Vijay Anand

Style and substance.

The title of Sidharth Bhatia’s book Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story says everything there is to say about the Anand brothers Vijay, Chetan and Dev. They were modern, and they were a storied banner.

All three brothers directed films for Navketan, but Vijay Anand was leagues ahead of his siblings, as well as other film-makers. Anand liked movies with stylish actors, evocative sets, memorable songs, and busy plots. We’re torn between Johny Mera Naam and Jewel Thief—the former has superb songs, Dev Anand in top form and Premnath, while the latter has wild sets, Ashok Kumar, Vyjayanthimala and Sikkim.

He knew how to Indianize the crime thriller and make it seem as though the genre had sprung from Indian soil. He had a rare talent for that particular Indian trait, song picturization. In song after memorable song, in movie after movie, he tried out new things—Helen seen through large cut-outs of the letters ROCKY in Teesri Manzil; Dev Anand and Hema Malini canoodling in a greenhouse in Johny Mera Naam. His movies were modish without being flitty. In Guide, directed for Navketan before Anand stepped out to work with producers like Nasir Hussain and Gulshan Rai, he achieved the perfect balance between style and substance.

Dev Anand in Raj Khosla’s ‘Kala Pani’ (1958). Photo courtesy: Mohan Churiwala

Forever young.

Attractive, urbane, slim, seemingly light on his feet and of heart. If Dev Anand had retired from the screen in the 1960s, we might have loved him some more. Until then, he had a superb run, headlining romances (Tere Ghar Ke Samne) and thrillers (Jewel Thief), and, less successfully, dramas (Bombai Ka Babu, Guide). His performances depended greatly on the film-maker—it helped if his brother, Vijay Anand, was in charge—but his ability to light up the screen with his presence was very much his own.

Middle cinema

The middle way.

Hindi cinema was an exciting place in the 1970s and 1980s. There was mainstream cinema, parallel and experimental cinema. Then there was middle cinema, best represented by the films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Sai Paranjpye. They excelled in gentle satires and witty comedies that poked fun at middle-class values and hypocrisies. The films had none of the heaviness of parallel films—they stayed away from politics, were characterized by a light touch and, despite modest budgets, tried to qualify as popular entertainment. The honour roll includes Chupke Chupke, Gol Maal, Chhoti Si Baat, Chashme Buddoor and Saath Saath. Middle cinema’s influence can be felt most strongly today in mid-budget dramas and comedies like Bheja Fry and Vicky Donor—neither arthouse nor mainstream, just comfortably in between.

The non-kiss

And the resulting erotic frisson.

Yes, Indians don’t kiss. They skip foreplay, as is evident from the number of babies being born every day.

The banishment of the kiss from the movies, although it wasn’t uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s, led to mind-boggling acts of sublimation, suggestiveness and substitution. Songs became an important vehicle of sexual desire, often containing emotions, thoughts and imagery that were absent from the rest of the movie. By the 1980s, the choreography simulated sex itself, in a desperate attempt to show the unshowable.

Without the crutches of lyrics, cinematography, camera movements and editing cuts, most film-makers didn’t quite know how to justify mutual passion. The ones who did banished the songs to the background and focused on what was in the foreground. In the sensuous feather sequence in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala consummate their love as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s Prem jogan ban ke wafts over them.

Vijay Anand too liberates his married couple from lip-syncing Mile mile do badan in Black Mail. In a truly startling moment, Dharmendra and Rakhee reaffirm their love by making out while hidden inside a pile of logs even as various criminals hunt for them.

Shekhar Suman and Rekha in ‘Utsav’ (1984)

Guru Dutt

When the world is your enemy.

Among the greatest sequences ever shot in Indian cinema is one of Guru Dutt, standing in the doorway with his arms outstretched, in dark silhouette with light streaming in from behind him, Mohammed Rafi’s voice singing in a rising tempo, Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai, in Pyaasa. The camera zooms out as the audience in the hall, assembled, ironically, to mourn his death, stands up and turns around. The brooding, ultra-sensitive Dutt, a film-maker ahead of his times and an actor you constantly wanted to ask if he was all right, defined the 1950s and 1960s before his untimely death. He was a master craftsman, using light and camera better than anyone could imagine in the era of black and white films. His world view was romantic with tragic inclinations; the world of an artiste constantly in conflict with society. The story famously plays out in Pyaasa (1957), one of his best films along with Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), Mr & Mrs 55 and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), in which he is the struggling poet who is hard done by a capitalist world that wants to exploit him. His films remained largely unappreciated at the time, but have become classics since. He gave us actors Waheeda Rehman and Johnny Walker; writer Abrar Alvi and cinematographer V.K. Murthy; he gave us moonlit nights and alcoholic escapism; he gave us Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam; cinemascope; and told us that love can be very, very painful.

Ketan Mehta

A cinema of art, theatre and music.

Geeta Bali and Guru Dutt in ‘Baaz’ (1953). Photo courtesy: Subhash Chheda

Bhavni Bhavai is dedicated to Goscinny and Uderzo and Bertolt Brecht, and it lists art historian Jyotindra Jain as a consultant. Mehta’s next film, made five years later, adapted Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Holi, about a group of adolescents running riot at their college hostel, into a movie by the same name. In his best-known film, Mirch Masala (1987), Smita Patil headlined a superb ensemble cast of villagers in pre-independence India who teach a lecherous government official the lesson of his life.

