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“How do you make a film if you don’t have money?" the producer asked. He was not drunk, far from it, but he was in the mood to tell the truth. “This is how. You start with an idea and you take that idea from star to star. Finally, one says yes and his secretary gives you six days after six months. You rush off to a financier and you tell them that you have six days with Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan or whoever and on the strength of that he gives you some money. You go and get a song written and composed. You get the star on set and you get the dance shot, if you’re lucky in six days. Then you take that song and you show it to another financier and he gives you money to shoot an action sequence. You take that money and maybe even pay a writer to give you a story but that doesn’t even matter. Have you seen Professor Pyarelal(1981)? They say Hrishikesh Mukherjee put it together on the editing table. That’s how it goes."

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That was how it went in the bad old days when the industry was an industry in name only and money was a necessary evil. Such an evil thing that if you watch Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), you cringe a little at the somewhat caricatured representation of the rich. The Anand brothers were good at this. Take the chant of paisa, paisa, paisa in Kala Bazaar (1960) that turns the young man to the black market. That was at the end of the great old 1950s, the time we have been told was the golden age of cinema. Money and power faced off against poverty and innocence and the latter always won resoundingly. Nargis as Mother India did not succumb to Kanhaiyalal, the moneylender; and Madhubala as Anarkali offered herself as a sacrifice to keep Mughal-e-Azam(1960) intact.

Illustration: Jayachandran
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Illustration: Jayachandran

In the 1960s, we had rich men who had to experience love to yahoo their way through the hills and poor boatmen who turned out to be rich men anyway. In the 1970s, there was more of the same although it was sometimes a class war (Bobby, 1973) and sometimes it was simply a war over the means of production of wealth (Deewaar, 1975) but the whole thing was that bhaiya, sabse bada rupaiya. The 1980s were a stuck-record decade, Bollywood reaching desperately for modernity and missing by a mile. Nothing worked. The rich didn’t look rich, the poor didn’t look poor and we were all yawning desperately.

In the 1990s, Sooraj Barjatya decided that it might be time to spend a little money on the extras. Instead of the usual A-list extras (who could bring their own rather ratty clothes), he got ramp models and dressed them in designer duds. Suddenly, there was money smeared all over the screen and no one ever looked back. No one asked how a teacher’s daughter could dress like that. We didn’t care. We wanted a destination wedding and a mehndi and a story and a book and a video and there had to be a budget for all this.

After liberalization, the world began to look at India as a market -- we know, we know, they wanted to dump some date-expired goods on us -- but they also thought this might be a place to park some money and watch it grow. ICE (internet, communication and entertainment) was big, does anyone even use that phrase now? ICE as an investment opportunity meant there were to be bound scripts and datelines and accountability.

There was a time Shashi Kapoor had signed more than 50 films and was doing three shifts a day. There was a time when Ashok Kumar turned up on the set and asked Leela Naidu what his character’s name was. No longer. Now there were men in suits, I was told.

So, I was unprepared for a late-night call from a young woman who had just graduated from the college I teach.

“Jerry," she said, “talk to me."

“What’s wrong?" I asked.

“I am in a taxi on my way to this hotel in Bandra," she said. I had heard of the hotel. I thought it had closed down.

“No, some rooms are open. I have to deliver a bag to the first floor."

My mind whirled. I thought of the taxi driver overhearing this conversation. I thought of him robbing the young woman. I thought of the young woman being pursued by the mafia. “Let’s talk about the cinema of Pedro Almodovar," I said.

She delivered the bag, left the hotel unscathed and stopped to breathe the cool, foetid night air by the sea. “I don’t think I can do this again," she said.

“You shouldn’t," I said.

When I told a friend this, she shrugged and said, “There’s no black money left in Bollywood. Everything is cheque payment now. Everything." No doubt she knew whereof she spoke.

Bollywood, or what is left of it, still has an uncertain attitude to money. This is because its drivers have always been sex and violence. Sex is disguised as love, and love has always stood in opposition to money. Gentlemen may prefer blonde gold-diggers in Hollywood and writers like Anita Loos can even skillfully range us on their side, but in Bollywood, it was gonads over gold. And as for violence, we all know that the man with the greater firepower wins. But again, horsepower was our purana daur. The bus would lose, the horse would win. Karan and Arjun would get together and dislodge the powerful. The five outsiders would get together and beat the zamindar.

In Sholay (1975), we have an iconic moment which posits money against desire. The two mercenaries (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) who have been hired by the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) to free his village from the clutches of Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) decide to take the money and vamoose instead of fighting someone else’s war. They are caught at it by the widow of the house (Jaya Bhaduri) who, dressed in white, plays conscience keeper. And she does not stop them. She offers them the keys and tells them to take the money and leave. You knew what was going to happen in the next scene. You knew it but you were moved.

For me, the money tossed into the fire of Qurbani (1980) was an eye-opener. It is difficult at this remove to remember the eagerness with which we waited to see Qurbani. The audience was actually thumping at the doors of the theatre to be let in. When Sheela (Zeenat Aman) comes running out of the water of the Arabian Sea, there were hoots and whistles of course. But in the conversation that follows, she throws Rajesh’s (Feroz Khan) ill-gotten gains into the fire. There was a collective groan that ran through the cinema. No one could believe that anyone could do that. Later, rumours spread that the currency was real, just as the Mercedes he destroyed in the parking lot scene was real.
But those ill-gotten gains haunted us. Living off theft (Mr Natwarlal, 1979,has a good comic riff about middle-class budgeting) or the body of a woman (take any of the pimps in any of the tawaif movies right down to Gangubai Kathiawadi) and you will see that it is not easy to work money into the tight embrace of love and violence. Both must be pure and purity is judged on the basis of freedom from the taint of money. As for business, that hasn’t had much play in cinema as any Guru (2007) will tell you.

This is unsurprising. Even in this age where we have given over all the details of our lives to Mr Zuckerberg and the sarkar, we will not talk about money. (Don’t ask me what they’re paying me for this piece.) Our sexual preferences, our morning meals, our children’s antics, we’ll talk about all of it but we won’t talk about money.

Is it any surprise that Bollywood is our dark mirror?

Pinto isthe author of Helen: the life and times of a Bollywood H-Bomb and the editor of The Greatest Show on Earth; Writings about Bollywood.

 

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