My Favourite Film Decade: Bollywood in the 1980s

If you don’t get this decade, you don’t get Hindi cinema at all – it’s the melting-pot that took in the influences of earlier years and paved the way for today’s Hindi cinema
My Favourite Film Decade: Bollywood in the 1980s

One of the aspects of pop-culture that really, I mean really, gets to me is how unshakeable an opinion becomes. I call it the Curse of Perceived Wisdom. Here's an example. Mahesh Bhatt once said, in some magazine, that the most erotic scene in Indian cinema is the one where Dilip Kumar strokes Madhubala's face with a feather in Mughal-e-Azam. Ever since, every article on "erotic moments" lists this scene at No. 1. And I'm like: Really? I don't doubt for a second that Mahesh Bhatt considers this the most erotic scene, but surely there are others with other tastes! Surely, someone prefers, say, the moment in Utsav where Rekha pretends (to Shekhar Suman) that she doesn't know how to remove the jewellery draping her body like vines on a trellis.

One of the most problematic instances of perceived wisdom is that Hindi cinema in the 1980s sucked, that it was the equivalent of Amitabh Bachchan in the Laawaris (1981) clip above: "gandi naali ka woh keeda jo na jeeta hai na marta hai." A bastard child, apparently orphaned by directors who weren't married to the "higher sensibilities" of the earlier decades. The way I see it, if you don't get this decade, you don't get Hindi cinema at all – for it's the melting-pot decade that took in the influences of the earlier years and paved the way for today's Hindi cinema.

Foremost among these "straddler" filmmakers were JP Dutta and Rahul Rawail. (I'd also include N Chandra, but Tezaab appears towards the end of the 1980s.) From earlier decades (i.e. pre-liberalisation India), these directors took the melodrama, the mother figure, the politics, the social unrest (and the ensuing violence), and, of course, the romance. And the films they made (Arjun, Dacait, Ghulami, Yateem, Batwara) twisted these must-haves around in ways that would reflect in the more cinephilic future, when directors turned more tech-savvy. Similar themes would echo in, say, the gangland sagas of Ram Gopal Varma. Look at Mahesh Bhatt's work (Arth, Naam, Thikaana), and you are seeing far more incendiary  cinema in the mainstream than what we'd get in future decades. Today, Bhatt-like angst (I'm considering films like Udaan or even Kapoor & Sons) is considered more multiplex, more… niche.

What about the old guard? Raj Kapoor was making Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (the exploitation controversies apart, a great melodrama in the grand tradition of Hindi cinema). Feroz Khan made sensationally stylish Trash Cinema (Qurbani and the Duel in the Sun-inspired Janbaaz). Subhash "Showman" Ghai was invigorating the multi-starrer with Ram Lakhan and Karma. Bachchan was struggling, sure, but between Desh Premee, Sharaabi, Dostana, Inquilaab and Main Azaad Hoon, we're still talking some of the most memorable masala-movie writing. Plus, we got the fun Bachchan in Do Aur Do Paanch and Shaan.

In such a small article, I'm surely forgetting films. There was sci-fi like Mr. India. The middle-of-the-road cinema yielded milestones like Bazaar, the Sai Paranjpe and Saeed Mirza and Govind Nihalani films, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. There were puppy-love sagas like Love Story. There was some of Anil Kapoor's best work (Saaheb, for instance). There were the utterly delightful Farooque Shaikh-Deepti Naval dramedies. Oh, just look what fun this video (below) from Saath Saath (1983) is, showing (through song, in a "musical" style) how gossip spreads in a college campus.

Speaking of music, we are talking about one of the most important (and inexplicably forgotten) soundtrack albums of Hindi cinema, Biddu's Star, whose studio-controlled, machine-made aesthetic anticipated the AR Rahman era by almost an entire decade. And speaking of music, again, I think one of the reasons the eighties get such a bad rap is that its musical sensibility is aligned with that of Bappi Lahiri, who was, in turn, aligned with Padmalaya pictures, whose "south sensibility" was found offensive by many. Yes, many of these are bad films. But I think there's more to it. It's like how some people sneer at today's "mass" movies. And this section of the audience, I suppose, breathed a sigh of relief when Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya brought romance back, bundled away the kitsch and violence, and made the theatres a "safe place" again for their sensibilities.

But even while Sridevi and Jeetendra were performing PT exercises around kitchen utensils, we got solid melodramas remade from southern films, like Pyaasa Sawan (a remake of the Telugu movie, Yedanthasthula Meda) or Ek Hi Bhool (remade from the Tamil drama, Mouna Geethangal). I'm not saying these are Great Films. But they are good examples of a type of film that's too easily dismissed today, simply because we are more "sophisticated", less tolerant about such direct appeals to the emotion. I'm not denying that a whole load of crap was made in the 1980s. But that's true of the sixties, too, and somehow we aren't so critical about that decade. In melodramas, I don't see much difference between an Aasha (1980) and a Main Chup Rahungi (1962), or in fantasy yarns, a Parasmani (1963) and a Nagina (1985). You can't say one works, the other doesn't.

I don't think any single decade is the greatest ever. By the same token, the 1980s are certainly not the worst. Anyway, here are five films you should watch to get an idea of this period:



Namak Halaal

Ram Teri Ganga Maili


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