Bollywood is good at churning out dramas that Western audiences find routinely unwatchable. Even many within India, especially the young weaned on the recent export of world cinema, have become leery of the word ‘drama.’ And yet, one of the chief pleasures of Hindi cinema is the very drama that the so-called informed viewers find cheesy. By that logic, even Shakespeare would sound corny today. Author and Bard expert Jonathan Gil Harris likes to say that if “Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for Bollywood.” In an essay for The Hindu, Harris draws a link between the Bard’s masala style of writing, with its dramatic twists and turns and tragedy followed quickly by comedy and Bollywood’s masala movies with their own special ingredients of drama, humour, emotions and all the spicy embellishments that make Hindi cinema both distinct from the rest of its Western counterparts and much-mocked. In Bollywood, there’s also the historical tendency to turn drama into melodrama. But, when it works, it works wonders. Mother India, which finds a spot in our list of 10 dramas to watch in your lifetime, is a shining example of the kind of kitschy melodrama that Indians of certain vintage loved and still do. Here’s a long-suffering, ordinary village woman, played with masterful force-of-nature resolve by Nargis (astonishingly, she was all of 28) who went on to notch up an iconic imagery and became, over time, a symbol of the typical Indian woman.
Whether you find it regressive or progressive, relevant or redundant, Mother India is the mother of all melodramas. Made in 1957, Hindi cinema’s very own 1939, Mehboob Khan’s weepie stars Nargis, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar. 1957 was the golden age, if there ever was one. The annus mirabillis ushered in many trends. It gave us songs, dialogues, stars, moments and memories that still haunt us. For example, it was 1957’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha that saved Shammi Kapoor from an agonising also-ran status endured by a later-generation Kapoor like Rajiv Kapoor. The same year, V. Shantaram made his reformist classic Do Aakhen Barah Haath, Dilip Kumar tested (and perfected) his Bhojpuri in Naya Daur, Dev Anand had two enduring musical hits in Paying Guest and Nau Do Gyarah and who can forget Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, from whose poetic pessimism a whole generation of filmmakers have quenched their creative thirst? Ask Shyam Benegal, Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra or Imtiaz Ali. The Guardian’s Philip French, a legendary critic, dubbed Mother India as the “relentlessly upbeat tractor-musicals of the Soviet cinema that Stalin so much admired.” No wonder, Nehruvian-era stars like Nargis and Raj Kapoor enjoyed great popularity in Soviet Russia.
If Mother India gave us the matriarch, whose strong imagery would later impact the entire career of Salim-Javed (Deewaar, most notably, with Nirupa Roy ultimately shooting her son Vijay played by Amitabh Bachchan, has shades of Mother India), Mughal-E-Azam (1960) evoked the patriarchal personification, with Prithviraj Kapoor as a powerful father figure obsessed with controlling the twin destinies of his love-struck son (Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim) and the Mughal kingdom of Hindustan. The comparison may not be fair, but it’s intriguingly worth drawing a parallel. Mother India explores the tortured relationship between mother and son, whereas Mughal-E-Azam narrates a difficult father-son tale. Both figureheads in the two films, namely Nargis and Prithviraj Kapoor, undergo moral dilemma, torn between larger social/national duty and personal conflict as parents. Nargis as the impoverished village mother and Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar represent the ultimate top and bottom of society and though deified in their own way, never shall the twain meet. And if they do, like in the case of Anarkali’s poor mother who begs for her daughter’s life, the divide is so huge that it’s not simply unbridgeable but impossible. Mother India belongs to the genre of family saga, while Mughal-E-Azam is historical. Both are dramas and between them lies the history of Hindi cinema. It won’t be wrong to say that what mainstream Bollywood knows about melodrama, a legacy still followed today, it knows from these two films. From the 1960s, we have also included Vijay Anand’s Guide, based on RK Narayan’s novel. Of course, there’s Sholay. It’s not compulsion or peer pressure that forces us to list this curry Western. It’s India’s favourite blockbuster. But just as easily a gift that never stops giving. The exclusion of classics like Bandini, Devdas, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Deewaar are purely the function of the need for brevity and a painfully tough decision.
