Indian Cinema’s Dialogue With Neorealism: Creating Something Different Than Bollywood

From the start of Indian cinema, the Hindi language films have been popular and commercial which was influenced by Hollywood. Later on, the Hindi industry was called Bollywood because of its ties to Hollywood and it being dominant in the city of Bombay. Bollywood films followed a classic narrative similar to Hollywood. In the 1950s, Indian directors like Satyajit Ray wanted to make “real” films that depicted the life of everyday Indians post-independence instead of the popular films (Bollywood) that were dominating Indian cinema. Ray was inspired by the Italian Neorealism movement that took place in post-World War II Italy between 1945 and 1951.[1] The movies that were released during this time were realistic as they mainly portrayed working class people and their struggles during post war times. Even though the films are realistic, they are still fiction films and not documentaries. In Film History, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note that the neorealism movement “did create a distinct approach to fictional filmmaking.”[2] Ray’s debut film, Pather Panchali (1955), also uses the practices of neorealist films to comment on the lives of poor villagers in the rural parts of India.  The Italian Neorealist film movement inspired directors of Indian Cinema who aimed to create an alternative to the classic Bollywood film genre.

On August 15th, 1947, India gained its independence from Great Britain. When India broke away from Great Britain, part of India itself also broke away. The partition happened because of religion. The Muslims created a new country called Pakistan while the Hindus stayed in India. The first prime minster of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, led the newly independent India. He was responsible for reconstruction in India. India’s economy suffered after independence because their main source to trade with was Great Britain and because of the partition. According to Moinak Biswas in Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, “the period of early reconstruction under the leadership of Nehru was one in which the hopes of nation building [and] of development.”[3] India was also becoming more global after the war. Bombay (Mumbai) was the financial capital of the world and was known as a cosmopolitan center. It was seen as a big global city where people can prosper and their dreams can come true.[4] One could compare that Indians looked at Bombay the same way the world looks at America. Independent India also saw a new wave in Indian Cinema especially in Bombay with Hindi films. The 1950s was known as the Golden Age of Indian Cinema.[5] During this time, big stars in Bollywood like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, and Nargis emerged. Raj Kapoor is one of Bollywood’s most famous actors. He was also a director and a producer and owns his own production house, RK Films. His family is known today as the first family in Bollywood, as members of the family have been starring in movies from the beginning of Bollywood to present day.

A popular, successful Bollywood movie that depicts postcolonial life is Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955). This movie is about an orphaned man Raj (played by Raj Kapoor), who travels from northern India to Bombay in order to make money. Once in Bombay, Raj sells his valuables but gambles away the money. One day he goes to the beach where he meets Vidya and they fall in love. Afterwards he tries to make an honest living but he still ends up poor. Then, a crooked businessman hires him and he becomes rich, but deceitfully, as a con man. Vidya breaks up with him because she does not like who he has become. Over time he realizes his mistakes and decides to redeem himself. At the end of the movie, the businessman is caught and arrested and Vidya forgives him for his wrongdoings. They live happily ever after. The plot of the film is very dramatic but it also seen as a comedy. This is very common in Bollywood films. Shree 420 was a very powerful movie because it represented Indians’ dreams of becoming rich now that they were not under British rule anymore. This movie was also appreciated globally. Raj Kapoor became the most famous Indian in Russia.[6] According to Rashmi Varma, in the article “Provincializing the Global City From Bombay to Mumbai,” Raj Kapoor’s character “became the symbol of a globalizing socialism in the wake of third world decolonization.”[7]

