Excuse the 1980s child for feeling a bit short-changed. The awkward middle-child generation caught between its post-independence and post-liberalization siblings never had a classic defining icon, like the 1960s’ twist, or the 1970s’ “angry young man” or even Facebook. We did, however, inherit our own assorted legacy of gems.
We got Mithun Chakraborty in crotch-hugging metallic drainpipes (Disco Dancer, 1982); Amitabh Bachchan making the ultimate statement on masculinity (“Mard ko dard nahi hota”, Mard, 1985); and the Ramsay Brothers’ genre of horror (zombie villain attacking semi-naked woman in shower).
On the state-supported television channel Doordarshan, bored housewives surrounded by the six bowls of their best pudding set gave afternoon lessons on palak ke pakode; suited farmers gave farming advice to a generation so desperate for entertainment they had no choice but to watch them deconstruct manure (Krishi Darshan, perhaps every alternate hour). There was also the first-ever rabbit (the Lijjat Papad rabbit) in the history of rabbits from Peter to Brer who managed to scare the living daylights out of children with his fiendish laugh. And no respectable Sunday would start without Mahabharat.
Cut to 2011. Two decades later—and at a safe distance away from the horrors of state-controlled TV and its supporting subcultures—the generation that grew up in the 1980s has slipped into celebration mode. Part critical, part laughing, part loving; in books, blogs, film, theatre and art, the 1980s’ children are attempting to “reclaim” the past (to quote graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee).
That ’80s show: (clockwise from top) Disco Dancer ; a still from Krishi Darshan (Courtesy Doordarshan Archives), which was punctuated by advertisement divas such as the Liril girl (Courtesy www.8ate.blogspot.com) (left) and popular jingles (illustration by Sarnath Banerjee) (Courtesy Sarnath Banerjee/The Harappa Files).
Documenting the lived realities of the middle class—because Complan Boy was as much a part of history as the country’s eighth general election—they’re revisiting an era swept away by the tide of the Internet, free porn, and globalized pay cheques.
Nehruvian thrift: the economic context
If there are two icons of ideal womanhood in the times of Nehruvian socialism, it would be Surf’s Lalitaji and Super Nirma’s Deepikaji, both smart and shrewd; Lalitaji for her ability to distinguish between a sasti cheez (cheap product) and achhi cheez (good product), and Deepikaji for her paar ki nazar (far-sightedness).
“In the 1980s, everyone, including people with bungalows in Worli Seaface, talked of bachat (saving),” says Banerjee, who has actively been on a “great reclamation project” with his latest works—his graphic novel The Harappa Files, an exhibition of artworks The Psychic Plumber and Other Lies and an animation film. “Reclamation”, says Banerjee, is more “value-neutral” than “nostalgia” because it’s also part criticism, unlike nostalgia, which is just good-old-days pap.
The Psychic Plumber captures quirky snapshots of pre-liberalized India and features Complan Boy and Only Vimal; the panel on Only Vimal, for instance, is an ode to the practice of taking “cut pieces” to stitch suits. “The idea is to swim against received history and essentially, personalizing history,” says Banerjee.
Pre-liberalization, middle-class India was a place where foreign trips were an unaffordable luxury and Toblerone was as good as gobbledegook. Film-makers such as B. Subhash (director of Disco Dancer) attempted to capture the have-world and “create an idea of what posh meant”, says Anuvab Pal, whose book Disco Dancer (HarperCollins, 2011) is an attempt to capture that ethos. This “posh India”, entirely a product of such film-makers’ imagination, thus became inhabited by disco dancing, disco balls, a place where vamps wore revealing dresses and smoked cigarettes.
This imagined India also acquired a “goofy” character with its “gigantic Afros, huge aunties with paunches, golden body-tights and jhinchak innocence,” adds popular blogger Arnab Ray, whose first book May I Hebb your Attention Pliss (HarperCollins, 2010) is a celebration of this tacky, idiotic, deprived and lovable India.
Immediately after the economic liberalization process began, the country’s popular culture was in a slightly adolescent state of clumsy unsureness. Early attempts at modernity in the 1990s were almost as ridiculous as imagined modernity in the 1980s, like some of Zee TV’s earliest serials (think Navneet Nishan’s emancipated woman in Tara) and DD’s attempts at being cool with the launch of DD Metro. Advertisements also tried to capture this new idea of cool, such as the iconic VIP Frenchie ad with an underwear-clad Dalip Tahil trying to save a girl from sexual harassment. The ad was a combination of machismo, sexual licentiousness and modernity, perhaps the zenith of aspiration.
Gandhian puritanism: sex, morality and censorship
In the 1980s, sex was not to be shown to polite audiences—and there was an institutional machinery to control that. Sunil Shanbag’s play S*x, M*rality & Cens*rship, which won a Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award (META) in 2010, documents the attitudes to sex at the time. The play is a tribute to Vijay Tendulkar’s revolutionary Sakharam Binder (1972), and simultaneously a critique of the hypocrisy of an entire generation.
At a time when all forms of entertainment played carrier to those stuffed-shirt values, the going was tough for teenagers looking for “sexual release”, as Ray’s book recounts. “(In the world) outside, Sharon Stone was crossing and uncrossing boundaries and we had to make do with petals touching the wind,” says Ray. Mercifully, there were ways of getting around such hurdles, as the characters in his book discover. For instance, sex could happen under extenuating circumstances (to provide heat to a dying heroine), and nudity could be shown using the classic play of white fabric and water (Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili). There was also the practice of “punching”, courtesy cinema hall owners, so a perfectly safe family film would be interspersed with sex scenes of the latest raunchy production.
The new wave of “internationalized Bollywood” with its svelte extras is as homogenized as any other shopping mall. “When I see derivative item numbers, perfectly copied from rap videos, I reminisce fondly of the craziness of the 1980s and 1990s, at least previously it was entertaining in an unintentional sort of way,” says Ray.
Journalist Kai Friese’s epic article “Slow Speed” was one of the first widely read elegies to the era gone by. In 2007, Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om was an ensemble of self-referential jokes on Bollywood of yesteryear-era and, as Pal says, “without Disco Dancer, we wouldn’t have had Om Shanti Om”.
Other people furiously documenting the era of smugglers, safari suits, Vikram Betal, Mogambo and “washing powder Nirma” include Bangalore-based Jai Iyer, a webcomic artist (www.iyermatter.wordpress.com), Gurgaon-based Vinayak Razdan (www.8ate.blogspot.com), who has extensively archived ads and film stills; and Delhi-based vintage art dealer Deepak Jain, who combs the interiors of the country to source vintage ads, film posters and pop culture memorabilia to stock his Hauz Khas Village store. “When I posted these (ads and film stills), I had no idea how they might be reused,” says Razdan, whose blog has been of immense use to advertising catalogues, researchers and film-makers.
The generation born in times of standardized perfection has no “recollection or interest” in their immediate past. “To that generation, the fact that we had a whole different country with its own cultural identity (however ridiculous) needs some attempt at documentation,” he adds. “No one wants to be a disco dancer because we know what success and fortune look like. No matter how we point out that he is foolish, his was an India we have lost forever,” says Pal. But he was ours, and we are holding on to him tight.