Together, the following films prove Bollywood’s taste for dramas. It’s a talent we have toned for decades, starting with the Parsi theatre. It goes even further back in time. If one per cent of Hindi cinema is inspired by Shakespeare, 99 per cent of our influences are Mahabharata, Ramayana, and our other ancient texts. The Natyashastra defines rasa and bhava as central to Indian aesthetics and Bollywood, even today, uses all the emotions as outlined in that great drama manual. Whether Bollywood has succeeded in developing drama into a meaningful technique is best left to the audiences to judge.
By most measures, drama is the great Bollywood genre that continues to retain our fascination and serve as a Gogol-like overcoat moment for us. The films listed below are key to our understanding of not just drama but Hindi cinema as a whole. Some of you may have your own personalised interpretations of these films, and it will be a delight to hear from you. For now, enjoy the films, revisit them and have your crack at it. A few of them may appear dated or clumsy but do remember that they were influential in their time. Many, we can attest, have aged well and that’s the mark of any true classic.
Time, as they say, is a good judge of whether a work of art is great or not. Indeed, Mughal-E-Azam, Guide, Shree 420 and plenty others have stood the test of time.
Need we say more?
Salaam Bombay! (1988)
‘Mere sapnon ki randi kab aayegi tu’ – Chillum
Before Satya and Slumdog Millionaire, there was Salaam Bombay! Mira Nair has mentioned Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali as a key influence in her decision to turn filmmaker, and you can see why. Starring real-life street kids with Raghubir Yadav and Nana Patekar, Salaam Bombay! teems with documentary-inspired authenticity and a ear for storytelling. Kids are malleable, they say. Nair moulds them into the resilient force of the movie. Chai Pau (Shafiq Sayed) is a tea seller whose bond with drug addict Chillum (Raghubir Yadav) is explored like a bromance that plays out on Bombay’s streets. With names like Chai Pau and Chillum, you know where they belong: to the lowest of the low. Theirs is a Bombay of pimps and prostitutes. The mercurial Baba’s (Nana Patekar) idea of fun is to dangle his daughter Manju from the balcony. The little one’s fate is hanging in the balance anyway. Manju’s mother Rekha (Anita Kanwar) is a sex worker who wants to keep her away from the profession. She, however, has accepted her fate. But Sola Saal, the young one on the bloc, dreams of an escape route. The ending is as Bombay as it gets (many later Bombay films, including Satya, have taken a leaf out of it) – the Ganesh visarjan, a time of year when the city comes out in hordes to bid the elephant-headed king goodbye. The world of Salaam Bombay! is disturbingly gritty. But even as Nair’s camera goes to the darkest places imaginable, Rekha, Chai Pau and Manju (in a Bande à Part moment) find a note of hope in Bollywood, as they try to shake off their anxieties to the tune of ‘Mera naam chin chin chu.’
