Talking about films - or any art form - can be a draining exercise. I am often overcome with a sense of futility mid-way through such conversations, because you just cannot get the other person to see. For instance, that eternally raging debate about poetry and 'access'. Or that completely abhorrent debate about whether Shakespeare was a plagiarist, and whether there is any such thing as an original idea. Or whether violence in films has a negative impact on society.
I usually just shut up and smile politely when someone picks up one of these fatiguing threads in conversation. But the other day, I got into a bit of a discussion that took off from poetry and modern mediocrities, and ended with an allusion to our 80s cinema. To that era of Hindi cinema that is described as 'the dark ages'.
I didn't like that. It suggests that Hindi cinema during that decade had stooped to lows that it had not seen before, and has not seen since.
I'm not sure I agree. When I was growing up, all I saw was Indian cinema - mostly Hindi, but thanks to Doordarshan, some other languages too (Sound of Music, which I was subjected to six times at least, does not count). But having been only a small child in the 80s, with very few tools of analysis, or indeed any real judgment, I am no longer sure whether my memories of that cinema are true.
So before I said anything further on the subject, I decided to go do a little research. (And having stayed up till 5 am to do this post shows just how strongly I feel about this subject).
What exactly was the 80s cinema?
Was it all about loud, regressive, violent, formula films (another post on this term, another day) where heroines were being raped all the time, and then committing suicide, and where the villians were evil beyond measure and the heroes were from amongst the great unwashed and looked it? Where things were black and white too often, and all characters were unidimensional? Where the song and dance routine was increasingly looking like an aerobics class crossed with, with, I don't know, genetically modified moonwalkers? Where Bharat natyam costumes were being mated with bikinis, and sarees with minis?
Maybe some of it was. But a lot of it wasn't. In the year 1980, we had movies like Aakrosh, Khubsoorat, Karz, Sparsh, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and other widely acknowledged brilliant films which I have not seen. There were others which weren't bad at all (in my opinion), such as Kala Pani, Shaan, The Burning Train.
In 1981, there was Laawaris, Ek Duje Ke Liye, Love Story, Umarao Jaan, Zamane ko Dikhaana Hai, Kaalia, Dhuaan, Naram Garam, which I liked. And 36 Chowringhee Lane, Chashm-e-Baddoor, and Silsila.
In 1982, there was Angoor, Arth, Bazaar, Gopichand Jasoos, Namak Halal, Namkeen, Bemisaal, Nikaah, Prem Rog, Satte pe Satta and Shakti, many of which I've watched multiple times. (Besides, IMDB tells me there were also titles like Bachche Teen Aur Daaku Chhe, which I must make an attempt to acquire, some day).
In 1983, there were films like Himmatwala and others in that genre, which I didn't care for. All the awful stereotypes apply. But, but, but!
But there was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron! The year 1983 gave us this awesome film and there's been nothing like it since. And there was the equally awesome Ardhya Satya and Mandi. Other films that I am content to like included Betaab, Disco Dancer, Kalaakaar, Naastik, Sadma (wherein I am told, I howled the movie theatre down, repeating "But mummy, why did she leave?").
The year 1984 gave us Saaransh, Mashaal, Utsav and (though I have not yet seen it, I have heard so much about it that I'm going to put it down as a positive) Mohan Joshi Haazir ho! It also gave us Tohfa (which I'm not a fan of), but that's in the Himmatwala category.
From the 1985 list, I liked Meri Jung, Aitbaar, Jhooti, Khamosh, Pyari Behena, Saheb. (And as a matter of principle, I must try and watch Aurat Per Ki Jooti Nahin Hai). Though I don't remember these too well, I think I didn't mind Aakhir Kyon, Bhavani Junction, Ghulami, Pyaar Jhukta Nahin, Mohabbat, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, and actually, even Bhaago Bhoot Aaya. Not great, but I could live with them.
In 1986, I liked Anubhav, Chameli ki Shaadi, Ek Chadar Maili Si, Naam. There was also Jaanbaaz, Nagina (so sue me. I liked it) and Aakhri Raasta, which I will include on my list of likes simply because of its unashamed self-spoofing in the song "Gori ka Saajan".
The lyrics go something like: Yaad karo tum filmon mein/kya kya scene dikhaate hain/ Leyt ke baatein karte hain/ daud ke gaana gaate hain/ Main peechhe bhaaga/ tu aage daudi/ Lo ji shuru ho gayi love story..." and all the while, the hero and heroine are happily running, lying down, singing. Matching-matching action to word. I love it.
In 1987, there was Mr India, Ijaazat, Kaash, Ye Woh Manzil To Nahin. I vaguely recall having liked Pyaar Ki Jeet and Mohre too.
In 1988, there was Tezaab, QSQT, Hero Hiralal, Malaamaal, Main Zinda Hoon, Pestonjee, Rihaee, Salaam Bombay!, and a film which most of us have not seen but I have heard so many wonderful things - usually in the realm of hyperbole - from those who have seen it that I will include it in this 'the 80s gave us good cinema' list - Om-dar-ba-dar.
There was also Zakhmi Aurat, about which I will do a whole post some day, because it was an important film, even a life-altering one. And there was also a rather sweet children's short film called Angootha Chhaap, which I might never have seen except for the fact that Doordarshan once decided to show two shorter films instead of the regular Sunday evening movie. All these years later, that film is still there in my head!
These I didn't think were so bad: Dayavan, Pyaar Ka Mandir (the title song is still stuck in my head), Hatya, Khoon Bhari Maang.
In 1989, there was Chaalbaaz and Chandni, Maine Pyaar Kiya and Daddy, Parinda and Prem Pratigya, Raakh and Ram Lakhan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro - all interesting for very different reasons. And there was also Nigahen (shut up! okay?) and Tridev.
So these were the 80s for me as a film-lover. It is true that I suffered through Loha, and Paap Ko Jalaa ke Raakh Kar Doonga, and Mardon Wali Baat, and a hundred variations on 'khoon' 'insaaf' 'insaan' and 'suhaag'. But so what?
I also suffered through Bal Brahmachari (introducing Puru Rajkumar), in the nineties, and that was the first film I actually walked out of. Since the multiplexes came in, I have become picky about what I watch on the big screen, but I'm sure there are several films made in this decade that you wouldn't wish upon your friends.
Can you think of more than five or six decent-to-good films made in a single year, in this decade? If this is our average count now, and that was the case in the 1980s too, what's the difference?
Somebody is bound to pipe up now with the 'Oh, but you are counting parallel cinema' argument. I don't buy that argument. Hindi cinema is Hindi cinema. You cannot cut films like Arth or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron out of the '80s Bollywood frame. No more than you would cut Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi out of this decade. The point is not big names or big money. Even now, the biggest names and the biggest money is associated with sub-standard movie-making. Even now, the really different films, the experimental films - a sort of parallel cinematic movement, if you like - are made on smaller budgets, and fresh talent.
So what, then, makes us so tolerant of 'now', while dismissing the 80s as the dark age of Hindi cinema? Is it just that we are tolerant of anything that is ours - our children, our cultures, our cinematic eras, ourselves? And if that is not the case, then please, explain.