100 years of Indian Cinema – an opportunity for international collaboration

By Dr Helen Bailey, Deputy Director RCUK India

One of the great aspects of our role here in India, is the huge diversity of the research and people we engage with.  India has a wealth of expertise in so many areas of research, representing a great range of opportunities for UK collaboration.  At Research Councils UK India we are very keen to enable a broad range of research across the disciplines, and that has recently led us to work with the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to sponsor the attendance of UK researchers and practioners at a conference organised by Sarai at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), in Delhi.

confposter‘The Many Lives of Indian Cinema: 1913-2013 and beyond’ was a unique conference bringing together researchers from the UK, US, Germany and Canada with colleagues from across India and South Asia.  The conference explored and celebrated the history, influences and impacts of Indian cinema.

The conference was inaugurated by Girish Karnad, a contemporary writer, playwright, screenwriter, actor and movie director.  His speech shared a wonderful insight into the inner workings of the Indian film industry. He spoke of the egos, insecurities and arrogance of all of those involved and the problems that this created, including scheduling arguments, script changes, character modifications and that it meant that an actor was never given the whole script at the start of a project!  His motto of working in the industry is ‘you can never trust anyone’.

GirishEven with these rather unusual opening comments, Girish Karnad  is clearly proud of the progress and achievements of Indian cinema since Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913, and was proud to have played a role in this exciting industry.  This introduction was a great start to the conference, and prompted the audience to consider not just the final products of the industry, but the personalities and individuals involved.

Other highlights included:

  •  Nitin Govil from the University of California, LA who spoke about the long, and sometimes turbulent history between Hollywood and India, including the periods of institutionalised racism, the importance of the Indian workforce and Julia Robert’s conversion to Hinduism.
  • Lotte Hoek from the University of Edinburgh spoke of her detective work to find out more about ‘Son of Pakistan’, a movie made in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).  This movie has been lost in history, and there is even confusion over what language it was made in – Urdu, Bengali or English?  This uncertainty reflects the changing political landscape in the region over time.
A scene from Raja Harishchandra, a 1913 silent film, widely acknowledged to be the first Indian feature length movie.

A scene from Raja Harishchandra, a 1913 silent film, widely acknowledged to be the first Indian feature length movie.

This conference was a unique opportunity to bring together international researchers to enable in-depth discussions and explore future collaborations.  We hope this will enable the UK research community to play a key role in this fascinating and variable research field.

Thank you and well done to all the colleagues at Sarai for organising such a high quality and well organised conference.