Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Brief Unresearched History of Bollywood: Part 1

This post is triggered by Appa’s comment about which post-Independence decade has been the best for Hindi cinema. It is a momentous thought, to which I can only bow reverentially for providing me with several hours of happy ruminating and researching.

I will structure this project is by taking each decade in one-hour chunks (I have a life beyond Blogger, you see!) and naming some of the most important films and trends (according to me), commercial success notwithstanding. I will also try to nominate a personality of that particular decade who had been the most influential. The idea would be figure out which films and stars are still entertaining and important to our lives.
The happy part is, of course, that I don't have to do any hard work. The sad part is that you will have to put up with it. But don't let that bother you.
Comment! Comment!! Comment!!!

1950s: Society, Tragedy, Melody
In the aftermath of the Independence, a great theme for Hindi cinema was the society and the changes it could bring to it. Filmmakers like Bimal Roy and V Shantaram took up themes like criminal reform, industrial progress at the cost of agriculture in what were defining films of the times – like Do Bigha Zameen, Do Aankhen Baraa Haath. There were many notables in this genre – Boot Polish, Mother India, Naya Daur, Jagte Raho and so on. It was not uncommon for even overt entertainers (like Shri 420) had a strong social comment.

While on the topic of Shri 420, it would be interesting to note that the anti-hero (to be made famous by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s) was a pretty big phenomenon during this period. Shri 420, Awaara, Jaal, Baazi, Aar Paar – huge hits of the time – all had their leading men from the fringes of society or in disreputable professions altogether (con-man, thief, rake, gambler, taxi driver respectively). Of course, all of them had hearts of gold and their sins were not severe enough to not allow redemption for them.
The over-riding romantic theme of the decade was one of unrequited love. Be it the self-destructive alcoholic of Devdas or the brooding director of Kaagaz Ke Phool or the idealistic poet of Pyaasa, the most abiding romantic images of the decade are all tragic. Even in a film like Parineeta – where the ending is happy – the majority of the film has a diffident, unexpressed air about it.

This is not to say that happy and funny films did not happen. Romantic comedies like Albela (starring Bhagwan Dada, whose shuffling dance steps from the film continue to be imitated), Mr & Mrs 55 (Guru Dutt in an exploration about shotgun marriages), Tumsa Nahin Dekha (the Nasir Hussain brand of frothy, peppy college romance) and the maniacal Chalti Ka Naam Gadi. But except for the last, none of the other films had the power (or the histrionics) that Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt brought to their tragic roles.

Which brings me to the last of the three abiding motifs for the decade – music. Every one of the films I have named till now have diverse themes and differing longevity in terms of plot, situation and character but they are all united in their delivery of fantastic music. SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan, Kishore Kumar, Salil Chowdhury, Hemanta Mukherjee – the pantheon of music composers during this decade is staggering. Even relatively obscure films like Nagin (Mera tan dole), Howrah Bridge (Mera naam Chin Chin Choo) and Mahal (Aayega aanewala) have memory space even now, thanks to their wondrous music. The 1950s set a fantastic foundation for filmmakers of the future to build on the tradition of Hindi film music.

In my opinion, Guru Dutt is the most defining figure of the decade (followed very closely probably by Dilip Kumar). His brooding countenance and despair at the post-independence made him something of a mascot of the uncertain times. Of course, his creativity and virtuoso-like handling of different aspects of cinema ensured that his films were dry patches of social comment but engaging as well. Apart from Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, he directed Baazi, Jaal, Aar Paar and Mr & Mrs 55, acted in the last two and introduced Waheeda Rehman, Johnny Walker and (pretty much) Dev Anand as well.

And in keeping with his tragic style, Kaagaz ke Phool – which has later been hailed as a technical masterpiece – was such a commercial disaster that he never agreed to ‘officially’ direct another film again. It is widely believed that later films (produced by him) like Chaudvin ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Ghulam were directed by him but that’s not what the credits show.

1960s: Tarantara Dhishum Dhishum
After the social themes of 1950s, Hindi cinema entered the phase of high-octane entertainment using romance, melodrama, comedy, action (to a relatively lesser degree) and of course, music. The social and historical stories – that were somewhat of a legacy of the freedom struggle – gradually faded away.

In fact, one of the biggest hits of all times – Mughal-e-Azam – came in the early years of the decade and contrary to its historical setting and allusions, the story remained happily fictional. But that set the standard for the lavish, spectacular blockbuster in the years to come.

A star who stepped out of the shadows of his illustrious family in the 1960s was Shammi Kapoor. If Raj Kapoor was the toast of film city in the preceding decade with the films he directed, Shammi Kapoor burst on to the scene with his manic energy, flamboyant style and flashy accessories. Ably assisted by the voice of Mohammed Rafi, he proceeded to bring about a refreshing change to image of the brooding, introverted, almost apologetic lover that was made famous by Dilip Kumar. Though Dev Anand preceded him in the style domain, Shammi’s energy was all his own. Starting with Junglee (which had his trademark Yahoo) to films like Kashmir ki Kali, Teesri Manzil, Professor, Rajkumar and An Evening in Paris, Shammi was the king of 1960s.
His over-the-top romance was partially borrowed from Dev Anand, who also did a series of memorable roles as apparently crooked, always stylish, handsome rakes. Jewel Thief and Johnny Mera Naam were romantic thrillers (or thrilling romances, if you will) while Guide was typical filmi adaptation of the RK Narayan novel, starring the luminous Waheeda Rehman in an all-singing-all-dancing role. Dev Anand was probably the earliest Bollywood star with Hollywood ambitions as he regularly wined and dined visiting American stars & directors, modeled his looks & style on Hollywood stars (most notably, Gregory Peck) and even tried to break into the overseas market (by releasing a re-edited version of Guide in the USA).

