Lights, Camera, Conversation… The Genre of Myth

Posted on April 22, 2011


Our fantastical stories are rooted in the fantasies of our myths. That’s perhaps why, with increasingly deracinating westernisation, we’ve learnt to mock the masala movie.

“Why are you watching Jyoti Bane Jwala?” my conscious mind cries out, with the futility of the hero’s sister’s appeal in a 1970s potboiler to an advancing Ranjeet. But there is no logical answer. While channel surfing, sometimes, the finger freezes on the remote in deference to a directive from the subconscious – and that’s how you end up glued to the exploits of Jeetendra, pants tucked into his boots like an ersatz Amitabh Bachchan. (The film, incidentally acronyms to JBJ, which nearly three decades later, would fan out to Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Of such cancer-curing eureka moments is a pop-culture chronicler’s life made.)

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The plot was pure Bachchan-era. The mother is shamed, the father is framed and dispatched to prison, and the son bays for the blood of the blackguard responsible for the dissolution of his family unit, a villain who sits in his lair in his chair in front of a purple wall with radiating spokes. (Now that books about Bollywood are becoming a sub-industry, why hasn’t anyone commissioned a coffee-table volume on the art directors of masala cinema of the 1970s and 80s, a period that embraced kitsch wholeheartedly, without irony and without the quotation marks of camp?)

Meanwhile, Vinod Mehra and Sarika are on stage, playing the parts of Vishwamitra and Menaka to the accompaniment of a semi-classical number that goes Tu jogan main jogi, and when the restive audience begins to boo, they reset these lyrics to the tune of Chal chal chal mere saathi, the hit from Haathi Mere Saathi. The audience is appeased and Jeetendra is put in jail – at least, that’s how it seems, given how suddenly we are slung, like a shot from a catapult, into the subsequent scene. The head-spinning hastiness of the transition brings to mind what Rajorshi Chakraborti, in his superb contribution to The Popcorn Essayists, described as a waking-dream state. Anything can happen, and anything does.

But we watchers of Old Bollywood have no compunctions about being waking dreamers, and so the saga continues with Jeetendra escaping – instantly. One minute he’s telling Satyen Kappu he wants to break out of jail, the next he’s out. (Much later, Vinod Mehra, a cop, emulates this ellipsis – one scene he’s ranting at his mother for letting Jeetendra escape, the next he’s chasing Jeetendra’s car.) The scenes of planning a jailbreak and actually executing the nail-biting escape (or in Vinod Mehra’s case, the scenes of finding out Jeetendra’s whereabouts before ending up on his tail) were presumably too insignificant. Who has time for details when there’s so much plot to be covered?

The plot continues with the runaway Jeetendra being rescued by a heavily lipsticked Moushumi Chatterjee whose roommate – Sarika, the Menaka of the instant improvisation skills – happens to bear on her person a burn mark similar to Jeetendra’s. They realise they are long-lost siblings and they embrace instantly. In real life, if a brother and sister were thus united, they’d register at least a bit of bewilderment. They’d marvel at the mysteries of fate. But here, Jeetendra and Sarika exhibit a calm acceptance – there is, after all, the next scene to be got to – and they unite as if the numerous Bollywood movies they’ve seen up to that point had made their reunion inevitable.

But this isn’t the inevitability of the movies so much as the inevitability of myth – our myths, which were filled with happenings that made the head spin. And because the myth is our only true “genre,” our older films are essentially as fantastical as the fantasies involving gods and demons. In Hollywood, the barren and dangerous frontier territories spawned the western. The song-and-dance of Broadway gave rise to the musical. The crime in the East Coast birthed the gangster drama. But for the longest time, our cinema was shaped solely from our endless supply of archetypal myths, and that’s why we used to accept, without complaint, these near-miraculous coincidences and these “logic-free” plot leaps (though free only of physical logic; there certainly is an emotional logic at play). I wonder what a teen of today would make of Jyoti Bane Jwala.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan, The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.