The more things change in India, the more they remain same.
We are celebrating the centenary of our film industry. Hundred years is a long time, but perhaps not so long as you think, going by the way things have changed, or not changed. I was a small boy, perhaps five or six years old when I saw my first film. It was a silent movie, in itself a novelty in our village, which had no electricity at the time, and still hasn’t. It was not much of a film, two warriors at each other’s throats, swords glinting in the sun, and of course, a bit of blood and also a lot of dancing in between. When one of the fighter jumped from the upper floor of his palace into the marble fountain below, there was such a big splash, I ran away from the theatre, a crude thing of bamboos and coconut palm mats, and had to be brought back and held down until the show was over.
This was nearly 80 years ago and I often wonder whether things have changed much since then, content-wise. The heroes are, of course, better dressed, and the heroines rarely so, which would have shocked my grandmother, who was very particular about such things. But the heroes still keep chasing the heroines, but they do it now in five-star hotels, often in Switzerland, where they sing there blues away on the peaks of Matterhorn, but the boys and girls are, of course, different, Deepika Padukone instead of Durga Khote or Nalini Jaywant, and one of the Khans instead of Shahu Modak or Raj Kapoor. The first film I saw featured Master Vinayak, a tubby little Marathi actor, who carried swords bigger than himself, but fought until his last breath or his rival’s last breath, and we all clapped vigorously until the curtains came down and we were shooed out of the small theatre. Not much has changed since then, here or anywhere else.
I was not much of a film aficionado until I saw my first foreign film in London, a year or so after the end of the last war. London was not much of a place at the time, having been battered into a pulp by Hitler’s planes during the war. We took shelter in the dark theatres, some of them as battered as the city itself, much like rats in sewers, and stayed there one film after another, since nobody bothered to shoo us out. I saw my first European film, Bicycle Thieves, in a tiny cinema in Oxford Street, and was aghast to find that there were only half a dozen viewers including myself. A month or two later I saw Rome Open City by Ruberto Rosselini, more of a documentary, than a proper picture, which broke up Ingrid Bergman’s marriage and changed the history of film industry in Europe.
In India, of course, we have progressed, if that in the right word, from Alam Ara, the first talkies to Mother India and through a thousand more films to Sholay, which, 40 years after it was first screened, is still as a fresh flower in the desert. I saw Sholay during the emergency, hiding from Indira Gandhi’s police in the dark caverns of Connaught Place and Janpath, not far from Gandhi’s residence. I wonder what she would have done had she discovered I was sitting in the dark watching Dharmendra make love to Hema Malini, both of whom later sat in the Parliament, though by that time the good lady was no more.
But I am digressing. In what way is Sholay different from the films that preceded it, except in technical terms? The story was more or less the same as that of the first picture I saw in my village, except that the villain is more villainous and carries a fast gun instead of a sword. Hema Malini drives a buggy while the heroine in the first film was too coy for words. There are, of course, more fireworks, and the outdoor scenes take your breath away, but, as I said at the start, things remain the same, though how you show them varies from time to time.
But forget Bicycle Thieves and forget Rosselini; give me an Indian picture anytime. I don’t go out much nowadays and see them in cinemas, where they ought to be seen, but every Hindi picture I see, often not very clearly, takes me back nearly a hundred years, a long time for a young country like ours, and an old fogey like me!