Jun 7, 2023
Commercialization of Sound Cinema – Full History. Journey from “Talkies” to “Theatres”- Filmsgig

Beginning – Talkies

The first ever talkie – sound film in India was screened in Bombay in 1931, which was owned by Ardeshir Irani. The release of ‘Alam Ara’ (talkie) started a new era in the history of Indian cinema. The first song released in Alam Ara was ‘De de khuda ke naam par’ which was directed by Phiroz Shah and sung by W.M. Khan.

Afterwards, several production companies emerged leading to an increase in the number of films. Around 321 films were made in 1931. During this time, huge more movie halls were built and there was a significant growth in the number of audiences.

Birth of a new era

The number of films being produced saw a brief decline during the World War II. Basically the birth of modern Indian Film industry took place around 1947. The period witnessed a remarkable and outstanding transformation of the film industry. Notable filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, and Bimal Roy made movies which focused on the survival and daily miseries of the lower class. The historical and mythological subjects took a back seat and the films with social messages began to dominate the industry. These films were based on themes such as prostitution, dowry, polygamy and other malpractices which were prevalent in our society.

In the 1960s new directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and others focused on the real problems of the common man. They directed some outstanding movies which enabled the Indian film industry to carve a niche in the International film scenario.

The 1950s and 1960s are considered to be the golden age in the history of the Indian cinema and saw the rise of some memorable actors like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Nutan, Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, among others.

This article will be incomplete if the contribution of music in Indian cinema is not mentioned. Songs are an integral part of Indian movies. Presence of songs has given Indian films a distinctive look as compared to international films. The Indian film industry has produced many talented lyricists, music directors and artists.

History Of ‘Theatres’

While the kind of cinema offered to movie goers has changed from 1947 to 2022, where people experience cinema has also changed dramatically.

Outdoor tents and open-air travelling cinemas, which set up shop like temporary pop-ups in towns and villages, were common until the 1970s. I personally know of at least two flourishing ‘touring talkies’ (mobile cinema theatres which took reels and movies physically to towns and villages): the aptly named ‘Mahatma’ Touring Talkies and ‘Jawahar’ Touring Talkies in the old Mysore state in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All the way from those times to the mall-linked-multiplexes and the personalised offer of Netflix, MX Player or Zee5, the journey has been pure theatre.

In 1955, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru addressed a seminar of leading film artistes in Delhi under the auspices of the Sangeet Natak Akadami and described films as a “tremendous thing”, with an influence in India, “greater than the influence of newspapers and books all combined”, though he did add jocularly that he was not sure of “the quality of the influence.” The keen interest that India’s first prime minister took in forging ideas of a people coming together and sharing as much as possible led to the Films Division, shortly after its formation in 1948, deciding to put out its ‘newsreel’, a version of the present-day 9 pm bulletin on TV. Cinema halls would be where moviegoers would be shown this news of the week.

Commercial Barometers – Cinema Halls

The dependence of the movie industry on cinema halls was, however, underscored during the pandemic. Media analyst, Vanita Kohli-Khandekar writes in The Indian Media Business: Pandemic and After, “theatres, the first to shut down and the last to reopen, took the biggest hit. Ticket sales slumped to 400 million, almost one-fourth of the figure in 2019. Hundreds of thousands of daily wagers, who form part of the industry’s 700,000-strong work-force, lost their jobs. According to the FICCI–EY report [on the media], between 1,000 and 1,500 single screens have shut down.” No recovery is possible till cinema halls recover. They bring in a whopping “60% of Rs 191 billion that Indian films earned in 2019.” This is because “a film’s reception in theatres impacts the price of every other revenue stream—TV, OTT and overseas. For example, in 2019, TV broadcasters paid Rs 22 billion for film rights, bringing in 12% of the film industry’s revenues. This money resulted in estimated ad revenues of Rs 77 billion for broadcast networks.” Essentially, the barometer of how big a film is, is still its reception in the cinema hall.

So big or small, the health of cinema halls remains the soul of the cinema business. 2022 is certainly not ‘The End.’

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in New Delhi, who has worked for the ‘Indian Express’ and the BBC. She is the co-author of ‘Note by Note: The India Story (1947-2017)’.

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