It became a bit difficult to take Salim-Javed’s seminal dialogue exchange “Tumhare paas kya hai? Mere paas maa hai (What do you have that I don’t? I have mother)” seriously after a music channel spoof that replaced the query with a cheeky alternative: Can you repeat the question?
Scriptwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar fruitfully explored the Oedipal relationship between a mother and her tortured son (played by Amitabh Bachchan) in Deewaar and Trishul. The long shadow cast by Bachchan over the movies has meant that Nirupa Roy will forever be the mother of all mothers—Vijay’s noble, widowed mother, who stands between a virtuous but poor life and a sinful but prosperous one.
Mother worship in the movies has allowed female actors like Durga Khote (Bobby, Mughal-e-Azam), Waheeda Rehman (Phagun, Trishul, Namak Halal) and Nanda (Ahista Ahista, Prem Rog) to stay employed even after they were declared past their prime date.
The flip side to mother worship is the strict, unbending mother (Lalita Pawar in Mr & Mrs 55; Dina Pathak in Khoobsoorat) or the rasping step-mother, best embodied by Aruna Irani in the Anil Kapoor starrer Beta.
Mothers and mothers-in-law have now moved to television. Screen moms are now as hip as their children, like Ratna Pathak Shah in Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na. They dress in kurtis and trousers, they wear funky spectacles on the top of their heads, and they don’t dictate their sons’ lives. Thanks, therefore, are in order to Kirron Kher, whose exaggerated maternal instincts in Dostana and Om Shanti Om helped bring back the son-obsessed, handkerchief-wringing mom, even though she was a figure of ridicule rather than respect.
Kher has also played one of the more complex mothers in Khamosh Pani—it isn’t technically an Indian film, but its Pakistani director, Sabiha Sumar, lives in India. Its scriptwriter Paromita Vohra is Indian, as is one of the actors, Shilpa Shukla. Kher plays a troubled Pakistani mother who nurses a secret that erupts into the open when her son becomes a religious fundamentalist.
Our most loved and most hated patriarchs “Ofo daddy!”
You can picture the scene without resorting to YouTube prompts. A young lass tosses her pretty head, stamps her foot and tells her father to stop running her life. The daddy in question is usually Nazir Hussain or Om Prakash. He is typically a wealthy man with a bungalow in the hills and a fondness for wide-bottomed cars and cigars. He hands across a blank cheque to the impoverished hero to kick him out of his daughter’s life, and invariably fails.
He can be a comic figure, like Utpal Dutt, whom Amol Palekar takes for a ride in Gol Maal, or Anupam Kher, whose eccentric millionaire in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin encourages his daughter to elope to find true love.
He can be a terrible so-and-so, usually Amrish Puri, unmoved by romance (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). If he is Prithviraj Kapoor, he can be both a judge (Awaara) or emperor Akbar himself (Mughal-e-Azam). He can be hidebound by honour (Dalip Tahil in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak) or sometimes a willing participant in his daughter’s ruination, like Anupam Kher in Tezaab.
In the hands of contemporary film-makers, he becomes an even more complicated figure. Dibakar Banerjee’s social climber thief in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! finds that wherever he turns, he runs into his father, whether it’s in his criminal boss or in his business partner (the illusion is aided by a triple role for Paresh Rawal). All the gloves are off in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, in which Ronit Roy is chilling as an authoritarian, alcoholic father who insists that his son call him “sir”.
The master of visual metaphors.
“Ballimaran ke moholle ki woh pechida daleelon ki si woh galiyan…”
A bust of the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib sits prominently in the room where Gulzar does his writing. The film-maker, writer, poet and lyricist once told an interviewer how the imagery he used for television to describe the complex web of lanes Ghalib wandered through, in Old Delhi’s Ballimaran area, was inspired by a famous line from another great poet, T.S. Eliot: “streets that follow like a tedious argument/of insidious intent”.
Hindi film music at its best has always been enriched by superb lyrics, and the metaphorical brilliance of Gulzar is as attractive as the melancholy romanticism of Shailendra or the passionate dissent of Sahir Ludhianvi. Even outside of Ballimaran, streets seem to fascinate Gulzar, be it in the film Aandhi (Aandhi ki tarah udd kar, ek raah guzarti hai) or in Gharaonda (In umr se lambi sadkon ko).
Consider some other examples of how Gulzar used beguiling metaphors in the songs he wrote: Roz akeli aaye, roz akeli jaaye, chand katora liye bhikharan raat (Mere Apne); Hamne dekhi hai un aankhon ki mehekti khushboo (Khamoshi); Kaanch ke khwab hai, aankhon mein chubh jayenge (Ghar); Sooraj ko masalkar main, chandan ki tarah malti (Anubhav); Ek baar waqt se, lamha gira kahin (Gol Maal); … Aur meri ek khat me lipti raat padi hai (Ijazzat).