This movie is a classic melodramatic Bollywood movie that follows the common narrative of love, drama, and action. According to Bordwell and Thompson, “the postwar [Bollywood] formula centers on a romantic or sentimental main plot, adds a comic subplot, and finishes with a happy ending.”[8] The plot of Bollywood films is integrated with song and dance. The thought of having song and dance in the films was so the film could also amaze the poor and illiterate.[9]  Bollywood’s common themes are present from the very beginning of the film. After the opening credits we see a shot of a road and Raj walking down the road towards the camera. The way he walks reminds the audience of Charlie Chaplin and because of this there is already a sense of comedy. During this scene he pretends to be hit by the crooked businessman’s car. This interaction foreshadows his downfall from the honest man that he is. A song, Mera Joota Hai Jaapani, comes immediately after this scene as he is traveling to Bombay. This song’s chorus is about how all of his items of clothing are foreign but he is still Indian. The song ties into the plot because he is singing about traveling to make a name or fortune but still keeping his Indian values which is exactly what was happening in the narrative. Shree 420 does have some realistic elements but it is presented in the classic Hollywood and Bollywood narrative of set up, conflict, and resolution with a happy ending.

The problem that Indian directors had with Bollywood films is that they do not give a proper portrayal to all Indians.  India is a third world country and a huge portion of the population lives in small villages and/or poverty. Indian filmmakers wanted to break away from the classic Bollywood narrative and show some realism of the Indian people.  Satyajit Ray wanted to make an adaptation from the novel, Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.  The novel is about a family living in a small village. Ray made changes from the novel but he wanted to keep the realistic aspect of it, as well as the “rambling” aspect of the novel and not add a Bollywood conflict to it. According to Ray, “that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.” [10] Italian neorealism stimulated filmmakers like Ray to create these true films. In fact, when Ray saw Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, he stated, “ [I] knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali…I would make it in the same way.” [11] And he made it in that way.

Directors of the Italian neorealism movement used alternative practices while shooting their movies. For example, the films were normally shot on location, which allowed the use of natural lighting. Also, the actors were non-professional. The filmmakers would use long takes instead of the conventional editing pace. Shooting on location, not using professional actors, and long takes helped portray the realistic element. De Sica was a notable director and an inspiration to Ray. His 1948 film, Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette), is known to be one of the best representations of the difficulties for people after the war that were shown in the films during this movement.[12] It uses the practices of the neorealist movement to comment on the post-war struggles of everyday men.

Bicycle Thieves is a film about a common man, Ricci, who has trouble earning money to support his family. Every morning he searches for work. He finds one job but needs a bicycle. He does not have a bicycle anymore because he has pawned it. His wife then pawns their bed sheets given by her family when they got married in order to get his bicycle back. One day, while working, his bike is stolen. The rest of the film revolves around him trying to find his bike. Ricci, along with his son Bruno, search the city for the bike. At one point he sees the thief but is not able to catch him. Later on he sees the thief again but is unable to prove to the police that he is the one that took his bike. At the end, Ricci ends up falling for temptation and steals someone else’s bicycle and gets caught. Luckily, the owner sees Bruno and decides to not press charges against Ricci.  The film ends with Ricci and Bruno walking together and blending into the crowd.

To some, Bicycle Thieves can be viewed as a film that follows a man in search for his bike. But the film is actually commenting on the times in Italy after World War II. People in the country were out of work and having a tough time. They struggled to earn enough money for their families. De Sica uses the bicycle to represent the path to wealth and success for Ricci. To portray this, the film uses neorealist techniques. One of the most important neorealist techniques that Bicycle Thieves uses is non-professional actors. In the film, Lamberto Maggiorani plays the lead actor. He is not a professional actor. Using non-professional actors showed the realness of these films. It also helps portray the message of the film because these actors could have gone through the same problems as their characters. This is evident through their facial expressions. In the very last scene of the film, when Bruno and Ricci are walking with the crowd, Ricci starts to cry. He is crying for two different reasons. First, he is upset because he never got his bike back which means he cannot provide for his family. He is also crying because he just gave into temptation and stole a bike. He was so desperate that he stooped down to the level of the thief for his family. Maggiorani makes it seem so real and the viewer forgets for a second that he is actually an actor. This is because he has experienced the same feeling of not being able to provide for the family. Maggiorani’s expressions not only in this scene but also throughout the entire movie help the audience experience the reality of Italy. This is what the movement intended to do. Even though Italian neorealism films represented the people, Italians criticized neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves because they showed the negative. Although some Italians were not in favor of them, these films were seen and appreciated worldwide, which is how filmmakers like Ray got inspired to make movies like Pather Panchali.

