Sunday, 11 November 2012

100 years of Indian Cinema

There is something to be said about black and white photographs. The monochromatic color scheme is very much like a haunting melody. A melody, is one of those magical instruments forged in unison with the cooperation of nature and man, which is both capable of transporting you to your nostalgic past or give you a new perspective on your current reality. Indian cinema has, is and always will be the surreal black and white photograph, a haunting melody.

          This is a story of how I met Indian Cinema and fell in love with it. I have been in enough relationships to realize, one doesn’t bitch/gossip about the person you are in a relationship with. You just tell and retell the story of how you met. And if you play your cards right, you don’t get to sleep. (*wink**wink**nudge**nudge*)

My very first memories of moving images and Indian cinema are ‘filmy’ in nature. I was little more than two years old. My first memory of Indian cinema is that of Shammi Kapoor screaming, ‘Yahooooo!’ while skiddling down a snowy mountain yodeling his lungs out and shaking his pompadour hairstyle out of its gel set mold.

My father was posted in Uri and I was old enough to walk on my own two feet. But not old enough to be admitted in a kindergarten or have the common sense to find the loo to relieve myself when nature called. (A lot of people who I consider friends will vouch for the fact that nothing has changed from then. I still can’t find my way to loo and I have lost many a comfortable pair of knickers to bladder emergencies.). Every evening, around 1500hrs, we kids used to go and learn horse riding and later meet our parents at the officer’s mess. The officers would play billiards or chat up the ladies while the telly ran in the background. If you stood on the steps which led up to the officer’s mess, one could see the Himalayas. At that age, I neither comprehended or appreciated the natural beauty I was surrounded with nor was I aware of the concept called distance. For me, the green mountain tops with the snowy white peaks I saw while seated on the horseback were the same as the ones which Shammi Kapoor skiddled and yodeled from every evening. The wild energy, the gay abandon, the jubilant frolicking of Shammi Kapoor while he yodeled still gets me makes me jiggle with unabashed mirth. I suppose this was a period of time which my mother recalls more fondly than I actually remember. I was a, what child psychologists call a late talker. I suppose, for a mother to see her only son (at that point of time) jump with joy and try to mimic the cherubic faced rose tinged cheeked man on the television must have been confirmation that she did conceive a child who was normal(?).

That is my first memory of Indian cinema. Evenings of dancing to the same song is still fresh and as vivid as a wet paint stained shirt sleeve. And what a sweet memory that is.

 I am not sure which of the two reasons are primary for my brother and me not having experienced the magic of movies on the big screen. Was it the fact that we were raised in the closed environment of Army Cantonments? Or was it a deep seated insecurity albeit somewhat true fears of my parents that we would be influenced by movies being played on the big screen? Things were different before my brother was born. I still remember running around the aisles like a crazed lunatic, unaware that my parents were watching and enjoying a Bond movie. (My first memory of watching something on the big screen, but the Bond legacy and me are a different story altogether). It was during this time that dad was promoted to the rank of Major and if my memory serves me right, he was like the 2IC (Second in Command) of his unit. This meant that he had to host parties at our residence, and since he was a married man with kids, this meant that other officers with families were okay to bring their families over. And this meant hiring the VCR from the officer’s mess along with the VHS tape of Mr. India. By no means will I be exaggerating the fact that I must have seen that movie at least a minimum of 50 times.

Mugambo was both fearsome with his acid ponds and comical with his catch phrase in a very Superman defeats Klu Klux Klan way. Mugambo certainly dominated my world of evil overlords along with Skeletor and the Kauravas from Mahabharat. And that is saying something considering the fact that Street Hawk vanquished all the baddies, Superboy/Superman didn’t have any worthy adversaries worth remembering.

I was never encouraged to watch movies, especially English movies. I reckon the discrimination was based on the lax censor laws in late 80s and early 90s. Coupled with the fact that Doordarshan chose to play movies on  Saturday nights, way past my bedtime, OR on Sunday evenings when I was busy playing cricket or reading Phantom Comics in my tree house.

But it was a completely different story when summer holidays were declared. At both my grandparents’ houses, I enjoyed the luxury of playing with the VCR/VCP (I forget who had what, or if both of them had the same thing). My summer vacations were spent in a manner which private jet owners will be quite aware of. Time share. While in my dad’s parents house had a single VHS tape of Tom and Jerry. But this VHS tape was special, real special. Proper special. Before Tom and Jerry began their cat and mouse games, the tape played this video.

