Much like literature, art and music – films are also an important tool used by historians to study the evolution of contemporary society. A film is largely similar to a time capsule that can capture the essence and the mindset of the society at the time in which the film was made. Today, there are scholars who specialize in the study of contexts within films and there are even museums, libraries and entire universities that aim at understanding the pulse of a society through its Cinema.
The evolution of the Indian mindset post the year of independence can easily be analyzed through the films that each decade has churned out. Not just in terms of technological advancement, music and fashion – but in terms of the very plot and dialogue of the film.
After gaining independence, cinema was an important tool used by the Indian intelligentsia for the purpose of setting an ideal and a goal. Films of the ‘50s portrayed exactly what the society of the time wanted India to become. However, upon recognizing the flaws inherent in Indian culture, films such as Neecha Nagar and Do Bigha Zameen were made. These films aimed to address the various societal handicaps of India and convey the message that the path towards progress lay in overcoming these obstacles and working together (irrespective of caste and creed) to build a strong nation. The film Neecha Nagar addressed the issue of the class divide in India and introduced the idea of the nobility of the poor (this was one of the very first films that utilized the ‘rich, arrogant industrialist’ and ‘poor, noble peasant’ stereotypes). The film Do Bigha Zameen, despite being a deeply pessimistic film, dealt with the theme of the zamindari system and the resultant loss of land with breathtaking panache. It effectively portrayed the evils of feudalism and the deep sorrow that is experienced by the peasant. Upon analyzing the great films of this decade, one comes to realize the fact that the movies effectively convey the idealism, hopes and budding dreams of a newborn nation.
The next significant era that must be understood while studying the Indian Film Industry is that of the ‘70s. While it is easy to typecast the films of this era into the categories of ‘Zeenat Aman’, ‘RD Burman’ and ‘Flower Power’ – in truth, there is a lot more to the films of this decade, contexts and subtexts are safely buried between very fine lines. The films of this era almost always seem to feature an honest cop in hot pursuit of a suited-booted, pipe smoking villainous drug smuggler (“saara shahar mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai”). The hippie movement of the west was emulated in these movies, the most memorable example of this is the evergreen “Dum Maaro Dum” song. The lyrics of this song hold some very important clues for someone who wants to understand the films of this decade. The line is as follows: “Duniya se humne liya kya? Duniya ne humko diya kya?”
This line tells tales of the disillusionment that Indian society was plagued with at the time. Having started out (right after independence) with great hopes and dreams to build a strong nation, the generation of the 70’s was disheartened to realize that their dreams had gone unfulfilled. The avoidance of social issues in the films of this era also reflects its pessimism.
The ‘80s passed in a whirlwind of horrifically bad fashion and ridiculously poofy hairstyles. The next era of importance is that of the ‘90s. There was a lot more to this era than merely the debuts of the three Khans.
If one compares a film of the early ‘90s to that of the late ‘90s, it would seem that the films belong to entirely different millenniums. The early ‘90s saw Karisma Kapoor (post her much needed eyebrow-wax) gyrating with Govinda to raunchy songs such as “Sarkailiyo Khattiya”. The late ‘90s saw the very same Karisma Kapoor (now with two seperate eyebrows) – looking incredibly svelte and dancing a sophisticated jazz routine with Shah Rukh Khan in Dil To Pagal Hai. It is easy to discern through these films that somewhere in the ‘90s, India had undergone a major economic revolution. With globalization and the opening up of markets, a new class had emerged in India. This class (in the context of film history) is referred to as the multiplex class. Urban, educated and earning very well – the palate of this variety of a movie goer would not be satisfied with the fare that the filmmakers were churning out in order to keep their village audiences happy. Classy and intellectual movies were the need of the hour. Our filmmakers promptly rose to the challenge – and how!
And then, we come to our decade, the decade that has probably made the least amount of impact on Indian movie history. The rise of consumerism is evident in the films of our time – especially with the aggressive marketing and advertising that is done through films. Who can forget the scene in Taal when the hero dares the heroine to drink out of his bottle of Coca Cola. And who sponsored this film? Surprise, surprise, it was Coca Cola!
But what else, the only other development of any interest has been the introduction of item numbers. But what on Earth could this signify? Could it mean that actresses were desperate to earn money? Or could it be that the society broke certain taboos?
If any one tries to argue that a song like “Kaanta Laga” is symbolic of the fact that women in India enjoy a greater sexual freedom – who are they trying to kid?
While looking back at the movies of our decade, I think future historians will be able to draw the following two conclusions. The first being the Indian obsession with money (clearly reflected in the mindless and often unnecessary use of cars and gadgets). The second being the Indian hypocritical love for skin (read item songs). The occasional films such as Taare Zameen Par and Parzania are reassuring as they highlight the fact that there is hope for the future of our film Industry even in the midst of the ongoing ‘dark age’.