In the relentless march of time, the spotlight may have shifted from directors like Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, V. Shantaram, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and several others but there is no denying that the filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s — the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema — left behind a legacy difficult to match. Married to the emerging socio-economic and political realities of the time, Hindi cinema often did what was principally the job of the media: mould public opinion, highlight the challenges faced by an emerging nation, not with the idea of killing an innocent dream but merely to ensure that none were left out of the march of progress. Realism was not synonymous with boring.
The depiction of urban angst in a series of Raj Kapoor films or the moral turpitude of Guru Dutt films or the social chasm of Bimal Roy sagas always gave voice to the voiceless, expression to the ignored, and a platform to the deserving. It was a cinema that drew from the past, but the past was not mere nostalgia, nice but a convenient means of recalling to a newly independent nation that much before the British arrived, or the White men gave a call for civilising Hindustan, we were a nation throbbing with vitality.
Much like our socio-religious reformers of the 19th and 20 centuries, cinema cried out for a past that was worth not just occasional visits but that could act as a blueprint for the future. V. Shantaram’s films Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and Navrang not only strove to make the classical popular but also made a statement for and on behalf of Indian arts. Much like Baiju Bawra, Mirza Ghalib and Anarkali did in the early 1950s.
The films stemmed from a past that was glorious, yet in danger of being cast aside as an entire generation was sought to be indoctrinated by the British about the evils of the Mughal era, and the virtues of the British. Despite attempts to derail India’s past, the young nation drank happily from the common fountain. Then, as indeed now, one just made a film. Or watched it. Who played which character, who wrote the lyrics, or who sang a song was immaterial. Thus, reasserting a pluralistic polity, we had Baiju Bawra, its famous bhajans (devotional songs) being composed by Naushad, penned by Shakeel Badayuni and sung by Mohammed Rafi. Art was the bridge that united us all.
The attempt to restore the pride of a wounded nation was expressed best in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam. This mythical romance between a Mughal heir to the crown and a courtesan took 16 years to complete, during which period everything; from the hero and the leading lady to most supporting artistes, changed! What did not change though was the passion to show a country its myriad hues. The Constitution of India granted us freedom of speech and expression as also the right to preach, propagate and practise any religion. The founding fathers of modern India merely reiterated what was always understood in ancient and medieval India. Hence, Asif’s Muslim courtesan sings a Krishna bhajan in the court of the Mughal Emperor. In the same film is a naat (hymn) dedicated to the Prophet! Of course, both the bhajan and the naat are sung by the same singer, the legendary Lata Mangeshkar. And the Emperor of Hindustan in Asif’s masterpiece allows for both Persianised Urdu and chaste, almost Sanskritised Hindi to be spoken in his court. That a Muslim man married a Rajput princess was a cause of rancour for none.
At another level, some films quietly portrayed a society trying to come to terms with its own fissures. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin and Sujata, spoke up for the defenceless without resorting to polemics. While one film highlighted class politics, the other focussed on the caste divide. If Do Bigha Zamin talked of the plight of the poor in the face of mindless industrialisation, Sujata sought to eradicate caste biases. Later B.R. Chopra added a dash of entertainment to expose the dark underbelly of industrialisation in Naya Daur just as many summers later, K. Viswanath took up caste echelons in his films in the 1970s and 1980s.
And at yet another level, our society’s moral anomie was brought into sharp focus in films like Dhool ka Phool, marking Yash Chopra’s earlier engagement with socially relevant cinema, and Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana, a heroine-oriented film, made a statement on behalf of women without being strident! Of course, almost unnoticed, Shakti Samanta’s film on premarital sex and an unwed mother had Sharmila Tagore in the pivotal role with the erstwhile superstar, Rajesh Khanna in a double role. Aradhana also deserves credit for the manner in which Shakti Samanta handled the scene of premarital intimacy. Only a little was expressed, and a lot left unsaid.
By the late 1960s, Hindi cinema dealt with several prickly issues with considerable maturity. While Chopra and Samanta highlighted social anomalies, several other films presented their own unique take on Vinoba Bhave’s desire to bring dacoits back into the fold. “Give the wrongdoers a second chance,” the great humanist argued. In films like Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Gunga Jumna and Mujhe Jeene Do, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt gave powerful performances of characters who had strayed from the righteous path. Indeed, the cinema of those times was closely wedded to politics and society. Even if at times the solutions provided appeared somewhat facetious, the intent was never in question.
Awara, released in 1951, shortly after India gained independence, presented the city as both a nightmare and a dream. A little more than half a decade after Awara, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa critiqued the reality of city life, exposing the loneliness of a man in a crowd. In between came V. Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath, a scathing comment on our criminal reforms, arguing for reformative rather than punitive justice.
However, the acme of cinema’s involvement with polity was reached in a poignant fashion in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, a film often hailed for providing a dream role for any heroine in the history of Hindi cinema. He cast his heroine as the repository of the best values of the East signifying anti-individualism, family and community values and tradition, distinct from the principles of the West where individualism is celebrated. However, Mehboob Khan’s film was a very fine advertisement for Nehruvian socialism and an indictment of private enterprise…
Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema; edited by Ziya Us Salam, Om Books International, Rs.395.