My Favourite Film Decade – Bollywood in the 1980s

Posted on February 12, 2019


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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.

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