100 years of Indian Cinema: an interview with Bollywood’s Anurag Basu

February 2013

From December 4 to 7, 2012, WIPO hosted a Festival of Indian Film in celebration of 100 years of Indian filmmaking. The release of the black-and-white silent movie, Raja Harishchandra, in May 1913 marked the beginning of the country’s indigenous film industry. Since then, India has become the world’s largest producer of feature films, with over 1,200 releases a year in more than 25 languages. The five films screened during the Festival, - Raja Harishchandra, Barfi!, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 36 Chowringhee Lane and 3 Idiots - offered a glimpse of the diversity, depth and distinctiveness of Indian cinema. Ahead of the opening of the Film Festival, a first for WIPO, Anurag Basu, the writer and director of Barfi! - one of the highest-grossing films in India in 2012 – shared his views about India’s thriving film industry and discussed the strengths of Indian filmmaking, the major challenges the industry faces and his most recent film.

Written and directed by Anurag Basu,
Barfi! was one of the highest-grossing
films in India in 2012. (Photos: Film
producers & NFAI)

How did you get into the film industry?

It was in the early 1990s, when I went to University in Mumbai, that I decided to follow my dream. I always had a hidden desire to be part of the Indian film industry. Hidden because my family thought people from good families didn’t go to Indian cinema. It was socially looked down upon. But I wanted to be on a film set, so I lied to my parents, went to an audition and got a small acting role in a typical singing and dancing Bollywood production. I soon realized it is not as glamorous as it looks, and decided I needed a “plan B” in case things didn’t work out, so I finished my physics studies. But, fortunately, things did work out for me. I have produced seven movies and written and directed many TV series and commercials.

How would you characterize India’s cinema journey?

Cinema has become an integral part of Indian culture; it actually binds the country together. When you watch a film at the cinema you don’t see the religion, cast or culture of the person beside you. People sit together and laugh, cry and enjoy. Indian cinema binds them together. That is one of its greatest achievements.

The industry has had its ups and downs, but Indian cinema offers a different kind of entertainment. Though still looked down upon by some, it has its own distinctive character. Bollywood films are a mish-mash genre, a mix of everything. They offer wholesome entertainment, plain and simple.

We have been unaffected by the dominance of Hollywood, unlike other cinema industries. We aren’t threatened by Hollywood and don’t look at its calendar before releasing our movies. That is the plus side. At present we are catering to the Indian diaspora and, beyond that, we are not well known but want to be recognized more widely because we know we are talented.

There is a ray of hope. This year, Indian filmmakers produced different kinds of films. Barfi!’s box office success suggests things are changing. I’m not saying that Barfi! is completely different from Bollywood, but it’s a step in a new direction and has given me the courage to make a film next year that has global appeal. We have to be in the system to change it. In recent years all Indian film genres have done well, and our films are increasingly respected at international film festivals.

What challenges do Indian filmmakers face?

Making a film in India is tough. Every 200 kilometers the language and culture changes, so you have to make a film for different cultures inside your own country.

“It has to be as easy to get an original DVD as it is to get a pirated one. That is the only way we are going to fight piracy.”

Being a film producer or director in India is like being a stray dog crossing a busy highway. We can get run over at any time. There are so many risks but piracy is the biggest challenge, because most Indians don’t understand that it is a crime. The day after you release your film in the theatres, pirated copies are available on the market. Piracy affects us a lot and we have to stop it.

From left to right: Scenes from the films: 36 Chowringhee Lane, 3 Idiots and Raja Harishchandra screened during the Festival of Indian Film at WIPO in December 2012.

The industry loses around INR 18,000 crores (approx. US$3.34 billion) and some 60,000 jobs every year because of piracy. It’s a huge thing. We remain a flourishing industry, but imagine the business movies would do without piracy.

What steps need to be taken to tackle piracy?

People need to understand that piracy is a crime. The government is making progress. It has closed down a lot of downloading channels and all but eliminated pirated CDs in Mumbai where I live.

"In the way chicken tikka has become global, I hope that everybody starts enjoying Bollywood."

I think we can kill piracy by releasing the DVD versions of our films a week or so after their theatrical release. The current practice of waiting three or four months before releasing them makes no sense. By releasing the movies to paid satellite channels, we can be sure to earn some money and reduce losses from piracy. Piracy is working because people can buy a DVD for 100 rupees, and a whole family can watch it. We have to offer that kind of entertainment at that price. It has to be as easy to get an original DVD as it is to get a pirated one. That is the only way we are going to fight piracy.

