Opiate of the masses

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Fans of actor Shahrukh Khan celebrating in front of a cinema hall on the release of "Chennai Express" in Kolkata recently. Photo: PTI

Salman Khan in "Dabanng". Films like "3 Idiots", "Dabanng" and "Chennai Express" have notched up more numbers in the first week of their release than the biggest hits of yesteryear. Photo: by special arrangement

Meena Kumari in "Rukhsana". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in "Naya Daur". Photo: The Hindu Archives

Sunil Dutt and Pran in "Bhai-Bhai". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in "Shree 420". Photo: The Hindu Archives

Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in "Pyaasa". Photo: The Hindu Archives

From the film "Umrao Jaan", in which Rekha had a well-etched-out role.

A handbill of "Alam-Ara" at Majestic Talkies in Bombay. The film arrived amidst newspaper advertisements gloating about "all talking, singing and dancing". Photo: The Hindu Archives

Whether dabbling in mythology, as in the silent era, or Nehruvian socialism, or the escapist formula fare in the 1970s and later, Hindi cinema was always an enchantress, now nudging and cajoling, now pampering and pleasing the senses.
100 years of Indian Cinema

BACK in 1946, long queues of cinegoers led to the good old Novelty Cinema near Old Delhi railway station. The hall, known to play just a movie or two every year—most films here completed at least a silver jubilee, that is, an uninterrupted run of 25 weeks—was showing the Noor Jehan-Suraiya-Surendra starrer Anmol Ghadi. The nation, then on the verge of Independence, was going through ferment, but cinegoers were happy to sip from the nectar of “Jawan hai mohabbat, haseen hai zamana”, Noor Jehan’s parting gift to India before she settled down in Pakistan, leaving the stage open, first for Suraiya and then Lata Mangeshkar and the rest.

Splendid was the box-office run of Anmol Ghadi, but it was not an isolated instance. Hindi cinema was a temptress; it seduced the audiences, verily it acted as an opiate of the masses. Whether dabbling in mythology, as in the silent era, or Nehruvian socialism, as in the early years after Independence, or the escapist formula fare in the 1970s and later, Hindi cinema was always an enchantress, now nudging and cajoling, now pampering and pleasing the senses. A little before Noor Jehan’s voice was winning over newer converts, M. Sadiq’s Rattan (1944) was similarly lapped up at the box office. Again, the queues of cinegoers waiting to enter a cinema hall in Chandni Chowk went up to a kilometre. This time Zohrabai Ambalawali’s “Ankhiyan milake, jiya bharmake” whipped up the magic.

Around the time of Independence, cinegoers found themselves humming Uma Devi’s “Afsana likh rahi hun dil-e-beqarar ka”, the song from Dard, picturised by Munawar Sultana, soon to be Uma Devi’s acquaintance with posterity. A little later came Baiju Bawra (1952) and Anarkali (1953). Then came the biggest of them all, K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960). The film’s print, keeping in mind the tale of royal romance, arrived on elephant back when the film was released.

All this was remarkably similar to the first talkie, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam-Ara (1931), and its great run. Starring Zubeidaa and Master Vitthal, it was greeted by fans at Bombay’s Majestic Cinema with wild applause; the film arrived amidst newspaper advertisements gloating about “all talking, singing and dancing”. In Delhi’s Imperial Cinema, fans knew no bounds, and the hall which until then had been used to stage Parsi theatre turned to cinema for good. The film marked the advent of sound technology, taking a giant leap for the audience which hitherto had seen only silent movies, beginning with Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra.

In fact, in the first couple of decades, Hindi cinema tackled very Indian subjects, dabbling in mythology, religion and history. Characters from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and oral traditions of south and north India found manifestation on the screen. The subjects were so chosen to tell the countrymen that films, though using imported technology, were their medium. And cinemas happily announced themselves as talkies! It was a strategy that was to reap handsome dividends in the years to come. None more so than when the likes of Aurat and Sikander were released. Or for that matter Kismet which rewrote many a box-office record.

That, too, was in the pre-Partition days when our film-makers often talked of our shared past; hence came movies like Pukar, Sikander and later, in the 1950s, Jhansi ki Rani. Divisive elements of the British Raj were given the go by, and medieval and early modern India, indeed even mythology, was highlighted to unite the nation across the barriers of religion, region and caste. This was a time of heightened patriotism as Indians looked within for elements of unity and picked up threads to take pride in their own culture. Hence came Sohrab Modi’s Pukar, a film set in the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Then came Sikander, Prithivraj Kapoor’s military drama that managed to evoke interest at the International Film Festival of India almost 70 years after it was made. Modi’s films, like most films of the early years, were derived from Parsi theatre and often married the two; the silver screen became host to histrionics! Wordy dialogues, exaggerated mannerisms and period costumes were all central to the drama. Add a dash of melody and the masses lapped up the offer.

