The classic face of Indian cinema

Published: August 26, 2012

When I asked my friend Ghazi Salauddin of Geo for a selection of good, relatively recent Indian movies, he came up with four titles Dor, Rang de Basanti, Nobody killed Jessica and … Mr and Mrs Iyer. The last named was the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Indian cinema has come a long way from the days of the establishment of Bombay Talkies in 1934 in Malad, a suburb of Bombay. Now this may be a gross oversimplification, but I believe motion pictures in India can very broadly be divided into three categories. There are the extravaganzas, full of songs, dances, well-endowed heroines, wicked mothers-in-law, unrequited love, the occasional bridegroom who suffers penis erectile dysfunction, a father-in-law who is cheating on his wife, a sexually predatory vacuous landlord and a goonda who, while he indulges in adrenalised aggression, nevertheless has a heart of gold. Sometimes there is also a plot.

Then there are the ‘trendy’ films that tackle themes like homosexuality, the caste system, women’s rights and corruption in high places. And finally, what for want of a better word are referred to as ‘art cinema’. These are the classics of Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shekhar Kapur and Shyam Benegal. The blockbusters are a little hammy but bring in the bucks. The thematic excursions into social problems are controversial but interesting. And the ‘art’ films? So far as I am concerned — they can hold their own against any of the European, American or Japanese classics.

I avoid those movies which feature one of the machismo tribe in the male lead. Some of their films are panoramically bereft of any moment of anticipation and the script often consists of a loosely strung, gaudy collection of paste clichés, truisms and trite tourist facts. It has now become standard fare for one of these males to take off his shirt at least once in every film, flex his biceps, pose in profile and look for all the world as the chap who is now going to solve the problems of Southern Sudan. And for one of those seductive sirens to step out of a river in a moment of abandon, her face glowing with sanctified lecherousness, her wet sari clinging to a figure which would make the Nato troops in Kabul want to take the next flight to Mumbai.

For years, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi held the fort and kept the flag of the Indian new wave fluttering in the breeze. Now, I have to admit that I have in the fullness of time acquired an unabashed fondness for the warm, sultry beauty and acting ability of Nandita Das, and for the lovely Konkona Sen Sharma who simply glitters with insight. I also have considerable admiration for that poet of the silver screen Deepa Mehta, whose trilogy Earth, Fire and Water is an important landmark in the history of Indian film; and Aparna Sen for her Mr and Mrs Iyer, a poignant story of an unrequited love with its brief moments of ecstasy and romance and exhilarating photography.

Back in sunny Pakistan, Shoaib Mansoor has been making waves and his films will be discussed for many years. Khuda key Liye and Bol are truly remarkable films. Hopefully, another one is in the pipeline. But I believe the most notable director of parallel cinema in Pakistan was Jamil Dehlvi. His first picture was the provocative 1976 black-and-white quickie Towers of Silence. Like his second film Blood of Hussain, it was a revolt against all forms of repression, political as well as religious.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Toticalling
    Aug 26, 2012 - 10:26PM

    It is true that bollywood has come a long way since last 70 years. But if you look closely, come to the conclusion that one thing that has not improved is choice of stories. It has to be English guy to come to India and make great films. Gandhi was one example. Only in last years films like Slum Dog millionaire or Hotel Merrygold were extremely successful all over the world.
    Yes, actors are young and you do not see older guys with big bellies playing the hero roles.
    5 things Indian Movies Teach Us:
    1. At Least One Of The Identical Twins Is Born Evil.
    2. While Defusing A Bomb, Do Not Worry, Whichever Wire You Cut. You “Always Choose The Right One”.
    3. A Hero Will Show No Pain, While Getting Beaten Up; But Will Show Pain When A Girl Cleans up his wound.
    4. A Detective Can Solve A Case Only When He Is Suspended From Duty.

    And not to forget:
    5. If You Decide To Start Dancing On The Street, Everyone You Meet Will Know The Steps…


  • Khaksar
    Aug 26, 2012 - 10:35PM

    Well…when it comes to Indian Cinema, I need to say you are in the 90’s. Try something new. Should help you in the next blog.


  • sid
    Aug 26, 2012 - 10:40PM

    Mr and Mrs Iyer is a classic……..But its in English………..Must watchRecommend

  • Parvez
    Aug 26, 2012 - 11:52PM

    Sir, it seemed that just as you were hitting your stride and were about to say something on the state of cinema in Pakistan you decided to shut shop…..but then I suppose its a piece on Indian cinema. You have a good eye because Nandita Das is simply amazing.


