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Bombay Talkies: 100 Years and more

By Anil Dharker

This year is the centenary of Indian cinema and many events are being held to commemorate the landmark. But what exactly are we celebrating? A hundred years of quality films, some so outstanding that they can be included in lists of all time greats of world cinema? Look up any list made by international critics over the years and you will find hardly any Indian film there: if there are any at all, they will be Satyajit Ray’s Apu Triology,Charulata or Mahanagar. We have won no Foreign Language Film Oscar, and only a handful of prizes at major film festivals (most of them by Ray). So, then, if we are not celebrating quality, are we celebrating quantity? Or are we just celebrating the fact that our film industry has actually survived a hundred years?

It’s for sociologists or social anthropologists to figure out exactly why consistent quality has been missing from our films. And, then, speculate on why, in spite of maturity eluding our cinema, movies are central to most Indians’ lives, with a fan following that sometimes transcends idolatry. Or  why film music has become a vital element in our consciousness. And why actors and actresses dominate our media in such a way that there seems to be no area of our lives left untouched by their presence. (Where else in the world would temples be built for stars? That’s worship, in a literal sense).

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These questions, of course, don’t stop us from enjoying our films, though here there are varying degrees of enjoyment: from the young men (and occasional women) who queue for hours to see the first day, first show of a new film featuring their favourite star; to someone like M F Husain, who admitted seeing a Madhuri Dixit film over 20 times; to some of us who are more discriminating, because we are unforgiving of our cinema’s melodramatic excesses, yet still optimistic that somewhere we will find a hidden gem worth celebrating.

What films do I remember ? One of the first I saw was Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal which frightened the life out of me with its hauntingly beautiful songAayega Aanewala, as Madhubala appeared and disappeared around a dim-lit, old mansion to the consternation of Ashok Kumar.

Speaking of Ashok Kumar, does anyone remember Achut Kanya? It’s a very old film but keeps being shown here and there. What stays in the mind is the song Khet ki muli baag ko aam sung guilelessly by the good looking couple of Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. She may have been spectacularly mis-cast (a fair-skinned, penciled eye-browed Dalit girl?), but her beauty – like Madhubala’s  – is captivating. And when you see these three actors in their youth, you wonder why none of today’s stars have the same air of innocent vulnerability about them. Has our world really become so very wordly–wise and knowing?

Another actor (not star) one can never forget is Balraj Sahni. In Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin as the poor farmer robbed of his land, the last scene where he pulls a rickshaw, furiously egged on by his fat passenger, is heart rending. Even more is the scene in M S Sathyu’s Garm Hawa when Sahni comes across his dead daughter. The scene was made even more poignant by the knowledge that Balraj Sahni’s daughter in real life too had committed suicide like his screen daughter.

An actor who never became a star was Guru Dutt, probably because his stardom lay in being one of Hindi cinema’s greatest directors. Who can forget the song from Kagaz ke Phool? Even people who haven’t seen the film will have seen Waqt ne kiya, kya haseen sitam, shown again and again on television. For me, it’s possibly the best ever film song; it certainly is the very best song picturisation, as Dutt and Waheeda Rahman stand facing each each other, but far apart, in a large, vacant studio where light and shade play games with each other. As the song begins, they seem to leave their bodies (still standing far apart) and move to hold each other, an achingly beautiful visual metaphor for love and longing denied.

By the way, Waheeda Rahman was a teenage crush, and for me, she could do no wrong (As it happens, I don’t think she ever did a poor role). In Chaudvi ka Chand, the film and the song, she is filmed as if the camera, the cinematographer and the director, are all in love with her. Who wouldn’t be?

Dev Anand was the hero all of us wanted to be. We would have looked comical aping his loping walk, but his gelled hair gathered into a puff over the forehead? That was our hair-style for sure. Hum Dono was a bonus, for Dev Aanad had a double role and romanced Nanda and Sadhana, both fetchingly pretty, and he had great songs to take the story along. However, even our hero-worship couldn’t hide the fact that Anand was a terrible actor, hamming it up for all he was worth. As he grew older, his acting got worse, and his films more and more terrible. So even though he was a charming man in real life, I avoided his invitations: “Aneel! Come and see my latest film!”

Then, of course, came Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man in two of Hindi cinema’s most memorable films, Zanjeer and Deewar. The persona he developed there : the baritone voice, the eyes blazing with a controlled fury against the injustices of the world, the exploding fists…They became his stock-in-trade in film after film, but never became tiresome. I remember coming out from a screening of Sholay to retrieve my car from the cinema theatre’s parking lot, to find two other car owners cocking their fists over nothing in particular. The film had everyone’s adrenaline pumped up, and everyone was itching to pick a fight.

That’s a short selection culled from memory, but now that I am writing about this, many other moments, actors, films are jostling for attention. That’s the wonderful aspect of our cinema. The sad part is that there aren’t enough of these moments : for the quantities dished out over its hundred years, our cinema’s quality output has been too meagre to excuse. Oh well, maybe it will get better over the next hundred years.

Website: http://www.anildharker.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/anildharker

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