‘Ek din tumhi ne kaha tha Raj, ‘Pooja tum apne mein poori ho’ – Pooja
The Mahesh Bhatt of Arth is a very different Mahesh Bhatt from the dream weaver of the ‘90s, the spinner of breezy blockbuster romances and melodious T-Series/Super Cassettes tracks. Critics like to place Arth in Bhatt’s meaningful cinema phase. His affair with Parveen Babi is well-chronicled and Arth is the first and most undiluted of the Babi-inspired Bhatt cottage industry. We know that Arth’s Kulbhushan Kharbanda is a version of Bhatt, a filmmaker on the make. The movie is a real-life account of the director’s disintegrating marriage as he embarks on a self-destructive affair with a film star. The actress here is played by Smita Patil. Shabana Azmi (Pooja) is the suffering wife. In one early scene, Pooja dreams about having a child. In the very next moment, the same desire is expressed by Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil). It’s chilling, this intuition between Pooja and Kavita. Inder (Kharbanda) is torn between the love of these women, both vulnerable and needy. Bhatt plays on the intuition, stealth and fear that infidelity inspires. Like, the phone call that Inder keeps dreading. The story of the maid whose cheating husband beats her runs parallel, as though the director wants us to know that women everywhere suffer violence equally at the hands of men. That’s why it’s liberating to see Pooja find the meaning of herself in the end, as she rebuffs Raj’s (Raj Kiran) love. Does she no more need a man in her life? It’s interesting to note that Bhumika’s (1977) Usha played by Smita Patil is just as explosive and vulnerable as Kavita. Tossed from one man to another in search of love and security, Bhumika’s ending, too, involves the woman’s rejection of a well-meaning man who has a soft corner for her. Despite what she has gone through, she doesn’t mistrust men but knows she will be betrayed. Freedom, loneliness, betrayal, infidelity, the other woman, self-destruction, alcoholism, orphanages (Pooja is brought up in an orphanage, a crucial detail she shares with Bhatt’s wife), a woman with daddy issues and her need for a man (who she can remodel in the image of her father) as a form of security… all these typical Bhattobiographical elements were first put to test in Arth. It’s a film Bhatt will remembered by. And that’s partly because he’s yet to make his best film, on his ultimate affair with U.G Krishnamurti.
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
‘Aisa to aadmi life mein doich time bhaagta hai. Olympic ka race ho, yaa police ka case ho’ – Anthony Gonsalves
Bollywood hits of the 1970s came in all shapes and sizes. But the best ones shared one common trait. With their song and dance, comic subplots, action moments and emotion, they had the right dose of masala. In the case of Amar Akbar Anthony, there was one extra ingredient which you can call a Manmohan Desai special-of-the-day – lost and found. Three brothers separated at childhood grow up as a Hindu, Muslim and Christian and are reunited in a miraculous climax. The year 1977 was politically tumultuous, as Indira Gandhi had declared an Emergency in 1975. And here was a film that sought to give the public a respite from the harsh reality. It stars the biggest names of its era. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays the loveable bootlegger Anthony, was at his prime and gets the author-backed role but not the top billing. Because the film equally belongs to Vinod Khanna’s dignified Amar, Rishi Kapoor’s impish Akbar, the women (Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi and Neetu Singh), Pran as the Westernised gent who happens be the lost father of the abandoned children and the inimitable Jeevan. Those living in Bombay will find special resonance in the Bombaiyya patois spoken by Anthony. AAA is a very Bombay (even, Bandra) film, cosmopolitan to the core without preachy rostrums.
‘Kitne aadmi the’ – Gabbar Singh
Many sometimes mistake Amar Akbar Anthony as a Salim-Javed creation. We can’t blame them because the two-headed writers were nearly ubiquitous in the 1970s. But nobody can confuse Sholay as a film by any other writer. It’s got the SJ stamp on it, just the way a painter immortalises a painting with his signature. More than just a film, Sholay is a myth and perhaps that explains its universal appeal in a nation that worships myths. Against the backdrop of the Spaghetti Western, a mysterious alchemy of Sergio Leone with Indian banditry, Salim-Javed and director Ramesh Sippy set the ultimate bromance between Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai and Dharmendra’s Veeru. Javed Akhtar has said that no other film in history has given us as many memorable characters as Sholay. Accuse him of immodesty, but he’s spot on. Even bit players like Sambha, Kalia, Mausi, Soorma Bhopali, Jailor, Rahim Chacha and Dhanno the mare have achieved pop-culture immortality. Towering over them all is Gabbar Singh, the invincible supervillain eventually nabbed by the vengeful Veeru and turned over to limbless Thakur who nearly smashes him to death before cops close in. Don’t bother with spoiler alerts. The cinema-eating-and-breathing Indians know Sholay like a textbook. We all know Veeru loses Jai due to a wrong turn of the coin and with Gabbar gone, all is quiet on the Western front once again. Which begs the question: who will fill the air with the haunting Morricone mouth organ in Ramgarh?
