Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry, churning out twice as many films a year as Hollywood and with a bigger audience too. Despite its global reach, it’s still alien to most folk and evokes images of dancing around tree-trunks, navel-gazing (literally), dodgy editing and even dodgier bad guys. But there’s a lot more to it. Modern Bollywood has high production values and budgets to rival Hollywood. But for me, the best of Bollywood lies in its Classics. The late 1940’s to 1960 were known as ‘The Golden Age’. Newly independent India was churning with creativity and it found its outlet in the country’s rapidly developing film industry. The exciting lives of the stars of this new world added spice to the lives of many ordinary people, who saw the big screen as an escape from the grind of day-to-day poverty.
Stars such as the phenomenal Dilip Kumar and handsome Raj Kapoor charmed with their raffish presence, and sirens like Madhubala and Vyjayanthimala stole hearts. Many great epics were born at this time. Barsaat (1949) set the tone with grand sets and dramatic cinematography and was a precursor to films such as the opulent Mughal-e-Azam (1960) which cost $3 million to make at a time when the average Bollywood film came in at under $200,000. At the same time, Bollywood developed an interest in bringing social realism to the masses with films such as Pyaasa (1957), made by the profoundly talented but tragic Guru Dutt and Footpath (1953) directed by Zia Sarhadi (my grand uncle!). Despite drawing great critical acclaim both in India and overseas, they were not box office successes. Indian audiences wanted escape, not reality.
Later on, the 60’s and 70’s also gave birth to some profound work – Aradhana (1969) documents the struggles of an unmarried mother – a taboo in India even these days. And blockbusters like Sholay (1975), managed to perfectly deliver the classic formula of great screenplay, lavish dance numbers, loveable good guys and one-dimensional villains – the staple of what came to be known as the ‘Masala Movie’.
Classic Bollywood was never about technical brilliance. The editing is done on a butchers block, most of them go on way too long and often the characterisation is clichéd and one-dimensional. What they lack in technical prowess though, they make up in sheer charm. Despite their many flaws, the films are powerfully emotive – I defy you to sit through one and not find yourself laughing, crying and, quite possibly, standing up and dancing.
So get some friends together, grab a DVD, and get ready to enter a new world.