The early desire to put Indian stories on screen led pioneers like Phalke to mine the rich tradition of Hindu religious and folk narratives to produce "mythologicals," films that dramatized the popular stories of gods and goddesses. (Eventually rare in Hindi cinema, the mythological would reemerge most prominently via massively popular television serials in the 1980s.) By the 1930s, mythologicals competed with "devotionals" like New Theatre's Meerabai (1933) and Prabhat's Sant Tukaram (1936), which recounted the inspiring stories of Hindu poet-saints. However, such distinctive religious genres were balanced by the regular production of dramas, comedies, and popular stunt films that translated Western serials and the films of Douglas Fairbanks into Indian locations and idioms. The Anglo-Indian star Fearless Nadia (1908–1996) dominated the stunt genre in films for Wadia Movietone like Hunterwali (1935) and Miss Frontier Mail (1936). "Historicals," set in the near or distant past, became an especially effective form to both affirm cultural traditions and introduce vast spectacles: historicals set in the Mughal period (1526–1858) like Shiraz (1928) or Humayun (1945), entranced audiences with their luxurious sets and ornate costumes.

However, following independence, most popular Hindi films would be broadly identified as "socials," set in the present and confronting the meaning of modern Indian identity and society. The roots of 1950s socials can be traced to successful 1930s films in which romantic love faces caste boundaries, as in Rai's Achhut Kanya ( Untouchable Girl , 1936), or class divisions, as in Devdas (1935), a film remade prominently in 1956 and again in 2002. By the 1950s, socials, poignant narratives about the crippling effects of cultural barriers in a society rebuilding itself, would parallel contemporaneous Hollywood melodramas dealing with the aftermath of war or the politics of race. Hindi films from this period regularly examined caste, feudalism, the dispossession of peasants, the trauma of urban migration, and alienating urban culture, all within a popular format driven by a star system and the promise of song sequences. These include Guru Dutt's Pyaasa ( Thirsty One , 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool ( Paper Flowers , 1959), Raj Kapoor's Awara ( Vagabond , 1951) and Shri 420 ( Mr. 420 , 1955), and Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen ( Two Acres of Land , 1953) and Sujata (1959), to mention a few.

At the same time, socials maintained their function as entertainment, featuring songs, comic bits, and massively popular stars along with social messages. For instance, the production company Navketan specialized in urban thrillers, such as Taxi Driver (1955) and C.I.D. (1956), starring co-founder Dev Anand (b. 1923). A notable subgenre of "Muslim socials" explored the significance of India's most prominent minority identity, often relying on the romantic and poetic traditions of Urdu literature to elevate such narratives with stunning song and dance sequences in films like Mughal-e-Azam ( The Grand Emperor , K. Asif, 1960) or Mere Mehboob ( My Love , Rawail, 1963). However, despite this history of distinct genres, the popular Indian film eventually adhered to a formula, the masala film, which combined comedy, drama, romance, and action, along with a requisite number of song sequences, in a mix of "flavors" that critics have traced to ancient Sanskrit dramaturgy and aesthetics. For Western viewers, such films can seem fragmented and incoherent because of their shifts in tone and style; but for Indian viewers expecting a range of carefully coordinated attractions, the combination yields a satisfying whole, unlike Western films narrowly confined to a single mood. Typically running three hours and divided by an often cliff-hanging interval (intermission), the mainstream masala film allows for both repetitious formula and creative variation.

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