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Hindu Hollywood, 1944



The following verdict on present state of Indian film Industry is from 'Verdict on India' (1944) by Beverley Nichols



Hindu Hollywood

LET us go to the pictures, and see an Indian film.

It was the first thing I did, when I was well enough to hobble about again, and it would seem that no other Englishman has ever had such a wild idea before.

'What are Indian films like?' one used to ask.

'Good heavens, how should I know?'

'But haven't you ever seen one?'

'Seen one? An Indian film? Really!'

Blank amazement greeted the suggestion that it might be interesting to see an Indian picture. And yet, the films are a living mirror of a nation's life; even if one did not understand everything that the mirror showed, it would surely repay a few hours of study.

I was particularly anxious to visit the studios themselves, and after a little wire-pulling obtained permission to witness the shooting of a big historical picture which was being made within
a reasonable distance of Bombay. Let us make the trip together.

The film star sat cross-legged on the floor of the studio, occasionally dipping her spoon into a bowl of freshly sliced mangoes, iced and glistening and golden. With a gesture of her pretty hand she beckoned to a coolie to move the fan nearer to her; and as he did so its breeze stirred her hair her own fabulous hair, which rippled far below her waist in an enchanting cascade.

It was overpoweringly hot, and as something seemed to have gone wrong with the mike I decided to go outside for a breather. To reach die door one had to step over about a dozen nearly naked coolies, who had seized the opportunity to lie down and sleep in the dust. It wasn't at all like Hollywood in that studio.

It was even less like Hollywood outside.

Imagine a group of shabby Edwardian houses, built of white stucco, clustering near the main road of a Bombay suburb. Down the road passed an endless stream of the rumbling bullock-carts which form the eternal background of the Indian pageant. The coconut palms were noisy with big black crows and the burning skies echoed with the perpetual 'ghee-wee' of kites. At the entrance gate stood an attendant in a mauve and white pugree, lost in dreams, under a tangled mass of morning glory.

Then I turned round, and saw a gaunt building of steel and concrete, painted in staring letters 'Stage Number Four. No Smoking'. The impact of East and West was startling.

In the corner of the yard was a very beautiful tree, with a gnarled trunk the colour of old ivory, and thickly-clustering glossy leaves that Cezanne would have loved, leaves that seemed to drip
green paint into the shadows below. My friend pointed to it.

'I'm going to paint that tree,' he said.

'You'd better hurry up. The director said they were enlarging the studios, and they'll be cutting it down.'

'They'll never cut that tree down. Its a pipal, and a pipal is sacred; if they cut it down they might as well blow up the studio; nobody would work here any more.'

So this was the pipal the same tree which Ramah had climbed when he hurt his leg! Well, it was certainly a lovely thing. And if India has to be cluttered up with sacred objects it is just 'as well that some of those objects should be trees; it is a pity that there are not a few sacred trees in England. Nevertheless, when you come to know India better, you begin to feel that at times the sacredness of the pipal is somewhat overdone. It spreads its shade far and wide, in the mountains and the valleys and the
cities of the plains, and sometimes it spreads it in the most awkward places. Bang in the middle of narrow streets; just over the one spot where a builder wants to put a septic tank; right outside the windows of a room where it is vital to have light. To make a very bad pun, local Government in India is largely government of the pipal, by the pipal, for the pipal.

We walked over and stood in the shade of the tree. It was cool and pleasant here, and it seemed a good place to collect a few statistics from my friend, who was one of the most knowledgeable men in the business.

'How big is the film industry in India?'

'Pretty big, and getting bigger everyday. For instance, there are over a hundred production companies. Their chief centres are Bombay, Calcutta, Poona, and Madras, and between them they employ about 80,000 people.'

'What about the movie theatres?'

'Well of course they vary tremendously, from air-conditioned palaces like the Metro in Bombay to bug-ridden barns with wooden benches in the smaller cities. Even so, there are over 1600 buildings capable of showing talkies.'

'What about the villages?

'The vans go out to them. Little travelling talkies about 500 of them. They usually show one long religious picture, and a Government "short". Some of the shorts are pretty good; they give elemental lessons in sanitation, first aid, rotation of crops, etc.'

'And the stars what about them? What sort of money do they earn? And what sort of people are they?

'Let's go back to the studio and see for ourselves.'

On the 'set' things were beginning to move. The lady with the fabulous hair had finished her mangoes, and was standing in the entrance of the village hut which formed the centre of the scene.
The director, who even in the most heated moments never removed his Gandhi cap [V. Shantaram ?], was giving her a few final instructions. By her side was an elderly, bearded actor, who was playing the role of a wandering fakir.

