I look about me at the memorabilia of his past successes. They are all wrapped in a plastic protective covering to defend them against the relentless Mumbai climate. The plastic is old, brittle and discolouring. They are dead lumps of wood and metal—detritus washed up from the other side of yesterday, specimens in dirty jars of formaldehyde, suspended in death.”
In cinemascope: Mehra (top – Vijayanand Gupta / Hindustan Times) directed Bachchan’s early mega-hits such as (below - Bachchanalia/Bhawana Somaaya and Osian’s Card) Muqaddar ka Sikandar.
So wrote Jessica Hines when she visited Prakash Mehra as part of the research for Looking for…The Big B; Bollywood, Bachchan and Me, and the image of those “trophies” brought back an old Bollywood of 50 Golden Weeks celebrations and the bizarre mementos handed out on those occasions. At that point Mehra had not made a film in 13 years. More barren years were to follow.
It seems a long time ago that Manmohan Desai and he shared the same India Today cover with Amitabh Bachchan. That was the time Bachchan was not just the No. 1 star, he was Nos 1-10. That was the time Desai and Mehra made a certain kind of film: 3 hours long, with six-eight songs, a decorative heroine, a larger-than-life villain, a mother and at the throbbing heart of the melodrama—The Angry Young Man, as he was then known. If they didn’t have Bachchan, their films flopped, never mind how blood donations spiked on Thursday night (this was also the time when blood banks paid for blood; serendipitously, about the price of a ticket to the stalls).
The facts are fairly well known. Mehra gave Bachchan his first big break in Zanjeer, although it is also well known that he wanted Dev Anand for the role (Anand turned it down because there were no songs for him to sing). Then he “gave” a series of Bachchan hits: Hera Pheri, Laawaaris, Muqaddar ka Sikandar and Namak Halal, before the flop that was Jadugar put an end to the pairing.
But for a while there, the two were on to something that could never be replicated. It was old-style Bollywood. It was grotesque but it was intense. Where else could you find Bachchan ripping open his bandhgala to show Smita Patil her face, “floating” in his chest hair, except in a song like Pag ghunghroo baandh Meera naachi thi? Lyrics? By Mehra, of course. Where else could you find a line like “Moochein ho to Nathulal jaisi ho, varna na ho” except in that Arthur knock-off Sharaabi?
It took a huge amount of courage to make a film like Muqaddar ka Sikandar, in which Amjad Khan loves Rekha who loves Bachchan who loves Rakhee who loves Vinod Khanna. Needless to say, the last two reciprocated and got the rawest deal in the film. Rekha gets to flame and burn and swallow poison. Khan gets to bend bars with the help of rolling eyes and “Ya Ali (Oh, lord)”. Bachchan gets to unite his loved one with his best friend and die at their wedding, thus stealing everyone’s thunder.
But he would have to die. After all, he was an orphan, adopted by a Muslim mother (Nirupa Roy) and given his education in life by a Sufi who lived in a graveyard (Kader Khan, who insists on the boy laughing at his mother’s grave). This stranger without a genetic past in love with a good upper-caste girl, daughter of a lawyer? It would have to fail.
For grand old Bollywood, the Bollywood of the mastodons, was also hopelessly mired in its own worn-out stories and its addictions to stars. You have only to consider how hopelessly inadequate Jayaprada is in Sharaabi; or Rakhee is in Muqaddar ka Sikandar; or Jaya Bhaduri is in Zanjeer to realize that Mehra was not casting to character, he was casting to the box office.
It is perhaps no tragedy that he was no longer making films. They would have collapsed under the weight of their old-fashioned belief systems, their unwieldy melodrama, their insistence on lengthy expositions and their absurd and epic climaxes.
The nostalgia Mehra’s films conjure up is a poisoned cup. This is what we were like. Thank the extinguished stars we aren’t like that any more.
Jerry Pinto is a freelance writer and author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.
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