Pather Panchali is a story about an Indian family living in a small rural area of Bengal. The protagonist of the film is the son Apu who lives with his father, mother, sister, and aunt. His father is a priest who travels looking for work as a poet. His mother takes care of the household. The family is poor and rarely has enough to eat. His sister, Durga, is a troublemaker but he protects her. His mother, Sarbajaya, has to listen to taunts from the neighbors about her Durga stealing fruit and other things. The entire movie is about their life and there is no real conflict in it. Apu and Durga have a very normal sibling relationship. They love each other but they also make fun of each other. Apu and his sister enjoy life without the need for materialistic items. They follow around the candy guy even though they cannot afford his items, they listen to their aunt’s scary stories at night, they chase each other through fields, and they watch excitedly as a train passes by. They also have to deal with death when they discover their aunt’s body in the forest on their way home. At the end of the film, Durga also dies after contracting malaria after getting wet in the rain. Apu’s father returns home with gifts from the city and sees his daughter dead. He decides to take the rest of his family with him back to the city. The last shot of the movie is Apu and his family leaving the village.

Pather Panchali has a very simple story. It is centered on humans and problems that they face in life. “Pather Panchali established as a fully formed aesthetic what was only partially operative in earlier Indian cinema, that is, the realist textual principle. The success of this aesthetic was measured in terms of its ability to free itself of impulses characteristic of traditional Indian cinema.”[13] It was very different from a Bollywood movie. There were some scenes that if Ray wanted to could make it seem like a Bollywood movie.  An example of this is in the scene where Apu and Durga are outside in the rains. Apu hides from the rain under a tree but Durga plays in the rain. A Bollywood movie would put a happy song during this scene and Durga and Apu would start singing and dancing. Ray did not do this to keep the realistic theme. He also made this very simple scene important by having her actions in the scene cause her death.[14]  In an interview Ray states, “I certainly discovered rural life while making Pather Panchali. There’s no question of that…Talking to people, reacting to moods, to the landscape, to the sights and sounds–all this helped.”[15] By really learning about the rural life he was able to make a very realistic film. Not only was Ray able to make a film that the villagers appreciated because they were able to relate to it, but also he was able to make a film that all the viewers appreciated.

Satyajit Ray was able to accomplish this by using same techniques that Italian neorealist directors used. In Pather Panchali, Ray uses shooting on location, long takes, and unprofessional actors to make this film. One of the most popular scenes in the film is the best example of this because that scene incorporates all aspects of neorealism. It is the scene where Apu and Durga are in the field. This scene is shot on location in an actual field and not in a built set. The scene begins with a shot of the field. Then the camera tilts up slowly to show the power lines. The camera stays fixed on the power lines for a few seconds, then cuts to Durga looking up at the power lines. This is a long take where the camera stays on Durga in a medium close up shot for a while. The shot focuses on her as she stares up at the power lines and then down towards the ground and back up again to the side. Using a long take here is effective because it opens Durga up to the viewer. Following that, the camera cuts to Apu as he is walking in the field. It then cuts back and forth between Apu and Durga as they move throughout the field. Eventually Apu catches up with Durga and they sit and eat sugar cane. The shot is so raw and real of Apu eating the sugar cane when food is scarce at home. Apu’s expressions in this scene are so much more truthful because he is a non-professional actor. A boy named Subir Banerjee plays Apu.  The viewers can identify with Apu and it makes them forget they are watching a movie like in Bicycle Thieves with Ricci. Ray actually had trouble with Apu in this scene. Since Apu had not acted before it was hard for him to move around the field, as Ray wanted him to. Italian Neorealism helped him to achieve what he did. “Rays perception of the way that De Sica handled the father in Bicycle Thieves (rather than the boy) helped to give him the confidence to direct his child actor as a puppet too.[16] Just like in Bicycle Thieves the actor has gone through these same issues and experiences so he is able to present it the audience more effectively. That is the advantage to using a non-professional actor. Using these kinds of actors, shooting long takes, and shooting on location all really portray the realness and actuality of village life. If the makers shot on sets and if they used professional actors the film would have to potential to look fake or rehearsed.

