On the radio, they’re playing Pag ghunghroo bandh Meera naachi thi, from Namak Halal (directed by Prakash Mehra, 1981). It’s a weird song with Amitabh Bachchan prancing about after his prospective employer, Ranjeet, and insulting him (“Aap ka to lagta hai bas yehi sapna, Ram-Ram japna, paraya maal apna”), leaping about after his heroine, the misplaced and bemused Smita Patil, and ripping open his bandhgala to show her her face floating amid his chest hair.
It is a bizarre song, but it is a Hindi film commercial classic because it refuses to admit to any notions of internal coherence.
Hindi cinema has always mocked the notion of the Aristotelian unities. It did not care much for reality. It acknowledged the anarchic potential of love at first sight and almost everyone succumbed to discovering their jeevan sathi in the first few minutes. Courtship was rare; the troubles were always exterior to the couple in question.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, the same Amitabh Bachchan is romancing Tabu in Cheeni Kum. That our reigning star, the big box office bang, is a 65-year-old should shock no one. From Clint Eastwood to Dr Raj Kumar, geriatric men seem to get better with age. That he is romancing another heroine who everyone thinks suits art house cinema better is just a little touch of déjà vu.
But the thing about Cheeni Kum is that it is different. It has another kind of story to tell. The nasty chef and the younger woman, her Gandhian father who is younger than the suitor, and a dying cancer patient called Sexy. These are elements of its self-consciously different nature.
In another theatre, quite close to where Cheeni Kum is bemusing the industry, Bheja Fry is playing. It is playing where Ta Ra Rum Pum was supposed to be raking in the big bucks with its high-octane star cast (Saif Alternative Male Khan and Rani I Want a National Award Mukherjee), its New York sets and its peppy tunes. Or, maybe it’s supposed to be playing where Fool N Final with its comedy kings (Paresh Rawal, Johnny Lever) and its PYTs (Shahid Kapur, Ayesha Takia, Vivek Oberoi) was supposed to be playing. Or perhaps it has taken the slot that was reserved for Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, that was supposed to be getting the audience to dance in the aisles.
Nothing is going the way it should. The big budget films are flopping. Sequels are making hay with Lage Raho Munnabhai probably the biggest and best film that has happened to Hindi cinema recently. The big directors are falling by the wayside; look at the self-indulgent beauty of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya.
But then, nothing ever did work.
Through the history of our commercial cinema, there has always been talk about the formula film. This is generally uninformed talk, by people who hated the kind of stuff Bollywood generated, by people who had seen a few representative movies and then decided to judge all of them by a dozen.
There has never been a formula. There have been archetypal story patterns, which are very different things. You could see them as ways in which the running river of the story has cut a groove into our way of thinking. They are necessary and they form a vital way in which a nation, or a people, or some fraction of a people represents itself to itself.
Our stories are our dreams, our fears. The story of the two brothers lost at birth and reunited at the end came to us after Partition. It remained alive as long as it seemed that there was some hope of seeing a reunited subcontinent—with that mad codicil of “What a cricket team we would have had”. Now that almost everyone has a cousin abroad, has a friend abroad, has family living in Southall or Queens, it seems to be a natural thing to do love stories that have young people chatting to each other while ordering lattes or taking salsa classes.
So Raj and Simran (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, 1995) are not just an imaginary pair of characters. They live somewhere just under the skin of our imaginations. The problem is how they are being constructed. How they have turned into Neal and near-nangi Nikki (Neal ‘N’ Nikki, 2005).
Go and watch Don, the original Don, again. It has all the power and charisma and sex appeal that Amitabh Bachchan could muster up in the late 1970s. It has some great songs. It has a perfectly improbable storyline with a great ending sequence in which a diary changes hands as quickly as the Italian government.
The new Don got rid of that ending sequence. That’s probably because Farhan Akhtar was too young to watch Amitabh, Zeenat and sundry villains leap and spin and whirl in that graveyard. Had he been there, he would have known how we tensed our bodies each time the red diary went sailing, aided by the soundtrack, through the air.
How we whistled when the good guys got it. How we shouted to them to watch out, lizard eyes is right behind you. The new Don gave us a smart Face/Off kind of trick. Our bodies did not react.
Backtrack two films in young Farhan’s oeuvre to Dil Chahta Hai. Rewind to the moment, “Hum hai naye, andaz kyon ho purana”. How well the new andaz and the old story were made to fit into each other. How well the new falling in love and the old falling in love and the offbeat falling in love fell into place.
Then came Lakshya, where he took a Western model, the young man who seeks his salvation in national service, a model that everyone of my generation knew from his Commando comics, and tried to adapt it to an Indian setting.
Does this mean that we have to go back to Mughal-E-Azam and Mother India and Sholay?
Nah. There is room for change. There will always be. But it must be a powerful force, a huge heady gush of storytelling that forces us to accept that there is a new channel. It must be a film that can rewrite our handwriting. It can’t be a mealy-mouthed trickle of self-conscious, self-referential smart movies made by smart young men and women, all of whom speak-think-dream English. That might have been a problem if the audience was still the repeat stalls viewer in the mofussil. But Hindi cinema, Bollywood, whatever it is called, has now got out of that playpen. It has an international audience, 99.9% of which is NRI. But the NRI is willing to pay in pounds and dollars.
Do the math. They don’t want you. They’re already thinking of the overseas markets, the DVD rights, the music resale, the tickets at the late night show in Covent Garden, the television channel rights for Mauritius and the Maldives and Egypt.
But they should be warned. When you stop telling stories to yourself, when you stop telling the stories you want to listen to, when you start second-guessing what another audience wants, when you start tailoring your stories to suit some mad marketing notions, you get a Ta Ra Rum Ho Hum…
And Bheja Fry, made because some young man wanted to make it, wanted to make it so much that he made it anyhow; made it without, one suspects, dreaming that it would pop Yash Raj one in its chops, made it on a shoestring budget and with a bindaas Bambaiyya spirit, that Bheja Fry was a sleeper hit.
The big boys who give each other Mercedes? They should start having sleepless nights.
(Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-bomb)