Like many of the other world cinemas in their earlier years the Hindi film was predominantly shot on sets in the 1950s and 1960s. The difference was that the popular film in India – and not only in Hindi – defined spaces not as unified but as separate with each space denoted by its qualities.
A hospital was recognizable from the people in white coats and a rich man’s house from the winding staircase immediately visible when one entered. There were no small towns but there were villages, once again perhaps film sets like the one representing Sholay’s Rampur.
The teeming locales of the large city may have entered cinema only in the 1980s and 1990s, and that too only briefly as in films like JP Dutta’s Hathyar and the Bachchan starrer Agneepath (1990).
While there were striking earlier exception like Satya (1998) I would suggest that real locales (cities and small towns) became fixtures only in the new millennium when Hindi cinema moved to the multiplex and began catering to educated classes accustomed to Hollywood and art/middle cinema – films like those of Govind Nihalani (Aakrosh, 1980,Ardh Satya, 1983).
The first filmmaker to make systematic and striking use of real locales was perhaps Anurag Kashyap and although Black Friday (2004) does prefigure his later work, the fact that Indian locales were like no other may have dawned upon the smaller Mumbai filmmakers only after the advent of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) which provided an even shocking picture of Mumbai to the West and hence excited local attention in a way that Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) had not done earlier since that was a small film while Slumdog Milionaire won several Oscars, perhaps the first film about India after Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) to succeed at this level.
What Slumdog proved was that Indian locales had a vibrancy and colour unmatched in the world and Bombay film-makers working on small budgets have latched on to real locales with a vengeance.
Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) exploits the ‘grime tourism’ aspect of Indian locales to the hilt – and is perhaps even morally culpable on this account – while films like Ankhon Dekhi (set in Old Delhi) and Lipstick under My Burkha (set in Bhopal) suggest that the use of real locations can only grow from strength to strength since the milieu itself teems with action.
The use of real locales, I would argue, takes Indian cinema closer to realism (and mimesis) and makes it more acceptable internationally. It is perhaps ironic that the doyen of real-location shooting Anurag Kashyap had the biggest disaster of his filmmaking career when he broke with habit and decided to shoot a ‘period film’ Bombay Velvet (2015) on enormously expensive sets.