If you ask people in the West to rate the most influential decades of the second half of the 20th century, it is the 1960s that they usually remember with the most affection. And even those who don’t actually remember the 1960s (as the cliché goes “if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there”) will concede that they represented a watershed in popular culture.
That ’70s show: (clockwise from left) Bachchan owned cinema; Hema and Dharam paired to create history; Kishore Kumar sang his way to immortality.
It began with Swinging London (a phrase coined by The Sunday Times but popularized globally by Time magazine) and its explosion of creative talent in such fields as photography, fashion, art and advertising. To this culture/media boom add the influence of The Beatles and Rolling Stones and you had the beginnings of what we now call the rock culture.
Across the Atlantic, the Sixties were the decade of Timothy Leary, of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, of Andy Warhol and 15 minutes of fame, of the British invasion (of pop stars), of the hippie movement, of wearing flowers in your hair in San Francisco, of the Summer of Love, of Woodstock, of the anti-Vietnam War protests, of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, of Jimi Hendrix and of Easy Rider (1969) and the death of the old Hollywood.
In contrast, the Seventies are now seen as the Me-Decade, a bland selfish era of polyester suits, bad haircuts, crap music and no great social ferment. That view is not entirely fair but the caricature persists nevertheless. The world is full of people who still say things like “I am a child of the Sixties”; virtually nobody wants to be a child of the Seventies.
I was reminded of the contrast between the Sixties and the Seventies while watching a VCD of Farah Khan’s entertaining and self-mocking Om Shanti Om. Farah loves the Seventies. Her first movie, Main Hoon Na was a homage to the masala movies of the 1970s and Om Shanti Om follows a similar path.
Why, I wondered, did nobody want to pay tribute to the Hindi movies of the Sixties? The short answer seemed to be that there was no great public nostalgia for the Indian popular culture of the Sixties. People remembered individual movies (Sangam, Ganga Jamuna and Waqt perhaps) but nobody saw the Sixties as an epochal decade in any sense.
In fact, you could well argue that what the Sixties were to the West, the Seventies were to India.
Take Hindi cinema. The only stars we remember from Sixties (Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar) were really holdovers from the 1950s. The stars of the Sixties themselves tended to be losers like Joy Mukherjee and Biswajeet. (Though I’ll grant you Shammi Kapoor). Even the Sixties heroines — Mala Sinha, Asha Parekh, Nanda etc.— have been largely forgotten.
Contrast Sixties Hindi cinema with the Seventies. The decade began with the rise of Rajesh Khanna and quickly became the personal property of Amitabh Bachchan. The top star couples—Bachchan and Rekha/Zeenat Aman/Parveen Babi and most often, Shashi Kapoor—are still remembered with affection as are Khanna and his two biggest heroines, Mumtaz and Sharmila Tagore. Even Dharmendra and Hema Malini who represented a counterpoint to the Bachchan clique remain legends in the public imagination.
So it is with the movies. The Seventies were the decade of Salim-Javed, of Ramesh Sippy, of Manmohan Desai, of Prakash Mehra, of Yash Chopra (but then that’s true of every decade) and of Shyam Benegal, whose Ankur, released in 1973, created a whole new genre of cinema. It is possible to watch 1970s movies for fun today but the films of the Sixties are mere historical curiosities. (If you can sit through Mera Naam Joker, you deserve a prize).
Even the music changed. There is little nostalgia for the playback singers of the Sixties (Mukesh, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor, Mohammed Rafi etc.) but Kishore Kumar remains as popular today as he was in the Seventies. Rahul Dev Burman crawled out from under his father’s shadow after Aradhana (1969, they collaborated on the score) and the Seventies were his decade (starting with the two brilliant but completely different scores for Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971, and Amar Prem, 1971) and his Seventies songs are still recorded by new singers every month.
It wasn’t just the movie industry that changed. The Seventies were a pivotal decade for media. Nari Hira invented the magazine boom when he launched Stardust and that publication created India’s first celebrity editor in Shobhaa De. Khushwant Singh transformed the Illustrated Weekly, Aroon Purie published the slick India Today, Ashok Advani produced India’s first business magazine, and M.J. Akbar became the first high-profile serious editor in India with the success of Sunday in 1976.
Drugs were never very big in India — not in the Sixties or the Seventies. But in the Sixties, it was almost impossible to get a drink. Most states required you to carry a liquor permit and prohibition was still in vogue. It wasn’t till the 1970s that Maharashtra liberalized the sale of beer at Irani restaurants and it suddenly became possible to go out and buy a bottle of vodka in the shops.
The liberalization coincided with a hotel boom. Till 1972, the Taj group consisted of only the old Bombay Taj. By the end of the decade, there were Taj hotels in Delhi, Chennai, Goa and many other places. The Maurya, Mughal and Chola, the first ITC hotels, opened in the mid-Seventies and the Oberois only moved south of Delhi in 1973 when they opened in Mumbai.
You could argue that India in 1969 was not dramatically different from India in 1960 (except for politics where the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 led to the decline of the Congress). But India was a very different place in 1979 from the country it had been in 1970.
Suddenly, it was alive, it was vibrant, its popular culture was rocking and the old rules had been rewritten in such fields as movies, media and music. We’ve moved on since then, of course, but reminders of the 1970s are still around — from Amitabh to the Kishore Kumar cult to Farah’s film tributes to that influential decade.
Forget about the Sixties. They meant nothing to us. It’s the Seventies that were India’s decisive decade.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org