I miss the old Bollywood. Not the films, of course. Most of them were rubbish. The vast majority was predicated on what we then called “the formula”. The plot was always the same: poor person (boy or girl) meets rich person, they sing songs, run around trees and fall chastely in love. Break for interval. Then, enter one of the fathers—the rich one, of course, in dressing gown and carrying a shotgun—who objects violently. Pause for tears and melodrama and then cut to happy ending.
Till Salim-Javed came along in the 1970s, almost all Hindi cinema was like this, with its sentimental romanticization of poverty and the belief that love and music by Shankar-Jaikishan could overcome all obstacles.
So, I never really saw the movies. But I loved the movie business. My father had many friends in the industry and I was used to the idea of Dilip Kumar dropping in unannounced, of going to “trials” (previews) of new movies and even of films being shot in our living room. One of the highlights of my childhood was when Raj Kapoor came home at 11pm already drunk, proceeded to drink some more and then wept loudly before departing in the early hours. (They never would tell me what he was crying about.)
It’s hard to explain to people who are only familiar with the corporate, sleek Bollywood of the 21st century, just how much of a crazy cottage industry the movie business was in the 1960s and the 1970s.
For a start, the stars came from different social backgrounds. Dilip Kumar’s father was a fruit seller, Sunil Dutt came from a penniless refugee family, and Dharmendra was proud of his rustic Punjabi origins. Most of them did not know much English when they joined films and many worked hard to educate themselves. Almost all of them had huge families who appeared out of nowhere and took up residence in their bungalows. The families never did anything; they lived off the stars’ earnings.
Nor was there that much money in films. In the early 1970s, Dilip Kumar, the top-rated actor, earned Rs18 lakh per film. Even allowing for inflation, that’s a far cry from the Rs7 crore that Aamir Khan can charge these days. As late as 1988, Amitabh Bachchan, India’s biggest star, was charging just over Rs40 lakh per movie. These days, Bachchan can make over Rs3 crore for 10 days’ work.
The money the stars earned rarely stayed with them. Dilip Kumar made one film a year and supported 18 relatives. Sunil Dutt ploughed all his earnings into such uncommercial movies as Yaadein. And when Reshma aur Shera flopped, he had no money to pay his children’s school fees. Raj Kapoor borrowed money for Mera Naam Joker. When that sank, he was wiped out and would have had to sell his beloved RK Studio if a low-budget film called Bobby had not become an unexpected hit.
The studios themselves reflected this lack of real money. They were noisy, dusty places with dirty loos and scores of spot boys, all wearing banians. When Zeenat Aman, then a top model and Miss Asia, arrived for her first shoot, she was horrified to see the conditions she was expected to work in. “Where’s the glamour?” she asked, plaintively. “You are, baby. You are,” they told her.
It all began to change in the late 1970s as the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon gripped the industry. He was sophisticated, well-educated and, most important, joined the business after working as an executive for several years. He introduced a new professionalism, always turning up on time, refusing to touch alcohol or to kowtow to producers. Acting was a job for him. He was not going to risk his life savings in creating a banner or in making movies. (Till the corporate ABCL in the late 1990s, but that’s another story.)
In 1980, I spent ten days with Bachchan for a story for India Today. I would join him on the sets each morning at 8am when the shift began. He was always on time, but the first shot would usually be taken at 11am because his co-stars were invariably late.
In those days, Amitabh was making Naseeb and Shaan, both of which co-starred Shatrughan Sinha, who never turned up before lunch—if he turned up at all.
So, all the long shots were taken with assorted Shatru doubles. Bachchan was sardonic: “Meet Mr Shatrughan Sinha,” he said to me once, pointing to some hapless double. “He changes from day to day.”
So, if it was all so downmarket, dirty and disorganized, then why do I miss the old Bollywood? Well, because somehow the film industry seemed like a real place in those days. It provided breaks to people who went on to care about films, to take chances and to try to leave something behind. For all the drunkenness and drama, there were also passion and intensity.
Now, it is a boringly corporate place. Models become actresses. They can’t even speak Hindi so they are dubbed. The heroes are all children of producers and stars. Hardly anybody misbehaves and they don’t even care if the films flop—they can still make crores from endorsements, live-events and opening boutiques.
Sleekness is everything. The heroines have a cloned, toned look to them and everybody has plastic surgery. (Is that Shilpa’s own nose? Aamir’s own hair? And what about Salman’s new Elvis Presley thatch?) No wonder the joke in Bollywood is that most of today’s movies should be called Hum Aapke Hain Silicone.
Give me the risk-taking of Sunil Dutt, the rags-to-riches story of Dharmendra, the drunkenness of Raj Kapoor or the self-taught sophistication of Dilip Kumar any day. That was real. Today’s Bollywood is big money, high gloss and completely phoney.
Write to Vir Sanghvi at firstname.lastname@example.org