The scene showed a spirited argument between the star, who was supposed to be the village belle, and the fakir. The dialogue went on for what seemed an interminable time, and was eventually broken up by the entrance of the girl's husband, which was the cue to cut.

'O.K. Lights.'

'Lights . . . lights!' echoed a dozen Indian voices in varying accents.

The lights came on; the noise of the whisperers was hushed; the make-up man dashed across with a final dab of powder for the star's nose. Make-up men in India have an exhausting job, trying
to keep the stars' faces dry at ninety in the shade.

Dead silence. The old, old feeling of agonizing tension. Business. Action.

The star appeared, the dialogue began, everything appeared to be going well. And then, without any warning the actors dried up.

There was an awful pause.

'Cut!'

The producer hurried forward.

'Dim lights!'

The lights went out.

The producer began to rehearse the actors once again. Now there would be ho point in narrating this incident, which is common in all film studios, were it not for the fact that it happened again a few minutes later and again and again, in all eight times. The lights went on, the lights went out, the make-up man dashed backwards and forwards, but aways it ended in the middle with the producer shouting 'cut'. And the curious thing was that he shouted it with the utmost good humour and the stars, instead of looking peeved or embarrassed, merely smiled.

'Does this always happen?'

'Pretty often. It isn't because they've got bad memories but because they try to do. too much. For instance, this girl's only halfway through starring in another picture for another company. She'll be acting in that to-morrow. No wonder she gets her lines mixed!'

'But why do the producers allow it?'

'They can't help it. Indian film stars are the most independent people in the world.'

Other people's money is always interesting. Here are some financial facts about India's Hollywood. For one film a star may get as high a fee as 75,000 rupees, which is about $25,000. If she does three of these a year, which is quite possible, she is actually better off than if she were in Hollywood, because Indian income tax (even when 'the collector manages to extract it, which is seldom) is a fleabite compared to the British or the American.

This fortune she cherishes with remarkable diligence. No big cars, no grand houses, and not even a hint of a gigolo. Bombay's Beverley Hills is a quiet suburb which does not boast a single swimming pool. No tourists even go to see it, no photographers ever pry their way over the garden walls. When the star walks out to her taxi in the morning, nobody turns his head. There is no demand for 'personal appearances' in India.

Maybe she lives so quietly because her career is so short. Its end is as sudden as its beginning. Strange as it will sound to the Western director, an Indian girl may be starred in a full-length role within a few days of her first screen-test, and neither she nor anybody else sees anything odd in it. She twinkles brightly for a very few years three is considered quite a long life and then, suddenly, she disappears. The public have had enough of her. Why, nobody seems to know. She may be prettier, she may be a
better actress; it makes no difference. Out she goes.

Compared with the wages of the stars, the wages of the rest of the personnel are modest, and of the writers, pitiable. For the complete scenario and dialogue of a full-length film an author considers himself lucky to receive two hundred rupees, which is about sixty dollars. That is one reason why Indian films arc marking time. But there are others, as we shall see. We can best illustrate them e on the set'.

It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the studio.

A love scene was in progress. At least, it appeared to be a love scene, but somehow it never seemed to get going.

The village maiden was making sheep's eyes at a young man with a swelling chest. If ever a girl was saying 'Come on' she was saying it, and if ever a chest were swelling because its owner was activated by 'Coming on' instincts, this was the chest in question.

But nothing happened, nothing, that is to say, in the nature of a clinch. The eyes shouted 'come on' in even louder accents, the chest swelled to bursting point (till, in sympathy, one found oneself puffing out like a pouter pigeon), fingers were twined, necks were arched, eyelashes fluttered like the wings of moths but no clinch.

'This can't go on,' I found myself muttering. 'But really, no. All this titillation. Something will snap, burst, come undone.' And sotto voce I said to my friend:

'When is he going to kiss that girl?'

'Kiss her? 5 he echoes in astonishment.

'Yes, kiss her. When?'

'Never.'

'But why not?'

'They never do.'

'What those two? Is there anything the matter with them?'

'No. Not only those two. Nobody.'

'Nobody kisses?'

'Nobody, never. Not on the Indian screen.'

I took a last hasty look at the swelling chest. It was as the French say about steaks au point. Something was about to burst. This was past endurance. I grabbed my friend's arms and we went in search of a fresh limejuice.

While drinking it I learnt the astonishing history of The Kiss on the Indian Screen. Astonishing because it is a history that has not yet begun to be written.

The kiss is taboo.