The early 1940s

The early 1940s was also the time we took first steps towards urbanisation; more and more people left villages to find home and hearth in cities. This movement changed the profile of Hindi film audiences completely. The audiences in the initial days, post Raja Harishchandra, were sophisticated urban Indians. By the 1940s, the audience was made up largely of men who worked in cities and headed home to small towns and villages at the time of death or joy. Indeed, around this time came up cinema halls in north India and in parts of east and west India too which started reserving small but exclusive sections for women to enable them to watch movies in private—movie-watching was not regarded as a proper thing for women from “decent” families. Hence the need for private boxes at cinemas. Accordingly, the films around this time catered almost exclusively to men. They expressed their sense of anomie and alienation in wide and vast cities. Thus came about films talking of social inequalities, caste conflicts and the consequences of early industrialisation.

This was also the age when progressive writers as well as the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) began to influence Hindi cinema. Many film-makers were essentially writers/poets, most abided by the communist ideology. The likes of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Chetan Anand, Bimal Roy and later even Raj Kapoor had a heart that beat for the downtrodden. As indeed was the case with Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi, both of whom never wasted an opportunity to express the anguish of those left behind. Their poetry went beyond the erstwhile tradition of shama-parvana (moth and flame) in Urdu poetry. Yet, the biggest hit of the period was an escapist tale called Kismet, starring the legendary Ashok Kumar. Directed by Gyan Mukherjee, the film, which came around the Second World War, set the template for future sagas built around the lost-and-found formula—first Dilip Kumar in Ram aur Shyam (1967) and then Amitabh Bachchan, for much of the 1970s with films such as Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony, perfected the formula.

Incidentally, at a time when Bachchan was chiselling out his larger-than-life persona yet appealing to the unemployed and the angry youth of the country, the likes of Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and later Goutam Ghose, Ketan Mehta and others were talking of rural poverty, caste inequities and social anomaly. Their films were often set in real-life villages and spoke their lingo, but paradoxically, the films appealed almost exclusively to the urban elite. They unleashed what came to be called a parallel cinema movement. The coming of Bachchan and the birth of parallel cinema marked an end to Hindi cinema’s association with Urdu. In its place gradually there came Bambaiya Hindi, followed by Hinglish in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new millennium.

Subaltern realities

Strange as it may sound, the work of the parallel cinema movement derived its fuel from the more mainstream cinema of Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, B.R. Chopra and others in the 1950s. Back then, what was essentially the golden era of Hindi cinema, illustrious men like Roy, Chopra, Khan and others like V. Shantaram, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor left behind a legacy difficult to match. Their films were innately linked with the emerging socio-economic and political realities of the time and often performed what was supposedly the job of the media: formulate public opinion, focus on the challenges faced by an emerging nation. Their realism was never synonymous with boredom. The depiction of urban angst in a series of Raj Kapoor films beginning with Awara and then Shree 420 and others, the moral dilemmas of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool, the social crevices of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or the emotional rupture expressed in Bimal Roy’s films always gave voice to the dispossessed and a platform to the deprived and for subaltern realities. In many ways it was cinema that focussed on emerging India. Yet, in others, it drank happily from the founts of nostalgia: Hindi cinema cried out for a past that could act as a blueprint for the future.

In this section fell V. Shantaram’s films Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and Navrang, which not only tried to make the classical arts of India popular but also made a strong statement at the box office. Much like Goonj Uthi Shehnai, where Ustad Bismillah Khan wove his magic, just like Pandit Ravi Shankar did in Anuradha. Then there were films such as Mirza Ghalib and Anarkali which focussed on cultural nuances of pre-colonial Hindustan. The best, however, was Mughal-e-Azam, which reasserted the true meaning of pluralist polity in the country. India’s Constitution enshrined secularism as the governing principle of the nation but much before that it was practised at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar; Asif’s film showed a naat (hymn in praise of the Prophet Muhammad) as well as a Krishna bhajan. The mythical romance between a royal heir and a courtesan rewrote all box-office records, clearly eclipsing the numbers notched up by Mehboob’s Mother India in 1957. Incidentally, the composite nature of the nation was expressed before Asif’s film too, the instance being the bhajans of Baiju Bawra. The bhajans were written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad, and sung by Mohammed Rafi. Their art was the glue that helped bind India across the divides of faith.

A little after Baiju Bawra came Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Sujata (1959), both of which spoke of social fissures in a manner that was far from futile. While Do Bigha Zamin highlighted class politics, Sujata used silence as a tool of expression, all along relating the story of a lower-caste girl through symbols. Do Bigha Zamin was all about exposing the ugly underbelly of urbanisation. Soon after came B.R. Chopra, who added a dash of entertainment to the serious subject of rampant industrialisation in Naya Daur where Vyjayantimala held her own in front of Dilip Kumar, then ruling the roost along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. However, the best example of cinema’s engagement with polity was provided by Mehboob Khan in Mother India, a film that has often been hailed for providing a dream role for any heroine in the history of Hindi cinema. Nargis, as the heroine, is shown as the repository of the best values of the East—anti-individualism and pro-family and society, with clear-cut traditions and social strictures. The film was a subtle case for Nehruvian socialism and an indictment of private enterprise. It opens with the inauguration of a canal in the village—the message being that the state stands for the welfare of all. It proceeds to expose the evil moneylender, who has no scruples and is driven by an overriding desire to make profit. He is shown as a symbol of capitalism or private enterprise at a time when socialism was the abiding dogma of the government.

