At The Crossroads? Mainstream Hindi Cinema
In an age when old values are going down and no new concrete value systems are emerging in India especially, it is perturbing that cinema and its narrative content, characterisation, language and style of presentation would be confusing and devoid of epistemology. Ours has always been a complex, pluralistic society. In the beginning, when the moving picture was evolving and form of expression from the more evolved West almost invisible it was inevitable that mythology and folklore would dominate, and it did. A little later it became the vehicle of awakening, finding ways and means to spread a crying call of freedom, and infuse a sense of nationalism. In a way, this is the most significant phase in the growth of Indian cinema. How to put the message across without inviting censorship? By the early forties it became issue based, and drew substantial sustenance from the printed word. Untouchability, widow remarriage, women’s education were some of the issues successfully tackled with interludes of songs and dances.
By mid-40s and until early 50s two kinds of cinema dominated side-by-side. One influenced by Nehruvian socialism, and the other disillusionment with it, as the formative years after Independence did not immediately usher in the new expected dawn. Unemployment, economic and sexual exploitation leading to crime were some of the norms that found place in the then governing mainstream Hindi cinema thriving on a thin storyline but palpable lyrics and melodious music that carrying the message and narrative forward. At a rough estimate as many as three million people were making a living out of cinema, in one form or the other, and in 1960 as many as 319 films were produced in 13 languages, Hindi out-numbering others with 139. The next decade, especially till the mid-60s when colour came, is the age of romance and family dramas. It was during this phase that film-makers turned to classics for inspiration. Devdas, Kabuliwalla, Do Bigha Zameen, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam were made together with historical. This was also known as the ‘Golden Age’. By this time the ‘star system’ had found a total foothold in cinema, in all Indian languages.
In its wake, colour brought in confusion, the immediate effect being serious and social themes went out of the window. Most of these films were thick of commercial ingredients appropriately described by scholar-critic Aruna Vasudev as “absurd romances packed with songs and dances, made like fairytales with a moral”. Purely, simple nuances fantasies depicting a hybrid cosmopolitan world mostly. With the meteoric rise of Amitabh Bachchan Hindi cinema jumped into further degeneration, as the dormant angst of urban youth found a crusader who could fight the whole system the unlawful way, single-handed, using only fisticuffs to wipe out the villains. In the process the content or story suffered; lyric and music were next on the casualty list; heroine just a physical presence as the new age Robinhood had no time for romance, only for her wronged mother’s tears. Mercilessly, he has been elevated to a divine status, especially by the media which does not find the farting politicians sellable any more.
Come the 90s and Bachchan out of the way but leaving behind his kind of violent cinema, hero-dominance, unreasonable star fees that contribute 40 per cent or more to a film’s budget the fare had to undergo a series of quick metamorphosis. The most tragic-magic-adrenalin on which mainstream Hindi cinema runs is pure and simple herd mentality, both its strength and weakness since the mid-70s. This liquid supply was first injected by the underworld, later by the real estate mafia and now in its, hopefully not, final state of ailing by corporate houses run by young executives who do not even have a semblance of film making. But then they call the tunes. And taking advantage of this naivety the portal of half a dozen big stars are not only calling the tunes but also pocketing the booty. They have become partners in this open loot by not only starting their own production houses with wives or paramours as co-producers, and a percentage in profits. This in turn has sent independent producers once also described as proposal makers, and traditional distributors out of business.
And it is now fast changing. The very concept of what once constituted mainstream Hindi cinema that while tackling a million other issues thrived on the diet of family values. Many current players (seniors bowed out a long time ago) like to call it ‘coming-of-age cinema’ which loosely defined is intended to mean ‘feel good’ films. Or the term ‘look’ which had once been the favourite jargon of those connected with the world of advertising, a class that is dominating mainstream Hindi cinema, a term which has become a common currency. In overall terms, it tends to denote that ‘packaging’ is important, not the content, promos and promotional campaigns the currency rather than the products themselves, something new to lure the young to the theatres. But then the passageway to the exit door exposes the whole game. Yet, there are no lessons to be learnt in this ‘I am wiser than the other guy’ approach. In this a commodity called ‘item number’ has also seems to have found a permanent place, thanks to Gulzarbazi through Beedi jalaile jigar se piya jigar mein badi aag hai, and Kajrare kajrare tere naina.
