A FEW Sundays ago, my old college classmate, Nikhil, and I sat down in front of his large television screen as he carefully unwrapped a brand new digital video player (DVD). I do not own a DVD, since I hardly ever find the time to watch TV, but Nikhil had told me the picture quality had to be seen to be believed: films came so vividly alive that it was better, he said, than being in a movie theatre. I accepted Nikhil’s invitation, though, for another reason. The newly released DVD he was inserting into his player was not of a new film, but of one we had seen together as teenage collegians in Delhi in 1972 or 1973: one of Amitabh Bachchan’s first major hits, “Zanjeer”. The movie viewing session was thus an affirmation of friendship, an opportunity to recall a shared experience, not just a cinematic diversion for which I could ill afford the time.
Nikhil’s 19-year-old daughter and my almost 17-year-old twin sons dropped in to watch portions of the film, but soon lost interest and wandered off. Nikhil and I, joined by his wife Madhu, remained immersed in our own adolescence. We wallowed in nostalgia for the full three hours (though, thanks to modern technology we could not have imagined when we first saw the film, we were able to fast-forward through the less memorable songs – something I would never do to another favourite from that era, “Jawani Diwani”).
There was Amitabh, slim and beardless, his eyes blazing, his voice mellifluous; the lovely actress he fell in love with and proceeded to take away from the cinema, Jaya Bhaduri; that unforgettable character actor, Pran, charisma oozing from every pore; and the irreplaceable Iftikhar, who played so many policemen with such straight-backed rectitude that he indelibly shaped our very image of an Indian police officer. “Zanjeer” had no pretensions to being great cinema, but it was well-acted, well-plotted entertainment, an outstanding example of a certain kind of Hindi movie blockbuster. And for Nikhil and me it was marvellous reliving the simpler pleasures of another time, when we were both more innocent and carefree and Amitabh Bachchan had not yet become a crorepati.
But if the experience already meant more than just a cinematic diversion, it offered another pointer to me of what Bollywood had come to represent in our society. In the film, Pran played Badshah Khan, a red-bearded Pathan Muslim who exemplified the values of strength, fearlessness, loyalty and courage. This was just a year after the bloody birth of Bangladesh in a war in which most of the subcontinent’s Pathans were on the other side, but far from demonising the Pran figure, the film-makers chose not just to portray a strong Muslim character but to make him the most sympathetic presence in the film after the hero. This would not have been possible in many other countries, but Bollywood has tended to be consistently good at this sort of thing. That other 1970s megahit “Amar Akbar Anthony”, for instance, was an action adventure film about three brothers separated in infancy who are brought up by different families – one a Christian, one a Hindu and one a Muslim. As adults, one is a smuggler, one a street- fighter. How they rediscover each other and turn the tables on the villains is why the audience flocked to the film in their millions; but in the process they also received the clear message that Christians, Hindus and Muslims are metaphorically brothers too, seemingly different but united in their common endeavours for justice.
When I wrote the novel Show
Business, some critics were surprised that I would follow The Great Indian Novel with a work that dealt with the trashy world of commercial Bombay cinema. But I did so because to me, Indian films, with all their limitations and outright idiocies, represent part of the hope for India’s future. In a country that is still (whatever the official figures say) almost 50 per cent illiterate, films represent the prime vehicle for the transmission of popular culture and values. In India, popular cinema has consistently reflected the diversity of the pluralist community that makes this cinema. The stories they tell are often silly, the plots formulaic, the characterisations superficial, the action predictable, but they are made and watched by members of every community in India. Muslim actors play Hindu heroes, South Indian heroines are chased around trees by North Indian rogues. Representatives of some communities may be stereotyped (think of the number of alcoholic Christians played by Om Prakash, including in “Zanjeer”) but good and bad are always shown as being found in every community.
The film world embodies the very idea of India’s diversity in the way in which it is organised, staffed, and financed – and in the stories it tells. I am all for escapist entertainment, so long as it serves to c
Source: The Hindu