Here is the third part of my opinionated, unresearched history of Hindi cinema. All of you who reached this far deserve to be awarded. Nilendu – I am sending a couple of books for you. Oh – there are more of you? Go and do a recap (who’s your shrink, by the way?) with parts one and two.
1990s: Return of the Romantics
In my opinion, 1990s was the worst decade for Hindi cinema. It was so not because there was a surfeit of bad films but because a large number of those bad films did amazing business at the box office. It could be because the audience had no choice (not entirely, because some brilliant films did pathetically) but all said and done, we should be really embarrassed about the films we watched and willy-nilly loved in this decade.
To repeat my favourite example, Aamir Khan won his first Filmfare Award Actor Award for Raja Hindustani while he was overlooked for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Dil Hain Ki Maanta Nahin, Akele Hum Akele Tum and Rangeela in the preceding years.
The 1990s saw the young Turks of many film families take charge of their production houses and most of their maiden ventures turned out to be such runaway hits that it bode very well for the coming years.
Chronologically, the first – and commercially, the biggest – success was Sooraj Barjatya. His first film was Maine Pyar Kiya (released in 1988), which not only broke records but established a hysterical fan following for its lead stars as well. In this decade, he followed it up with Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Hum Saath Saath Hain – the first of which went on to become the highest grossing Hindi film of all times (at that time) and started an avalanche of films around Indian joint families, elaborate weddings, diabetic sweetness and heroes called Prem!
Mansoor Khan ably picked up his uncle Naseer Hussain’s baton of producing young films as he created a teen heart-throb and a college anthem with his first film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and the film’s first song, Pape kehte hain. He followed it up with an even better Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar but somehow faltered with his third film, Akele Hum Akele Tum. Probably the ‘mature’ topic (lifted from Kramer vs Kramer) was too much for the audience, which was in love with Govinda’s pelvic thrusts!
The scion of Yashraj Films – Aditya Chopra – debuted with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, a film that has been compared with Sholay, became the subject of a book, spawned a new business opportunity for Hindi cinema in the overseas markets and is running in Maratha Mandir even now! Even his father, Yash Chopra made a series of romances set in Switzerland that depended more on New Jersey revenues than New Bombay.
Aditya’s assistant in DDLJ (and a bit-part player too), Karan Johar also revived his family business – Dharma Productions – by fine-tuning the Yashraj formula even better. With the success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hain, the candy-floss romance in a fairytale location with lots of sweet nothings and some pop-patriotism for the NRI audience gained a stamp of approval. He was to milk this formula with even bigger success in the coming decade.
Apart from the heirs, two filmmakers – without any lineage in the industry – got reasonable success. Mukul Anand had a career (unfortunately cut short by a premature death) that saw a number of visually stunning blockbusters – with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead for most. His Agneepath, Hum, and Khuda Gawah had amazing technical finesse and took the legend of Amitabh Bachchan to a new high. Rajkumar Santoshi displayed a massive range as he made action thrillers (Ghayal), heroine-oriented films (Damini) and comedies (Andaz Apna Apna) in quick succession.
With the launch of cable TV, Hindi film marketing went to a new level as the audience was bombarded with music videos, promos and plugs of forthcoming films. This need to showcase the film led to a paradoxical problem. The ever-important film music took a backseat to pictursation of film music. With films going boom or bust on the basis of one snazzy song, Hindi cinema saw the emergence of the ‘item number’.
After several years of attempts, 1992 saw the first male Southern superstar making a mark in Hindi cinema. Where Rajinikanth and Kamalahaasan failed, AR Rehman succeeded – and how! He wowed a national audience for the first time with Roja, dubbed in Hindi and despite terribly stilted lyrics. After that, he returned with haunting music at almost predictable regularity throughout the decade and beyond. Rangeela was his first Hindi score and he followed it up with Bombay, Dil Se, Taal, 1947: Earth and Daud.
The popular choice was dominated – however – by Nadeem Shravan, who were the protégés of jhankar-king Gulshan Kumar and sold millions of tapes riding on the back of predictable lyrics by Sameer, nasal singing by Kumar Sanu and the shrillness of Anuradha Paudwal. With a canny mix of melody and marketing, they overshadowed all their contemporaries, the most talented of whom were Jatin-Lalit, who did some excellent scores like Khamoshi, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hain.
The defining figure of the decade was Sh.Sh.Shahrukh Khan. He burst on to the screen with Deewana in a sort of second lead to Rishi Kapoor but the people who admired his exaggerated histrionics got more than their share of it as he stammered and stuttered his way to staggering success with Darr, Baazigar and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa in the initial years of the decade. He did the role once too many in Duplicate, which did nothing at the box office but found him a mentor in Yash Johar and a collaborator in Karan Johar. SRK’s association with Dharma Productions and Yashraj Films made him the most successful Indian superstar abroad as NRIs lapped up the western style and Indian sensibility of his characters. He redefined the economics of Hindi cinema by recouping investments through the sale of music and overseas rights only and became the first Hindi film superstar who serenaded the media and used PR as a multiplier effect.
His rival for the No. 1 position – Aamir Khan – had a mediocre first half but he managed to bring about a radical change in the working style of industry when he restricted his own working to one film at a time and actually got under the skin of his roles. At a time when stars like Govinda and Mithun Chakraborty were acting in an assembly-line of identical films with non-existent scripts, vulgar lyrics and cacophonous music, Aamir went against the grain and made an attempt for cinematic excellence. As the next decade showed, success followed.
2000s: A Brave New World
The two biggest stars at the end of the 1990s continued to make waves in the 2000s. Shahrukh Khan was the darling of media and the masses, subject of a documentary and in the last years of the decade, had crossed over to the other Indian passion by owning a cricket franchise. Despite continued allegations of hamming, he had two major critical successes – Swades and Chak De India – that were like icing on the cake of box-office victories.
Aamir Khan outdid himself with the range of roles he did – not only in terms of performance but in the physical dimensions as well. A 19th century villager (Lagaan), India’s first freedom fighter (Mangal Pandey), a South Bombay dude (Dil Chahta Hain), a Delhi University drifter (Rang De Basanti), a muscle-bound psychopath (Ghajini) and finally a twenty-something college-goer (3 Idiots). His first attempt at direction (Taare Zameen Par) was again very well-received though his 8-year-old co-star, Darsheel Safary, deserves a lot of credit for that.
After a very mediocre 1990s that pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy, Amitabh Bachchan made a triumphant return in 2000 – through TV. Like his greatest films, his TV show also had lines that became the lingua franca of the country. He leveraged this to push the envelope that he could never do as a superstar trapped in his own image. For the first time in Hindi cinema, roles were written for a 60+ actor that were not in the deprived patriarch mould (though he did Baghban in that genre as well) and Amitabh performed them with relish. It is rumoured that Amitabh wanted to play the role of Gabbar Singh in the original Sholay and he actually managed to fulfill that ambition – unfortunately, in a film that must rank as one of the worst of all times!
The first year of the decade saw the emergence of Hrithik Roshan – the first of the next generation of stars. His debut film, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hain, breathed new life in his family production house (which had a mixed bag of films in the last decade). His career followed a similar trajectory to that of Aamir Khan’s when he signed a slew of films in the euphoria of his first superhit and each one of them flopped. He returned to his home banner with Koi Mil Gaya and the film turned into box-office gold. After that, he has restricted his working to one film at a time and has been hugely successful – both critically and commercially. Films like Jodha Akbar, Dhoom 2 and Krrish have straddled different genres and Hrithik has delivered distinguished performances every single time.
The other debutant of the 2000s was the man with the most recognizable surname in Bollywood. Abhishek Bachchan’s career followed a similar trajectory to his father’s when nearly thirteen of his initial films either flopped or did nothing for his career. He came into the limelight with a deadly performance in a negative role in Yuva, directed by Mani Ratnam. He became the first actor to win a hattrick of Filmfare Awards for Best Supporting Actor with Sarkar and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, playing second fiddle to his father in both cases. He returned to Mani Ratnam’s direction with Guru and again delivered a crowd-pleasing performance in a thinly disguised version of Dhirubhai Ambani.
The third late bloomer was yet another star-son – Saif Ali Khan. He acted in a series of forgettable romantic comedies before the Chopra-Johar combine found a hero in him and cast him in films like Hum Tum and Kal Ho Na Ho that won him a fan following as well as stature. He catapulted into really big league with a negative role but one any actor would give his arm and leg for. Langda Tyagi in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara was the role of a lifetime and Saif just became the character.
And this is the best time to dwell on the works of a director like Vishal Bhardwaj, who – along with a gang of brave, new directors – was responsible for (as my friend, Appa, puts it) breaking the wall between ‘art cinema’ and ‘commercial cinema’. Vishal Bhardwaj made a massive impact with his reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – Maqbool – buoyed by stunning performances all around. He went with the Bard once more with Omkara, setting Othello in the badlands of Western UP. While waiting for the third film of the trilogy, we were treated to Kaminey, an intelligent thriller set in the Bombay underworld. His biggest distinction as a filmmaker came because of his immense talent as a music director as the soundtrack added several layers to his films. His collaboration with Gulzar would rank as one of the most innovative – even edgy – musical combinations of Hindi cinema, second only to Gulzar’s partnership with RD Burman.