Only once, ten years ago, in a gipsy film called 'Zarinah' did an iconoclastic director [Ezra Mir, 1932. Apparently had eighty six kisses! Zubeida was the actress] allow a male star to press his lips against those of a female star. He did not press them very hard and he did not press them very long, but he pressed them quite long enough to cause a major explosion. It may not be true that large numbers of people immediately jumped from high buildings, to propitiate the Gods, but it is true that there were angry scenes in the theatres, meetings of protest all over the country, and an
almost unanimous outcry from the critics.

'Disgusting Western degradation! Keep the Indian screen clean!' So ran the headlines.

'Zarinah' was India's first film kiss and her last.

Which is another reason why Indian films continue to mark time. *

(* The Abbe Dubois, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, is as up to date as ever even if we apply his remarks to the movies. 'What we call love-making is utterly unknown among the Hindus', he writes. 'Although they see no harm in the most outrageous and licentious excesses, there is no country in the world where greater Attention is paid to outward propriety. The playful sallies, jokes, and compliments in which our youths are so profuse would be looked upon as insults by any Hindu lady, even the least chaste, that is, if they were offered her in public. )

But the real reason for the stagnation of India's Hollywood (which is almost entirely dominated by Hindu capital) is the same as the reason for the stagnation of everything else religion.

The great majority of Indian pictures deal, in one form or another, with religious or mythological subjects. The camera is permanently focused on the remote past. 'The screen is literally a shadow screen across which there flits an endless procession of saintly ghosts, whispering the stories of ancient superstitions.

And all this in a land which hums with stories! In modern India, plots grow on every tree; the very air is thick with drama; but none of the drama gets into the studio.

Now and then, it is true, an advanced producer will attempt what he calls a modern 'social'. Since most of the script-writers are unable to think up any new ideas for themselves these 'socials' are pinched almost in their entirety from old American successes. They lift situations which were originally devised for somebody like Lucille Ball, wearing pyjamas against a background of skyscrapers, and they hand them to dove-eyed young women in flowing draperies, capering through miles of mango groves. The
result is, to put it mildly, unhappy. Sophisticated back-chat doesn't ring true in a saree, particularly when the temple bells are ringing in the distance.

Yet what a treasure trove is waiting for the producer and the script-writer to say nothing of the star!

Hete are one or two examples. First, the theme of 'untouchability'.

Why not take a boy who has been born an 'untouchable', transport him to the free air of Britain or America, and let him make good, as thousands have made good before him. (Oh yes, I know
all about the colour-bar. But the colour-bar is a minor irritation compared with the major slavery bf untouchability.) Make him rich and famous . . . and bring him back to his native village.

What a theme it would have been for Arnold Bennett! He is not allowed to draw a cup of water from the village pump? Very well he builds his own reservoir. He is so degraded that the lowest washerwoman will not touch his clothes? Then he builds his own laundry. His children are forbidden to go near the village school? He builds a school of his own and staffs it with the finest
teachers in the world.

If only some courageous producer would make a picture worthy of this subject's tragic possibilities and damn the box office!

Another subject which cries out for dramatic treatment is the institution of 'purdah' the Muslim tradition which compels a man's wife to cover her entire body in a thick veil for the whole of her life, so that no other man may ever see her. It is not for me to criticize this custom we may well leave that to the Muslims themselves, whose more advanced members attack it bitterly and consistently. They describe it as cruel, morbid, unnatural, unhealthy, crippling to the body and torturing to the mind. They call it an evil relic of the dark ages of women.

What a theme for a film for a hundred films the rending of the veil, the struggle to the sunlight!

But in order to make the most of these dramatic riches you must have a producer who is something of an iconoclast; he needs bite and speed and punch, he must have the spirit of attack.

There are such producers in India, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among them must be mentioned Sohrab Modi, who recently showed me his film 'Sikander', which deals with the Indian invasion of Alexander the Great. This is a virile picture, with pace and flair, well up to the standard of that old masterpiece 'The Birth of a Nation'. Another highly intelligent producer is J. B. H. Wadia, who made history with 'The Court Dancer', India's first motion picture with English dialogue. However, even 'The Court Dancer' cannot be called an unqualified success. It has some poetical photography; but to Western eyes its popular star Sadhona Bose is regrettably heavy on her feet, and its English dialogue is startlingly jejune. For instance, on numerous occasions, the only verbal come-back to a dramatic statement is the bald interjection 'Oh!' The effect of this is unintentionally comic. 'Darling, they are coming to kill you,' says the hero, or words to that effect. 'Oh!' replies Miss Bose. It is not an inspiring monosyllable, delivered in bulk.

