Harking back to a cherished culture

Print edition : September 01, 2017

A scene from Bimal Roy's "Devdas" with Dilip Kumar in the title role and Suchitra Sen as Paro.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis.

Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy in Bimal Roy's "Do Bigha Zameen".

Bimal Roy.

V. Shantaram won the Golden Globe award for "Do Ankhen Barah Haath" (1957).

V. Shantaran sought to portray his pride in India's past in "Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje".

V. Shantaram.

Shabana Azmi in "Ankur" (1974), directed by Shyam Benegal.

Smita Patil in "Nishant" (1975), directed by Shyam Benegal.

Shyam Benegal.

Guru Dutt.


Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in "Aradhana".

Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in "Zanjeer".

Zeenat Aman in "Satyam Shivam Sundaram" (1978).

Amjad Khan and Sanjeev Kumar in "Sholay".


Aamir Khan in "Taare Zameen Par".

Shah Rukh Khan in "Chak de India" (2007).

Salman Khan in "Maine Pyar Kiya".

Irfan Khan in "Lunch Box" (2013).

Hrithik Roshan in "Mohenjo Daro" (2016).

A still from "Lipstick Under my Burkha" (2017).

Hindi cinema is gradually being reduced to a handmaiden of the ruling dispensation. If in the years after Independence it worked as a glue to unite the nation, today it is in danger of exacerbating the social divide.

Hindi cinema, often accused, with some justification, of indulging in crass commercialism, has without doubt provided the Indian audience memorable emotions of friendship, courage and equanimity, especially when the nation was trying to overcome the wounds of Partition or was burdened by the challenges of social inequality and communalism. As the newly independent India struggled with issues of economic deprivation, famine, unemployment and a society that tended to live in watertight compartments of religion and caste, Hindi cinema created a feeling of social cohesion as in the 1957 song “Saathi haath badhana” ( Naya Daur) and looked at the pitfalls of early industrialisation in the eye. The idea was always to take everybody along; nobody should be left behind in the quest for progress. That all this came with dollops of entertainment helped take the message to the masses. Yes, Hindi cinema has often revelled in stereotypes. In the past, a Muslim character always had ready couplets and shayaris, a Christian character had a guitar and a drink, a Sikh was always ready to break into bhangra, and a south Indian invariably spoke terribly accented Hindi. Yet, these stereotypes bespoke comfortable familiarity. The heroes would wear a three-piece suit, the heroines would be clad in saris or other Indian dresses; villains and provocatively dressed vamps would smoke and drink. No caste or religious identity was attributed to them.

Hindi cinema, which was to be later denounced for lacking in attention to detail, started off on the right note. Directors such as Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, Guru Dutt and V. Shantaram left no stone unturned in their quest for authenticity and perfection. For the premiere of K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, a story centred around the romance of Prince Salim with a courtesan, took 16 years to complete; the film’s print arrived on an elephant back at Novelty cinema in Delhi. This was Asif’s idea of giving cine-goers a genuinely royal romance. But truth be told, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) was a venture that almost did not happen. The film was launched in the mid-1940s, and its producer, Shiraz Ali Hakeem, migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. A Parsi businessman, Shapoorji Pallonji, with zero experience in film production, stepped in. In the middle of shooting, the film’s original hero, Chandramohan, passed away. Nargis, who was cast as the heroine, too, opted out, not happy to shoot opposite Dilip Kumar, who had stepped into Chandramohan’s shoes. Dilip Kumar had been rejected for the role earlier. Nargis’ role went to Madhubala, who had a tempestuous relationship with Dilip Kumar, having been forced to turn down director B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) because her brothers did not feel it appropriate for her to shoot for a couple of months with Dilip Kumar in Bhopal, away from their watchful eyes! Amidst all this, Asif with his perfectionist streak, wanted shoes of gold for the hero playing the Mughal prince and iron chains for the heroine (playing his love interest) to help them imbibe the spirit of their characters! Such craving for authenticity!

