Readers Write In #570: Golden Ages and all that jazz

Posted on April 20, 2023


By Aman Basha

The words golden age themselves seem to age very poorly, or is it just me not hearing enough amrit kaal anymore? But the perception of a golden age, while not as polarizing as it could be in politics, can still be hotly contested when it comes to cinema.

One reason is simply the personal preferences of the individual, someone (though he may be rare) can argue that the 60s Hindi cinema is often unfairly dissed and any decade with both Guide and Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam should not be given as short shrift as it is today.

Similarly, nostalgia blinkers even the wisest and the cinema that shapes us in our formative years can hold a strong sway on one’s tastes and perceptions. Quite a few people I know love Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara as a classic.

For me, a golden age for cinema is one where both the commerce and content are at their peak. A classic example is 70s Hollywood, one great movie after the other, but some major blockbusters too like the Godfather and Jaws, films that rewrote the boundaries and the box office.

With India, the issue of a golden age becomes somewhat more difficult for me as the status of diffferent film industries during that period play into my mind. So, though Telugu cinema in the 1950s had some of its finest actors and made some really great movies which are more cinematic than one would think, especially KV Reddy’s work, it doesn’t stand in front of Hindi cinema in the same time, which was a different beast altogether. (We had the better Devdas, but that’s a different debate).

Similarly, 1970s Hindi cinema was something else altogether, and in my opinion forced the southern industries to pull themselves up to wade off competition from Hindi films in their home markets. So, I don’t think this is the golden age of Tamil or Telugu cinema though both K Balachander and K Viswanath became very active in this decade, as did Bharatiraja, Bapu-Ramana and others. Actually, apart from K Balachander and Bharatiraja in Tamil or Viswanath and Bapu in Telugu, I can’t think of other prominent directors with their own style and craft here.

One exception to this is probably Kannada cinema, since its most prominent names like the Nag duo, Girish Karnad, Puttana Kanagal, BV Karanth and others who also influenced Hindi Cinema’s parallel movement as well.

In the 1980s, Hindi cinema hits the pits that are now happening all over again with aging superstars taking breaks and nepo debuts galore (remember Kunal Goswami? remember Neele Neele Ambar, which failed to launch Manoj Kumar’s son?). The parallel cinema and middle cinema was doing well till 1985 but after 85, I think that movement too dried up with Hukumat of all movies being the biggest Hindi hit of 1987.

From 1985 to 1995, it wasn’t just Malayalam cinema’s undisputed golden age, but also a great time for Tamil and Telugu cinema. Both these industries saw the breakthrough of Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma who really took their cinema to a peak and reached a pan India level of popularity with movies like Raathri or Roja. Both filmmakers even collaborated on Gaayam and Thiruda Thiruda, which must have been an interesting experience.

Tamil cinema also saw Kamal Haasan return from an unsuccessful Hindi stint to deliver Nayagan, Pushpak, Apoorva Sagodhargal and the rest is history. According to this book I read on Tamil music called Raga 2 Rock, Ilaiyaraaja ‘consolidated his greatness’ in this decade too.

The only one, the super one, Superstar Rajinikanth had some of his most iconic mass movies like Annamalai during this period, which are still some of the best masala movies made.

AR Rahman rewrote Indian film music forever in 3 years from 1992-95.

(A discussion about Raaja: The Rule and Rahman: The Rise):

The early 90s saw the rise of Prabhu Deva and Shankar, who were gamechangers in choreography and commercial cinema, first with Gentleman and then Kaadhalan.

I’m not a Tamilian, but ask any non Tamil the names he associates with Tamil cinema and you will find the above individuals, all of whom had a great run in this time.

This is why I believe Tamil Cinema from 1985 to 1995 is its golden age.

In 1995, Mani Ratnam made Bombay which was a blockbuster in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Rajinikanth transformed from star to demigod in Baasha, Kamal and Shankar began working on Indian.

But nothing stays constant, and Hindi cinema too made a major comeback with the earth shattering collections of Hum Aapke Hai Kaun. The trends too visibly began to change with the success of another film released in 1995.

Look at the collections of 1997 releases in my hometown Guntur, a tier 2 Telugu city then and a curious film stands out. This film ran for 100 days like other big hits that year, Pelli Sandadi, and in fact collected more than them. A film called Preminchi Pelladutha, which didn’t strike a bell till I heard this tune:

Yes, a telugu dubbed release of DDLJ in 1997 after its initial 1995 release ran for a 100 days and collected more than big Telugu hits in places like Vijayawada and Guntur. There must have been a similar impact, perhaps lesser, in Chennai as there was flurry of chocolate romances like Kadhal Desam and also Poove Unakkanga, a film that caused us to witness retardations like these:

The urban romcom wave in the late 90s within both Tamil and Telugu cinema was definitely an attempt to follow the trends that Yashraj set.

While Dil Chahta Hai is now seen by vested trade analysts as some sort of vish that came out of samudra mantham, it didn’t really influence films as much as perceived. The most obvious influence of Dil Chahta Hai is mostly limited to the films that Saif did in this period like Hum Tum, which was a much bigger hit than Dil Chahta Hai and it was only after this and Salaam Namaste that even Dharma made Dostana or Wake Up Sid.

There’s also a theory that Gadar’s success was deliberately ignored by the industry and such, but that is not true at all. After Gadar, Anil Sharma got two huge movies in Hero and ATHWS, the first was a smaller hit than Devdas and the second with a huge starcast a massive flop. Sunny Deol’s career went nowhere, and even showman Subhash Ghai was making Taal.

Masala movies, even excellent ones like Khakee were just not doing as well as even mediocre romcoms. As Karan Johar mentioned in his autobiography, though K3G did half of Gadar’s domestic business, the overseas collections were so huge that film makers focused on the NRI audience for returns during 2000-05 and they wanted grand melodrama built around rich people.

Hindi cinema didn’t set the trends as such, but it had another great run from 2005 to 2016 where they managed the balance of content and commerce, most notably through the Aamir Khan films like 3 Idiots, PK and Dangal.

Then a film released on 28 April 2017 and now it’s SS Rajamouli’s world, the rest are just living in it.