10 classics of Indian cinema, decade by decade

Sant Tukaram, the biopic of the devotee of Vishu.

Sant Tukaram, the biopic of the devotee of Vishu.

Prem Sanyas/The Light of Asia 
(Franz Osten, 1925)
Among the few silent films that remain are three Indo-German co-productions that predate the arrival of the German technicians and directors who worked in the Bombay Talkies studio in the 1930s. The script was adapted from Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem The Light of Asia (1861), while the opening credits proclaim it was “Shown by Royal Command at Windsor Castle, April 27 1926” and that it benefited greatly from help offered by the Maharaja of Jaipur. The film shows Westerners touring India (Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi) who come to Bodh Gaya, the site of Gautam Buddha’s Enlightenment. An old man tells the story of the life of the Buddha, from his royal childhood to his death, allowing the film?makers to juxtapose Orientalist fantasies alongside fascinating, if anachronistic, images of Rajasthan in the 1920s.

Sant Tukaram
(Sheikh Fattelal and Vishnupant Govind Damle, 1936, Marathi)
The biopic of Sant Tukaram (1568-1650), a devotee of Vishnu as Vitthal, is an extraordinary film. Both plot and film move through several worlds — of earthly power, as the nationalist hero Chatrapati Shivaji visits the saint after hearing about his devotion; of religion, where Tuka’s simple devotion to God is contrasted with a venal Brahmin who visits a courtesan; and of domesticity where his down-to-earth wife — never happier than when washing her beloved buffalo, which represents the family’s wealth — cannot understand her husband, even though she loves him.

(Mehboob Khan, 1949)
Three of the great stars of Hindi film act in a love triangle, as Neeta (Nargis) appears to be in love with Dilip (Dilip Kumar), but is engaged to Rajan (Raj Kapoor). Nargis and Kapoor comprised one of the most popular couples in the 1950s but in this film she is shown to be in love with Dilip and struggling with her sense of duty. Her Westernised lifestyle and dress are in part to blame and the film ends with her in prison after shooting Dilip dead, declaring: “Foreign flowers cannot flourish on Indian soil.” Andaz has songs by the “Nightingale of India”, Lata Mangeshkar, who has sung for heroines for more than seven decades.

(Guru Dutt, 1957)
The 1950s is the hardest decade from which to pick a film — featuring the classics of Raj Kapoor (Awara, Shree 420), Bimal Roy (Madhumati) and Mehboob Khan (Aan, Mother India). Guru Dutt’s melodramatic Pyaasa or “the desirous one” is extraordinary, a film that draws on all the features of a mainstream movie to achieve a high aesthetic, from the beautiful photography of the Christ like tormented poet, the beauty of the streetgirl (Waheeda Rehman) and the wonderful music with some of the great Sahir Ludhianvi’s best lyrics. This was also the decade that India’s greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, made his first film, Pather Panchali (1955).

Mughal-e Azam
(K Asif, 1960)
The story of Akbar, the Great Mughal (reign 1556-1605), has been told countless times in India and several film versions were made. This one concerns his son Salim (later Emperor Jahangir), played by Dilip Kumar, who falls in love with a slave girl, Anarkali. In order to win her hand, Salim leads a military campaign against his father and is condemned to death, but it is Anarkali who pays the price and is buried alive — though in this version she escapes. While most of the film is shot in black-and-white, the songs are in colour, including the spectacular dance in the hall of mirrors. The narration is by “India” — an attempt to show that, even after the Partition of 1947, Hindus and Muslims could live together.

(Ramesh Sippy, 1975)
In the 1970s the box office was dominated by Amitabh Bachchan as the Angry Young Man, a character written by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar — the most popular of these films remains Sholay. The story has echoes of spaghetti westerns, and Bachchan’s Jai will remind you of a classic Clint Eastwood character. The film’s surprise was that the villain, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), almost stole the show with his memorable dialogue, including “Kitne aadmi the?” (“How many men were there?”) before committing another stylishly heinous atrocity (it is a very violent film). Sholay showed that you can take any genre and make it into a Hindi film, with all the twists. 

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro
(Kundan Shah, 1983)
The 1980s are thought of as Hindi cinema’s lost decade, but much of the best “parallel” or “middle” cinema was made in these years. ?Such films were more realistic than mainstream Hindi cinema, and appealed to the middle classes, given their sensitive heroes and lively heroines and the absence of big song-and-dance numbers (although usually they include music). Shyam Benegal has been making such films since the 1970s and is one of parallel cinema’s greatest exponents. Actors Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Amol Palekar all emerged from parallel cinema, though mainstream stars also appeared, notably Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra. 

Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge
(Aditya Chopra, 1995)
The Indian economy was deregulated in 1991 and, after a hesitant start, society changed in ways that were previously unimaginable. The internet, satellite TV and the cellphone helped to usher in a new youth culture that linked the metropolitan cities to each other and to overseas cities with Indian populations, notably New York and London. DDLJ presents a traditional romance in which the rich boy and poorer girl are Londoners who fall in love on an InterRail holiday in Europe. The girl has to marry an Indian man chosen by her traditional father. The British Asian hero convinces the girl’s family that he is the right husband because he loves her and understands Indian traditions. DDLJ confirmed Shah Rukh Khan as a superstar and its precocious young director, Aditya Chopra, as heir to his father, the late Yash Chopra, one of the towering figures of the Hindi film industry in the past 60 years.

Lage Raho Munnabhai
(Rajkumar Hirani, 2006)
Lovable rogue Munnabhai is one of the great characters of Hindi cinema, a thug who has a heart of gold. In his first film, Munnabhai MBBS, Munna fails to live up to his parents’ dreams of becoming a doctor, so has to force his way into medical school, where his “magic hugs” give patients the happiness that medicine cannot provide. In his second film, he fakes being a Gandhi scholar in order to win over his beloved. His unorthodox appropriation of the Mahatma’s tactics leads to wrongs being put right as well as his realisation that Gandhi is his inner conscience. 

Gangs of Wasseypur I and II
(Anurag Kashyap, 2012)Anurag Kashyap cast himself as an enfant terrible, subverting a complacent, clichéd Bollywood, yet its all-encompassing, unavoidable embrace meant he and his offbeat cinema inevitably became part of it. Kashyap now enjoys a godfather role helping other aspirants. After some uneven films, and the excellent Black Friday about the Mumbai blasts of 1993, Kashyap proved his mettle with this five-and-a-half hour film, split in two for release. The exemplary casting of Manoj Bajpai, Tigmanshu Dhulia (himself a director) and the new superstar of indie cinema, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, works well alongside a strong screenplay and the sharp dialogue of a Muslim gangster epic set amid the coal mines of Bihar, India’s poorest state. Its depictions of relationships between men and women; their dreams of Bollywood; as well as its flashes of comedy and stark cruelty make this a remarkable film. — Rachel Dwyer © Guardian News & Media 2013

Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her Bollywood’s India will be published by Reaktion early next year

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