Lights. Camera. Economics: An untold story of Bollywood

The 1950s. A decade regarded as a Golden era in Bollywood. This period saw the best of directors, actors, writers contributing their finest to create masterpieces relevant even a quarter-century later. The trio of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor was ruling Hindi cinema and the country was still romanticizing the idea of independence.

The people of the Republic of India had a new hope, a new dream, a new romance in their life. They had a firm belief that now, after independence, after the British left India, a new dawn would help them break the shackles of poverty and hunger. They blindly trusted the leaders of that time and why not, the leaders who were now the politicians were just a while back freedom fighters talking about a free and fair world. They dreamt of prosperity and happiness. This dream, although theirs featured Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. People saw themselves and their wishes through these good looking men.

Raj Kapoor, largely played an urban guy, mostly poor, struggling in this harsh new world; a world which is reluctantly trying to keep up with this glitzy and glamorous façade although within has still not come out of the feudal mindset left over by the British. He portrayed the struggling working class which had recently started migrating to big towns from their small rural setups. Awaara (1951), Shree 420 (1955). He showed their reality and they clapped on the dream he created.

On the other hand, Dilip Kumar, quite believably, became a young rural lad high on ambition and emotion. Times when he was not a rural man he would become a poor yet unconditionally romantic city boy. On one hand would fight the village goons, the rich landlords, race on his horse cart against the new age imperialists, the cars and in the end get the beautiful village girl, a dream sequence for every rural Indian of that time. Large scale erosion of population from villages had not started yet and thus the rural class bought into this belief that they are well off in their current situation. Naya Daur (1957). And on the other, he would give an outlet to the poverty hit young boys who had even more troubled romantic life. Daag (1952), Deedar (1951).

Indians continued to romanticize every moment of their dream is it a happy ending or tragic. Dilip Kumar strengthened the title of ‘The King Of Tragedy’ post-Deedar.

Dev Anand was the middle-class city guy. He had small but realistic dreams. He wanted to build a home, get married to a beautiful yet simple girl. He would not go bombastic fighting the goons but would dare stand against the stern would-be father-in-law. He would be a lawyer, a journalist or any other professional that middle-class young men would like to be. Solva Saal (1958), Baazi (1951). His characters would not shy away from taking some risky turns, be in a moral dilemma between ethics and ambition, in order to keep pacing with the modern life and this was lapped up by the young literate middle class who were themselves not clear of their own dreams. 

The 1950s went off quite well or can be said in oblivion. People discounted the failure of first few five-year plans. After all, the country just got independence. Heart-wrenching partition of 47 was still ripe in the minds. 1948 war with Pakistan added an extra burden on the newly recruited politicians. People gave the economy a chance to revive itself. Things were good.

The 1960s saw a change in the hue the country was being painted in. 1962 war with China, 1965 war with Pakistan and Bengal Famine in the same year had put brakes to the economy. License Raj had stepped in and dreams got dimmer. The middle class continued to remain in a dilemma between ethics and ambition. Trade unions got stronger as the factory owners became richer.

When romance faces reality the latter wins, hands down. In the battle between stomach and heart, the heart doesn’t even fight.

Sangam starring Raj Kapoor (1964) had a reference to Sino-India battle fought and so did Haqeeqat in the same year starring Dharmendra. A kid born around independence was now around 20. Higher education was still a distant dream for the majority of Indians and even a 12th pass would ask for a job. But there were none. MBA was still not a part of a dream for the students so the potential workforce could not be pushed for a few more years as is done now. First, a five-year plan focused on agriculture and did some good, however, the Second and Third Five-year plans focused on heavy industries. Expecting a sector which has been robbed for 200 years cannot be expected to rise within five years. Agriculture needed a much bigger push. It didn’t get beyond five years. Heavy industry is dependent on the primary sector and thus it also collapsed. Government companies were stuttering and so did the economy. However, the same kid although in the 20s and looking for a job was also looking for one more thing, Love.

