Brief History of Indian Cinema

Image by André Koehne/CC Licensed
Image by André Koehne/CC Licensed

India was first exposed to motion pictures when the Lumiere Brothers’ Chinematographe showed six soundless short films on July 7, 1896, in Bombay. By 1899, Harishchandra Bhatvadekar shot two short films, which were exhibited with Edison’s projecting kinetoscope. Throughout the first two decades, the trend continued with filmmakers such as Hiralal Sen and F. B.  Thanawalla, J. F.  Madan and Abdullah Esoofally, and others. Dada Sahib Phalke produced India’s first indigenous silent film, Raja Harishchandra, in May of 1913, which enabled the film industry to fully take shape. By 1920, the Indian Cinema was becoming part of society (“History of Indian Cinema”) (see also Salman Rushdie).

The Representation of Women on Screen

In traditional Indian society, there are certain prescribed roles which regulate the conduct of women (see Gender and Nation). For example, the conception of the woman as Sita is prevalent in Indian society and film. Sita is a character in the Ramayana, one of the great epics, which embodies values and the differences between right and wrong. She is the wife of Rama, who is representative of many virtues including honor, courage, and loyalty. Much of Indian popular cinema is influenced by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, another epic, which involves the hero Lord Krishna. Sita is the ideal woman and wife that sees her husband as an idol. Indian popular cinema represents this role of the ideal wife’s admiration and unfaltering respect.

Also, according to the Manusmriti, an ancient classical work dealing with laws, ethics, and morality, a woman should be subject to her father in childhood, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead, to her children. Within the guidelines of the Manusmriti, women do not enjoy independence. Women are supposed to adhere to the role of a happy figure who takes care of the household. They are supposed to be obedient to their husbands and go to every length to honor them even after death (see Third World and Third World Women, Divorce in India).

Although Indian cinema continues to change and evolve, reflecting new trends in gender relations, in some Indian cinema women who live by these traditional norms are portrayed as happy and ethical. Women who go against these rules of narrative and culture in film are punished and seen as immoral.

Four Roles of Women

The Changing Role of Women in Bollywood Cinema, 2011.

These roles and constructions of women are reflected in a great deal of popular Indian Cinema. Four important roles to consider include the ideal wife, ideal mother, the vamp, and the courtesan (Dissanayake 77).

  • The Ideal Wife

This character is represented by sexual purity and fidelity. She must be consistent with traditional Indian roles by honoring the family and depending on the husband. She is closely connected to the domestic domain.

  •  The Ideal Mother

Indian reference to the mother involves religious suggestion. The country is connected with the mother goddess, Shakti, who represents great strength. The role of the mother in Indian film is often seen as a strong force, such as in Mother India (1957).

  •  The Vamp

The vamp in Indian film is modern and imitates Western women. Her behavior can include smoking, drinking, and dancing. She can also be quick to fall in and out love. She represents unacceptable behavior and is seen as unwholesome. She is almost always punished for her behavior.

  •  The Courtesan

The courtesan is outside the normal realm of Indian womanhood in that she is a type of prostitute or dancing girl.  She embodies sexuality. She is a character who helps with the physical and emotional needs of men. Often in Indian film, she gives the man comfort and care, after which he leaves her to desperately mourn the loss of him.

Sexuality in Indian Cinema

Many of the roles represented here are similar to that of the roles of women in Western film. For example, the women are seen as objects of desire. This relates to the representations of romance and the female figure in Indian popular film.

Kissing was unknown in Indian film for a long time. Public displays of affection are associated with Western life.  However, there are blatant scenes involving sexuality. Although more recent films often include scenes of overt sexual relations, traditionally Indian film has used three techniques (as categorized by Richards) to convey this sexuality: tribal dress, dream sequences/wet saris, and behind the bush.

  • Tribal Dress

Because many Indian films involve music and dance, Richards explains, “tribal costumes are used for the exposure of vast expanses of the body, in particular the pelvic region” (qtd. in Dissanayake 79).

  • Dream Sequences/Wet Sari

Dreams offer the ability to express sexual desires and explore forbidden pleasure. Wet saris are often involved in these dreams and are caused by a downpour in which the woman’s flimsy sari allows for exposure of the female body.

  •  Behind the Bush

The music and dance in films often gives characters the opportunity to run behind the bushes quickly. Afterwards the woman wipes off her lips, insinuating what occurred.

See also Hybridity and Postcolonial Music, Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art, Deepa Mehta, List of Writers and Filmakers from the Indian Subcontinent. 

Related Links

LA Weekly article “Planet Bollywood?” by David Chute

PBS Independent Lens Indian Musicals

The Bollywood and Its Women by Ritu Ganguli

Works Cited

  • Chakravarty, Sumita S. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
  • Dissanayake, Wimal, and K. Moti Gokulsing. Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change. London: Trentham Books Limited, 1998.

Author:  Carolyn Finch, Fall 2000
Last edited: October 2017


  1. very well portrayed. Bollywood is Bollywood but recently we have seen that things are changing for the better. New stories are coming where women are taking the lead roles.

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