The way Satiyajit Ray made Pather Panchali helped audiences worldwide connect with the film with the neorealist aspects of it. The film was shown at the 1956 Cannes Festival and was well appreciated. Ray never thought his movie would be seen throughout India and the world. “The fact that they have is an indication that, if your’re able to portray universal feelings, universal relations, emotions, and characters, you can cross certain barriers and reach out to others, even non-Bengalis,”[17] states Ray. This film did not obey borders and it gave Indian cinema a name globally in a way that Bollywood films had never done. “The dialogue with neorealism…was one of the ways in which Indian cinema entered a global affiliation; it found an alternative mode of becoming part of world cinema-a globalism different from the one created across nations by Hollywood.”[18] Internationally, people appreciated films that were not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood or Bollywood. Audiences valued movies that showed real life and real emotions. It was proven that films do not need a definite narrative or a happy ending. Globally, both Italian Neorealism films and films like Pather Panchali were seen as “the modernity against the so-called backward practices of popular cinema”[19] The success that both De Sica and Ray experienced worldwide caused them to be known as some of the greatest directors.

Throughout time Hindi Bollywood films have been the dominating Indian cinema. Post-independence, during the golden age, a new wave of films started to emerge.  Some Bollywood movies started to emerge social issues of the time like Shree 420. But these films still contained the classic Bollywood format. Different movies like Pather Panchali was well received globally and created a new path for Indian cinema. Many directors were inspired by Ray to create “real” movies also. Ray was able to accomplish this with the inspiration of Italian Neorealism. During the time of Italian neorealism, De Sica used neorealist techniques in his film, Bicycle Thieves, to help convey the life of an everyday man in Italy after World War II to the audience. Ray used these same techniques to convey the rural village life to the audience. The realness in both of these films caused them to be respected in and out of their countries. Italian Neorealism was a movement that did not obey boarders, which triggered unconventional Indian films to not obey boarders either.


[1] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History 3rd Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 330.

[2] Bordwell and Thompson, Film History, 330.

[3] Moinak Biswas, “In the mirror of an alternative globalism: The neorealist encounter in India,” in Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, ed. Laura E. Ruberto & Kristi M. Wilson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007): 77.

[4] Rashmi Varma, “Provincializing the global city: from Bombay to Mumbai,” Social Text 22, no. 4 (2004), 68.

[5] Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (New York: Routledge, 2013), 63.

[6] Rashmi Varma, “Provincializing the global city: from Bombay to Mumbai, 67.

[7] Rashmi Varma, “Provincializing the global city: from Bombay to Mumbai, 67.

[8] Bordwell and Thompson, Film History, 374.

[9] Bordwell and Thompson, Film History, 375.

[10] Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye: the biography of a master film-maker. (London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1989), 75.

[11] Moinak Biswas, “In the mirror of an alternative globalism: The neorealist encounter in India,” 85.

[12] Bordwell and Thompson, Film History, 332.

[13] Moinak Biswas, “In the mirror of an alternative globalism: The neorealist encounter in India,” 72.

[14] Bordwell and Thompson, Film History, 400-401.

[15] Udayan Gupta and Satyajit Ray,”The Politics of Humanism: An Interview with Satyajit Ray,” Cineaste 12, no. 1 (1982), 24.

[16] Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye, 78.

[17] Udayan Gupta and Satyajit Ray,”The Politics of Humanism”, 24.

[18] Moinak Biswas, “In the mirror of an alternative globalism: The neorealist encounter in India,” 85.

[19] Moinak Biswas, “In the mirror of an alternative globalism: The neorealist encounter in India,” 73.