A career which started around 1966 was beginning to take shape around 1969. Expression of love was also getting bolder and so did the films. 15 back to back hits from 1969-71 created the first superstar of Indian cinema, Rajesh Khanna. The ultimate chocolate boy of his time Rajesh Khanna gave reality some time out. The young audience could wait for some more years and so could the heart in its battle with the stomach. He played an air force pilot since donning a uniform was cool back then as well. He was in a double role and was a double delight for the audience. Aradhna (1969), Kati Patang (1971).

Young India wanted job and love. The job he could not have and love played its part. There was another option also and many moved that path. The hippie culture had set its foot in India and so did its depiction in movies. Hare Krishna Hare Rama (1971) had young Zeenat Aman play that role. However, turning a hippie also required some resources. For the poor, they had Trade Unions. These were interesting times. The economy was fighting its own battle and Indian cinema saw the emergence of its alter ego – The New Wave Cinema. There was this new crop of directors, actors and writers who somehow did not like the escapist route the mainstream cinema had taken. They wanted to show reality and thus the Parallel Cinema emerged. Shyam Benegal, Ritwik Ghatak, Gulzar, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad among many others created some relevant piece of cinema which transformed the art to a medium.

The 1970s probably had the same kind of mix and the same number of choices in movies for the audiences then as today Netflix and Amazon Prime give. Manmohan Desai on one hand was creating multi starrer formulaic masala films and on the other, we had people like Shyam Benegal who were giving a face to the reality of India. The later part of the 1970s had India get into a political turmoil. The economy was already in shambles and now political instability had people feel helpless. They wanted respite. They wanted their voices being heard. They wanted to beat up the factory owner who treats them like animals but they sadly could not as they had a family to feed. They wanted to shout out loud. They wanted a messiah and they got one, not in real life though but the reel was also good, those were desperate times.

The messiah rose and how. 12 back to back flops, 1 hit that too in a supporting role. Dawn was waiting for the Dusk. The period around 1975, saw the downfall of Rajesh Khanna and emergence of the man who still rules, who still gives the young actors a run for their money, who still is rightfully called ‘The Shahanshah of Bollywood’ – Amitabh Bachchan.

He wasn’t the best looking. He wasn’t the fittest. He did not have a unique style. Compare Amitabh Bachchan with Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand and you would find him fall short on every aspect. His contemporaries like Vinod Khanna was a hunk and he a tall fellow with curly hair and a slight hunch back. But he did what others could not. He became the voice of the poor. He became the angry young man India wanted. This slim fellow was beating up tens of strong henchmen and people believed it, with one punch he would break a wall, people believed it, he did all that otherwise was unbelievable for a man of his built, people believed all of that because they wanted to. But people loved him. They saw themselves in him. Zanjeer (1973), Mukkaddar Ka Sikandar (1978).

He ruled all through the late 1970s and 1980s after all the economy was supporting him. And then LPG was announced. Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization were the buzz words now. India entered the 90s. The kid born around independence now, in turn, had a young kid staring at the world with the same dreams. Economy opened up and started to regain itself. New hopes, new dreams were being created. Now the brands that otherwise seen in magazines were now within the common man’s reach. Middle class started to realize its presence. The common man became a popular word and so did Shahrukh Khan.

A regular looking guy was now roaring to become the ‘Badshah of Bollywood’. Shahrukh gave style to a common man. He made them dream again but this time in their own skin. The films were set in real locations but the situations were still dreamy but this man, this average-looking man, who looks like an average Indian is living it and this was bought by the new crop of dreamers. India again got its superstar. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Swades (2004).

Times changed. Globalization took over Privatization and Liberalization and so did the realization that many songs and movies are copied from Hollywood. People accepted this reality as well but they now wanted the Hollywood style hero as well. Since young India was living the American dream at the start of the new millennium they wanted the movies they consume also talk of the same. This made a macho man for the first time take over the superstar and we had Hritik Roshan emerge as a sensation. He remained a sensation and could not turn into a superstar of Rajesh Khanna or Shahrukh Khan fame largely due to the lack of consistency in performance.

A change in the economic situation changes the outlook of people and in turn their own dreams. Reality would always precede dreams but it’s the dreams that help us sleep at night. Reality would otherwise keep us awake. And when the reality is wrapped around dreams we get CINEMA. Pack up.

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