With a conjuror’s wand, Gulzar has created metaphors to blend what can only be experienced (love, fragrance, night, dreams, time) with what one can touch (a letter, the body, tears, streets), and given us songs that are unique in their paradoxical imagery.
Romeo and Juliet, where art thou?
We’re not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that couples don’t die any more on the big screen. They continue to in real life at any rate, either escaping debt or the stranglehold of caste or religion.
When they do in reel life, as did Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori in Kites, the result is risible rather than moving (at the screening we were at, exasperated viewers hooted at the screen and made for the exit with the grace of stampeding elephants). Nobody likes unhappy endings in liberalizing India which, goes the rumour, is a land of great hope and possible dreams. Anurag Basu, the director of Kites, was about two decades too late.
News reports of me-too suicides following Ek Duuje Ke Liye might have dampened the enthusiasm of film-makers to bring Romeo and Juliet to India, but it’s not like they haven’t tried. Encouraged by William Shakespeare and folk heroes closer home like Sohni-Mahiwal and Shirin-Farhad, several lovers have perished in the name of love. Mansoor Khan’s first and finest film, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, successfully Indianizes the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo And Juliet.
Lovers also die for nobler causes than love. Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz shed blood and their lives on a snow-clad mountain in Roti to uphold goodness. Shah Rukh Khan blows himself up with his suicide bomber love interest, Manisha Koirala, in Dil Se to save the nation, though we suspect he simply couldn’t bear to be parted from her any more. Romeo and Juliet were most recently located in Uttar Pradesh in Ishaqzaade, whose healthy box-office performance suggests that the idea of young lovers using their bodies as weapons against the cruel world still has a lot of currency.
The real angry young men.
The 1970s, after India had fought two wars, was a period plagued by rising inflation, shortage of essential goods and a devalued rupee that made money so much more important and harder to get. This was still newly independent India, trying to rebuild, and clearly struggling with corruption and crime. Public anger was rising and two men thought it best to bring that resentment to the screen. Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar already had a bunch of writing credits with the energetic Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) and an ever-popular lost-and-found story in Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973). But it was a year later, when their brooding, imploding protagonist found a collaborator in film-maker Prakash Mehra, who cast an unknown scrawny young man in Zanjeer (1973), that Salim-Javed truly arrived.
Highlighting the topical issues afflicting society in those times, Salim-Javed’s golden run continued with other film-makers like Yash Chopra—Deewaar (the villain is a gold smuggler; Amitabh Bachchan’s character was based on Haji Mastan), Trishul (the construction industry), Kaala Patthar (the coal mining industry)—and Ramesh Sippy—Sholay (the Chambal valley dacoits) and Shakti (again, smugglers) as Bachchan gave voice and vent to the angry young man fighting the bad system. People cheered as evil rich men and arrogant businessmen got beaten up by the poor, starving, sometimes fatherless, hero.
Their dialogue was loaded, a comment on social issues, one man’s war against the world, and so memorable that fans remember it nearly 40 years after the films released. “Kitne aadmi the,” “Mere paas maa hai,” “Main aaj bhi pheke hue paise nahin uthata” have all found their way into everyday consciousness. The duo’s names often came just before the director’s in the opening credits, an assessment of their significance at the time. Bachchan once said that he has wondered what would have happened to his career had Salim-Javed not parted ways in the early 1980s. Perhaps the rest of the decade would not have been such a disaster.
A director with rigour, range and adaptability.
There’s a reason the film world, in the old-fashioned way, still calls him “Shyam babu”. Benegal is the last great from the 1970s’ film-making heyday who is still at work—and working with changing audiences in mind. In 2008, his Welcome to Sajjanpur started at the box office as a sleeper hit and went on to run in metro theatres for more than a month. Box-office success is, of course, not the right index to measure Benegal’s contribution to Indian cinema. Like his guru Satyajit Ray, Benegal’s cinema is stripped to the basics—idea, casting, storytelling, and a socialist zeal to narrate the ordinary man’s story from the ordinary man’s point of view. Like Ray, he is also a bhadralok and renaissance man. Benegal is known to wrap up his shots without fuss.
Of course, he got gifted actors to boost his oeuvre. In 2002, during a retrospective of his films at the National Film Theatre, London, Girish Karnad had a public conversation with the director. “Even though Smita (Patil) and Shabana (Azmi) have been compared in various ways, I always thought their rivalry was for your affections, actually, as a director,” Karnad said. Ankur (1974), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Mandi (1983), Trikal (1985), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1993), Sardari Begum (1996), Zubeidaa (2001), Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), Well Done Abba! (2010)—Benegal’s best works are primarily about womanhood. In 1988 he made Bharat Ek Khoj, a lengthy, staggering adaptation of Nehru’s Discovery of India, for Doordarshan. Born in 1934 in Hyderabad, Benegal became a film-maker after watching Ray’s Pather Panchali. He made commercials for many years before he made Ankur. He has not looked back since.