‘Sirf main hoon’ – Raju
Where would Hindi cinema be without Guide? Naseeruddin Shah has billed it as the greatest Bollywood film ever made. Shah and several Hindi filmmakers who are inspired by director Vijay Anand know that they have a tradition to uphold and much of that tradition comes from Guide. Anand’s distinct style of filmmaking placed emphasis on commercially engaging content and memorable songs and the ingenious ways in which he filmed them keeps him relevant even today. For Guide, the Anand brothers turned to R.K Narayan’s famous novel The Guide. The opening montage says it all. As Raju (a perfectly bouffant Dev Anand) is released from jail, he embarks on a new life that no one knows will lead this small-time hustler towards false sainthood. Vijay Anand captures his star brother walking desolately on tough terrains. As Shailendra’s wry lyrics (‘Dard pe tere koi na tadpa/ Aankh kisi ki na royi’) play to what is easily among S.D Burman’s top masterworks the camera lingers on a kissing couple. A shabby Raju, tired of the miles he has covered (Gulzar’s ‘Kitne kaale kos chale’ won’t be out of place here), rests his feet underneath the park bench. And we haven’t yet talked about Rosie (Waheeda Rehman), Hindi cinema’s original badass. She challenges the stereotypes of what we expect from a Hindi cinema heroine. She leaves her husband to have an affair with Raju and later drops him like a hot potato. Her only true commitment is to the dance. Vijay Anand’s songs give Guide a psychological dimension and work like the characters’ thought bubbles. Waheeda’s dances are so rich and dense that they deserve a film of their own.
‘Mohabbat humne maana zindagi barbad kar deti hai/ Yeh kya kam hai ki marr jaane pe duniya yaad karti hai’ – Anarkali
What to say about Mughal-E-Azam that hasn’t already been said? It’s been decades since K Asif’s labour of love first released, and the movie-going public has not once lost its personal connection with this cultural touchstone. It’s a part of our heritage like any great folklore. Viewed through the long lens of history, the film is, however, more fantasy than history. Did Anarkali exist? Some say her grave lies in Pakistan. The film is essentially the story of this slave girl (Madhubala as Anarkali) who falls in love with Mughal heir Prince Salim (a marvellously poetic and understated Dilip Kumar). Authoritarian Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor, fully justifying his thespian status) objects. He is not against love, but merely a slave to his ideals, as he explains to Anarkali. The ominous clues to the fate of the moony-faced Anarkali are spelt out early on in the terrific Naushad composition “Teri mehfil mein qismat,” a duet between the two greats Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum. This is a musical to beat all musicals. In Mughal-E-Azam, Bollywood achieves its ultimate apotheosis.
Mother India (1957)
‘Main ek aurat hoon. Main beta de sakti hoon, laaj nahi de sakti’ – Radha
If the 1950s is the golden age of Hindi cinema, 1957 is the golden’s age finest hour. A remake of his earlier film Aurat, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India is told in flashback. It’s the story of Radha (Nargis) in a sort of post-Independence agrarian social reality that would have made Gandhi – the champion of village life – uncomfortable. This is not the rural India of Bapu’s dream. It’s a world populated by unscrupulous moneylenders, social oppression and poverty. And pulling the plough through the uneven fields is Nargis, Hindi cinema’s ultimate mother figure. She channels her inner Sita and Durga by turns. In the end, when her wayward son (Sunil Dutt) refuses to get back on track she shoots him, making it immediately clear which side of the fence she is on. A woman’s honour over the blind love for her son any day for her. The climax of Yash Chopra’s Deewaar is an obvious descendant of this famous ending. And that’s just one of the many ways in which Mother India has provided fodder to later Hindi films.
