It’s been 100 years since Dadasaheb Phalke created history by releasing India’s first full-length feature film, Raja Harishchandra. To mark the occasion, the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU held a three-day international conference on the way Indian cinema has evolved since its origins; the way it has embraced new technologies that have forever altered the landscape of the cinematic, and discuss some of the ground-breaking events that have changed the course of cinema, right up to today’s digital age.
One of the first sessions focused on attempting to look at India’s past through an examination of film locations. Priya Jaikumar from the University of Southern California spoke of how 60’s Bollywood was obsessed with Kashmir amidst other scenic places in India created an idea of a cinematic India, an India that looked better on the screen than in real life. For example, films like Jab Jab Phool Khile, and Kashmir ki Kali featured Kashmir extensively to build a sanitised, romantic, idea of India – one that appealed to a growing class of middle-class travellers – domestic as well as international. Jaikumar also remarked that while in some of 60s cinema, female leads might as well be a part of the landscape, others showed women as remarkably mobile, endowed with much greater freedom than depicted in films of the following decades. Prof. Ranjani Mazumdar commented on how in the same decade, the emergence of the railways as a medium on which films could be advertised, as well as technological changes like the advent of colour films, lighter cameras etc. made it possible for film crews to shoot in far off locations, leading to a desire in filmmakers to explore India in search of interesting locations.
Stephen Hughes from SOAS, offered a different reason on why the year 1913 might be important for Indian cinema. Hughes explained that it was around this time that the first permanent theatres opened in India. “Before this, films were shown by itinerant touring companies, not unlike that of travelling circuses. Around 1913, communal halls for films started, leading to the emergence of a habitual, regular, film going culture. By 1920, Madras city had 20 such permanent theatres, with Mount Road becoming the locus” he explained. Bindu Menon from Lady Shri Ram College also went back in time to examine the violence that ensued during the inaugural screening of the first Malayalam film, Vigathakumaran. The violence was triggered by the sight of “erotic” encounters between the lower caste actors on screen, in particular, the image of the lead actress, P K Rosy, a Dalit Christian woman playing the role of a Nair woman. Menon explored the reasons behind what could have possibly triggered that violence. Was it the uncanny image of Dalit bodies interacting on screen? Was it seeing caste bodies performing as unmarked bodies? Was it that in 1929 Trivandrum, where the lower castes were still fighting for the right to access public spaces, the image of a Dalit woman appearing on a movie that was available to everyone in the public, was too radical for a society still bound by norms of distance pollution?
As opposed to looking at the infrastructure or audiences of cinema, Sabina Gadihoke’s paper on stardom chose to examine the phenomenon of the Lux girl in Bollywood. “The Lux campaign is one of the longest running ad campaigns, and started in India in 1929. In a scenario where actresses had to be discreet about their private lives, and yet needed publicity in the press, the Lux ad campaign, which was exclusively focused on female stars, offered them a platform where fans could devour their image, an image around which an aura of beauty and glamour had been created”, she said. Though the images were often highly touched up and actresses only got paid with soap hampers, being chosen to be a Lux girl in the days before the explosion of film media, meant a lot for actresses who often had a limited career span. Gadihoke also pointed out how not only lead actresses, but also actors like Sheila Ramani who had smaller but memorable roles became Lux girls, and becoming one often seemed to be an unofficial acknowledgement of an actresses’ contribution.
With participants from all over the country, the conference marked an interesting development in the emergent field of film studies in India.