Woody Allen was in his late 70s when he made Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), two films that would be counted amongst the best in a career spanning over six decades. At 74, Martin Scorsese finally made Silence (2017), an idea that had been a nearly 30-year obsession and one that has already been hailed as a classic.
While the two auteurs seem to have hit a late great phase that not only resembles their definitive decade of influence, the 1970s, but has also rekindled their signature sense of liberation that was missing in some of their recent works, filmmakers of similar age group have no takers in India.
An entire generation of influential filmmakers across popular Hindi cinema from Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai, Mahesh Bhatt, Rahul Rawail, and J P Dutta that came into their own in the 1970s and the 1980s today stand practically jobless, retired, forgotten or out of favour.
It’s not just the audiences that seem to have moved on for these storytellers but even actors, some of whom were given their most challenging roles by this lot. And the ones in the generation that followed—who grew up watching their films—cannot see themselves collaborating with these erstwhile gurus.
What makes the whole thing truly ironical is that the likes of a Ghai, a Bhatt and a Rawail have no significance in a phase where the popular Hindi film template ranging from Badlapur (2015), Raees (2017), Kaabil (2017) to Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) is essentially a throwback to the very cinema that they practically invented.
The 1980s have often been derided as one of the worst phases for popular Hindi cinema. This was a time when the Amitabh Bachchan ‘One-Man-Industry’ blossomed and as a result eclipsed the narrative, the basic scripts, the genres, the supporting cast as well as the comedians and even the music.
One can also blame the themes that were a rage in the mid-1980s, chiefly the south Indian remakes featuring Jeetendra or the action-vendetta multi-starrer as one reason for this dip.
But, despite the fact that when compared with the 1970s and the era between mid-1950s and mid-1960s, the 1980s were a big letdown, it is also true that the 1980s were a unique period, to say the least. This was one of the very few times in the history of Hindi cinema where three or four different generations of filmmakers were making films at the same time. Everyone from Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Kamal Amrohi, Chetan and Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, to Ramesh Sippy, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Brij and then Subhash Ghai, Mahesh Bhatt, Rahul Rawail, J P Dutta had their own markets.
This was also a phase where the middle cinema of Basu Chatterjee, the parallel cinema movement ushered by Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen and later furthered by Shyam Benegal, Govind Nahilani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Sai Paranjpye was creating some its best work. Young masters like Muzzafar Ali, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Prakash Jha and Kundan Shah to name a few were also creating a new film lexicon.
The early 1980s was a period in which a film like Arjun (1985) could co-exist with an Ardha Satya (1983). As a decade, it was one where something as diverse as a Ghulami (1985) and a Damul (1985) and a Sadma(1983) and a Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) found their place under the sun. So could the 1980s of Hindi cinema be the equivalent of the 1970s in Hollywood where a new generation of filmmakers redefined American cinema?
Perhaps it would not be totally incorrect to then imagine that the influence of a Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin and a Sidney Lumet on American cinema to be the same that of Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai, Mahesh Bhatt, Rahul Rawail and J P Dutta on the Hindi cinema narrative.
In many ways the impact that Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) had would be similar to the stimulus that Sippy’s Sholay (1975) proved to be. Ghai’s anti-hero right from Kaalicharan (1976) to Hero (1983) and Rawail’s Arjun (1985) created the Indian avatar of the angst-ridden protagonist that Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) explored. And when it came to the tormented souls across all walks of life, then Bhatt’s characters are akin to the ones that frequented Sidney Lumet’s cinema.
The one major difference between the two groups is the manner in which they responded to a creative crisis or better still, the manner in which they approached their work once the times changed.
Take the instance of Scorsese after the failure of The King of Comedy (1982). The psychological drama where a talk show-obsessed fan Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) kidnaps a real-life talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and hosts a show at gunpoint being was just the kind of subject Scorsese would thrive on. But when it failed he made After Hours (1985) with lesser-known actors, a smaller crew and took a massive pay cut. Scorsese felt the need to push the envelope, go back to his early days and reset his inner creative button. The film might not have made a lot of money but got him to taste blood once again.
In India, the failure of Dacait (1987), a film that was supposed to catapult both Rawail and his hero, Sunny Deol, as also writer Javed Akhtar to even greater heights after Arjun, proved to be too much for Rawail to recover from. He tried to do something different by making a television show, Dharam Yuddh (1988), but when he returned to films the energy was lacking and he ended up making the ‘safe’ kind of films with top stars of the day - Jeevan Ek Sanghursh (1990) with Anil Kapoor, Mast Kalandar (1991) with Dharmendra and Yodha (1991) with Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt.