‘Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo yeh duniya’ – Vijay
Guru Dutt’s self-defeatist masterpiece, Pyaasa set the gold standard for the ‘wallowing in self-misery’ genre. It points a finger at the dark unhappiness of relationships and the modern world. With his Christ-like suffering, the rejected poet Vijay’s – ironical name for someone perceived as a social disaster – howl of anguish is best captured in “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai.” All Vijay has for comfort is his poetry and the one person who appreciates it. That happens to be Gulabo, the hooker with a heart. Waheeda Rehman sends a pleasurable shiver down the spine every time she appears on screen as the heartbreakingly attractive Gulabo. It’s hard not to feel affectionate towards Gulabo, and her secret love for her misunderstood “Vijay Babu” whose poetry she refuses to sell at any cost. It’s refreshing to see Guru Dutt regular Johnny Walker puncture the heart of darkness every once in a while with his comic side plot. Like each time, his loyalty to Dutt-Dev Anand school gets paid off with a memorable song. This time, with the champi anthem “Sar jo tera chakraye.” One often wonders who really Pyaasa belongs to – its maker Guru Dutt or wordsmith Sahir Ludhianvi who gives the film its brooding poetic depth. Both were tormented, self-destructive souls who felt ill at ease with the cynical world outside. It’s possible that their combined misanthropy and nihilism made Pyaasa the Picasso of pessimism. Never has sorrow been this sweet and addictive.
Shree 420 (1955)
‘Main na rahoongi, tum na rahoge/ Phir bhi rahengi nishaaniyaan’ – Vidya
If Awaara was a dress rehearsal for Raj Kapoor’s Tramp, in Shree 420, the showman turns into a perfect Indian version of the Chaplinesque little man. As it captures the post-Independence Nehruvian imagination of optimism and innocence, Shree 420 can be thought of as a film that made Raj Kapoor what he is. The stamp of writer KA Abbas’ leftist dream is evident, which Raj Kapoor peppers with kitschy melodrama. RK’s populist touch to Abbas’ realism, Shree 420 is a moral fable that works more often than not. Shankar-Jaikishan’s evergreen songs composed to the poetry of Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri are still late-night radio staples across India. Now, dwell for a moment on the characters’ names – Raj (Kapoor) is a hick, Maya (Nadira) is the vampish illusion, Vidya (Nargis) is conscience and Sonachand the corrupt moneybags. The city becomes a locus of corruption and debauchery but worry not, the Tramp, though briefly under the magical spell of Maya, won’t lose any of his innocence. Even though Maya deploys the saucy “Mudd mudd ke na dekh” to lure Raj, it fails to stab at his socialist heart. Kapoor delivers a rousing spiel in the climax, whose vision and words sound like straight out of KA Abbas’ IPTA notebook. Still, Shree 420 is a very Raj Kapoor film. Like George Bailey in A Wonderful Life, the world of RK would have been a very different one if Shree 420 hadn’t been born. PS: Which tune comes to your mind when you think ‘Bollywood’? For this writer, it’s the signature melody of “Pyaar hua iqraar hua hai.”)
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Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
‘Ab toh jaana hi padega Paro. Ladka ho ya ladki, usse bada hoke yeh na dekhna pade ke uska baap raaste ka ek bikhari hai’ – Shambhu to his pregnant wife
Bimal Roy’s neorealist classic shares a kindred spirit with Mehboob Khan’s Mother India but rekindles Bicycle Thieves. In other ways, it’s almost like a haunting Tolstoyian short story brimming with humanity and an ironical shock ending. Shambhu (Balraj Sahni) is a debt-ridden farmer who, forced to move to the city due to mounting arrears, returns to his village only to find a factory being built on his do bigha land. When he picks a handful of the earth from his own land, he’s accused of stealing it! A tearjerker plot aside, this film is a monument to Balraj Sahni’s understated melodrama. Is it even possible to be as naturalistic and restrained as him and still have the necessary dramatic flourish? Highly educated and a BBC-returned Anglophile, Sahni was a city slicker but managed to get the pulse of a poor farmer right. Sahni redefined Bollywood acting with this method experiment. Much admired even now, it’s heartening to see Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan cite Sahni as an influence. Another Sahni high point is 1961’s Kabuliwala, in which he slips into the role of a Afghani dry fruit seller. Some of you may have heard the song “Aye meri zohrajabeen” at social events, a staple of family gatherings aimed at bringing the old timers to the mic. We are happy to clarify that it’s not shot on Amrish Puri. It’s the good ol’ Balraj Sahni.
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