In the spring of 1913 a film called Raj Harishchandra had its premiere in India – and the world’s most prolific movie industry was born.
To celebrate the centenary of the Indian film industry, the National Media Museum is hosting a striking exhibition of vintage and handpainted Bollywood posters, complementing classic Indian films shown during Bradford International Film Festival.
They form part of a wider celebration throughout Bradford, with events including Bollywood Live – an update of Bizet’s opera Carmen in City Park in June with a simultaneous broadcast on BBC Three – and a Bollywood scriptwriting contest organised by Bradford City of Film and Freedom Studios theatre company. The winner will receive £1,000 and their play will be performed in the city centre this summer. Scripts must be ten-minutes long with a maximum of three characters.
“We’re looking for excitement, escapism and entertainment, but the theme is up to you,” said Prakash Patel, of Bradford-based Freedom Studios. “Love, loss, hate, comedy or tragedy – anything goes as long as it has that Bollywood spirit.”
Bollywood-themed events are planned in schools and theatres throughout the year. And September sees the opening of the Whistling Woods International Bradford College Film School, allowing students to experience the Indian film industry first-hand at the Whistling Woods campus in Mumbai.
Cinema came to India in 1896 when the Lumiere Brothers arrived on a world tour and 17 years later Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema held the premiere of the first Indian- produced feature film, Raj Harishchandra.
Bradford International Film Festival is showing 12 minutes of the 100-year-old film – all that is known to remain of it – as part of Happy Birthday Indian Cinema! featuring UK premieres, restored classics and recent hits.
“Cinephilia – the intense love of cinema – is felt in India like nowhere else,” said film festival director Tom Vincent. “It has created a film industry that today makes thousands of films a year in dozens of languages and has produced Bollywood legends – the biggest stars on the planet.
“In many regions of the world, Bollywood trumps all else at the box office, yet the treasures of early Indian cinema are rarely screened. We hope our centenary selection will provide a glimpse into the range of treasures Indian cinema offers, in a sampler of 13 films from the very first to three UK premieres.” By the 1990s Indian cinema had become the world’s biggest film industry, incorporating booming mythical epics, exuberant song-and-dance masalas, state-sponsored ‘parallel’ films, political documentaries, knockabout children’s comedies and a vibrant independent scene.
Some of the biggest names in Indian film are celebrated in Bollywood Icons: 100 Years of Indian Cinema, running for 100 days in Bradford. The exhibition features posters charting career highs and lows and romantic entanglements of Bollywood superstars including the Kapoor family, the ‘first family’ of Indian cinema.
“Indian films and film posters often blur the boundaries between cinema stars’ on and off-screen lives by featuring real-life lovers, married couples and generations of the same family. Audiences’ fascination with stars reaches levels rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in the world,” said curator and Bollywood commentator Irna Qureshi.
“Bollywood is all about dynasties. Audiences know exactly who is married to who and how generations of prominent families are related.
“Real-life roles are often exaggerated on screen and the posters provide the first clue.”
Amitabh Bachchan, one of the stars featured, was “as big as the Beatles” in the 1970s and 80s. When he was nearly killed filming Indian classic Coolie in 1983, the country held its breath. He blurred art and reality in a film co-starring his real-life wife and mistress playing his scorned wife and mistress respectively!
On display are more than 50 vintage and contemporary posters, including rare first prints – the oldest is from 1914 – and vibrant handpainted images from the 1940s and 50s. The posters tell the story of Bollywood stars and the history and development of Indian cinema.
Head of the Kapoor dynasty was Prithviraj Kapoor who starred in India’s first ‘talkie’, Alam Ara, in 1931. A poster for Awara features his son, Raj Kapoor, playing a Charlie Chaplin-inspired tramp-like character.
“The film was more about his off-screen relationship with his leading lady than anything else,” said Irna.
“It had a socialist message, was popular in Russia and China and was said to be Mao-tse-Tung’s favourite film!”
Also a producer and director, Raj set up RK Films – the logo is synonymous with Bollywood – and changed the face of Indian cinema with new film-making styles. His younger brother, Shammi Kapoor, was known as the ‘Elvis of Bollywood’.
The golden age of Bollywood is reflected in posters from the 1950s, when films encompassed the post-Indian Independence mood of hope, patriotism and new identity.
Aged 18, Raj’s son Rishi Kapoor starred in 1970s film Bobby, Bollywood’s first teen romance.
“The film’s purpose was to launch his career, that’s common with young stars,” said Irna.
The Kapoors married their leading ladies and Rishi was no exception. He and and wife Neetu Singh are now screen icons and their son, Ranbir, was recently ‘launched’ as a hot young Bollywood star.
We think of Bollywood movies as romances with lively song-and-dance numbers, but the exhibition shows how subject matters are changing. Critically acclaimed film My Name is Khan stars Muslim actor Shahrukh Khan as an autistic American Indian who becomes a terrorist suspect.
And a section on iconic Bollywood women includes landmark 1957 film Mother India starring Nargis, Raj Kapoor’s regular leading lady. Described as a film about “mud, blood and flood”, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
“Nargis aged during the film. It wasn’t the glamorous kind of role female stars are usually given,” said Irna.
Also featured is Mary Evans, known to Bollywood fans as ‘Fearless Nadia’.
The athletic blonde-haired, blue-eyed Australian arrived in Bollywood via the circus and starred in dozens of Indian films from the 1930s to 1960s.
Brandishing swords and guns and performing all her own stunts, she was was labelled ‘Fearless’ by action film director Homi Wadia, who became her husband.
“Despite her domination of the Bollywood stunt film, Fearless Nadia remains little known,” said Irna. “It’s a pleasure to showcase her work because she was an icon – a blonde woman in 1930s India, sword-fighting and jumping from moving trains!”
l Bollywood Icons: 100 Years of Indian Cinema runs at the National Media Museum, Gallery Two, until June 16.
Bradford International Film Festival runs from April 11 to 21. For more information, ring 0844 8563797 or visit bradfordfilmfestival.org.uk.
The deadline for the Bollywood scriptwriting project is May 31. Visit freedomstudios.co.uk.