In Hindi cinema, the 1980s was the decade of the dark and powerful police drama Ardh Satya as well as the kitschy excess of the action comedy Himmatwala. It was a decade of opposites.
It was a time of furious change beyond the silver screen, too: video cassettes brought cinema to drawing rooms and bedrooms; television and one-day cricket emerged as fierce competition to films; piracy put movie theatres in crisis; film stars were elected to the Indian Parliament in surprising numbers.
In When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s’ Bombay Cinema , Avijit Ghosh narrates the fascinating story of perhaps the most eventful, disruptive, and transformative decade of Hindi cinema.
In the 1980s, a little gizmo became the unlikely villain that would torment the mighty Bombay film industry for years. The device was roughly the size of a ludo board, a few inches thick and light enough to be lifted by a kid. Slick for its time, it was called the video cassette recorder or VCR. In India, many simply called it ‘video’.
If the VCR set was the hardware, magnetic tapes were the software. A feature film, about 160 minutes long, could be recorded on a single tape. The VCR and the magnetic tape, hooked to a television set, became the VHS (video home system). Together they revolutionised drawing-room entertainment and transformed movie watching forever.
The video cassettes were supplied by your friendly, neighbourhood video librarywala, the ubiquitous retail stores of the pirates. Till now, the audience went to the cinema. Now the cinema of your choice was delivered at home—often on a two-wheeler. The VHS was to the 1980s what OTT or streaming services are to the 2020s.
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Most novel technologies with scaling-up potential unsettle the existing financial order. The VHS was no exception, especially after bootleggers took charge. The film industry got financially bruised and emotionally battered.
The VHS ended up creating one of the biggest technical disruptions in the history of films.
In Bombay, video libraries had started mushrooming by 1981. By 1984, there were about 500 libraries, mainly in well-heeled areas and the suburbs. Industry bigwig Amit Khanna estimated in 1984 that there were about 5,000 video libraries, 2,000 video coaches and 20,000 video bars and parlours in the country. The total turnover was assessed at Rs 100 crore. Khanna, a producer-lyricist, also chaired the Copyright Protection Committee of the All India Film Producers’ Council.
The illegal industry grew multifold in the next five years. By May 1988, India Today guesstimated that there were 15 lakh video cassette recorders (VCRs) in the country. It further assessed, ‘One lakh video libraries, one lakh video parlours and theatres, and thousands of hotel and private cable TV connections now provide a ready market for three lakh video cassettes every month. The annual turnover of the video market in India is now estimated at Rs 1,000 crore, about the same as the gross collections in the nation’s 12,732 cinema theatres.’
Even Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum colony, was home to thirty-six video joints.
Bombay’s Lamington Road and Manish Market were the go-to places for retail video cassette buyers. Behind the façade of legitimate small-time businesses such as electronic goods stores, smuggled cassettes were peddled. The buyers came from everywhere—Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Madras and small towns nearby—placing orders ranging from fifty to 500 cassettes.
The rise of the video business meant a fall in lending rates. Piracy flourished because watching a film’s video at home gradually became much cheaper and more convenient than going to the movies.
Music piracy was an adjunct to film piracy. HMV and Music India (earlier Polydor) were the big daddies of the music business. The bootleggers—some of whom have gone legit since—invaded the market. They not only grabbed a huge slice of the small money pie but also expanded the marketplace. Until then, music LPs or cassettes were sold in select shops located only in cities and towns. By its own admission, HMV had 1,500 authorised dealers, 8,000 titles and covered sixty-four countries. Piracy made the music available in lakhs of small stores all over India. The pirates aided the massification of music.
If the software was omnipresent, could the hardware be far behind? Earlier people couldn’t buy personal music systems because they were too expensive. Now tape recorders and cassette decks, many of them smuggled from Nepal, flooded the market and entered lakhs of homes.
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Buying pirated music cassettes became as common as shopping for veggies. A legit cassette—of HMV or Music India— would cost Rs 35 or more. A pirate would pack songs of three films in a single tape and sell it for Rs 20-25. Sometimes the audio quality of the pirated versions was better than the original. The music companies would release ads warning customers that pirated cassettes could damage their equipment. Few seemed to care.
The 1980s exposed the negotiable morality of the middle class. Film piracy was criminal theft; so was music piracy. Yet few saw anything wrong with it.
Visiting the cinema required careful planning and preparation for families. Transport, parking and refreshment costs added to the expenditure. With piracy, watching a film became easier and came at a much-reduced price, even though the experience was not quite the same.
Watching movies at home had another fallout. Till then, cinema viewing was a patriarchal project where the male family head controlled what the women of the family would watch. This was true for majority of Indian homes. That changed. Now women could order their own video cassettes and watch films of their choice during afternoons. And young male adults, college students and others could watch the ‘forbidden’ stuff.
With the arrival of the Walkman, even listening to music got personalised. The 1980s marked the beginning of the individualisation of entertainment.
Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger.