Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Post

Went to the 'World Book Fair' today. Was thinking of writing about the Fair since I could not make it to the real one going on in Calcutta right now. But it turned out to be a conglomeration of stalls from various publishers in different halls of Pragati Maidan, each separated from the other by miles of dark roads. That did not stop me and my wife from picking up some cool bargains though!
So, instead of the Fair experience, I thought I will just write about some of the really diverse books I have read over the last couple of weeks.

Karl, Aaj aur Kal
Cyrus Broacha writes exactly the way he speaks. In a manic rush and with no connection to what has been said in the previous sentence. Which makes him the ideal candidate to write about two Bombay boys who become reluctant superstars of Bollywood. And Cyrus' Bollywood is populated by people like megastar Yusuf Khan, who insist on being called Rohit in every film. Even when he is playing Chenghis Khan!
This book is sure to get clobbered by every reviewer in town for the completely chaotic narrative, with jokes and one-liners thrown by the dozen with no apparent connection to the plot. But when you are writing about a kid growing  up in 70s who is so besotted with Amitabh Bachchan that he signs his name as Anthony Gonsalves, you don't need a plot. You only need a fat sidekick called Kunal!

If I Could Tell You
Soumya Bhattacharya writes a weekly column in Hindustan Times (called Dad's the Word) centred around his daughter, Oishi. So, his novel - where the only named character is the narrator's daughter, Oishi - naturally evoked questions about its autobiographical nature. Having read the novel (and interacted with the author briefly), I can say it is anything but!
A failed author. A failed father. A failed husband. The book is a bit of horror-story and gut-wrenchingly real, especially if you have a young child who trusts you much more than you do yourself. I found it to be very well-crafted but don't have the courage to read it again.
The real Oishi asked at the Delhi book-reading, "Why is the story so sad?" Yes, why?

Brainiac
Ken Jennings did something unthinkable in 2003. He remained undefeated for 74 games (!!!) on the American game-show called Jeopardy! He immediately became a pop icon ("appearing on both Leno and Letterman within a span of one week") and was commissioned to write a book. By his own admission, Jennings wanted to churn out a quickie with inspirational quotes, life wisdom and a parroting of his record-breaking run. I am so glad that he didn't.
What he has written instead is a history of world Trivia, though the focus is more on USA. He recounts the adventures of ultra-competitive college quizzes. Interviews trivia book writers. Meets game-show hosts. Travels to trivia championships. Details out his entire 25-second thought-process to answer a tough question in half-a-minute (Quiz addicts would just love this!). And he peppers the book with trivia questions (with answers at the end of each chapter)!
Are those the only reasons I loved the book? Not really. I loved it because there are so many things - on a superficial sort of way - that I have in common with him!
I also read the Acknowledgements first in every book. I would also rather find a 'four-star trivia' any day than money. I was also born in 1974. And I also have a trivia-addict friend, whom I can jam with!  
If you don't have a friend like that who will ship you the book from USA, you can buy the book here. Actually, you must!  


Twitterature
Imagine the most famous works of fiction in tweets - the whole story in about 20 - 30 of them!
So you have @BigMac getting really pissed about his wife's obsessive hand-washing. And the Prince of Denmark going by the handle of @OedipusGothplex tweeting things like "Why is Claudius telling me what to do? He is not my real dad. In fact, he killed my dad."
Apparently, some new ones are being added by the two undergraduate students (whose names together are more than 140 characters) who are the creators of the series. The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter are next in line. You can read them here. I just loved this one (by @NotoriousHP): "SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE WTF WTF WTF?"
And you could try it for home-grown classics as well!
@Jatayu: No recog for this great poet! RT @BMullick_Poet: Oyi Kanchanjunghe, Dekhechhi tomar roop Uttar Bangey!
@RupaMehra: Looking for a match for Lata. Any suitable boys?
@HariK: @RyanO, @Alok_Gupta OMG the results come out today! Hope I get 5+.
So on and so forth...
While on the topic of Twitter - I bought Sidin's Dork today - which is the most-publicised book on Twitter! 


Other books bought recently:
* All That You Can't Leave Behind - Soumya Bhattacharya
* Munnabhai MBBS: The Screenplay - Abhijat Joshi & Rajkumar Hirani (no rolling credit to M K Gandhi)
* All Marketers are Liars - Seth Godin
* The Dord, The Diglot and an Avocado or Two - Anu Garg (on strange origins of words)
* Superfreakonomics - Levitt & Dubner
Finished the first two. Will do the rest over the next week.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Brief Unresearched History of Bollywood: Part 3

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!!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Brief Unresearched History of Bollywood: Part 2

This is the second part of what is my favourite series on this blog – an attempt to identify the most influential stars, most durable films and the best decade of Hindi cinema.
For the first post (covering 1950s and 1960s), click here.

1970s: Angry Young Decade
In 1970, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made film that was a tribute to Raj Kapoor and in it, the title role was that of a garrulous Punjabi (called Anand Sehgal) full of joie de vivre even in the face of his fast-approaching death. His foil in the film was a Bengali (obviously modeled after Hrishikesh Mukherjee himself), called Babumoshai. This role in a film at the beginning of the decade – very symbolically – was played by an actor who would rule this decade like no other actor would rule no other decade in no other country.
Though his official debut was in the last years of the previous decade, Amitabh Bachchan had his first official hit in 1973 with Zanjeer (his 13th release), directed by Prakash Mehra and more importantly, written by the duo of Salim-Javed.

An aspiring actor, Salim Khan, came to Bombay to become a film star and started off with roles in B-grade films. In one such film (called Sarhadi Lootera), he met a dialogue writer on the sets, who was called Javed Akhtar.
The on-set dialogue writer was a common phenomenon in Hindi cinema, that depended on the stars and the music director to bring in the masses. The script and dialogues were incidental to the whole thing. The producer had a rough idea of the story he wanted to tell. The director has a vague idea of the scenes he was going to shoot. And they just needed a daily-wage writer on the sets to quickly pen down the words the stars were going to belt out.
Salim-Javed became the first writers of Bollywood who had stories with detailed scenarios and went to producers to peddle them. Their stories were rarely standard melodrama. For example, Andaz was about a girl whose lover dies and is wooed by a widower. Even a rehashed Bollywood story of long-lost twins – Seeta aur Geeta – achieved a rare chutzpah with their razor-sharp dialogues. But their acceptance in Bollywood mainstream was not easy. Their genre-defining Zanjeer went to Dharmendra, Dev Anand, Raaj Kumar and many others who rejected it for the relentless violence, lack of romance and music.
But after the lanky son of Harivanshrai Bachchan brought the Angry Young Man alive on screen, there was no looking back for all three of them. Salim-Javed wrote their best films for Amitabh or Amitabh brought a different dimension to their words. Either way, 1970s saw a slew of Salim-Javed scripts star Amitabh and achieve immortality – Deewaar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar, Don, Majboor, Dostana, Amar Akbar Anthony to name a few. Salim-Javed became the first scriptwriters in Hindi cinema who could sell a movie on their name alone and commanded not only top dollar but top billing as well.

While the Amitabh phenomenon became bigger and bigger, there was a different kind of cinema that emerged. Filmmakers like Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee started a new genre of films that were realistic but no less entertaining. Films like Chhoti Si Baat, Rajanigandha and Golmaal were set in places where the Hindi film audience lived – the Bombay local, small offices, taxis, Lonavla – and had a face that was not of a hero but of a common man. The self-effacing Amol Palekar flourished in this middle-of-the-road cinema and brought several others with him – Farooque Shaikh, Deven Varma, Vidya Sinha and most notably, Utpal Dutt. A brilliant theatre-actor, Dutt brought a new dimension to comic acting by spicing up the regular with a dash of over-the-top.
The slice of life genre was further strengthened by Gulzar, whose Parichay (based on The Sound of Music), Mere Apne (touching the lives of the educated unemployed, drifting into crime) and Aandhi (love story of a politician and a commoner) were all beautiful films.

1970s also saw the start of a new movement in Hindi cinema – the ‘art cinema’. The pioneer was Shyam Benegal, whose first film Ankur received not only critical acclaim and international recognition but a fair degree of commercial success. Made on shoe-string budgets and featuring acting powerhouses from FTII and NSD, these films opened up a completely new avenue of cinematic excellence in Hindi. Shyam Benegal himself was at the peak of his creativity as he made a number of very impressive films – Nishant, Manthan, Junoon and Bhumika, for example. A very notable film in this genre were MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (a brilliant take on the Partition and communalism), starring Balraj Sahni in one of his last roles.

In between the commercial intensity of Amitabh Bachchan and the critical intensity of Naseeruddin Shah, there emerged a different kind of hero and a different kind of cinema. Rishi Kapoor debuted in a monster hit – Bobby – directed by his father and proceeded to act in a series of peppy musicals, usually set in a college. For the first time in the history of Hindi cinema, music had taken a backseat to the screenplay in the 1970s. But Rishi Kapoor – lovingly called Chintoo by his family and the industry – took the help of RD Burman and (his to-be wife) Neetu Singh to bring alive the teenager on screen. Rafoo Chakkar, Khel Khel Mein, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin and Zamaane Ko Dikhane Hain were all lovely entertainers, straight out of campus and continue to bring a smile even today. Rishi’s career continued well into the 1990s, when he jokingly said in an interview that he wanted to act opposite Twinkle in his last film to bring a conclusion to his career, which started opposite Twinkle’s mother!

Apart from Yash Chopra, the other star director of the decade was Manmohan Desai with his brand of schmaltzy, campy, fizzy cinema. The title sequence of his biggest hit (Amar Akbar Anthony) was typical of the over-the-top melodramatic coincidence he brought to his cinema. A blind flower-seller woman is brought to a hospital and she desperately needs blood. A Hindu police inspector who registers her case, a Muslim patient who is actually wooing a doctor and a Christian tapori who brought her there all have the same blood group and donate blood through a common transplant tube! A totally improbable scene, brought alive by his madness. 1970s was a golden period for him with Roti, Dharam Veer, Parvarish, Chacha Bhatija and Suhaag becoming massive hits.

Though his output was limited numerically (Andaz and Seeta aur Geeta), the impact of Ramesh Sippy on the 1970s (and the history of Indian cinema) cannot be undermined due to that one film. Sholay was not merely a box-office success, it has now became a social phenomenon - like, say, the Emergency or the Partition - by finding a place in our lives, universe and everything. Ramesh Sippy made several films before and after Sholay but he was never able to shake off the cross of not being able to produce one more Sholay. Fortunately for him, neither has anyone else.

The decade started with the anger of Amitabh but ended with him becoming a 360-degree entertainer – doing romantic roles, comic routines, musicals (even playback singing) and tragic anti-heroes. Quite obviously, he would be the figure who defined the decade. Every other person had left his mark on the film industry. Amitabh – in the 1970s – became the industry.

1980s: Disco, Action, Bhelpuri
Amitabh Bachchan started this decade as the Midas of Bollywood. This was proved by the fact that he made some really bad films that turned out to be massive hits. For example, his collaboration with Manmohan Desai turned out three films – Desh Premee, Coolie and Mard – all of which were not a patch on their films from 1970s but were much bigger hits. In 1984, Amitabh did a detour into politics and became even larger in the public imagination. The outpouring of mass emotion at the time of his illness (in 1982) turned into votes and subsequently into hysteria at the time of his releases. Releases of films like Aakhri Raasta, Inquilaab and Shahenshah needed fewer publicists and more policemen to manage!

As he went decidedly to the other side of 40, a search for a successor started. The first contender for the throne was a FTII graduate, who debuted in a Mrinal Sen film but made his name as an on-screen dancer. Mithun Chakraborty became the country’s first male dancing star with Disco Dancer and later, Dance Dance. In between these and a couple of National Award-winning roles, he cemented his number one position with a series of action-dance-romance films (of which I have to name at least one, for its stunning name – Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki).
Parallel to Mithun’s rise was the rise of Bappi Lahiri, whose disco tunes were partly lifted from Western pop and fully played at every Ganapati / Durga Puja pandal in the country. While Bappi gained tremendous notoriety as a lifter of tunes, he did come up with some very nice scores – original and melodious. Overpowered by the memory of his flashy costumes and tons of gold jewelry, we forget Chalte Chalte, Sharaabi and Namak Halal.

The other star who was touted to be the successor came in the later part of the decade – Anil Kapoor. Starting off with roles as the do-gooder simpleton (in Woh Saat Din and Saheb), Anil Kapoor hit superstardom with N Chandra’s Tezaab. Starring opposite Madhuri Dixit, who went on to become the biggest female star in the 1990s, Anil made the role of the Bombay tapori his own and continued his winning streak in Ram Lakhan and Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s first mainstream film – and massive box-office success). Actually, one of his earlier hits was Mr India (Salim Javed’s last script), a role that was originally intended for Amitabh (but who declined because he wanted his audience to ‘see’ him).

If 1970s brought action to the forefront of Bollywood, 1980s was the decade of showmen.
Raj Kapoor camouflaged sleaze as high art and churned out two of the biggest hits of his career – Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Ram Teri Ganga Maili. He conjured up philosophical messages for both films but the breasts of Zeenat Aman and Mandakini were the biggest draws.
Yash Chopra, who deserves a lot of credit for creating the persona of the Angry Young Man in the 1970s, changed gears completely and became the country’s most romantic director and Switzerland’s biggest travel agent. Starting with Silsila, he filmed tales of undying love in breathtaking locations and with heroines in chiffon sarees – the most notable of which is Chandni.
However, the biggest showman of the decade was unquestionably Subhash Ghai. 1980s was the time when he put up his grandest spectacles and made the most money. From a reincarnation story (Karz) to sibling rivalry (Ram Lakhan), from the love story of a criminal (Hero) to a jingoistic thriller (Karma), he made big-budget multi-starrers and the public lapped it up.
Even the B-grade cinema had its own showman in the aptly-named B Subhash, whose repertoire included Tarzan apart from the disco films that made catapulted Mithun into stardom.

1980s is generally considered to be the worst decade of Hindi cinema but I am not inclined to agree. For the simple reason that the ‘art cinema’ movement that was started by Shyam Benegal in the mid-70s gained a lot of momentum and became a separate ecosystem in the world of Hindi cinema. And quite suitably, it became known as the ‘parallel cinema’.
Shyam Benegal continued to be active and made films as diverse as Kalyug (a modern-day version of Mahabharat) and Trikaal (a drama surrounding a Goan joint family).
His cinematographer – Govind Nihalini – picked up the director’s baton and delivered some amazingly powerful films. Aakrosh and Ardh Satya – both starring Om Puri in the lead roles – were set in very diverse backgrounds (a feudal system in a rural area and the Bombay police department respectively) but generated a gut-wrenching response universally.

Apart from these two masters, there were several other filmmakers who came up and enriched the parallel cinema. Drawing heavily from the life around us (for themes) and from the acting courses of FTII (for players), these filmmakers used both government and private financing to come with realistic, topical films – the best examples of which were very engrossing as well.
My favourite example of the genre is also a cult favourite, with an ever-growing fan following – Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron! Humour was never so black in Hindi cinema, characters were never so frivolous and yet the impact was mind-blowing.
Sai Parnjpye made Chashme Buddoor and Katha. Mahesh Bhatt made Arth and Saaransh. Ketan Mehta made Mirch Masala. Shekhar Kapur made Masoom. All these films contributed to a rich tapestry of diverse topics, enriched with great music in some cases, great humour in some and great technical finesse in all.

Which brings me to the quartet I will name as the people with the most impact on the decade’s cinema. They are Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. They all started off as trained actors in theatre, before breaking into films. Their performances – without exception – bore the hallmark of the talent and hard work they routinely put in. The physicality of Naseer’s role in the pig-crossing scene of Paar. Or Om’s traumatic silence in Aakarosh. Smita Patil’s hair-raising paranoia in Arth. Or Shabana Azmi’s near-silent strength in Masoom. These were performances worthy of accolades from across the world and they got them in truckloads. However, I think the ultimate testimony to their talent and power was the smoothness with which they moved into commercial cinema, sometimes in roles reaching a tremendous level of inanity. So Naseer danced to Tirchhi topiwale in Tridev and with Archana Puran Singh in Jalwa. Om Puri played the dancing star’s manager in Disco Dancer. Shabana played a bridesmaid in a pink costume in Amar Akbar Anthony. And Smita matched Amitabh step for step in a rain-dance (Aaj rapat jaye to) of Namak Halal.

The last couple of years in the decade saw the release of two films and a TV serial – Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Maine Pyar Kiya and Fauji. The three lead actors of these films are subjects of the post on the coming decade.

Phew! Gasp! As I am entering decades which I have first-hand knowledge of, the post lengths seem to be expanding exponentially. Now, I am dreading the 1990s and 2000s! You guys still hanging on, I hope?

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!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

8/10

A list of 8 films I am really really really looking forward to in 2010. Whatever happens, I am watching these as soon as they come out.
Why eight? Because that's how many I could think of right now. Will add if I can think of more.

Ishqiya
Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi as fugitives in small-town UP. Vidya Balan as the foul-mouthed femme fatale. Vishal Bhardwaj as writer, composer and producer. Deliciously bad language. A script that needed a dialect coach to be hired. Guns. Sex. Gulzar (invoking Ibn Batuta).
And the irrationality. Mujhe iss haramzadi se ishq ho gaya hain. 

Karthik Calling Karthik
Farhan Akhtar plays a psychotic (?) loner who gets a call from himself. Obsessed with solving the Rubik's cube, he grapples with the call and Deepika Padukone (intriguingly called Sonali Mukherjee in the film). Directed by a creative director with McCann Erickson, Vijay Lalwani, KCK promises to be what all Bollywood films promise to be - hatke!

Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD)
Dibakar Banerjee's next outing, which is releasing as LSD because our censor board will not allow a film with Sex in the title. Shot with spycams, security cameras, hidden cams and all sorts of secretive apparatus, the film explores - well - love, sex and betrayal in the electronic age. Sting operations, blackmails, crime scene investigations - expect them all. India TV - you have competition!

Raavan
Mani Ratnam explores the love story of the eponymous demon king. The King of Lanka loved Seeta to death. Just that he had contend with an incarnate of God. Having grown up reading the heroics of Meghnad, the so-called dark side of Ramayan is a very fascinating subject and who better than Mani Ratnam to bring it alive on screen. Hopefully, Abhishek Bachchan will take off from where he left off in Yuva and Ash won't have too much to do!  

Rann 
They banned the anthem even before the film's promos hit the screens. Amitabh Bachchan plays an upright media baron trying to thwart the Prime Ministerial ambitions of Paresh Rawal. A sleazy rival. A rebellious son. Ubiquitous deal-makers. An upright journalist. A flamboyant show host. And Ramgopal Verma.
Truth is terrible. Watch it after the break!

