To Hindi cinema, with love and exasperated fondness
Love in cold places
The romance of hill stations and Kashmir.
There’s nothing like checking out of big city life and heading to the hills. You might fall in love, for one thing, with a boatman played by Shashi Kapoor (Jab Jab Phool Khile) or a businessman’s son played by Shammi Kapoor (Kashmir Ki Kali). You will be able to wear winter clothing, like Saira Banu does in Junglee or Shabana Azmi in Lahu Ke Do Rang.
The path to finding love far away from home is a well-trodden one—it lets audiences travel without leaving the cinema, gives film-makers an excuse to showcase exotic locations, and allows characters to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise imagine. Kashmir was the ultimate romantic getaway before the pro-independence movement exploded in the 1980s. Movies like Kashmir Ki Kali, Waqt and Bemisal promoted its picture-postcard vistas and introduced several heartland Indians to the pleasures of snow and houseboats. Kashmir did face some competition from Shimla. Movies like Daag and Love in Simla did more for tourism to the hill station than any government or private effort. If there is one culprit for Shimla’s ruinous construction boom, it is Hindi cinema.
Indians now lose their hearts in other places—Manali (Jab We Met), Goa and Sydney (Dil Chahta Hai), New Zealand (Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai) and Spain (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). Travel does broaden the mind—and improve prospects.
The poet of ‘Pyaasa’.
The Western world has “We don’t need no education", but when Indians want an anti-establishment song, they turn to Yeh mehlon, ye takhton ye taajon ki duniya, written by Sahir Ludhianvi for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa in 1957.
He made a mini empire out of romance and rock-n-roll in the 1960s. Bhopal-born Nasir Hussain joined Filmistan Studio in 1948 as a scenarist and wrote sporadically before directing Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), the film that skyrocketed Shammi Kapoor to fame. This was the beginning of a musical romance style with Mohammed Rafi’s voice adapted to rock-n-roll music. As the producer of Nasir Hussain Films, he made many love stories, including Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1961) and Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973). Hussain scripted and produced his nephew Aamir Khan’s debut as a hero with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). His son Mansoor Khan took over the reins after his death in 2002.
The city film
Bombay then, Delhi now.
Bombay, and later Mumbai, has monopolized the city film for decades for obvious reasons. Mumbai is where the movies get made, and dreams get made and unmade. For years, it has adopted many avatars depending on the times—the city of gold, a beacon of modernity, an escape from oppressive conditions, a willing and unwilling destination for migrants from small towns and villages, a cesspool of immorality and crime, a graveyard of hope.
As movies got out of the studios and into real locations, Mumbai started broadcasting its wares to the rest of India. Movies in the 1950s, like Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver and Guru Dutt’s Aar-Paar, celebrate Mumbai’s wide, welcoming streets and beaches—Taxi Driver even lists “The city of Bombay" in its credits. The romance of Bombay’s open-air charms continued into the 1970s, into such films as Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat and Baaton Baaton Mein. Other films like Kismet (1943), Shree 420 (1955), CID (1956) caution against falling for the city’s trickster charms. Mumbai is where men and women with flexible morals abound (Kala Bazar, 1960; Gharaonda, 1977), migrants lose their bearings (Deewaar, 1975; Gaman, 1978), corruption is rife (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, 1983) and gangsters run amok (Satya, 1998).
It’s hard for one city to shoulder so many interpretations, which is probably why film-makers have started exploring other cities. The emergence of Delhi as a cinematic muse has to do with the recent transformations in its infrastructure, as well as a change of image, from a carpetbagger-run, conspiracy-guided capital (New Delhi Times, 1986) to a cool place with cool people (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, 2008); Vicky Donor, 2012). What’s next? Ahmedabad?
(From left) Nargis, Rajendra Kumar and Sunil Dutt struggle through rural life in ‘Mother India’
Once upon a time in rural India.
It’s not only the city (usually Mumbai) that gets a rap in the movies. Rural India too isn’t necessarily the best of places in which to pursue your dreams, fall in love, or bring up your children.
Rural India might have people who are bound more tightly to their roots than their Westernized counterparts, but they have their own set of enemies to face. They have rapacious moneylenders like Sukhi Lal, who tries to violate Radha’s honour in Mother India, and manipulative landlords who drive a wedge between brothers (Gunga Jumna). They have dacoits (Mera Gaon Mera Desh) and not-so-innocent women (Teesri Kasam). They have caste discrimination (Ankur) and bonded labour (Paar).