Mughal-e-Azam’s worth went beyond the cast. Though the film was largely in Persianised Urdu, it had some dialogue in chaste Hindi and Sanskrit as well. And the director was able to include in the film a thumri in praise of Krishna and a naat dedicated to the Prophet. That this happened a few years after Partition meant the film spoke for a pluralistic society, with the film-maker invoking a shared past to drive home a message for the future. Incidentally, some 50 years later, the film’s colour version was premiered in Lahore, across the border in Pakistan.

Although Mughal-e-Azam was the biggest slice, the early years after Independence were replete with films harking back to a cherished culture. This was the industry’s way of infusing a sense of pride in one’s culture, which had been hammered out of shape by the colonial rulers. Before Mughal-e-Azam, there were two other films with the Mughal setting, Nandilal Jaswantilal’s Anarkali (1953) and Baiju Bawra (1952) about Baiju, the dhrupad musician who defeated Tansen, one of the nine gems of Akbar’s court. Baiju Bawra had a bhajan that spoke of India’s pluralist society as distinct from the religion-based society in Pakistan. “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan ko Aaj” was composed by Naushad, sung by Mohammad Rafi, and written by Shakeel Badayuni. A better advertisement for secularism could not have come from another industry. For the song’s recording, the director and the music director had asked all the cast and crew to come to the studio after taking a bath so that no impurity would dilute the message of the bhajan.

India in the 1950s constantly sought to take pride in its past. Shantaram sought to portray this pride in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) and Navrang (1959) by showcasing the song and dance rhythm of the nation. His Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) talked of judicial reforms at a time when Indian society was just coming to terms with the idea of nationhood. Shantaram became the first Indian to win the Golden Globe; he was awarded the special Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1959 for Do Ankhen Barah Haath. In India, the film won the President’s Gold Medal in 1957. Jhanak Jhanak and Navrang along with the likes of Goonj Uthhi Shehnai proved that Hindi cinema, while being the common man’s preferred mode of entertainment, had scope for maestros such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Such was the respect for classical artistes in cinema that popular music director Ravi, who gave us films such as Chaudhvin ka Chand, Humraaz and Nikaah, deleted “Shankar” from his name to avoid confusion with the sitar legend.

At peace with its past, proud of its cultural ethos, respectful of elders, Hindi cinema depicted all this and more in the first couple of decades after Independence. That was also the time when India, steeped in Nehruvian socialism, was grappling with the early days of industrialisation. The depiction of this made for some fetching work of neo-realism, notably from the likes of Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was among the first films to talk of the rapacious zamindar and the evil moneylender. Later films like Devdas (1955) and Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam (1962) showed other hues of the decadent culture. The film was a comment on the inequities of development, on how a land-holder becomes a landless worker.

Roy was not behind Asif in seeking perfection. Although Do Bigha Zamin did not have the grandeur of Asif’s works or the melancholy of Dutt’s cinema, Roy was as painstaking as the other two directors. For Do Bigha Zamin, that borrowed its title from “Dui Bigha Jomi”, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, the entire cast wore used clothes as the director wanted the actual feel of paucity of resources. The film won awards at Cannes and Karlovy Vary. For Sujata (1959), a tale of a low-caste girl, Roy used freedom fighter Subodh Ghosh. He could give life and spirit to Sujata, a tale of caste prejudices. In a fine example of attention to detail, the film’s heroine was named Sujata, one of noble birth. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960. It provided another instance of symbolism in Hindi cinema. Here, Roy used both natural and historic motifs to let silence speak. The imagery of a drooping banana leaf and a stormy night to depict the state of mind of Sujata—pleased the discerning audience. For the less discerning, Roy happily used the sound of the koel for his heroine and that of a crow for the negative characters. His pursuit of perfection was legendary, like Asif’s. Here, he asked his sound recordists to record the birds’ sound at dawn. When Gulzar made his debut as a lyricist, he took five days to pen Mora gora ang lay le for Roy’s Bandini (1963).

A few years after Do Bigha Zamin, Hindi cinema produced Mother India (1957) under the baton of Mehboob Khan. Incidentally, Khan had earlier delivered Aan (1952), the first Indian film shot in 16 mm Gevacolour and then blown up in Technicolor. It was compared with The Red Shoes and had the distinction of being the first Hindi film to be dubbed into Tamil.