The filmmaker whose quality varied sharply – with almost an air of schizophrenia – was Ramgopal Verma. Though two of his best films - Rangeela and Satya – released in the 1990s, he became the resident expert on the macabre. His directorial output included Company, Sarkar and the execrable RGV ki Aag. His productions included the good (Ab Tak Chhappan), bad (Phnook) as well as the ugly (James). But he deserves a large amount of the credit for blurring the borders between the two kinds of cinema and being the financier behind a whole lot of new directors and screenwriters, many of whom went on to greater successes after cutting their cinematic teeth at Ramgopal Verma's very prolific production house - aptly named The Factory.
Another filmmaker whose works cut across genres, pushed boundaries and still remained hugely entertaining. Farhan Akhtar – Javed Akhtar’s son – made the ultimate ‘cool film’ (Dil Chahta Hain) as his debut venture and never looked back. Even his less successful films (Lakshya) and controversial remakes (Don: The Chase Begins Again) had a level of technical & creative finesse that was very impressive. Towards the latter half of the decade, he produced and acted in several films (Luck By Chance, Rock On!) that happily collected the double bonus from the box-office and the critics.
The filmmaker with the best success ratio (100%), ability to produce entertainers with a message and command over audience emotions was Rajkumar Hirani. His hat-trick of films (all of them with producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra) included Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots. Working with a set crew (and even part of the cast), this self-effacing director is the hottest director of Bollywood as we enter the next decade.
Two filmmakers who were in the limelight throughout the decade were Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ashutosh Gowariker. Both had a penchant for epic-length cinema, grand music and massive stars in unconventional roles. Bhansali’s Khamoshi did not do too well at the box-office, which expected Nana Patekar (playing the role of deaf-and-mute person) to burst into one of his famous monologues. But Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas and Black were all trademark Bhansali films, known for the director’s obsession with over-the-top art direction, performance and music. Ashutosh Gowariker had two ordinary films before he convinced Aamir Khan to act and produce Lagaan, a brilliant juxtaposition of patriotism and cricket. The film went to win an Oscar nomination, sealing his reputation as a director of stature. His Swades and Jodha Akbar swept awards ceremonies, though their commercial success was not as pronounced as they were expected to be. However, both these directors ended the decade on a low as their last releases (Saawariya and What’s Your Rashee respectively) tanked badly – critically and commercially.
The 2000s saw an emergence of large number of talented, young filmmakers who were willing to experiment with both genre and content. Anurag Kashyap, who started his career as a writer (most notably, Satya) directed some very edgy films (Black Friday, Dev D, Gulaal) that established him as a major player. Dibakar Banerjee brought alive the middle class aspirations in Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Rajat Kapoor explored the absurd within the mundane through films like Mithya, Bheja Fry and Mixed Doubles. Shimit Amin did Ab Tak Chhappan on encounter killings, Chak De India on a disgraced hockey coach and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year on an everyman. R Balki’s twin successes with offbeat stories – Cheeni Kum and Paa – paved the way for several ad-film makers to enter Bollywood.
And these off-beat films were ably assisted by the presence of several major stars who acted in them, thus bolstering their chances of success. They also threw up a series of very talented actors like Abhay Deol, Konkona Sensharma, Irrfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon, Boman Irani and the like – who made their niche by turning in power-packed performances in different roles. For the first time in its history, Bollywood meant hatke when it said hatke!
To nominate a personality of the decade, I will cheat a little and name not an individual but a company – UTV Motion Pictures. Thanks to their judicious support to blockbusters as well as small-budget cinema, the Hindi film industry saw a richer list of films in this decade than they would have. They produced films with massive stars (Swades, Rang De Basanti) as well as those with none (Khosla ka Ghosla, Hyderabad Blues). They made historical films that were visual spectacles (Jodha Akbar) as well as claustrophobic films based on reality (Aamir). They made all kinds of films balancing out their surprise losses (Main aur Mrs Khanna) with the surprise hits (Dev D). They marketed their films really well and managed the full supply chain from production to exhibition. They were brave enough to take the risks. And the Hindi film industry is better for that.
Whew! That brings to an end the series that looked like a quick-fix when I started but ended up running into 7000 words. But boy, it was fun!!!