The one reason why a Martin Scorsese and a Woody Allen still endure is that they have continued to remain relevant with the changing times. Scorsese has more projects in the offing than ever before in his career and Allen has hit a purple patch with Midnight in Paris, a film that became his first-ever $100 million film, fetched him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and Blue Jasmine that literally restored his old glory.
Even today, almost every top star in the world is willing to work for peanuts for either of them and in Allen’s case, his films’ budget rarely goes over $20 million.
In India, one could count Yash Chopra as the only exception, who up until his death at the age of 70 due to complications following dengue, continued to make his kind of films and rarely failed to find an audience. By comparison, the decision to shelve Zameen (1987) that Ramesh Sippy had nearly finished with a cast that included Vinod Khanna, Rajinikanth, Sanjay Dutt, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit haunted the filmmaker. The three films that he made after that (Bhrashtachar in1989, Akayla in1991 and Zamana Deewana in 1995) are leagues below his earlier ones.
In Subhash Ghai’s case, it was his decision to ‘follow’ the trend such as Pardes (1997) post-Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Kisna (2005) after a Lagaan (2002), that became his undoing.
But the real loss was the manner in which Mahesh Bhatt, Rahul Rawail, and J P Dutta ceased to make films.
Three of the most underrated filmmakers in terms of the influence they wielded on the format, Bhatt, Rawail and Dutta’s films created characters and stories that in many ways still continue to define mainstream Hindi cinema. Right from, Arth (1982), Saraansh (1984), Naam (1986), Kaash (1987) to the lesser-frequented Thikana (1987), Bhatt was not only one of the best storytellers of his generation but also a master craftsman who effortlessly infused realism in something as audacious as commercial Hindi cinema.
He could deliver a song-laden romance in Aashiqui (1990) and at the same time make deeply personal television movies such as Janam (1988) or Daddy (1989) but the box office triumphs such as Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin (1991) and Sadak (1991) transformed him into a movie-making monster who spread himself too thin.
By the time he retired, Bhatt’s reputation as a fine storyteller had already been dented. He directed 23 films in seven years between 1992 and 1998 and the joke doing the rounds was that he was incessantly making films only to have more releases to his credit than this father, Nanabhai Bhatt.
Following the critical and commercial success of Arjun, Rahul Rawail had come a long way from being the filmmaker who directed the debuts of star sons such as Kumar Gaurav (Love Story ,1981) and Sunny Deol (Betaab , 1983). At the time of Arjun’s release the industry was looking for a replacement for Bachchan, who had left films for a stint in politics and the manner in which Rawail projected Deol made him a worthy contender along with Anil Kapoor, who had portrayed his version of the ‘angry young man’ in Mashaal (1984) and Meri Jung (1985).
The failure of Dacait also ended popular Hindi cinema’s streak with experimenting with themes. Had Rawail’s Anjaam (1994), perhaps the best of the Shah Rukh Khan ‘anti-hero’ films worked, it would have invigorated him but the lackluster response to the film post-Baazigar (1993) and Darr (1993) somewhere killed Rawail’s spirit.
Very few could merge tradition and modernity as seamlessly as J P Dutta and in just four films beginning with his debut Ghulami and followed by Yateem (1988), Batwara (1989) and Hathyar (1989) he reinvented the narrative when it came to themes that were time immemorial in Hindi cinema. Set in the hinterlands Ghulami, Yateem and Batwara might appear to be cut from the same fabric but Dutta embedded many layers such as caste, class, incest as well as the eternal battle between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ and turned things around.
In Hathyar he added a new dimension to his signature narrative by shifting the location to a city. With Sanjay Dutt as the leading man, he created one of the best films of the 1980s. Once he made Border (1997) Dutta entered a whole new league where he was practically peerless but the mistake that he had made with Kshatriya (1993), colossal failure about two warring Rajput clans, where he mistook grandeur for great storytelling, became a constant feature in his subsequent releases Refugee (2000) and LOC: Kargil (2003).
The last film that Bhatt directed was Zakhm (1998) and both Rawail and Dutta had their last significant release almost a decade ago with Jo Bole So Nihaal (2005) and Umrao Jaan (2006) respectively.
The more time passes since these iconic filmmakers went MIA, the more the narrative of the present generation of storytellers begins to resemble that of yesteryear.
Today, remakes of films from the 1970s and the 1980s get mega-budgets and the biggest stars of the day. Isn’t it strange then that there are hardly any takers for the stories that the ones who made them would still like to tell?
Gautam Chintamani is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ (2014) and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak- The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ (2016)
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