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Indian Cinema History Essay Topics

In Spring 2018, come check out our onsite exhibit at Wells Library: The Golden Age of Indian Cinema!

On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence from the British Empire after 190 years of what is known as India’s Independence Movement. Surrounding this time of independence, the Indian film industry burgeoned into what is now known as their Golden Age. The country’s independence played a key role in the film industry, affecting the philosophical and political underpinnings of cinematic productions, and providing modern viewers a fascinating look into the social and political goings-on of the past.

Spanning the late 1940s through the 1960s, this period saw the production of some of India’s most critically acclaimed directors, actors and actresses, and films of all time. In fact, some of these are renowned not just within the realm of Indian cinema, but throughout the world. For example, Satyajit Ray has been described as one of the top filmmakers of the 20th century. His film, Pather Panchali, was ranked among the top ten films in a 1992 poll taken by the British film magazine Sight and Sound. In fact, Pather Panchali is still ranked among the top fifty films of all time according to Sight and Sound’s most recent poll (2012). In addition to Satyajit Ray, there are many other important people to remember from this time: Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Dev Anand, Nargis, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, and Asha Bhosle to name a few.

The Golden Age of Indian cinema includes the establishment of the Parallel Cinema movement, which began in West Bengal in the 1950s. This movement is known for “serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the sociopolitical climate of the times, and for the rejection of the dance-and-song numbers that are typical of mainstream commercial Indian cinema” (“Parallel Cinema”, n.d., retrieved September 30, 2016 from Later, in the 1960s, this movement led to the Indian New Wave.

Whether you are interested in Indian films specifically, or film history in general, check out some movies from the Golden Age of Indian Cinema.

Explore our extensive collection of Golden Age films available for checkout in Media Services

Explore our collection of Indian film scripts available for use in the Scholars' Commons Reading Room.

Check out the research guide for watching & studying South Asian cinema



Further Reading:

For additional information about this period in Indian cinema, check out the Wikipedia summary here. For a more in-depth examination, here are some suggested resources to check out via IUCAT:


ONE country alone made a staggering 2,336 feature films in 2016. Big budgets, showmanship and flair have made India’s film industry, Bollywood, a behemoth. Not only is Hollywood’s penetration less than 10% of the Indian market, but Bollywood is also predicted to grow by 11% this year. But Bollywood is not synonymous with Indian cinema; South Asian filmmaking has a long heritage as varied as the region itself, with its alternative success story in Indian realism. India’s realists eschew Bollywood’s formulaic plots, melodrama and escapism, handling complicated real-life themes within simple stories and artistic camera work. Realism is now taking bolder leaps than its costly sister industry—and its social seriousness is grabbing first-time Indian filmmakers and youth audiences.

India’s 100-year film history spans colonialism, independence, partition and globalisation; a realist Indian cinema emerged parallel to the mainstream as early as the 1930s. With the advance of sound, all-singing-all-dancing melodramas and religious epics grew popular with Indian audiences, but a number of “social-problem” films, naturalistic in their depiction, also found fans, and this, despite being on a less-than-equal footing. Gudavalli Ramabrahmam’s “Raithu Bidda” (1939), for instance, was banned by the colonial administration for criticising the zamindars, hereditary Indian landlords who had turned tax collectors for the British. And Gyan Mukherjee’s “Kismet” (1943) featured a liberation song so galvanising its writer Kavi Pradeep went underground to avoid British charges of sedition.

After the turbulent years of partition, Indian film came into its own. The moment was ripe for socially engaged cinema—and it was not quite coming from Bollywood’s lavish historical epics of the time. By the 1950s and ’60s, Bengali filmmakers were pioneering a movement called the Indian New Wave, or Parallel Cinema. Its foundational films, by directors like Satyajit Ray (pictured), Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, married a lyrical visual style (such as slow pacing, natural cinematography, expressive framing) with stories of ordinary Indian life. Characters were far from extremes of good and evil. They rarely had heroes, but rather, showed heroism in quotidian situations—like Ghatak’s “Cloud-Capped Star” (1960), which followed partition’s refugees. Points of view were those of ordinary people, particularly women and children—as in Ray’s acclaimed “Pather Panchali” (1955) about a young Bengali village boy’s coming-of-age, which was the first film from independent India to attract major international critical attention in winning Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956. 

At home, an art-house circuit of production, exhibition and distribution was still lacking, so many of these Indian Realists found their acclaim abroad. Lauded by their French and Italian contemporaries at European film festivals, some inspired a global generation of directors: Akira Kurasawa once likened watching Ray’s films to seeing the sun or moon, while Martin Scorsese ranks him among his ten favourite directors. But character-driven stories of ordinary life were having a hard time holding up to the glitter and drama of Bollywood at home. The “masala” films of the 1970s and ’80s—so called after the subcontinental spice mix, for they meant multi-star flicks that contained a little each of comedy, drama, musical and romance—were major domestic crowd-pleasers. In the meantime, the rising costs of producing and marketing a film were hitting realist cinema. The state sang of its reputation while financing little, while Indian studios knew art awards abroad did not fill home theatres.

But now, a fresh take on Indian Realism’s methods by new Indian filmmakers has coincided with the arrival of a willing audience—at home and among the diaspora—that is young, largely urban and hybrid in its taste. BAFTA-nominated “The Lunchbox” (2014), for example, struck a chord with both foreign and domestic audiences by merging heritage realist style—languorous pacing, flawed characters, a simple story from ordinary Indian life—with the contemporary, universal issue of loneliness in big cities. Telling, too, is the British Film Institute’s current India on Film season touring to festivals and cinemas across India from September. The decision to run this new Indian Realism past its home audience was a confident one—India on Film’s co-curator, Meenakshi Shedde, believes there has never been a better time for Indian cinema, as “there is a tremendous openness in producing and directing independent films that are realistic and sensitive, and the audience is also increasingly accepting.”

The affordability of digital has also led to a proliferation of Indian film festivals since the mid-2000s, creating diverse and niche platforms for the new Indian realism to show at home, from the Mumbai Queer Film Festival (established in 2010) to Kerala’s International Short and Documentary Film Festival (since 2006). Festivals have prioritised supporting and screening independent film, which crucially alerts domestic critics and juries early to the potential of many first-timers. Shonali Bose’s “Margarita with a Straw” (2014), a coming-of-age story featuring a disabled main character, won acclaim from Indian critics for challenging stereotype; Chaitanya Tamhane's “Court” (2014), a searing look at India’ judicial system, was recommended by a domestic jury to the 88th Academy Awards; and Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut feature “Masaan” (2015), a three-part tale on modern-day societal censure and caste, won praise at home for its screenplay’s Sufi lyricism (alongside two awards at Cannes). These are no less hard-hitting than earlier realist films, but “use today’s cinematic language to deal with shorter attention spans”, Ms Shedde says. For now, they are faring far better than their realist forebears first did at home. Having the best of both worlds may be a realistic future.

Correction (May 30th): An earlier version of this piece incorrectly said that "The Lunchbox" was nominated for an Oscar. It was nominated for a BAFTA award.

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