Serendipity is when a misspelt keyword on YouTube leads you to a seminal piece of work. It was one such moment when I discovered Cinema Cinema, a quasi-documentary (Wikipedia's phrase, not mine) that was originally released in 1979. Directed by Krishna Shah, Cinema Cinema is a cinephile's love letter to the medium.
Cinema Cinema takes place in a meta space. It is set inside the theatre with a motley audience watching a documentary on cinema. The audience is an eclectic mix covering different ages, religions and social strata. The usual suspects constitute the drunk, a high-society married couple, middle-class lovers stealing a date, the condescending and judgemental 'uncle' among other regional and religious stereotypes. Narrated by the top stars of the period – Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Zeenat Aman – Cinema Cinema traces the history of Indian cinema (specifically Hindi cinema) right from late 1800s, when the Lumière brothers set pictures to motion. The movie playing inside the theatre is a lesson in history and the audience in the theatre captures the zeitgeist of 70s.
The narrative skilfully interlaces the socio-political developments and their impact on the content of the time. The tug of war between British, American and French movie industries to capture the Indian market, the World War II-fuelled scarcity of raw stock and the fight for the existence of Indian cinema against these offscreen antagonists. This piece of history is a tiny three-act structure within the documentary. As a thesis on real impacting reel, it shows how the disillusionment from the Nehruvian dream coincided with movies like Do Bigha Zameen and Mother India. How the post-Emergency resentment in the public manifested itself in the Angry Young Man immortalised by Amitabh Bachchan. The change in the outlook of the nation is reflected in the shift of songs, from Pyaasa's gloomy 'Duniye Agar Mil bhi jaye to kya hai' to a more rebellious 'Duniya ne humko diya kya, duniya se humne liya kya'. This crash course in Indian cinema features stars from across the decades: Fearless Nadia, matinee idols like K L Saigal and Ashok Kumar and the original trinity of Dilip-Raj-Dev. Avant-garde luminaries like Dadasaheb Phalke, V Shantaram and Guru Dutt get special mentions.
The choice of narrators is also smart. Hema Malini, the epitome of onscreen beauty talks about the time when movies were only a visual medium, the silent era. Amitabh Bachchan, the most powerful voice on the Indian screen, narrates the transition phase from silent movies to talkies. Dharmendra narrates the phase post the launch of talkies – the challenges it brought (e.g. which language will the movies be made in?) and the classics made in the golden era of the 50s and 60s. Zeenat Aman, synonymous with glamour onscreen, talks about the magic of mainstream cinema and the solace provided by its escapism.
To keep the narrative engrossing, the movie uses ingenious segues like Hema Malini's long pause mid-narration before talking about the silent era. The characters in the audience are also designed to avoid the monotony of the documentary set up. These characters alternate between Page 3 columnists (screaming 'Rekha ko kahan chuppa rakha hai' when Bachchan appears on screen), moral police (reminiscing about the chastity of yesteryear actresses and looking down upon the dressing and dancing of the 1970s) and multitaskers (a Guru Dutt admirer who is simultaneously listening to the radio commentary of an ongoing cricket match).
Cinema Cinema is simple yet refreshing and informative. The movie is a remnant from the days when elaborate and exquisite love letters occupied the space currently encroached by auto-corrected and abbreviated messaging. In fact, it unfolds like a love letter describing the bond between the lover (cinephile) and the loved (cinema), right from the first sight (pun intended) to the latest meeting. This is one movie that is criminally underrated and -written about. Anyone in love with the world of mainstream Hindi cinema, song and dance included, needs to watch it. The good thing is that it is available for free on YouTube.