Popular cinema’s sceptical attitude towards rural India continues. In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades, Shah Rukh Khan’s US-returned engineer finds that the India he left behind hasn’t changed as much as he hoped. The opportunistic characters in Shyam Benegal’s Welcome to Sajjanpur have even fewer illusions about their future. Benegal neatly shatters any idealistic notions urban viewers might nurse about their rural counterparts. The satire spoofs the alleged merits of rural life and the very idea of the rural film itself.
Drama, melodrama, swimsuits and saris.
There are two types of Sharmila Tagore fans. Cinephiles don’t want to look beyond her nuanced work in four Satyajit Ray films, including the remarkable Devi. Admirers of Shakti Samanta’s ornate melodramas will forever associate Tagore with the film-maker (also a Bengali, like Ray), especially because of Amar Prem and Aradhana.
Both directors defined Tagore’s screen image like no other. One buttoned down her vivid beauty; the other dressed it up. For Ray, she wrapped herself up in Bengali cotton saris; for Samanta, she wore swimsuits, chiffon saris and bouffant wigs. Between the two directors, she completed an arc of expression, beginning with cerebral restraint and ending with irrational abandon.
The melancholic hero
Devdas and friends.
Melancholic heroes are dismissed as navel-gazing wimps who can’t commit to anything—their family, love, work, society. Bring them on, especially in a decade dominated by comic book heroes and hyper-masculine men.
The best acolyte of writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s creation Devdas, which has been filmed several times in several languages, can only be another Devdas. Although Abhay Deol’s stoner version of the character in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009) provokes neither pathos nor disgust, he provides much needed relief from his overachieving screen counterparts. The old-fashioned lot, who were unafraid to wet their craggy faces with tears, fared far better. Dilip Kumar, with his ability to suggest interiority and sensitivity, was born to play the part. Amitabh Bachchan never appeared as Devdas, although he would have been wonderful, but he did lite versions, such as Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Mili.
Anil Kapoor in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Parinda’ (1989)
The Everyman star.
You are not supposed to pant at the mention of Anil Kapoor’s name. That’s why he is teamed up with the hunky Jackie Shroff in so many films (Ram Lakhan, Parinda, Andar Baahar). Kapoor resembles a sweet-natured and enthusiastic neighbour, but he can also be the loafer your parents warned you about. Therein lies his strength—his ability to convincingly portray common folk on screen. He was undoubtedly a star by the time he was eclipsed by Shah Rukh Khan in the 1990s. Draw up a list of the more respectable movies in the 1980s and Kapoor will be in several of them, from Woh 7 Din to Chameli Ki Shaadi, Mr India to Parinda.
Comic star No. 1.
He danced, he beat up people, he lip-synced romantic numbers. But audiences took Govinda most seriously only after he teamed up with David Dhawan and, aided by Kader Khan’s unmatched talent for dreadful puns and relentless wordplay, became the Mehmood-cum-Dada Kondke of his generation. Govinda’s unflagging energy and fundamentally innocent image allowed him to rise above Dhawan’s love for double-entendre material. He could be a decent dramatic actor when he wanted to be (see Shola Aur Shabnam; Hum), but audiences wanted him to play the clown, so he did.
Raj Kapoor in ‘Around the World’ (1967)
Never really leaving home.
This one is a list for the masochists.
There is a healthy set of movies in which Indians make asses of themselves in the public squares of the world’s greatest cities. When Indian film-makers land up in Paris, London, Moscow and Tokyo, they invariably place the actors in front of famous monuments and start dancing, much to the bemusement of bystanders. The Indian characters don’t mingle with foreigners (unless they are undercover spies or criminals). They seek out fellow Indians wherever they go (and find them too), and then stick with their own. Except for the dancing, that’s exactly what several Indian tourists do when they travel abroad even today.
Among the more embarrassing films on the list are Raj Kapoor’s Around the World (1967) and Yash Chopra’s Lamhe (1991). Kapoor introduced travel-starved Indians to the wonders of the world, while Chopra made Switzerland the Kashmir of the West. But their handling of the locations proves that the Indian is never at home anywhere—except at home.
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.