishore Kumar’s songs were banned on AIR. Film-makers like Dev and Vijay Anand, Feroz Khan, Amol Palekar, and Atma Ram were harassed.
The point of such texts, I realize, is to not just give context to how we became who we are today- the origins of our obsession with dance and music, the creation of the censor board, and the formalization of the film industry (Bollywood was given industry status in 1998, around the time Dawood Ibrahim was becoming synonymous with cinema)- but also what we can do now, and how we can learn from the follies and bravado of people who laid the trail for us to tread on. Khanna archives a time when the film industry was the progressive baton for the country. But there is hope, for even if history doesn’t repeat, it tends to rhyme.