Yet both Modi and Wadia have touches of genius; both are determined to devote their lives to lifting Indian films out of the slough of despond into which they have sunk. Their task will be a stern one. The attitude of most of their contemporaries, even when they attempt to face up to the ancient tragedies with which their country is beset, is one of weary resignation. For example:

A Hindu Maiden had a Muslim brother! And in their Holy Friendship was embodied a Nation's sigh!

So runs the advertisement of an important film called 'Bhalai', which is a big box-office success. Need one say more? It is a theme that calls for blistering satire, and all it gets is a sigh. It is all very well to advertise a star like Ramola as 'The It girl of the Indian Screen' , or to ape the jargon of Hollywood in the publicity of Winayak's 'My Child' ('A skyful of stars! An eyeful of spectacle!! A soulful of sentiment!!!) In spite of this veneer of modernity, the religious element creeps in almost invariably, and
needless to say, it is coloured by the personal religious prejudices of the producers most of whom are Hindus.

As a result there is practically no honest film criticism in India. With a very few honourable exceptions, the critic's pen is twisted according to his caste, his creed, or his political convictions.

Let me hasten to add that these statements are fully substantiated by Indians themselves.

'Film criticism in India is either a matter of blackmail or of bribery'

It was one of the chief publicists of Indian films who said that; I omit his name to spare him embarrassment.

'There is no honest film criticism to be found in the whole of India. There is no newspaper or magazine which cannot be influenced. Nobody attaches any value to film reviews.'

It was a Hungarian, F. Berko, who said that (he did not say it in India, of course, but in an American movie magazine).

'The world's low' 'a collection of journalistic sewer-rats' 'clowns with dirty fingers'. These are only a few of the epithets which Indians have coined for their own brothers of the critical profession.

This is a gloomy picture, but it is not an ungenerous one, and though it is painted by an Englishman it is not as dark as that which is painted by some Indians themselves, who seem to have lost all hope of advancement.

I myself have hope, very great hope, and in spite of all that has gone before I believe the Indian screen may have a brilliant future.

Why?

There are many reasons. Three will suffice.

The first may sound trivial but is actually important. Until recently all Indian films were of quite intolerable length; fifteen thousand feet was. nothing out of the common. The audience demanded it. So intent were they on getting their money's worth that they would sit in silence through a whole list of credits, unmoved by the names of the stars, the authors, the directors, only to burst into wild applause when the length of the film was flashed across the screen. 15,487 feet. Whoopee! That meant the film
must be good!

The war has put a stop to these inordinate longueurs, owing to shortage of celluloid Government has issued an order that no film may be more than 1 1 ,000 feet. And though the audience chafes, and mutters that this is yet another example of the brutality of the British Raj, the producer and the intelligent film goer heaves a sigh of relief.

That is a negative reason for hope; it shows that Indian films can get into step with modern ideas, even if it takes a war to bring this miracle about.

The other two reasons are more positive. The first concerns the Indian actors themselves. They form the true riches of the Indian screen. They have a born sense of drama; it is as natural for them to act as for thrushes to sing. We mentioned above that a girl may be given a star role a few days after her first screen test, and that nobody sees anything odd in it. Well, there isn't anything odd in it. She is a star and though it sounds incredible she has very little to learn.

Unlike his Western prototype, the Indian producer has to be constantly curbing his actors and actresses; their features are so mobile, their gestures so eloquent, and their emotional equipment so rich and spontaneous that his task is to damp the flame rather than to add fuel to it.

Moreover, the country abounds in magnificent types. There is no finer male specimen in the world than the Pathan. In the streets of the big cities you will see droves of lovely girls, with the huge eyes, the small chins, the delicate noses and the frail but firm figures which are the dream of the casting director. As for the eccentric types the fanatics, the clowns, the wizards, the grotesque India has them by the millions.

And the other reason why Indian films may one day flash brilliantly across the world's screen? I have already indicated it. It is hidden deep in the eyes of Mother India herself; it is written in every wrinkle of her ancient face. Mother India is the world's greatest story-teller; her legends are inexhaustible, and every league of her sun-scarred territory has a tale to tell, of blood or of passion or of sacred fire. And now that at last Mother India is awakening, to all this store of ancient history will be added the
thrill of history in the making; the air will be strident with the echo of snapping chains and rending veils. It is for Mother India herself to walk out of her ancient prison, which is so largely of
her own making, to breathe the fresh air and think the free thoughts of the new world, and then, to translate them into terms of art.

Can she do so?

I think the answer is yes.

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Yes, in deed.

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Book available at archive.org thanks to Dr. BR Ambedkar Open library Hyderabad. 

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