Would a movie about the telegram be titled “Stop Motion"?

Okay, bad joke.

Last week, several Indians who hadn’t sent out a telegram in decades visited their local telegraph office to shed a few, necessarily brief, tears for the antiquated mode of communication. They remembered the “Aapka taar aaya hai (you’ve got a telegram)" movie scenes, one of hundreds of clichés dear to screenwriters. We’re betting that the next retro movie will have a telegram scene played out at a pitch as high as Kirron Kher’s mother of all mothers in Farah Khan’s semi-retro Om Shanti Om (2007).

At the rate at which objects and services are disappearing, the nostalgia industry is going to be working twice as hard. Film-makers, and sometimes audiences, have immense fondness for the retro movie, which is often confused with the period picture and the costume drama in genre-agnostic Bollywood. Peering over the shoulder can be more exciting, and less demanding, than looking around. The past takes some more effort to recreate, especially in a city like Mumbai that is being torn down and built up again every other week, but the exercise offers greater creative licence. Indeed, we’re waiting for a film academic to write about the preference for the past over the present in a paper titled “Bollywood Flashback: Memory, Nostalgia and Elision in Contemporary Hindi Cinema".

There is more in store for fans of bad hair days, embarrassing clothing and silly dance moves. The Marathi movie Duniyadari, set in the late 1970s, opened on 19 July, while the 1980s-set Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara!, the sequel to the differently spelt Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, opens on 15 August (Indians could presumably spell better in the 1980s). Bombay Velvet, which will attempt to recreate the Mumbai of the 1950s and 1960s through sets and location shooting in Colombo in Sri Lanka, will hit the floor soon.

Bollywood’s retro-normative behaviour has resulted in movies that, when stripped of their period trappings, are not too different from everything else that’s being churned out. Movies like Om Shanti Om and Action Replayy and, to an extent, The Dirty Picture and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, dress the old formula in retro garb. But heavy wigs, bell-bottom trousers and gleaming vintage cars don’t add up to worthwhile commentary on the decades gone by. There’s no substitute for intelligent and sensitive writing and direction, as proved by Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, which scores better on the interplay between love and ideology in its characters than on period detail.

The Emergency indelibly alters the destinies of the two men and a woman in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. In Sujay Dahake’s assured debut feature Shala, Indira Gandhi’s attempt to muzzle democratic expression has mixed results. Based on Milind Bokil’s novel of the same name, the 2011 movie is set in a school in small-town Maharashtra and chronicles the small and big challenges to authority in Indira’s India. Considerably more upbeat, and less political-minded than Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Shala does make the point that then, as now, it is useless to try to control hearts and minds.

In different ways, Mishra and Dahake suggest that ye goode olde days are preferable to the materialism and rootlessness of today’s 30-minus generation. We usually look back to yesterday with a lump in the throat. British film-maker Shane Meadows’ This Is England approaches nostalgia excavation with a clenched jaw. Meadows’ acclaimed drama, powered by a superb lead performance by 13-year-old Thomas Turgoose, follows the induction of a teenager into a gang of skinheads and his indoctrination by a racist member of that subculture. Set in a decaying industrial city in Thatcherite England, the movie looks at a generation of fatherless young men ill-equipped to deflect the effects of migration, ultra-national sentiment and economic hardship. Replace the smooth-headed white boys of This Is England with the Marathi-speaking malcontents of Mumbai and you get the picture.

One of the most masterful antidotes to the sweet poison of nostalgia is administered by Satyajit Ray in Jalsaghar, only his fourth film and made when he was 37, between Paras-Pathar and Apur Sansar. An imperious but impecunious landlord, played magnificently by Chhabi Biswas, squanders his remaining wealth on a classical dance performance to show a parvenu neighbour how feudal patronage really works. Working with his regular team of collaborators (cinematographer Subrata Mitra, production designer Bansi Chandragupta, editor Dulal Dutta), Ray orchestrates an enthralling piece about a prisoner of memory, faded glory and misplaced superiority. Set in the 1930s, Jalsaghar travels further back in time through the landlord’s flashbacks. The device of looking at the past within the past is reinforced by long shots of the vacant corridors of the mansion, once witness to plenitude and pomp and now shared by a crumbling statue and a stray dog.

This fortnightly series looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.

Also Read | Nandini’s previous Lounge columns

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