Mother India was in a different league. It was the biggest grosser then, a watershed in the annals of cinema. It came at a time when the Central government adopted the Five-Year Plans for development. The film exhibited a clear tilt towards socialism: the state is shown providing an irrigation canal and private enterprise is represented by a rapacious moneylender. For all its empathy for the poor, Mother India was shot on a gigantic canvas with hundreds of farmers on their fields and some 50-odd bullock carts.

Then came the triumvirate, Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand. Raj Kapoor was a rage in the Soviet Union and his “Awara hoon” song became a hit across the world. Dilip Kumar became so associated with tragic roles that doctors advised him to stay away from such roles for a while. Dev Anand was the ultimate charmer with a massive female following; he was later excelled by Rajesh Khanna.

If film-makers showed that their hearts were in the right place in the nation’s march towards progress, cinema halls were not lagging. One of the best examples came from Delhi’s Imperial cinema, almost next door to New Delhi Railway Station, and not far from Old Delhi station either. Until 1947, Imperial was known to screen Hollywood films and was patronised by the top echelons of society. Partition changed the demography of the city with refugees from Pakistan settling around it. Imperial showed not just good business acumen but also a sensitive heart: Out went Hollywood, in came Punjabi fare, as the area became home to those who had left Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi behind. The Muslim socials that were a rage at most places until the mid-1970s became a no-no here. The cinema showed Hindu mythologicals. Many of the early films of Dara Singh, where he settled every issue with his fist, found an opening. Then came a film like Jahan Sati, Wahan Bhagwan. In the 1970s, Bhakti Mein Shakti raked it rich. Not to forget Shiv Baba Balaknath. The idea in showing these films was to provide a comfort factor to displaced audiences.

Talking of films based on religion, the biggest hit was Jai Santoshi Maa, released in 1975, the year often remembered for Sholay. The film was a non-star affair, and was initially released at naturally cooled cinemas. Naturally cooled was a euphemism for halls with no air-conditioning, no coolers, no fans. It went on to rewrite box office records, even forcing cinemas that played only English films to make an exception for it. Such was the craze for this mythological that the faithful arrived at the halls with a plate bearing all the material needed for worship. Many women insisted on doing a small aarti (waving of the lighted lamp) in front of the billboard of the film, and entering the auditorium bare foot, just as they would do in a temple. Interestingly, the film’s posters had its name in English, Hindi and Urdu. Quietly, it proved that Urdu had no religion then.

If Jai Santoshi Maa had scenes of impromptu pooja before its screening, Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) was released after a hawan was performed to placate the elements, as the word had spread that Raj Kapoor had portrayed Zeenat Aman as a Siva devotee to titillate the audience. It worked. The film, which failed to find halls in conservative colonies of many cities, completed a silver jubilee elsewhere.

Cinemas and their patrons

If Imperial catered to Hindi-speaking migrant workers with sensitivity, other halls exhibited a similar mindset towards their patrons. Ritz cinema, located near Inter-State Bus Terminus, used to unofficially reserve its box section for burqa-clad women of Old Delhi. These women could not watch a film near their house around Jama Masjid for fear of social opprobrium. So, they took a tonga ride to Ritz where the privacy of the box conferred anonymity. Similarly, Minerva cinema, not to be confused with the illustrious hall in Mumbai, close by, sneaked in some young maulanas for the night show through the back door, aware that if the young bearded men pursuing Koranic courses were to be seen by others, all hell would break loose. Talking of the back door, it played quite a role in Hindi cinemas.

All the big stars, like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, used to grace the cinema halls on their films’ release through the back door. Such was their star power that in 1969, Rajesh Khanna virtually compelled director Shakti Samanta to release his film Aradhana at New Delhi’s Rivoli cinema that was known for playing top-notch Hollywood flicks. It changed not a bit when the films of Amitabh Bachchan got the cinema of their choice, or later when a Shah Rukh Khan release usually meant other producers/exhibitors deferred the release of their films. Incidentally, with the arrival of Bachchan as the angry young man in the 1970s, Hindi cinema changed for ever. His Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewar rewrote box office records, with Sholay being ranked top in British Film Institute’s poll of top 10 Indian films ever.