The lyric together with melody has been dumped into the dirty Arabian sea, reduced to teen kanastar peet-peet kar gala phad kar chilana, yaar mere mat bura maan yeh gana hai no bajana (Mohammed Rafi singing a Shailendra number composed by Shankar Jaikishen in Love Marriage, 1959). As Raju Bharatan, a chronicler of film music in India, rightly observes: “Today songs vanish as swiftly as do their singers. A number is here today, gone tomorrow. Television as a medium has composers, singers and song-writers indulging in nothing less than dogfights. Do they realise how diminished, in barking stature, they emerge, from such mock shows, in the public eye?” Well, obviously they don’t. They are there to make money, not melody. They obviously deny, deify the hope evident in this Mukesh rendering of a Sahir Ludhianvi poem: “Kal aur aayenge naghmon kee/Khiltee laleeyaan chun-ne walle/Mujh se behtar krehne waale/Tum se behtar sun-ne walle/Kal koee mujh ko yaad karein/Kyon koi mujh to yaad karein/Masroof zamaana mere liye/Kyun waqt apnaa barbaad karein/Main pal do pal ka shaair hoon.” One’s heart weeps out a cry calling out to lyricists of the calibre of Javed Akhtar, Gulzar, Prasoon Joshi, Nida Fazli and others of their ilk, and surviving independent producers to draw on the latent talent of surviving composers like Khayyam to weave in the magical tranquility of film music that lent credence to the narrative pattern of successful Hindi cinema that has become only a flash in the pan now. Or is it the case of, to recall Faiz Ahmad Faiz, “Mujhse pehli see mohabbat mere mehboob na maang.”
On the positive side, more and more films are being made with the young audience in mind, an audience that is not interested in tear-jerkers but also an audience that will not take kindly to Ra.Ones variety either. A lot of these being written and made by first-time directors rely heavily on personal stories, stories that have a lived-element to them, like Peepli Live, Wake Up Sid, Jab We Met, Janne tu na Janne Na, Band Baja Baarat, Race, Dhoom, Krissh and Do Dooni Char, 3 Idiots and Udaan for example that went on to appeal to the masses and also won State honours. Many of these were set in small towns: Luck by Chance, Phus Gaye re Obama, Tere Bin Laden or the more recent Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, even Rockstar—to name just a few. The USP of all these films was a gripping narrative coupled with ‘feel good’ or freshness of approach. Or a Vishal Bhardwaj set out to successfully to inflict his kind of dark but absorbing cinema through Maqbool and Omkara before losing the track trying to be over-ambitious with Kaminey and Saat Khoon Maaf. The same also seems to have happened with Aamir Khan when he tried to recreate the magic of Peepli Live with Dhobi Ghat. Similarly, the success of Tare Zammen Par and Stanley ka Dabba, though ostensibly made for a younger audience, worked the magic even with the adults.
The other extreme is the new-found Salman Khan formula visible in Wanted, Dabangg, Bodyguard—no story but situations, gags, fisticuffs: a return of the 70s Amitabh Bachchan cinema, or the 80s Sunny Deol- Sanjay Dutt cinema. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of a Singham from which an Ajay Devgun emerged victorious doing the familiar Salman acrobatics, no other hero has been able to carry out the bluff. Bachchan tried it in Buddah Hoga Tera Baap but fell flat. Everyone is trying to do everything in search of that elusive success formula that fell Salman Khan’s way—accidentally. But then Salman Khan is on operation overkill, hoping the dream-run of his recent hits will last forever, not learning from the bottomless ditch into which Akshay Kumar fell after a similar experience. It had happened to Rajesh Khanna, and it happened with Amitabh Bachchan. Repetition is no formula. Just a flash in the pan. That’s why stars of yesteryears sought variety even in mediocrity. Yash Chopra has time and again shown that romance can never fail, provided done sincerely. Karan Johar, again before losing track, did wonderfully well with family socials even in the present century.
Hindi cinema is certainly at the crossroads today, waiting for the right direction through the muddle of prevalent chaos. Until not too long ago, it was the mainstream Tamil or Malayalam cinema that indulged in remaking hit Hindi films. Now it has turned the other way round. More and more successful stars (all Salman recent hits) have been culled out from South Indian films. But if it has worked with Salman it does not mean it will work with other heroes too. The same goes for comedies, unless they are slapstick. There is just one formula, a formula that has worked over the past eight decades—the script. A film has to have a proper narrative, even it is comic entertainment. Pyaar Kiye Jaa, Padosan, Chupke Chupke—the success of these which has never been emulated—fall in the category of meaningful fun cinema.
Bollywood will have to revert to the age-old formula: situational family drama coupled with romance with adequate dose of lyric and music. It works in all languages. There is no going away from these essential ingredients in a society which thrives on family values, even if they stand eroded in this age of nuclear units. Long live mainstream Indian cinema.
By Suresh Kohli