The last few years of the decade saw the emergence of a star, who was the first Hindi film hero to generate hysteria with a capital H – Rajesh Khanna. Before him, stars had massive fan followings. In fact, Dev Anand’s film ambitions came about when he – as a clerk in the War Censor Office – got to read the passionate letters that film stars got. But Rajesh Khanna went beyond that. With Do Raaste and Aradhana (and to some extent, Khamoshi), he did not just burst into popular consciousness. He owned it. Girls fainted when they saw him. They wrote letters to him, with their own blood. Boys copied his hair style. His installation as the ruling deity of Bollywood was surprisingly short (from the late 1960s to 1974) but his aura, his affairs, his attitude were all part of filmi lore.

To add to the spectacle, an interesting trend started in the 1960s – that of shooting overseas. Most notably with Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, which went all over Switzerland, France and England to show Raj Kapoor’s honeymoon with Vyjayanthimala. An Evening in Paris was shot almost entirely in the French capital and only going out for the climax – to Niagra Falls. These two were the most successful and even clones like Around the World in 8 Dollars (again starring Raj Kapoor), Night in London (starring Biswajit) did not do too badly either.

In between the flashy romance and jazzy music, there a few sensitive films too. Manoj Kumar made Upkaar and became Bharat Kumar. Nutan did a fantastic role in Bandini. But these got lost in the romance, music and stars.

Speaking of stars, this decade had the first multi-starrer around a story of three brothers, separated by a natural tragedy – Waqt. Reigning superstars like Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Sadhana et al acted in the action-packed, emotion-laced tale that was to become one of the most-repeated formulae in Hindi film history.

No description of the 1960s can be complete without mentioning Kishore Kumar, who ceased to be Ashok Kumar’s younger brother and got into the race to become the top playback singer of the country. While Mohammed Rafi continued to rule the roost, Kishore Kumar deserves a large part of the credit for making Rajesh Khanna the romantic hero he was. He cut down on his acting (though his two comedies – Half Ticket and Padosan – still manage to evoke massive laughs) to concentrate on his singing, the supremacy of which would get sealed in the 1970s and would continue till his death in the mid-1980s.

If I have to name a personality that symbolized the decade, I would go with Sachin Dev Burman (whose best works are in too many films to name here) – as a representative of the fantastic group of composers who made even ordinary films live beyond their fair longevity. Laxmikant Pyarelal (who came into the limelight with Dosti), OP Nayyar (known for his peppy tunes in Shammi Kapoor romances), Shankar Jaikishan (still going strong, still reserving their best for Raj Kapoor – most notably Sangam) as well as other notables like Naushad, Khayyam brought out the best in Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Manna Dey and the like. SD’s son – RD Burman – himself did the magnificent Teesri Manzil and created a cult following that led to continuous rumours and urban legends about how many of SD’s ‘fast numbers’ were actually composed by him.

That does the first 2 decades after Independence. The next 4 coming up after a short break. Don’t go away!

11 comments:

Nilendu said...

Fantastic. Just link the clinically depressive aura of 50-s with Nehruvian socialism and you have a book deal from Penguin. Hope they are reading. Seriously, very good one.

thenitknumbskulls said...

Guide was an RK Narayan novel!

on the adaptation, Narayan's essay called 'Misguided Guide' is a must-read.

Diptakirti Chaudhuri said...

@ thenitknumbskulls: Oops! Corrected.

Sudeep Lahiri said...

Dada, Honestly tell me, how old are you?

suparna said...

@thenitknumbskulls - where can one source the essay?

appa said...

Hey thanks - what a great post! Am looking forward to the rest of the series. Totally agree that Guru Dutt symbolized the 50's.

Not sure about SDB for the 60's, I might pick Rajesh Khanna, not because I'm a fan, but because of the numerous 40-somethings named Rajesh :)

Am looking forward to the post on the 70's - especially for the list of Amitabh movies :) Also, I think the 00's will be interesting, because it was the first decade when we dropped the distinction between "commercial movies" and "art movies"!

Eagerly waiting for the rest of the posts....

Anonymous said...

nice post. btw the name of the film is "around the world". the song is "around the world in 8 dollars"

Jaya said...

very interesting ! it would have been even more better if you have mentioned Dev Anand films like "Asli nakli","Taxi driver" ,"Nou do gyarah" etc..another great movie but failed o collect good money at the box-office was "Mamta" starring Suchitra Sen probably in 60's or may be early 70's..anyways it's good to read this ..thank you!

thenitknumbskulls said...

@suparna:
i can't find it online, but you can read it in his collections The Writerly Life and Malgudi Landscapes.

Mobile said...

This is great. I was little upset that i can go to see the last comments in this blog so I see this comments is very excellent.

regards.
http://www.india-forums.tv/bollywood-forum.html

pawan said...

Mahal, Naagin and Howrah Bridge are obscure? Dude, check your history.