He has made a few ill-advised glossy films and is now resting his hopes on the yet-to-be-released Rang Rasiya, about the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma. It’s nowhere as impressive as his earlier films, but Mehta’s quest to make arthouse films in an Indian idiom is hopefully not yet dead.


The magic of big eyes and an easy smile.

She could play the part of an apparition and enchant her screen suitor into thinking he wanted to be with her, even if it meant his own death. She could be light-hearted, skipping to the tune of songs such as Haal kaisa hai janab ka. She understood when her lover came with baggage, as in Kala Pani. She could transform before our eyes from a fiery champion of the women-are-better-off-without-men philosophy to a girl who desires the security of a relationship—the old Shakespearean theme of the taming of the shrew. And she could throw caution to the winds because she would much rather die for her prince than live in fear of an emperor’s wrath.

Madhubala made acting look effortless. The star-crossed lovers of Mughal-e-Azam, played by Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, won over the audience. But it is Madhubala’s Anarkali and her defiance in the face of social order and royal decree that stay with you. At the start of the song Pyaar kiya to darna kya, she is surrounded by the splendour of the Mughal court. But by the end, she has thrown an open challenge to the emperor himself, smirking in his face. As the ceiling mirrors multiply her image manifold, her twirling figure overwhelms even the beautiful scenography.


Our favourite baddy-two shoes.

Premnath plays the nasty villain in Vijay Anand’s ‘Johny Mera Naam’ (1970)

The list of great villains, both men and women, who became stars in their own right because of the relish with which they attacked their roles is long. In the right movie with the right script, they provided welcome relief from the nauseating goodness of the main leads. In no order of importance, here are some of the people we love to hate to love. Premnath in Johny Mera Naam, consumed by lust for money and women. Raghuvaran in Shiva, conveying nastiness by flaring his nostrils. Amrish Puri in countless roles, especially Shakti. Paresh Rawal in Naam, in arch-villain mode after playing bit parts for years. Naseeruddin Shah as a deranged government functionary in Mirch Masala. Jeevan as a scheming brother in Dharam Veer. Prem Chopra in Kati Patang, at his beady-eyed best. Vinod Khanna in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, a no-holds-barred dacoit. Anupam Kher as a two-faced politician in Arjun. K.N. Singh in Awara, mean mean mean. Madan Puri, unconvincing as a Chinese man named Chang in Howrah Bridge but dastardly nevertheless. Danny Denzongpa in Agneepath, smooth as silk. Simi Garewal as a scheming wife in Karz. Saif Ali Khan in Ek Hasina Thi, unrepentant till the end.

The importance of villains can be judged by the fact that the directors of later films like Ram Lakhan and Tridev felt compelled to provide a gallery of rogues with such bizarre names as Bad Man, Sir John, Jibran and Tyson.

Talat Mahmood

His voice quavered like a windswept candle.

A quiet evening, a cool breeze, good whisky, and the voice of Talat Mahmood in the background—few of life’s little pleasures can match this one: Phir wohi sham, wohi gham, wohi tanhai hai…

Mahmood is the least remembered male singer from the golden age of Hindi film music, but his fans make up for their lack of numbers with the intensity of their passion for the original ghazal king. Most of his singing was telescoped into the few hundred songs he sang in about 10 years.

Mahmood burst on to the scene with a non-film song, Tasveer teri dil mera behela na sakegi, composed by his mentor Kamal Dasgupta in Calcutta. He moved to Bombay in 1949, and took the film world by storm. In those early years, he was the voice of Dilip Kumar in some of the greatest tragic roles played by the actor, in films such as Daag, Devdas, Shikast, Foot Path and Sangdil. They were as made for each other as Raj Kapoor and Mukesh or Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar, but the partnership did not last for long.

He chose his songs carefully, insisting that the lyrics should be poetic, a path that ensured he lost out in the more noisy 1960s. A few music composers remained faithful to him: Anil Biswas, Madan Mohan and Salil Chowdhury, for example.

There has been no shortage of singers who perform in the style of the greats of yesteryear, be it Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh or Kishore Kumar, but Talat has been irreplaceably unique, as Biswas once pointed out. That tremor in his velvety voice brought out innocence, fragility and tragedy with equal ease. It has not been replicated.


A heroine who defied all screen stereotypes.

Nutan sways gently to Chhod do anchal zamana kya kahega in Subodh Mukerji’s Paying Guest (1957)—with an irrepressible smile and elegant playfulness. The verbal duel between her and Dev Anand’s character is one of Hindi cinema’s unforgettable duets. Much of that refreshingly natural acting style (in an age of staged histrionics) defines her films in the 1950s and 1960s. But she had a serious, restrained actor in her that did justice to the roles of some unforgettable women characters in Hindi cinema. In 1955, she displayed powerful acting skills as Gauri, an imprisoned and orphaned slave girl fighting for her survival in Amiya Chakrabarty’s Seema. This versatility proved to be her signature in a career that spanned more than 70 films, which includes Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963)—both of which got her awards, praise from critics, and a place in film history.

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.


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