I got lots of cool suggestions yesterday as to what I should cover next, but while I let those percolate (and please, keep suggesting! Here is the post where I ask for ideas), I am going to do something simple and look at the top grossing film year by year since 1940. Should be an interesting way to see the industry evolving, both financially and creatively. You’ll see what I mean when I am complaining about the out of control box office inflation lately. Plus, gives us all space to talk about something totally different from Jab Harry Met Sejal.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: This list is from Wikipedia, if it is wrong, get mad at them, not me.
1940: Zindagi (PC Barua). A really interesting one to start with! A film way too progressive to be a hit today. A woman on the run from her husband who bonds with a young university student. Also interesting in terms of where the Hindi film industry was at the time. Barua was based out of Calcutta and tended to find his stories in novels, or in novel-like scripts. That was the appeal of Hindi film, a complex layered story grounded in Indian society, unlike the British/Hollywood films on offer. Oh, and the soundtrack was a hit. Featuring “singing stars”, that is, actors who did their own singing. Made 55 lakh, which would be 181 crore in today’s money. And that’s back when films had a much more limited release, only a few dozen theaters and screens instead of hundreds of thousands.
1941: Khazanchi (Moti B. Gidwani) That last film was all familiar names, PC Barua, KL Saigal starring, big deal director/producer and star. Just like today. But this movie, NONE OF THAT!!! Not a big deal director, no big name stars. But a really good plot, a complicated murder/jewel theft mystery. And a hit soundtrack with big name singers, not singing-actors, but actual singers (Noor Jehan, Shamshed Begum). And with a big of an experiment, combining classical Urdu sounds with Punjabi folk. See, songs! The oldest and most reliable form of making a hit. Made 70 lakh, the equivalent of 235 crore in today’s money.
1942: Basant (Amiya Chakrabarty) First Bombay Talkies film to show up on the list! This was Bombay Talkies under the leadership of Devika Rani, India’s first female studio head. Also, here’s something interesting, featured Madhubala as a child artist. A few years before she would be launched as an adult artist. Oh and, once again, great soundtrack. Made 80 lakh, 235 crore in today’s money.
1943: Kismet (Gyan Mukherjee) Remember from my Samarth-Mukherjee family series how the Mukherjee’s split off and formed their own studio? This is right before that, still a Bombay Talkies production. Also, once again, a film that could never get made today. Our hero is a pickpocket who falls in love with a dancer whose younger sister is pregnant out of wedlock. But, here’s where things are the same as today, our hero is played by a big big star (Ashok Kumar) and the soundtrack was a big hit. Oh, and it was the first film to break 1 crore. Which, today, is easy to dismiss as “oh how cute, they thought 1 crore was a big deal!” But that’s just if you are an idiot who doesn’t understand how inflation works (see also: arguments against raising the minimum wage in America). 1 crore back then is the same value as 269 crore today. It also ran for 187 weeks at one theater, the record until Sholay broke it. And then that was the record until DDLJ. Also, most importantly, it snuck in a strong Free India message in one of its songs. Stars, Politics, and Songs, all of them started way back in 1943 with the first record breaking hit film.
1944: Rattan (M. Sadiq): Another 1 crore film, only money had more value that year, so that is 1 crore equal to 275 crore today. And another film mostly a hit on the back of the songs. Including another extremely political hit, “Hindustan Ke Hum Hain”. See, this is why Rangoon made me so angry! The film people weren’t out of touch collaborators, they were hardcore life on the line rebels back then. And it’s super disrespectful to their bravery to pretend otherwise.
1945: Zeenat (Shaukat Hussain Rizvi) Our first Muslim Social! Not of all time, just this list. With a plot reminiscent of Pakeezah, and Aradhana, and dozens of other later films. A child born in sort-of illegitimacy whose mother is doubted and cast out. But set in an entirely Muslim community, with all the lovely artistry that inspires in the music, the dialogue, the costumes, the sets, etc. And then 2 years later, the producer/director and his star wife both left India to help found the Lahore based industry. Oh, and it only made 70 lakh, equivalent of 188 crore. We are entering a bad time for film profits, no doubt related to the uncertainty in society at the time. Or maybe not, sometimes the box office just goes sour for no reason.
1946: Anmol Ghadi (Mehboob Khan) Our first Mehboob! Woot-woot! “Mehboob Productions” is going to start popping up regularly from here on out. The plot is a love triangle of the similar style to what we will see over and over for the next 6 decades. But what makes it a little unusual is that it isn’t just the men who are fighting and sacrificing over a woman, the women are doing the same over a man. Plus, the women are actually the slightly bigger stars, Noor Johan and Surraiyya. Also, box office is back up to 1 crore. However, inflation is up too, so that 1 crore is only 249 crore in today’s money. So it still hasn’t started “growing”, isn’t back to the 1944 level.
1947: Jugnu (Shaukat Hussain Rizvi) Well this is fascinating! In 1947, the year of Partition, the highest grossing film was a Noor Jehan starrer. More important even than that, LAUNCHED DILIP KUMAR!!!! The first of the big stars to appear on this list. Also, terrible terrible box office. Or is it? Only 50 Lakh, but thanks to everything happening in the country, de-inflation was a thing. Meaning that 50 lakh actually is 363 crore today. The whole country was in tormoil, and people were spending the little money they had on movies. Or maybe everyone wanted one more chance to see Noor Jehan before she left.
