(The Golden Age of Cambodian cinema was greatly inspired by Indian films, writes Sun Narin)
In retrospect, Cambodia and India share a strong relationship in terms of culture, religion and language. India’s influence is not invisible in the Hindu-style temples of Angkor Wat or the Khmer script, which is derived from Sanskrit and Pali. The first Indians (if only modern times are considered) settled in Cambodia in the 1960s and 70s, mostly working as jewelers and moneylenders. They, however, left the country during Khmer Rouge regime (1975 to 1979), which claimed more than 1.7 million lives and ruined the country.
Another strong tie comes in the form of Indian movies that has had a strong influence on the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema (1960 and 1975).
Cinema in Cambodia can be traced back to the 1950s. Back then the Cambodian film developed quickly and the movies were well appreciated. Also in the 1950s, Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, made a number of short films that were not meant for public viewing. He sent a number of people, including Roeum Sophon and Ieu Pannakar, to France to study films. These foreign-trained filmmakers, however, did not contribute much to the development of Cambodia’s film industry and mostly worked on the projects that the King was making. It was the self-taught directors who shaped Cambodia’s film industry. The glory of Cambodian cinema got showcased in the cosmopolitan and multicultural Phnom Penh. Also screened were movies from across the world, including Bollywood productions.
The relatively limited experience of young directors of Cambodia, made them look to Indian cinema. Some of them, in fact, ended up making reproductions of Indian films. The result: Films like Sovannahong and Abul Kasem, which were produced in the 1960s and 70s by Yvon Hem. He even acknowledged the influence of Indian movies during an exhibition ~ Golden Reawakening in Phnom Penh ~ in October 2009. Films from the Golden Age were based on Khmer folklore. And Sovannahong is a reminder of a typical Bollywood movie from that period.
Though cinema was a popular medium in the 1960s, it included titles from all over the world. Before and after the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea regime, which destroyed the movie industry, Indian movies enjoyed a good following.
Siang Sineng, who often visited movie theatres, said in an article that appeared in Kon magazine (produced by a group of young journalism student in Phnom Penh in 2010), “In 1985-86, there was no Cambodian films and she could watch only Indian and a few Chinese and Vietnamese films.”
The same magazine reported Preap Van, a Cambodian driver, saying, “Most Cambodians preferred Khmer movie to foreign titles from France and India because they enjoyed the beauty of the actors and actresses as well as their performance.”
During a short period (1960 to 1975), Cambodia produced 400-odd films. There were a lot of famous and well-known filmmakers and movie stars. Films produced during that era are still remembered. Sadly, only 30-odd of those films remain in circulation.
These days Korean and Chinese movies are screened on Cambodian televisions and only a few Indian movies find air space during weekends. Cambodians, however, appreciate Indian films, and the performance turned in by a beautiful set of actors.