  • Aug 27, 2012 - 1:07AM

    There are few newer ones which are instant classic. i recommand highly
    1. Kahani
    2. Stenly ka dabba
    3. Omkara

    And on the lighter side with very good message ( you can call them modern commercial art films)
    1. 3 idiots
    2. well done abba
    3. munna bhai mbbs part 1 and 2


  • gp65
    Aug 27, 2012 - 4:30AM

    Certainly the stereotypical song/dance/fight Indian movies continue to be made and as long as there are people who enjoy them and pay to watch them there is o harm in doing so. But just looking at 2011 there were several movies that cannot be put in that category and had a clear and strong story. Here is a partial list:
    1. Band Baaja Baraat
    2. No one killed Jessiac
    3. Dirty Picture
    4. Bbuddha hoga tera baap
    5. Aarakshan
    6. Rockstar
    7. Desi Boyz
    8. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
    9. Ra One


  • nomi
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:35AM

    Who is going to write a good piece on The Plagiarised Face of Indian Cinema.


  • Funny guy10
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:50AM

    I thought Japanese wife was a great movie.


  • Raj Kafir
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:53AM

    My two cents are:
    1) Bheja Fry
    2) Lanka
    3) Satya
    You wont repent buying or renting these “hutt ke” movies.


  • John B
    Aug 27, 2012 - 8:47AM

    The author is trying to make a point and all of you are missing it.

    He is using Indian Cinema as an euphemism and he is saying: India cinema has moved on and boldly addressing social issues in main stream media with success while PAK is left behind since 1976.

    Cinema is an euphemism for the theme of the article.


  • gp65
    Aug 27, 2012 - 2:56PM

    @nomi: “Who is going to write a good piece on The Plagiarised Face of Indian Cinema.”

    Why don’t you write the piece yourself and vent your spleen against India?


  • Aug 27, 2012 - 3:08PM

    Indian softpower on the display here. Hollywood maybe big all over the World, except in India. The Indian Film Industry has to now adopt the Technical advances Hollywood has pioneered in. That is the next big step.

    There are a lot of stories to be told from India. Mahabharata, Ramayana can be done on the lines of the level of execution of Lord of the Rings, for example.

    I don’t know why Indian cinema is hesitating.


  • 1984
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:41PM

    This author also made the same mistake which is common among North Indians and those outside India

    Equate Bollywood as Indian Cinema

    India has 15 official languages.And most of them have a distinct film industry

    Yes,Bollywood is popular because of the population of Hindi speaking people in India.But,if you look closely the regional cinemas have more content than Bollywood in terms of quality.

    Some of the prominent ones are Bengali,Malayali,Tamil and Marathi movies.No wonder,they dominate the National awards almost every year because their relative anonymity gives the directors to experiment more.

    Once I had a debate with a north Indian friend of mine who remarked that South Indian movies are full of pot bellied heroes doing logic defying stunts and loud songs. I made him watch a few movies and he did conclude that South Cinema experiments on diverse topics compared to Bollywood


  • nomi
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:51PM


    Oh! getting touchy are we?

    Typical delusional indian. Not your fault buddy. Many of your cinematic classics are nothing but blatant plagiarism. Admit it or try defending the indefensible.


  • ethicalman
    Aug 27, 2012 - 8:32PM

    Mr and Mrs Iyer is such an overrated film..actually in India you get a national award as soon you portray Muslims as victims and Hindus the aggresors..that’s what happened with this film and it got national award. and there are many other films 100 times better then this..

    here’s my few fav.

    Udaan (2011)
    Omkara (2007)
    Black Friday (2007)
    Satya (1999)
    Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003)
    Parineeta (2005)
    Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006)
    Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008)
    Dasvidaniya (2008)
    Bheja Fry (2007)
    Shool (1999)

  • Indian Wisdom
    Aug 27, 2012 - 8:37PM

    agreed 100%. Response better than the article!!!


  • gp65
    Aug 28, 2012 - 2:32AM

    @nomi: “Oh! getting touchy are we?
    Typical delusional indian. Not your fault buddy. Many of your cinematic classics are nothing but blatant plagiarism. Admit it or try defending the indefensible”

    There is no reason for me to defend Bollywood. Are some songs and even movie ideas”borrowed” as they are referred to euphemistically? Ofcourse. It was not this fact but the fact that your comments anytime it comes to India take on a mean tone. This is surprising because most of your comments on subjects directly related to Pakistan are well balanced.

    If you see above Totcalling has parodied the typical song and dance Bollywood fare. I had a good laugh and I even recommended the post. So I guess it is not the specific content that I was responding to but the tone – and not just in this post but in others too where I wrote detailed responses to you which ET chose to filter.


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