1948: Shaheed (Ramesh Saigal) Our first Filmistan production! The Mukherjee family’s new film studio. More interestingly, our first historical film of the new India. A film glorifying the struggle for Independence and the sacrifices. And the first film to take the title “Shaheed”, preceding the most famous Shaheed, Manoj Kumar’s film on Shaheed Bhagat Singh. And the recent Shahid, about a very different kind of martyr to a free India, Shahid Azmi. That’s a really interesting thing right there, the way film’s “Shahids” changed from a kind of universal concept of the freedom struggle, to the specific, to a new kind of sacrifice in modern India. Oh, and also, 75 lakh in profit, but de-inflation had slowed so that was only 336 crore in modern money. Although still bigger than the pre-Independence box office.
1949: Barsaat (Raj Kapoor) Woot! RK Films!!! Raj’s second production, after Aag. And already a record breaker. This is why people put so much pressure on Ranbir, and why Jagga Jasoos was such a disappointment. This is what we expect from a Kapoor, 25 years old and he stars, directs, and produces the biggest hit of the year. And uses the profits to build the biggest film studio in Bombay. Oh, and made 2 crore, which would be more impressive except for the whole inflation thing which means it was actually only 263 crore in modern money.
1950: Samadhi (Ramesh Saigal) And Ashok Kumar rises again! He had the first record breaking hit as a star, he bought his own studio and power with the proceeds from that. And he had a successful career, but not the top film of the year for 7 years now. Dilip and Raj both had bits that surpassed him. But does that mean Ashok was out? No, it’s not as simple as that. Dilip and Raj were rising, but Ashok was still there, still able to get a hit on his name alone from an unknown studio and unknown director. If nothing else, Kismet was still running! At least in one theater. 187 weeks, remember? Ashok was the first star/producer/big-name-who-opens-a-movie-on-his-own, but in 1950, it wasn’t yet clear that he wouldn’t be the last star like that. And in fact his time was almost over, he had the biggest hit of the year, but it was a bad year, this was a much smaller hit than the past few years. 1.35 crore or 188 crore in today’s money.
1951: Awaara (Raj Kapoor) And BOOM!!!! INDUSTRY CHANGER!!!! This is what people are waiting for today, and were waiting for in 1974, and again in the early 90s. The box office is in an uneven decline (there are still record breakers, but when you adjust for inflation and other changes, they really aren’t). The situation in the country is changing, the economy is changing, the older stars and other artists are aging, it just feels like something is about to happen. And in 1951, it did. This was the birth of Hindi film as we know it today. Massive profits, massive fantasies, and most of all, Massive Star. Raj Kapoor was 27 years old, and he made a film more profitable than anything we have seen from the Hindi industry in the past 10 years. 5 crore or 739 crore in today’s money.
1952: Aan (Mehboob Khan) Raj may have knocked them back a little, but Mehboob Khan was still in there swinging, and so was Dilip Kumar. Awara was the beginning of a new era, and Aan was a sign that this new era would be shared between multiple stars. A sign of some other stuff too, no more small social dramas or low budget crime films. You had to spend money to make money, whether it was on this huge costume epic or on Awaara‘s massive fantasy sets. Even so, didn’t come close to Awaara. Only 2.8 crore, or 356 crore in today’s money.
1953: Anarkali (Nandlal Jaswantlal) Another Filmistan film! See, this is why I have such high hopes for little Adirani. She’s got the blood of two powerful film studios in her veins. Also, interesting film to be the top this year. No big male star, but a very big story, the story of Anarkali and Salim with all the historical epicness it requires. And yet, with all of that (plus a classic soundtrack), it didn’t come close to the money that the two previous star-lead films had made, 2.35 crore or 296 crore in today’s money.
1954: Nagin (Nandlal Jaswantlal) And once again, Filmistan! Dang those Mukherjee’s are SMART! And this time they worried a little less about historical epicness, and a little more about music. Which was also smart. Vyjantimala was the star lead, giving all her amazing dancing to the visuals, and the soundtrack was woven in and out of the plot. Plus, technicolor. If you can’t get a star, you just go big on music and color and dance and you can almost make up for it. 2.9 crore or 363 crore in today’s money.
1955: Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor) Oh yeah, he’s BACK! Another massive hit that made everything else look like a joke. And once more directed/produced/starring Raj Kapoor. Total Star Show. And made more money than all that other stuff made by established studios with creative collaboration and so on. 4.94 crore or 618 crore in today’s money.
(And also a brilliant beautiful film)
Okay, that’s the first 15 years of film. Let’s pause and see what we can learn from it. First, money is meaningless unless you understand the concept of inflation. We are talking now about 100 crore, 200 crore, 300 crore, 600 crore, like it is a big deal. Films were making way way WAY more than that back in the day. The film industry is in one of its worst periods right now, but inflation is hiding that from us.
Also, money always goes up and down a lot year to year. The film industry isn’t static in profits, you don’t just grow and grow and grow, you grow and come down and go up and go sidewise and all kinds of things. To say that it is a “bad year” or that there is a “bad trend” just because it doesn’t beat the previous year is flawed thinking.
Also, you see why the star films changed everything? If Raj Kapoor is making 700 crore from a film, and the biggest best film you can make without him is topping out at 363, then you are going to start chasing Raj Kapoor. This is where the industry began, and it’s where it continues to this day. The non-star films are just not even close to the star profits.
And finally, you see how Independence changed everything? The film industry was always doing well, but post 1947, big BIG jump ahead. Plus, totally different kind of films, less small social dramas and more big joyous spectacles.
(Aan is so much fun)