Socially relevant cinema

Similarly, the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s often dealt with serious subjects in a popular fashion; a film like Dhool ka Phool, which was a mark of Yash Chopra’s engagement with socially relevant cinema, or later Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana, a heroine-oriented film that made a strong statement about premarital intimacy without a sermon. Aradhana was all about the plight of the unwed mother, Sharmila Tagore, though it had the then hugely popular Rajesh Khanna in a double role. Interestingly, patriotic films came few and far between; the early years after Independence were all about looking back. The first patriotic film came after the India-China war of 1962 through Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat, which was shot extensively in Ladakh and used real jawans in the cast. Then came Upkar, which gave Pran the role of a lifetime. Both these films had lasting melodies to take the story forward, a practice common to almost all Hindi films.

In fact, melody always played a key role in Hindi films, beginning with Alam-Ara. With luminaries such as Naushad, Salil Chowdhury, Shanker-Jaikishen, O.P. Nayyar and Ravi calling the shots, the hugely talented Anil Biswas, Jaidev and Khayyam never got their due. Interestingly, music directors, lyricists and singers worked as a team, giving rise to a camp culture, something akin to the modern-day phenomenon of Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra with Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, and so on. Or the earlier days of Bimal Roy-Gulzar-Shailendra and S.D. Burman or Guru Dutt with V.K. Murty-Ravi and others. Such was the craze for good music that even mediocre films usually had at least one memorable song. For instance, the forgotten Didi, which gave Sudha Malhotra her best song with “Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao to yeh haq hai tumko”, or Shagun, where Khayyam’s wife, Jagjit Kaur, came up with “Tum apna ranjh-o-gham”. Through such songs, lesser artists got their moment under the sun. Otherwise, it was all about Lata, Asha Bhonsle, Rafi, Mukesh and later Kishore Kumar with occasional hits from Talat Mahmood, Manna De and Mahendra Kapoor.

Unfortunately, melody took a back seat from the 1970s onwards. With the accent being on action, thanks to the likes of Bachchan with directors like Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra at the helm, in this era heroines were often reduced to either a glorified extra or an object of ridicule. The arrival of south Indian directors K. Bappiah and K. Raghavendra Rao did not help matters though the south Indian heroines Sridevi and Jayaprada became the ruling divas of Hindi cinema in the 1980s. With nil artistic pretensions, films like Himmatwala, Mawaali, Maqsad and Masterji attracted big crowds but set Hindi cinema back by a few years with their loud comedy, amateurish action sequences, double-meaning dialogues and regressive projection of women. Only the likes of K. Viswanath, with an occasional Sur Sangam, or Gulzar, with offerings like Ijaazat, Leela and Rudaali, came up with well-etched-out roles for women characters. Incidentally, for Gulzar it was a second coming of sorts, having earlier tasted both fame and controversy with films like Parichay, Mausam, Kitaab and Aandhi in the 1970s, the decade that had space for G.P. Sippy’s Sholay, the biggest hit in the annals of Hindi cinema, and Chupke Chupke, a film that tickled the audiences, and also Jai Santoshi Maa, a non-star devotional that surprised the pundits with its dream run. The faithful blended the reel with the real, often doing a little puja at the naturally cooled cinema halls playing Jai Santoshi Maa before going inside to watch the film. The film’s remarkable success unleashed a wave of devotionals, with Dara Singh’s Bhakti Mein Shakti being the only notable entry.

NRI fantasies

Incidentally, Gulzar’s biggest hit came in the mid-1990s with Maachis, which was to be followed by the biggest debacle, Hu Tu Tu, in 1999. The mid- and late-1990s, however, marked another change. This time cinema came to exhibit urban shades, even embraced the non-resident Indian (NRI). Bharat was forgotten, India was lapped up. And films happily catered to NRI fantasies— Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Pardes worked immeasurably, others less so. The era of reels and projectors gave way to digital prints. The years of having daily four shows at cinema halls gave way to more than a dozen shows of every big film, thanks to multiplexes which started giving viewers multiple options. Beginning with PVR Anupam (in 1997) in New Delhi, multiplexes came to redefine the Hindi cinema market in the jargon of business. The space for marginalised cinema or alternative cinema, as once expressed by Mrinal Sen and Benegal, became less and less as big budgets and big stars dictated box-office tastes. It all coincided with the era of the new triumvirate—the Khans Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman. The megastars translate into mega bucks today. And films like 3 Idiots, Dabanng and Chennai Express notch up more numbers in the first week of their release than the biggest hits of yesteryear. Films garnering over Rs.100 crore is hardly surprising.

Fans still rush for first day-first show of the Khans’ new release, just as they did for Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand at one time and Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan at another. At one time girls wrote letters in blood to Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna, at another they sent marriage proposals to Shammi ‘yahoo’ Kapoor. Today, they swear by the Khans. Why, the other day, this critic met a male, Jodhpur-based fan of Salman Khan who had tattoos of the names of all his films all over his back! Fans, they remain the same. Hindi cinema still fuels fantasies, ignites dreams. It was, and it is, veritably the opiate of the masses.

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