What is the impact of digital technologies?

The downside of digital technology is that movies are available all over the Internet as soon as they are released. But digital technology is helping filmmakers in other ways, because it makes it easier to make movies. Everybody has a camera and an editing tool on their laptop. We will see a lot of new filmmakers and a new lingo emerging over the next decade. This is good for the industry.

Indian Film Industry – Facts and Figures

  • India is the world’s largest producer of films with over 1,200 movies released every year.
  • Bollywood, India’s Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, produces over 200 films annually. The rest are produced in 25 different regional languages. In addition to Bollywood, India is home to Kollywood (Tamil/Tamil Nadu), Tollywood (Telugu/Andhra Pradesh) and Mollywood (Malayalam/Kerala).
  • In 2011, the size of the Indian film industry was estimated to be over INR 90 billion, and with an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.2 percent, it is expected to reach INR 150 billion by 2016.
  • Indian cinema accounts for just 7 percent of global box office revenue.
  • Some 1.83 million people are employed in the film industry in India.


Why is copyright important for filmmakers?

Copyright gives filmmakers security. If you know you are creating something that you will make money from and that is going to take care of your future, you will invest in it 100 percent.

As a filmmaker in India, you have to turn out movie after movie, because you don’t get any royalties. Writers and filmmakers get paid very little in India; they depend on their production fees. They write a film, release it and it’s finished; there are no royalties, so they have to keep writing. That’s why the quality of films is low, because filmmakers simply can’t afford to devote enough time to refining their work before moving on to their next project.

Now that we have our new Copyright Law (the Copyright Amendment Act 2012), we know that when we create something we are going to get a return on it. When you know you are going to get royalties, you are going to give your best. You won’t run from one script to the next. Now that the new law is in place, I think we will see a lot more original and better quality work coming out of India.

How would you like to see Indian cinema evolve?

I would like to see mainstream audiences around the world start appreciating our cinema. In the way chicken tikka has become global, I hope that everybody starts enjoying Bollywood.

How do you account for the success of Barfi!?

I never expected this type of success. It’s very humbling. Many friends told me it was an unsafe film, because it didn’t follow a traditional formula. But I always thought it was safe, because it is entertaining and, besides, I wanted to tell this kind of story. It was the third highest-grossing film in India in 2012 and the highest grosser overseas. I think this is a sign that Indian cinema is changing. I have directed many films, but I am most proud of BARFI!.

How did the film’s storyline come about?

Some years ago I was working with a lot of special kids in workshops and, one day, one of them was visibly very upset. The teachers could do nothing to calm her, but as soon as the caretaker, a deaf and dumb guy, came into the room, she calmed down. The communication between the two of them was fascinating and it stayed with me. I went home that night and wrote a short story about it. Two years later, I decided to develop it into a full screenplay.

Scene from the critically acclaimed Indian
coming-of-age comedy-drama Zindagi Na
Milegi Dobara directed by Zoya Aktar and
produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani.

My previous movie, Life in the Metro, did really well and was critically acclaimed, but with Barfi! I wanted to introduce a new kind of cinema language to Bollywood. The film, which includes scenes reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, also gave me an opportunity to pay homage to the silent era movies I grew up watching.

The film is very special to me personally. It talks about selfless love and draws on many personal experiences. That’s what filmmakers do, they inhale life and exhale cinema.

Are you still learning about cinema?

Yes, you learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them in your next film. That’s how you grow. I am still trying hard to find my voice. With every film I am jumping genre and doing different stuff. I don’t have a definite style; all my movies are different. My next movie will be different again. You spend around one and a half years with a film, so it has to be different and new for you to get excited about it. I am passionate about cinema and about telling my own story in my own way. When you are bitten by the cinema bug you can’t do anything else.

I am still educating myself and am watching great cinema from all around the world. I came from a very small town, so my main influences are Indian literature and the films of Satyajit Ray. My parents only allowed me to watch his movies, nothing else. I also look forward to interacting with filmmakers at international film festivals – only those to which my films are invited, of course - to learn about what they are working on and how they are tackling the problems we all face. It is quite motivating. You come away thinking “if they can do it why can’t we?”.

Are you a writer or a director first?

