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The binary pleasures of Hindi cinema

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-08-2017 Sanjukta Sharma

Eight years ago, I had called up Dev Anand for an interview. I know him through television, and through laboured, sanitized pop culture nostalgia. The man picked up the phone and introduced himself before I could say a word, in crisp, lilting English, “Dev Anand here.” I met him a few days later at his office in the clean, affluent neighbourhood of Pali Hill. At 86, he was pompous, as I’d expected, but in an elegant way. He seemed like the perfect misfit in the corporate studio era of the Hindi film industry of the time. Aamir Khan’s calculated, politically correct crispness was the movie star zeitgeist in Mumbai. A star of 1950s and 1960s Hindi cinema, Devsaab talked about nostalgia, stardom and independence, and why he believed 1950s Hindi cinema would’ve been better if the hero wasn’t so weepy.

The Dev Anand hero was optimistic and wily, in a stylized way. He projected the optimism of newly independent, Jawaharlal Nehru’s India with relish. In the films of the other two stars of the time, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, the city was often a menacing place, devouring the poor and the sensitive. It was a world view repeatedly and beautifully evoked in the films also of actor Balraj Sahni and director Bimal Roy. In Anand’s films, like one of his first hits, Taxi Driver, Bombay is a cruel city, but the hero is tenacious and canny. He was a minor aberration in Nehruvian cinema of the time, in which filmmaking was the stomping ground of poetry and Leftism. Balraj Sahni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Mehboob Khan—their works were as much about entertainment as about social commentary. The Progressive Writers Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association marshalled the talent pool that mattered. The look of a production house such as Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies and Navketan Films, which Anand set up with his director brothers Vijay Anand and Chetan Anand, reflected the ambitions and fantasies of the men who ran them, the film genres they cultivated and the writers, directors, and craftsmen they hired.

The influence of Hollywood on cinemas all over the world was solidifying by then, and a decade later it had started becoming prominent in Bombay’s cinema. Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), one of the most celebrated Hindi films of all time—in movie memory as well as cultural studies classrooms—was written by Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan like a Western, with Indian characters and provincial North Indian wit. Born a year before its release, I’ve never watched Sholay on the big screen, in its 70mm grandeur. But I’ve inherited a 3-LPs set of the film. If you must know, listening to Sholay, and not just its music but the entire film, is a Hindi film worship ritual.

In Zanjeer, Deewar and Coolie, one of Sholay’s stars, Amitabh Bachchan, unleashed the vigilante on screens across India who took the idea of social justice embedded in the movies of Dev Anand’s era to the streets. Soon, Hindi cinema was Bollywood, a portmanteau derived from Bombay and Hollywood (or Tollywood in West Bengal, from Tollygunj and Hollywood). By the late 1970s and 1980s, Bollywood became a mass machine, and formula became a safety valve for screenwriters. Alongside Bachchan’s rise, a group of filmmakers and actors, graduates from Delhi’s National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, and heavily trained in the stage repositories of Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey, solidified the parallel cinema movement. Realism had no pop or formulaic filter in the early films of directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta and others.

For the post-liberalization, over-the-wedge generation like mine, these “arthouse” movies were Doordarshan staples. As children, we went to watch Bachchan in the theatres, and watched Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala and Shyam Benegal’s Ankur at home, sipping Campa Cola. There was great comfort in knowing and understanding these binary opposites—it shaped in some of us, a kind of movie love that can embrace cinema as an art form, which depends on artistry, craft, moral ambivalence and individualism, and also sink into the song-and-dance, melodramatic pap in numerous and delightfully shocking derivatives of the formula. It’s a gift to be this ideal movie lover—disturbed and thrilled by the unusual picture, and cossetted and babied by movies with bubble-wrapped stories in which generations of stars, often from the same families, are in leading roles.

In 1995, Shah Rukh Khan, a Delhi theatre actor and already seasoned in the outsider’s struggles in Mumbai’s film world, appeared in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge drinking Stroh’s beer, and wearing frumpy international labels. Despite all his flaws, he was an aspirational hero. He was ordinary, capable of the extraordinary—this is what liberalization also promised us. The rise of the Khans in the next decade reinforced the joy and pain of the formula film, but at the same time, the Mumbai gangster film was born through the films of Ram Gopal Varma (Satya, Company, D), taking gangster violence to the city’s streets. Since then, the edges of the Mumbai film world, which officially became an industry in 2001, have been soulfully alive with directors who have swerved off the formula even as the centre has mostly remained an algorithm for making money.

As with Hollywood, all’s not well with today’s Bollywood.

The Hindi movie-making industry is more than 100 years old. It operates out of two or three suburbs of the over-bloated city of Mumbai. It is also a splendid, exasperating cliché which transcends class, caste and language. One Direction fans pale in comparison to the Amitabh Bachchan fans who congregate outside his home every other Sunday to get a glimpse of the still prolific, ageing star.

Just like the fate of Hollywood’s multi-billion, digitally-engineered franchise films, there’s a dull sameness in the way most expensive Hindi movies release with the roar of publicity, and slips into oblivion after a couple of weeks. The Bollywood signature is the choreographed song: sometimes sublime, sometimes just a sorry excuse to swell up emotions. But unlike Hollywood, our producers make money outside of India only from its huge diaspora audience—A Shah Rukh Khan film will rarely not run housefull in theatres of central New Jersey. The success of PK and Dangal, both Aamir Khan films, in China suggests Bollywood could well be our most dependable soft power if consistently interesting films are made and distributed across the world. While Hollywood is spending less and less on stories with complex characters, wit and drama and more on digital wizardry that ensures sensory excitement, in Bollywood reigning stars and a few families producing films and making stars are dictating filmmaking more and more.

Seventy years of films, around 1,400 movies a year, is a lot of cinema. Every corner of India, and now even China, watches Bollywood. We are still a nation of the “family movie”. In most likelihood, Bollywood will survive beyond 200 years if there are enough upstarts, enough rough edges to balance out its safely walled centre. Defiance, not nostalgia, will make it survive.

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