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Parsis the founder of the Indian cinema

The numbers may be diminishing but the contribution cannot be wished away and swept under the carpet

Thursday 20 September 2007, by ANONYMUS

While those who hail from Punjab and came to Mumbai to find their fortunes in the Indian cinema have during the last thirty years, literally commandeered the scene with their overbearing presence so to say, it was the Parsis who literally nurtured the roots of the Indian cinema and gave it the direction that it has acquired today. Even then it is indeed surprising that as the community it has just marched on after laying the foundation for one more world class industry as they have done in other fields.

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Alam Ara (عالم آرا)
Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara is not just a movie — it is a legend. Movie history records it as the first Indian talkie.
Irani, the head of Imperial Film Company and maker of silent films like Navalsha Hirji (1925), Mumbai Ni Sethani (1924), Paap No Fej (1924) and Shahjehan (1924), was a visionary who saw that the film industry was about to be revolutionized by sound and beat several others to get Alam Ara to the theatre first.

This does not mean that the Parsis do not have a presence in the cinema of the present times. Even though, there physical strength may be small, they still have a yeomen contribution to make. Take for example Shiamak Davar who has given a new idiom to the way the dance is composed in the industry. When he made his presence in Dil to Paagal Hai, from that time the metamorphosis that industry has undergone can be considered to be a watershed when the fault lines of dance of Hindi film industry is chronicled. Before Shiamak western dance was hardly grace personified as it became after Shiamak and he created continuous new frontiers since then.

Bomman Irani is another actor who has given a new dimension to character acting, be it in Munnabhai series, or Don. Interestingly enough, Bomman has not taken the route of a Parsi character to make his presence felt, but seems to be following unconsciously, the path which was laid by undoubtedly one of the biggest Parsi actors to grace the silver screen, David. The towering presence that David commandeered holding himself firmly against the likes of Raj Kapoor to Amitabh Bachchan from Jagte Raho to Abhimaan and Chupke Chupke. David was nearly a regular fixture in all the films of consequences, and he also occasionally played a Parsi character in his long tenure.

While Ardesh Irani is regarded as the father of the Indian cinema, it was way back in 1853 that Parsis made their first mark in the Indian entertainment industry. Illustrious follower of Ardesh Irani was Sohrab Modi who’s picturisation of historic characters created a spirit of national favour which still remains unparalleled. They were followed by the Wadia brothers. It was this community which owing to the progressive image it had, and the other Indian communities still dogged by the dogma of participating in cinema, that gave various heroines in the initial stages, like fearless Nadia, Saraswati Devi (first woman music director) etc. The stunts that Nadia performed in those days without any technology to support still enthrall the audience.

There have been quite a lot of films that have been made providing a show case to the Parsi Culture and the first film Khatta Meetha was a landmark as it tried to unravel the existentialist dilemma of the Parsi community caught in the throes of development, and the sheer fact that of the delightful faces of Indian film Pearl Padmasee played an important role in it, still amuses and entertains. It was followed by Baton Baton Mein which again was in the genre of light films probing into the dilemma of the Parsis in a very subtle manner. It was followed by other such films which essentially probed the dilemmas of the Parsis like Pestonjee, Percy, Such a Long Journey, 1947: Earth, Being Cyrus, etc.

The numbers may be diminishing but the contribution cannot be wished away and swept under the carpet. It is the community which gave the platform for the Indian cinema to attain the world class status that it has acquired today. They are the real persons and the spirit is epitomized in the voice of one more successful Parsi Alisha Chenai in her song… Made In India.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world in terms of the ticket sales and the number of films produced annually (877 feature films and 1177 short films were released in the year 2003 alone). In contrast, 473 films were produced in the US in 2003. Movie tickets in India are among the cheapest in the world. India accounts for 73% of movie admissions in the Asia-Pacific region, and earnings are currently estimated at US$ 2.9 billion. The industry is mainly supported by the vast cinema-going Indian public. The Central Board of Film Certification of India cites on its website that every three months an audience as large as India’s billion-strong population visits cinema halls. Indian films are popular in various parts of the world, especially in countries with significant Indian communities.

Forum posts

  • Statistics can be both great in terms of clarifying certain situations as well as misleading if they are not handled properly.

    Given the digits given in this article here to do with the number of movies made in India in the year 2003 vs those made in USA in the same year are true and correct, let’s make a simple calculation:

    India has a population of 1`000`000`000 people. The total of the movies and documentaries made in that year is 877 + 1177 = 2054 which when divided by the number of heads living in that country will give a ratio of 0.000002054.

    Now, the number of movies made in American in the same year are reportedly 473 with nothing mentioned in the article of the number of documentaries made in that country and in that year. Let’s presume the number of documentaries made in that country in that year was 500 (taking it as a number less than that made by Indians the same year and as reported in this article) while we can be sure it must have been higher than that.

    The population of America is 300`000`000 and the total of the movies and documentary films made in America in the year 2003 when divided by the population gives the digit 3.2433.

    If these calculations and the data they are based on are correct, then the movie industry in America is much more active than that of India, at least in quantity.

    We cannot really decide over how the American public treats these movies in terms of going to theaters and watching them or the if the ticket price is higher here in America and so forth but we can surely say that the number of people around the world watching American movies in bootleg or legal video and DVD in their homes and in their cinemas is much higher than those watching Indian movies.

    Statistics are great, only if they are used wisely and without exaggerations.

  • pl note - David was not a parsee but was a jewish-indian who spoke marathi. his name was David Abraham Cheulkar

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