Indian cinema initially started off with a different objective, it was nothing what we think it is today. The initial films were more or less a technological portrayal of mythology, the idea of writing a screenplay for a film or pitching a separate story for a film is fairly a new one.
The Indian idea of a 'story' is deeply rooted in its culture, heavily loaded with melodrama with its own stereotypes. The quintessential in every Indian story was the presence of a ruthless or a brutal villain. But some writers and filmmakers broke tradition, braved all these odds and made films that are completely unacceptable to the 'larger than life' concept for which the Indian film industry is an epitome. Though the idea of story telling has evolved to a large extent, the stories typically remain confined to the usual humdrum with slight modifications. Let me introduce you to how this has evolved.
Here are a few jargons that you need to know for a better understanding
Narrative: A narrative bears a similar meaning to the word story, but with a slight difference. A narrative is basically how a story is sequenced or how the events in the story are arranged. There are many kinds of narratives, the 2 most popular ones are linear and non-linear
Plot: Plot is the core of the story.
Conflict: A conflict is the crux of the story. It is the rupture between two characters or the issue which leads to the twists and turns or the very issue of the story deals with is called a conflict. Most of the stories have the same conflict, basic human issues like poverty, bigamy, fear, helplessness etc. But the narrative of each of this conflict is ultimately what matters. Its called 'handling' the story.
Let me explain this to you with reference to the Indian context, for example there are two films built around the same idea but both of which delivered a different product, a different aura ultimately giving the audience reasons to cherish them. Most young audiences have the tendency to write off older cinema hits as melodramatic. how interesting to note then that Kal ho naa ho and Anand both movies that were made decades apart revolve around terminally ill protagonists but convey different meaning. While the former was portrayed in a rather melodramatic fashion, the latter plays out to be a positive film. The protagonist embraces death with a smile, the narrative and the structure of the story is completely different, even the story is but the conflict is the same here. I take absolute pride in calling Hrishikesh Mukherjee a man with a forethought to have made Anand like Good night Bill , way before Good night Bill was even made.
The idea of an Indian narrative:
The idea of a typical Indian narrative almost entirely owes its style to the theater tradition, the written films that initially came out of the country was based on the Sanskrit play tradition where the climax of the play cannot be a tragedy. Remember that this is contrary to the Greek theatre where Tragedy was the most important form of the drama. In India, the trend continued till the late 1940s and the early 50s. Many such films where the conflict was deep and varied (loaded with many issues) managed to conclude on a very happy note, the screenwriters were forced to employ Deus ex machina, a tool not commonly employed.
This tradition was broken by none other than the 2 most prominent personalities of Indian cinema , Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. And the one man who inspired them to do this, was none other than Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, who with his stories touched the most volatile and deeply moving human emotions. He ended his stories on a sad note, which turned out to be a revolutionary idea back then. So , it was Ray’s Pather Panchali and Ghatak’s Nagrik that started off the trend of a tragic films, both men maintaining their own individual styles.
Ray had mild subtleties all over his film, for example in Charulatha where the protagonist has fallen in love with her Brother-in-Law, there are no melodramatic scenes, excepting for that one scene of revelation. He westernized the stories, however traditional they were. This was his idea of reaching the modern intellectual back then .
Ghatak on the other hand, was the master of melodrama. His films were high on melodrama, conflicts had many issues to deal with. But the bravest thing he ever did was not employing deus ex machina . Be it Mege Dhaka taara or be it Suvarnareka, the stories ended the way they ought to. The only exaggeration his films ever had were the melodrama, but the man had it coming.
These two men were the pioneers of change; the change here was the narrative and sometimes the conflict. Bimal Roy came up with the exceptionally good concept of employing mixed emotions, his movies were safe bets yet tragic. The finest example for this remains Madhumati, both the hero and the heroine die in the end, but Roy compensates for this by introducing the concept of re-incarnation. The film made a mark, it was the first of its kind a beautiful love story with a fantastical touch.
Then came an entirely new generation of filmmakers loaded with ideas of evolution in their minds, two most prominent filmmakers from this era are Guru Dutt and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. They not only changed their narratives but also changed the centre point of the conflicts. They revolutionized stories. Here is an explanation as to how they did it.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s idea is here explained by analyzing one of his finest films, Musafir. The story is made from the viewpoint of a house, the film has many characters, the most important thing is there was more than one conflict in the film. Here, Mukherjee allowed the traditional storytelling to take a toss, he did not segment the film yet he told many stories. Employing a non-living thing as a view point was a revolution in itself, also breaking the idea of one story and one conflict. Indian cinema owes a lot to him. Even after coming such a long way.
Guru Dutt, on the other hand introduced some revolutionary 'conflicts' itself. Kaagaz ke phool a film about a filmmaker who loses his Midas touch and ends up dying in an empty studio, was the conflict of the film itself was new to that generation, films themselves were not very old back then. Dutt’s effort went unnoticed back then though. Another interesting aspect this film introduced, was telling a story in retrospect. It is sad to notice that, Dutt was not given his due back then.
Soon after this generation came the filmmakers of the 70s, some really worth noting. Here are a few, who made films that mattered K.Balachander, Yash Chopra (Only for Deewar), Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Moving to the Southern cinema, Balachander, was a person who broke all the odds in Tamil cinema back then and single handedly raised Tamil cinema from a playground of melodrama to a place where practical stories existed. He revolutionized the stories, thought his screenplays and characterization was a little flawed.
Deewar, on the other hand was the first film to openly adapt the pattern of hero’s journey laid down in Joseph Campbell’s the hero with a thousand faces. Buddhadeb Dasgupta came up with the first and the foremost non-linear narrative cinema, Kaalpurush in 2005. His previous films like Tahder katha, had a different plot and conflict altogether. But his masterpiece came in Swapner din, where no characters have a negative shade and yet there was a conflict.
The modern idea:
The modern idea of film- making in India has undergone a series of changes ever since and has only constantly evolved with the help of these film- makers. Rituparno Ghosh and Mani Ratnam for instance. Ghosh introduced the idea of ending a film between reality and fantasy for instance the use of a poetry to end Dosar, a film about extramarital affairs or even Abhoman, which ends in a vague note with an aesthetic interlude.
Maniratnam on the other hand made films with different emotional elements altogether, he used subtle emotions in his narrative even to express the most difficult of emotions. He was probably the first filmmaker to make a film on political ego, with Iruvar.
It has however been not an easy journey for Indian cinema, many rejections, many criticisms. It has however come very far from mythology. Something to be proud of, we all do appreciate Hollywood for its brave themes, little do we realize that in America not many things are controversial, in India, well we have a list...
Sai Prasad Narendra
@SaiPNarendran on Twitter
The Writer is an aspiring writer/filmmaker who constantly feels out of place in a Law school!