In 1896, Marius Sestier, a young pharmacist from Lyon, set off on a trip around the world. Sestier had been employed by the Lumière brothers as a cameraman and cinematograph operator. Midway on his journey to Australia, Sestier stopped off at Watson’s hotel in Mumbai, where, on 7 July, he presented the first cinematograph show in India.
Within a few years, Indian directors were making their own moving pictures. The first full-length India feature film was Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913. Almost a century later, India is the world’s largest producer of films – some estimate more than 1,000 films a year (Hollywood produces around 600). There are Tamil and Telugu language film studios based in Madras and Hyderabad, and Hindi language studios based in Mumbai. Every day, an estimated 15m people in India go to one of the country’s 12,500 cinemas, and every month the pages of Filmfare and Stardust – the most popular film and entertainment magazines – are filled with tales of the stars. Indian cinema is big business. It’s also a family business.
The founding family of Indian cinema are the Kapoors, who trace their lineage back to Prithviraj Kapoor, who starred in India’s first talking picture, Alam Ara (1931). Prithviraj’s son Raj, known as “The Showman”, was one of India’s great actor/director/producers whose own sons, Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv, have gone on to work in film, as have their children. In The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema (2006), Madhu Jain quotes Randhir as saying: “We are like the Corleones.” Except they’re much nicer. And for real.
Other great Indian film dynasties include the Deols, the Dutts and the Khans, not to mention the Gangulys, the Hussains, and the Mangeshkars. The connections between all the families is mindbogglingly complex. Anupama Chopra’s book, King of Bollywood (2007), about Shah Rukh Khan – one of the few Indian stars to have established a career without any family connections – begins with an eight-page cast list of main characters.
Perhaps the most glamorous of the Indian film dynasties are the Bachchans, headed by the super-smooth bearded patriarch Amitabh Bachchan. As well as being an actor and producer, Amitabh was also, briefly, an MP, and became the host of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Amitabh’s son Abhishek, also an actor, is married to the most famous Indian actor in the world, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Aishwarya is a former Miss World, the face of L’Oréal, and has appeared in both Hindi and English language films, as well as in the worldwide Franglais flop, Pink Panther 2. She is the first international Bollywood superstar. Jigna Desai and Rajinder Dudrah, in The Bollywood Reader (2008), define Bollywood films as “characterised by music, dance routines, melodrama, lavish production values and an emphasis on stars and spectacle”.
But the term itself is controversial and misleading, with perhaps more than a hint of disrespect, as though Indian cinema were merely a poor second to its senior and superior American counterpart. Tejaswini Ganti makes a useful and fine distinction in Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2004): “The Bombay film industry is aesthetically and culturally distinct from Hollywood, but as prolific and ubiquitous in its production and circulation of narratives and images.” Bollywood is also just as obsessed as Hollywood with its dynasties and its famous families.
The great Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta has argued that dynasties are a common feature of developing societies, characterised as they are by small but strong ruling elites and an underdeveloped middle class. It remains to be seen what the superpower future of India holds for its super-powerful film families.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010