I am still unsure how this music video found a place on an innocent VHS tape meant for kids and why it was never erased post realization. But… This was my first introduction to hot men and svelte women dancing and gyrating against each other in a Indian movie.

The vacation time spent with my mother’s family resulted in me watching classics like, Apoorva Sahodarargal (I still can’t pronounce the name properly after all these years) and Athisaya Piravi. And these two movies were again played on repeat, ad nauseam. I suppose this is also the time when I decided that my loyalties with Rajnikanth rather than Kamal Hassan. I was about 10 years old I suppose when I made the monumental decision. All on the basis of a sticker fight between my cousins who traded them like currency. And for the sticker of Rajnikanth, I had to bargain my ration of strawberry shaped and strawberry tasting chewing gum. (I suppose that is the day I stopped liking things which were strawberry flavored. Strawberry flavor can never match the awesome fun Rajni was in Athisaya Piravi)

The only reason I was shown these two movies repeatedly is because despite my limited knowledge of speakable Tamil with a healthy dosage of Punjabi, Hindi and English thrown in for good measure, I was never able to communicate to my grandparents that I wanted to watch Agni Natchathiram. And the only reason I wanted to watch this movie was because of this delightfully song by the music maestro Ilaiyaraaja.  

My father was strict follower of the CBFC guidelines and my mother was more lenient* in that regard (didn’t give a shit). Which possibly explains why when the rest of class spoke gushingly about ‘Gumnaam’ or ‘Mahal’, I was the only one who sat grumpily with my best mate who was kind enough to not give away the spoilers (I finally managed to watch the movie last year or sometime early this year. After a long forgotten wait of 15 years).

Couple of years before this traumatic experience of being unable to partake in a peer activity, I was admitted in the hospital, for well over 4 months, after having been diagnosed with Henoch Schonlein Syndrome. One fine Sunday, after 2 months and 3 weeks, I was finally allowed to enter the TV room in MH (military hospital) and was given a cruel choice of either choosing Tipu Sultan (which ran for an hour) OR watch the evening movie. The movie which was scheduled to play that evening was ‘Johny Mera Naam’. I chose to watch Tipu Sultan. (I still haven’t watched Johny Mera Naam, maybe one of these days). My father didn’t help matters when he explained what a foolish choice I made, AFTER I made the choice and Tipu Sultan got over and he came to visit me at MH in the evening. (Probably explains why I still haven’t watched that movie yet). I suppose it was also the same year I saw Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, the first movie (in any language) which bears the fine distinction of physically moving me to tears. (God! How much did I fight back the tears from running down my cheeks. There was a girl from my class seated next to me. She also happened to be my class teacher’s daughter. And I most definitely did not want the label of a cry baby, especially when nobody had kicked me in me gonads. I have been kicked on plenty of occasions. In me balls. Wonder what I started doing which made people stop?)

The year was 1995. Dad had been transferred again. This time, contrary to the ‘J’ jinx he carried around with him during his service, to Delhi. It was also the year Dad had finally figured to steal cable from neighbors in spectacularly magical manner. It was also the monumental year when each one of the three Khans had three magnificently marvelous releases. Aamir Khan had Rangeela, Salman Khan had Veergati and Shahrukh Khan had Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