Often playing a poor small-town boy stepping into a big city to eke out a living, Bachchan expressed the helplessness of the common man as India faced the colossal migration to cities due to lack of economic opportunities in villages. Bachchan became the poster boy of the new generation of internal migrants. His heady superstardom also meant his heroines were reduced to a prop with only the villain (although Pran and Amjad Khan held their own) having a role of substance in a film starring Bachchan. Amidst all this came Hindi cinema’s popular vehicle of pluralist living with Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). The film had a timeless sequence of a mother receiving blood simultaneously, and directly, from her three sons, Amar, Akbar and Anthony. It mocked at medicine, made a mockery of common sense. But the common man gleefully accepted it. The pursuit of perfection of a Roy or a Dutt was a speck in the distance in the march of time. Hindi cinema declined drastically in content and technique in the 1980s, easily its worst phase since Independence. Double entendres for dialogues, crass picturisation, gawdy costumes and a storyline that was often written on the sets meant that the more discerning viewers had to step back, wait for an Arth (1982) or Paar (1984). Incidentally, the parallel cinema movement that took shape under the likes of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal found more adherents like Govind Nihalani, Goutam Ghose, Ketan Mehta and Saeed Mirza. While none of them came even close to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali they at least proved that there was an alternative Hindi cinema, away from the masala stuff dished out by popular film-makers. Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Ardh Satya (1983), Khandar (1984) and Mirch Masala (1987) were patronised on film festival circuits, but did not always draw crowds at the box office. The turnstiles attracted youngsters.

The film audience’s profile underwent a change, too, from family audiences to migrant workers to finally city slickers, whenever a Khan film opened in the 1990s. Salman Khan became the new poster boy with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Sanam Bewafa (1991). Shah Rukh Khan became a rage with Deewana (1992) and Darr (1993). Before them, Aamir Khan had marked his arrival as a chocolate boy with Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Heady as their success was, Hindi cinema still dished out escapist fare: good guy, bad guy, songs, dances and action routine. Things improved slightly in the new millennium with Lagaan (2001), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006), Chak De (2007), Taare Zameen Par (2007) Peepli Live (2010) and even My Name is Khan (2010), asking pertinent questions about patriotism, nationalism, identity and social mores. There was also a rebirth of sorts for art house cinema with films made on a shoe-string budget sans any star power finding acceptance. The Lunchbox (2013) appealed to millions, Miss Lovely (2012) turned heads, and Aligarh (2015), dealing with the almost taboo subject of homosexuality, found acceptance; much like the much-in-the-news Lipstick Under My Burkha these days. Lipstick Under my Burka , exploring women’s quest to discover different shades of their personalities, was released in India after being initially denied a certificate, and soon found a ready audience.

Yet, not everything changed for the better. J.P. Dutta’s LoC (2003), a story on Kargil heroes, opened old wounds by excluding Muslim martyrs completely. If LoC was about exclusion of Muslims who sacrificed their lives for the country, Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) equated Muslims with Pakistan, much like some present-day politicians do. Cinema can be noxious and obnoxious at the same time, and dishonest, too, as proved by Ashutosh Gowariker’s MohenjoDaro (2016). With National film awards taking a saffron hue, Hindi cinema is in danger of being reduced to a handmaiden of the ruling dispensation. If in the years after Independence, it worked as a glue to unite the nation, today it is in danger of exacerbating the social divide. In the 1950s and 1960s, it asked uncomfortable questions in the common man’s grammar with Do Bigha Zamin, Naya Daur, Mother India and Leader (1964); today the medium is in danger of toeing the official line. No uncomfortable questions asked, no impolite answers expected. Cinema today is all about acquiescence and uncomplaining acceptance. Unless, of course, one takes into account a Shahid (2012) or a Lipstick Under my Burkha. Therein lies hope.

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