No interview with a youngish Bollywood director is complete without the question, “So what did you watch when you were growing up?" The answers are predictable enough: Sholay, Jewel Thief, Don, Deewar. Slightly older directors reach back to Guru Dutt. Not too many film-makers mention movies made in the execrable Eighties, and with good reason. YouTube will reveal why very few people cite, say, Tohfa or Justice Chowdhary as major influences.

A cursory tour of the video-sharing site reveals the extent of perverse imagination that was being exercised by directors, writers, set designers, cinematographers and choreographers in that decade. A woman lies inside an oyster shell and heaves about while pummelled by pearls. The body of another leading lady is used to give an anatomy lesson: Look, says the camera, these are a woman’s hips. This is what a torso looks like. The hero, if one can call him that, practically molests the object of his desire, who responds by keeping her lips parted in a 1cm gap.

Most of the song-and-dance sequences seem to be elaborate visual metaphors for sexual practices that rely heavily on the use of props, like the aforementioned pearls, oranges, earthen pots or—my favourite—extras dressed as parrots that thrust their beaks in a perfectly synchronized fashion. One study that was never commissioned during those blunder years was a comparison between the box-office status of such films and the national rate of population growth.

Throwback: Vidya Balan in producer Ekta Kapoor’s The Dirty Picture.

The 1980s represented the exhaustion of the formula film. Bond-style spy thrillers, urban underbelly dramas, lost-and-found films, women’s weepies, tragedies, flighty romances, foreign adventures, socials, mythologicals—they had all been done. The only way to stay on top of the game seemed to have been by aiming for the depths. How else to bring back audiences threatening to drift away into the more affordable and intimate world of television?

But the 1980s weren’t all that execrable—they were a great period for state-run television, which aired many acclaimed series that some of us continue to be nostalgic about. It was also a superb decade for offbeat films, which were mostly produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India. This was the time of Sridevi (who did far superior work in Tamil films before crossing over to Hindi) and Jaya Prada, but also of Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. For every hero dressed in white or gold and darting across a fruit-splattered plateau or a cheaply lit dance floor, there were dedicated actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Farooque Shaikh slaving away at their craft. The 1980s weren’t all that bad after all—it just depends on which YouTube clip you source.

The Dirty Picture released in theatres on Friday.

Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (

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