I am a writer first and then a director. A writer has to be a convincing liar, and I was a good liar. That’s how I started. I write lots of short stories, because you never know when one will trigger an idea for a screenplay.

As a director, I’m a jack of all trades. Cinema is a collective art form. It takes all my knowledge of music, dance, theatre and acting to be able to direct a movie. But I also think about the Friday box office a lot. You can make a different kind of cinema, but the bottom line is it has to do well at the box office.

What does it take to create a blockbuster?

Entertainment is the key to box office success, especially in India. Whatever the genre, a film has to be entertaining, engaging and moving. It has to make viewers feel something – otherwise there is no point in making it.

What is your favorite film?

It keeps changing; I don’t have any all-time favorites. I love watching all kinds of movies, but Casablanca is among those I like most.

The Indian Film Industry – Some milestones

  • 1913 – Raja Harishchandra, produced and directed by Dadsaheb Phalke, marked the birth of India’s indigenous film industry.
  • 1931 – Alam Ara (“The Light of the World”), produced by pioneering director Ardeshir Irani, the first feature-length Indian talkie opens in Mumbai. Talkies also debuted in other languages: Tamil (Kalidass), Bengali (Jarnai Sashti) and Telugu (Bhakta Prahlada).
  • 1935 – First use of playback singers to provide the musical voices of Bollywood actors in Nitin Bose’s Dhoop Chhaon. This technique is still widely used in Indian cinema. Music, a hallmark of Indian cinema, is a major source of film revenue.
  • 1937 – Screening of India’s first color film, Kisan Kanya, produced by Ardeshir Irani. Directors Vishnupant Govind Damle and Sheikh Fattelal win an award for Sant Tukaram at the Venice Film Festival.
  • Late 1940s to 1960s – Golden Age of Indian Cinema
  • 1946 – Neecha Nagar by Ghetan Anand awarded best film at the first Cannes Film Festival
  • 1947 – Gyan Mukherjee’s 1943 film, Kismet, becomes the longest-running film in Kolkata, where it plays in the same theatre for three and a half years.
  • 1955 – Satyajit Ray’s classic Pather Panchali released. The film wins the National Film Award for Best Film and the Best Human Documentary Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • 1957 – Copyright Act (Act No. 14 of 1957) consolidates and amends Indian copyright law and provides for the setting up of a copyright office, under the control of the Registrar of Copyright and the Copyright Board, to deal with copyright-related disputes.
  • 1958 – Mehboob Khan’s epic film Mother India released and is India’s first nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
  • 1960 – The Film Institute of India is established. Satyajit Ray wins the Grand Prix at the Melbourne Film Festival for Two Daughters, and his film, The World of Apu, is chosen as best film by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in the US.
  • 1962 – Merchant-Ivory productions - a collaboration between Indian Ismail Merchant and American director James Ivory - is launched.
  • 1963 – The Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation (IMPEC) is established by the Indian Government to promote the expansion of Indian cinema.
  • 1964 – The National Film Archive of India is established. Satyajit Ray wins Best Director for Mahanagar as well as the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival for Charulata.
  • 1970s – Rise of commercial cinema
    • Fourteen distinct cinema cultures emerge in India, of which Bollywood (Hindi) is only one. Indian cinema’s popularity grows internationally thanks largely to a significant expatriate community, and its international influence continues to grow.
  • 1982 – Fashion designer Bhanu Athaiya becomes first Indian to win an Oscar – the Best Costume Design Award - for the film Gandhi.
  • 1987 – India’s first sci-fi film, Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr. India, released.
  • 1988 – Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! wins Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • 1992 – Satyajit Ray receives honorary Oscar – the Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • 1995 – Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge breaks all records and becomes an all-time blockbuster.
  • 1998 – The critically acclaimed art house film Satya written by Anurag Kashyap and directed by Ram Gopal Varma marks the emergence of “Mumbai noir”, a genre of urban films reflecting on social problems in Mumbai.
  • 2000 – to present. 
    • 2000s Growth in global popularity of Bollywood films takes Indian cinema to new heights in terms of quality, cinematography, innovative story lines and technical advances in special effects and animation, etc.
  • 2001 – The Government of India gives the motion picture sector industry status, making it easier for film producers to obtain institutional financing.
  • 2012 – Copyright (Amendment) Act 2012 extends copyright protection to performers, songwriters, composers and musicians.

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