Fancy footwork that fit right in.
It’s a high-society party. The guests are ballroom-dancing on a gleaming black dance floor. Amjad Khan asks a wealthy heiress to dance, with the intent of stealing her diamond necklace. In floats the hero—Amitabh Bachchan. It’s quite an entry, and quite the disruption. Bachchan is there to steal the show and the necklace, and he does just that. In Jahan teri yeh nazar hai, from Kaalia, two crooks fight over the prize and the claim to being the best jewel thief.
P.L. Raj’s choreography lends Bachchan irreverence. In one smooth move, Bachchan breaks the Khan-heiress dancing couple and launches into a sequence that involves him clicking his fingers, twirling and doing something akin to changing two light bulbs simultaneously.
By the time Kaalia released in 1981, Raj already had more than 20 years of dancing and choreography experience under his belt. He had developed a style, the strongest features of which were the way in which a sequence began—the scene segueing into song organically—and how it added to the characterization.
Sample this: Shammi Kapoor rubs sleep from his eyes and looks out of a log-cabin window. Bad weather has confined him and Saira Banu to the cabin, and he expects to see the same bleary sky again. Instead, the storm has passed. He throws his head back and yells “Yahoo”. Saira Banu slides down a slope, and Kapoor follows suit, except that he slides on his stomach and bounces off the snow to land on his knees.
These song sequences have also gained popularity independent of the films they were created for. Part of the success of a Bachchan move in Don, also choreographed by Raj, where he takes a minute to tie a safa (turban) around his head and put a paan (betel leaf) in his mouth, is that it is at once imitable and instantly recognizable as a cultural reference. The choreography is not so much about being technically perfect as it is about dancing with abandon. The idea seemed to be to just enjoy the movement.
For much of the 1950s-70s, Raj shared the dance stage with greats like Lachhu Maharaj, who choreographed songs for films such as Mahal and Mughal-e-Azam. Lachhu Maharaj’s classical-inspired sequences were distilled from Kathak. In a way, Raj broke away from this tradition. His work was perhaps closest to that of Surya Kumar, under whose dance direction he swung the dance icon Helen around the stage of Mera naam chin chin choo.
Comic artiste par excellence.
There was once a bit-part actor who, through dint of sheer hard work, became the leading comic actor of his time. He was so popular that several stars refused to work with him because he would steal the movie from under their noses. Hard to believe? Read our essay.
Raj Kapoor’s socialist phase
From socialism to ‘chochialism’.
By the time he produced Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai for his regular cinematographer turned director, Radhu Karmakar, the influence of the socialists on Kapoor seemed to be on the wane. His character in the dacoit drama mispronounces the political ideology as “chochialism.”
“Chochialism” is what leavened Kapoor’s early films, all of which routinely pop up in Hindi Movies to See Before You Die lists. Awaara, Shree 420, Jagte Raho and Barsaat mix together matters of the heart with meditations on the state of affairs in post-independent India. The success of these films is in no small measure due to the company Kapoor kept in those years. K.A. Abbas wrote the screenplays, while revolutionary poet and conscience-keeper Shailendra penned the lyrics. The teamwork at RK Films resulted in beguiling films about love, social responsibility and moral choices. Kapoor eventually moved away towards colour, greater sentimentalism and voyeurism. The delicacy of Awaara gave way to the vulgarity of Ram Teri Ganga Maili.
A loves B, but B and C are an item.
One of the most well-known three-way battle of hearts isn’t what it seems. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Amitabh Bachchan loves Rakhee. She loves Vinod Khanna. He seems to love her, but he positively blooms when Bachchan is around.
Love triangles are more than an excuse to cast three stars together and then move them around till the climax. In Gharaonda, Amol Palekar loses Zarina Wahab first to the creepy Shreeram Lagoo and then to pragmatism. His quest for a place to call his own in Mumbai makes him a mad-eyed mope, while she decides that her husband is the more practical choice. Anil Kapoor’s love for Padmini Kolhapure similarly withers in the face of the institution of marriage in Woh Saat Din.
The contest is more straightforward in Saagar, in which Kamal Haasan’s Chaplinesque hero never really stands a chance with Dimple Kapadia against Rishi Kapoor. Gulzar’s Ijaazat tries to intellectualize the triangle, with the marriage between Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha coming apart because of his attachment to Anuradha Patel. Far less complicated, is Katha, in which Deepti Naval falls for the trickster charms of Farooq Shaikh, samples the goods, and then settles for conventional matrimony with her dependable neighbour, Shah.
Sanjukta Sharma, Arun Janardhan, Kushal Gopalka (a Mumbai-based musicologist and musician), Seema Chowdhry, Chanpreet Khurana, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Shefalee Vasudev and Rudraneil Sengupta contributed to this story.