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Monday, May 23, 2022

The story of India, told by its cinema: How the hopeful 1950s were braver than the shrill 2020s

The 1950s, in many ways, were braver times and the 2020s are still gathering the courage to make cinema that can represent us to future generations.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: January 26, 2022 2:52:14 pm
bollywoodCinema has changed a lot since the 1950s, but is it for the better?

Cinema, like most art forms, represents society, and thus, filmmakers can be labeled as historians who chronicle their surroundings and wrap it in a time capsule that can be accessed for eons. The debate of whether cinema influences our surroundings, or our reality impacts what we see in films has never reached a definitive conclusion and perhaps, like most art, this will be debated for a long time. However, from what we have seen in Hindi cinema in the last few decades, one can say that the film world and the real world often mirror each other.

The films of the 1950s, when India was a hopeful new nation, are distinctly different than the films that we have seen in the recent past – their issues, their subjects and even their attitude reflects the times they were made in. Subjects that entertained the public of the 1950s won’t work in 2022, but the humility that was often at display in those days seemed to have been replaced with pride and anger.

Soon after India became a republic, there was a sense of optimism among the masses. The independence we had gained after a long struggle, was meant to be the turning point for us. This was supposed to be a new dawn so when things did not appear as utopian as some might have imagined, filmmakers took a step back and re-evaluated the circumstances. Social problems like unemployment, lack of education, how industrialisation was replacing manual labour, the wealth disparity – these were big concerns and films of the 1950s addressed them, often disguised them in song and dance, and a story that did not come across as preachy.

Shree 420 Raj Kapoor’s onscreen avatar of the 1950s connected with the common man.

The year after India became a republic, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara became an international success. On the surface, the film was a love story that questioned if one’s inherent nature could be overpowered by peers, but the film’s subliminal message spoke about poverty and class differences. The film examined that choosing the morally right path isn’t always easy for someone who is struggling with something as basic as putting food on table. The importance of education was also the central message of the 1954 film Boot Polish that followed two preteen kids who live on the streets. That film also ended with a hopeful message that seemed to convey to the government that protecting children is equal to protecting our nation’s future.

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The subject of unemployment, highlighting those who are struggling despite being well educated, was frequently seen in films like Pyaasa and Shree 420, as they also spoke about the growing wealth disparity. Despite the important and difficult issues that these films tackled, it was all wrapped up as entertainment and had hope at their heart. Filmmakers portrayed the real-life issues as they saw them, questioned the ones in power about basic necessities, but were consistently hopeful that the next chapter of our country’s development would change the course of the nation.

For instance – Naya Daur, which could seem like a story of two friends who are torn as they love the same women, can also be seen as a story of man vs machine. The uneducated masses of the village are scared that the introduction of machines will take away their livelihood. After showcasing both arguments, director BR Chopra concluded that there has to be a middle path, a path where technology can help in the progress of the nation, but also includes the big chunk of the population that relies on manual labour. Almost ten years after independence, the optimism for a better future continued. And this optimism was consistently accompanied by a humble question to the government, ‘When will things get better?’

dilip kumar Dilip Kumar’s Shankar ignites the spark of revolution in Naya Daur. (Photo: Express Archives)

After questioning the powers-that-be for decades, Indian cinema stopped posing this query in the last few years. Instead, a self-congratulatory tone took over as patriotism and nationalism merged together, which left no space to question the authorities. As Hindi cinema makes more and more biopics, especially on national icons, we seem to be patting our own backs. Mission Mangal, Uri, and many more films that are based on ‘real life’ events highlighting India as a formidable power eliminate any room to raise questions as to how those feats were achieved in the first place. While some of those feats deserve all the recognition they can get, asking the authorities about being transparent is often seen as doubting them. Living in 2022, one could say that life now is better than what it was in the 1950s, but not asking relevant questions in one of the most popular art forms of the era eliminates any chance of a discourse, where two minds could agree to disagree.

In the last decade, nationalism in Hindi films has been translated as cops disbursing their own version of justice, without bothering with due course of law. Despite the many real-life cases where police brutality has been questioned, cinema has played up the men in khaki as their new heroes, especially when they dole out vigilante justice. Resorting to violence to get justice or to get heard has been a common motif in many of the films we have seen in the recent past. The events in Ram Madhvani’s Dhamaka are triggered because a daily wage employee cannot find the right platform to convey his grievances. In Mom, Sridevi’s last film, her character turns into a vigilante to punish rapists. In a fictional world where even cops disregard law and order, why would a common man adhere to it?

sooryavanshi When the most popular Hindi film franchise boasts of cops that don’t abide by law and order, what does it say about us?

Films like Bell Bottom, War, and many others where India is shown fighting an external threat often has the same enemy, but what about that threat that doesn’t come from our immediate neighbours in the West? In Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, a unique film in the current landscape, the filmmaker questions not just the system but the social disregard for it. Taking it a step further, Amit Masurkar’s Newton talks about the loopholes of the system and how the truth of a situation cannot be determined by individual circumstances.

Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy effectively communicated that the gap between the rich and poor is so wide that people on either side can’t fathom the scale of that spectrum. The subject of wealth disparity, which has been a recurring theme in our films, isn’t seen as commonly anymore, but that is not because it does not exist.

Cinema has vastly changed in the past seven decades, but storytelling as a basic tool hasn’t changed all that much. The 1950s, in many ways, were braver times and the 2020s are still gathering the courage to make cinema that can represent us to future generations.

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