Road, Movie
A city slicker escapes the family business by hitching a ride on a battered truck, which is also a touring cinema. Dev Benegal returns 10 years after Split Wide Open (and 15 after English, August) to direct Abhay Deol in a quirky movie that is already getting rave reviews in film festivals. From the trailer, I get shades of Cinema Paradiso. Very auspicious!

Teen Patti
A maths genius - Venkat Subramaniam - discovers a theory that could redefine the principle of randomness. And to test it, he enters the high-stakes world of the game we know and love as Teen Patti. Throw in Ben Kingsley as world's living mathematician and shades of 21 to make a cracker of a film. Oh - did I tell you that Venkat Subramaniam is being played by Amitabh Bachchan? No? Well, I just did! 

Up in the Air 
George Clooney is an itinerant downsizer, accumulating frequent flier miles on his pseudo-compassionate mission to smoothly retrench people across the country. Can he fall in love? Can he fire through video-conferencing? Can he get to a million miles? Can the film please be released NOW?

So, which one are you looking forward to?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Rolling Credits

The 3 Idiots controversy brought one more phrase into common parlance - rolling credits. What a pity that such a brilliant film would remain indelibly associated with a tasteless - and needless - battle for credits.

Chetan Bhagat is of the opinion that '70% of the film is from the Five Point Someone' and 'millions (sic) of people have commented' to this effect on his blog.
My submission goes like this -
The film can be broadly split into two parts of roughly equal importance / duration. One, the part in the engineering college and two, the part about Madhavan-Sharman Joshi looking for Aamir Khan. The second 50% is completely a product of Rajkumar Hirani-Abhijat Joshi's imagination and Chetan Bhagat shouldn't be claiming credit for it.
That leaves us with 50% of the college part. Chetan Bhagat's book (which I liked a lot when I read it) was about 'what not to do at IIT', essentially about three reluctant students of engineering trying to somehow scrape through and there weren't any attempts to 'chase excellence, success will follow'. Add to that wedding crashers, delivering a baby in the college common room, a hilarious stan-balatkar speech and Kareena Kapoor and you could say that about half of it is from the book.
So, I would subtly rearrange the hyphen in M/S Chopra, Hirani & Khan's '2-5%' assertion and close the matter at 25%!

Of course, this doesn't address the issue about the emotional impact of the two products.
I quite liked the book but I completely fell in love with the film. And I think I am in a substantial majority (though I am sure there are a large number of people who felt the other way as well).
My point for the filmmakers is simple - your film is fantastic. You have added a million brilliant things to the book. So why are you hiding that? Let the readers of the book see that the film is a massive improvement.
Do you know how great filmmakers give story credits? Let me tell you about a director called Satyajit Ray.

He started his career by making a trilogy based on the novels of one of the best-known authors in Bengali. Of course, he gave him credit right upfront. By right upfront, I mean right after the name of the film, even before the cast.

Cynics would say that he needed the name of the author to back his own anonymity. Just as he did when he made his first Hindi film (from the story of an author, far more famous across India than he was).

Fair enough. But in between the Trilogy, he made films from works of less famous authors and followed the same principle.

After the Trilogy (which brought him international fame), he made films on varied subjects from different authors. He continued to treat authors similarly.
One of them was a Nobel laureate. Some of them were almost first-timers.

Even when his fame and box-office draw far exceeded that of the author, this did not change.

The farthest down any author has featured in his films' credits is when the story has been his own and it had to be shown as Story-Screenplay-Music-Direction: Satyajit Ray.

Its one thing to honour something that is written in the contract and obviously, Mr Bhagat needs to read things he has signed a little more carefully before he starts screaming from rooftops.
And its quite another to do the honourable thing.

Don't imagine for a second that I am trying to educate Vinod Chopra Productions on how to give proper credit to the author! This was just an excuse to dig out some of the lovely opening credits that were hallmarks of Satyajit Ray films.