Side note: There is something to be told about each one of these three Khans. Aamir had wowed me with his work in Jo Jeeta Who Sikandar. The movie is also responsible for my obsession with racing handlebar cycles with gears. Salman Khan in Suryavanshi had unloaded a bucket load of rocket fuel in my young smoldering imagination of guns, knifes, and overall perceptions of brawny machismo, so much so that I was beginning to fashion a sword of broomsticks and cellotape. Shahrukh in Baazigar was/is in my limited knowledge and appreciation of Indian cinema, essayed the single greatest anti-hero role, till that point of time. I understand that this is a tall claim to state. But I nonetheless state the same, despite R. Pathiban’s role in Pudhiya Paadhai and the iconic cow dung flinging scene. And I suppose, my little brother will vouch for the same, especially given the number of times I made him enact Dalip Tahil’s role while I sneered before guffawing and pile driving my brother on the quilt on his bed. I give my brother for reference, because the garden chairs cannot vouch the number of times I spoke the dialogue Shahrukh utters before flipping Shilpa Shetty off the terrace. Baazigar and Thunderball are the two movies responsible for making me believe that reel is real. Mohra, Sunil Shetty with its gangster style shooting style with drug satchets flying in the air like flying fish and ‘Tu Cheez badi Hai Mast Mast’ were also reenacted with great deal of gusto. A lot of these movies I had the pleasure of watching as a result of the small film club we five kids had formed back Jorhat. Each one contributed Re. 2/-, renting a VHS tape back then cost a whooping Rs. 10/-. After watching Baazigar, I had wanted to watch everything Shahrukh had acted in. (My father, back in 1988 had predicted that this scrawny young man would achieve greatness. He still claims that Shahrukh’s stardom is because he had said so. It is a trait I seem to have inherited from him). So, I collected Re. 2/- from the remaining four kids and went to the video library opposite the catholic church outside Cantt., to rent Darr. But it was also the day, unknown to me, we were supposed to travel to visit my grandparents. And so, Darr remains another of those movies I have not come around to watching till today.

The year was 1995. Rangeela, Veergati and DDLJ had released. Thanks to my father’s engineering background and his ingenious solution of enjoying cable television without having to pay, what I perceived back then to be an exorbitant, cable subscription fee, enjoyed both Rangeela and Veergati. Unknown to my brother and me, my mother and father had ventured out for a date night and had enjoyed a night show of DDLJ. (Date nights were an alien concept for me, till for about a couple of years back). My brother and me, who had been left outside the bumper car cage while my mother had a go driving like a road rage victim at Appu Ghar, took the revelation of her viewing of DDLJ to be another betrayal. We were young, and anything fun by somebody we knew and we weren’t invited to be part of was seen to be a grave traitorous act. (I was young back then. I have grown up since then, I believe I am not that childish. But I strongly fear that my brother still holds the grudge against me ma).

So after sufficient black mail and in the absence of my father, we went for a night show. All of my class mates had already seen the movie, few of them had even managed to watch the movie more than twice. If memes existed back in 1995, scenes from DDLJ would have been ALL over it. So, before the CBFC slide came on screen, I pretty much knew all the punch dialogues to the now famous conversations which take place between the characters. But… I couldn’t help but invest my emotions in the characters of Raj and Simran. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between my own father and Amrish Puri in the movie. When the movie ended and the credits rolled, in that span of 189 minutes (excluding interval time), I had changed. I had grown from being a boy to being a man, a man who knew what sort of morals he will exhibit in his personal relationships with the opposite sex and her family.

Side note: I have always been a bit of a wonky romantic. When I was admitted in MH for that extended period of time, I used to walk around the hallways with a shawl wrapped around myself and humming THIS song, picturing myself using Jedi mind powers to tell the girl I had a crush on that I loved her. I was in 4th grade.

A lot of movies and people related to movies have not found a mention in the narrative so far. Movies like Thalapathi, Juaari, Nayagan, Mahanadi, Sholay, Jewel Thief, Dhund, and many, many, so many more movies. People like Salim Javed, Abbas Mastan, David Dhawan, Yash Raj Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Guru Dutt, Mehaboob, Helen, Sunil Dutt, Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and many, many, so many more people. 

We are talking about 100 years of cinema. All the movies have been fantastical and diabolically brilliant. And each one of them has somehow managed to find a space in consciousness and sculpt my personality and so many like me.

Indian Cinema cannot be encapsulated within a personal narrative. It cannot be summarized as being just song and dance. It is not just about the OTT dramatics and escapism.

Indian Cinema is label pasted on a black box. A box, which houses complex machinery, responsible for churning out stories about a nation whose history almost coincides with the beginning of human civilization. It manufactures hopes, dreams and personalities. It molds the consciousness of an entire nation. It is one of the two unifying threads for a nation whose hallmark lies in its diversity. At times, it has been the voice of dissent. It has been the voice of reason. But without fail, it has been the collective voice of a diverse nation.

There are few things, people or places in this nation which can claim to be of the people, for the people and by the people. Indian Cinema is one of the few things the nation can claim it to be solely theirs. 

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