Those who frequent this blog have probably figured out by now that I have a soft spot (a very soft spot) for Muslim socials. So much so that I will watch just about any Muslim social out there, even if it features people who aren’t among my favourites. Even if it has a fairly regressive theme, and even if I end up not agreeing with half the things in the film. So, when I come across a Muslim social that stars some of my favourite actors (Sunil Dutt? Meena Kumari? Rehman? Prithviraj Kapoor? Rajendra Nath? Check, check, check), has lyrics by my favourite lyricist (Sahir Ludhianvi), and had its songs composed by one of my favourite music directors (Madan Mohan—and how appropriate, too, for a film called Ghazal to be scored by the Ghazalon ka Shahzaada): to not watch this would be a crime, I thought.
The story begins by introducing us to the protagonist, Ejaz (Sunil Dutt), a revolutionary poet and publisher of a revolutionary rag. Revolution, according to this film’s definition of it, seems to consist of rebelling against the traditional shaayari and fasting that is invariably an integral part of a Muslim social. Ejaz, while he is traditional enough to always be dressed in achkan and pyjama, is rebellious enough to steal halwa-puri from the kitchen and stuff his face even during the roza.
…much to the chagrin and amused disapproval of his little sister Qausar (Nazima, at her bubbly best).
And, when Ejaz receives an invitation to participate in a mushaira being hosted by Nawab Bakar Ali Khan (Prithviraj Kapoor) at his haveli, Ejaz informs the nawab’s son, Dr Mehmood Ali Khan (Rajendra Nath), who’s come with the invitation, that he refuses to recite namby-pamby stuff like ghazals. No, sir, since he’s a revolutionary, he believes in free verse, and free verse it will be. Mehmood is too good-natured to demur, so the invitation stands.
Less than ten minutes into the film, and Ejaz’s revolution goes flying out the window. Wandering about one day, he overhears a woman singing a ghazal. This (though Ejaz, since he cannot see her, is unaware of the fact) is Naaz (Meena Kumari), the beautiful daughter of the very same Nawab Bakar Ali, who’s hosting the mushaira Ejaz has promised to be present at. Naaz’s song is so beautiful, her voice so lovely, that Ejaz is entranced.
When Naaz finally signs off, Ejaz goes frantic trying to track her down, even going to the extent of stopping a group of burqa-clad women emerging from a building to ask them whether any of them was the ghazal-singer he’d just heard. But no luck; the women, still all veiled, laugh in his face.
Ejaz is not easily deterred. He continues his quest, and when—a day or so later—a group of (also burqa-ed) women turn up at his office with poems they’ve written, hoping to have them published in his newspaper, he tries to find out if one of them was the singer of the ghazal he’d heard. Again, to no avail; he gets laughed at.
Ejaz, therefore, does the next best thing: he steals part of that ghazal and sings it at Nawab Sahib’s mushaira.
Ejaz does not know (he only hopes), but the lady he’s been looking for all these days is sitting behind the purdah, listening as he passes off what is basically her ghazal, though with some tweaking, as his own. Naaz fumes and frets, succumbs a wee bit when she realises he’s actually plagiarized only the essence of the ghazal, and finally announces to her friends that she’s going to make this arrogant revolutionary poet pay for his presumption.
What follows is rather tedious and boring: Naaz and her friends try to embarrass Ejaz again and again, but in a somewhat half-hearted way (Naaz has, willy-nilly, fallen in love with her aashiq, so her attempts to shame him are merely a farce, a way of trying to save face. Nobody is fooled, not Ejaz, not Naaz’s friends). There is some pretty pointless plotting to have Ejaz meet Naaz (only to have her pass snide remarks and throw his love in his teeth). This, despite the fact that they’ve recited love poems to each other on the telephone and it’s an open secret that she’s in love with him.
All these interludes are accompanied by lots of poetry, both recited and sung. Soon Ejaz (who anyway does not seem to have been interested in revolution all this while), trying to publish Naaz’s poetry in his newspaper, is confronted by his indignant fellow-editors, who ask him what form of revolution this is.
The result is that Ejaz ends up resigning and is now jobless, footloose and fancy-free, and need not waste any more time pretending to work. (He does not appear to suffer the loss of his job: he’s obviously well-heeled enough to not need to work, and being unemployed doesn’t bother his conscience).
Ejaz’s sister Qausar helps him in his attempts to meet Naaz, and in the process, ends up meeting Naaz’s brother, Dr Mehmood. There is (as is usual when Rajendra Nath or others of his ilk—like Mehmood—are teamed up with pretty secondary heroines) instant chemistry between them. This romance, however, is put on the back burner after being sparked off.
We are also introduced to another character to add to the khichri. This is Akhtar (Rehman, in a somewhat odd role; both rakish as well as unscrupulous, as well as a bit of a clown). Akhtar is Naaz’s cousin, a fairly Westernised sort of man (as is seen by his occasional appearance in a suit, and by his preference for cake over halwa or sevaiyaan). He keeps pulling Naaz’s leg, telling her that he’s going to propose to her and make her his bride, and Naaz, knowing he isn’t at all serious, always laughs it off blithely.
All of the efforts of Naaz, Ejaz, Quasar and Mehmood finally pay off, and the two lovebirds (Ejaz and Naaz) are able to spend enough time together singing a love song and looking soulfully into each other’s eyes. Sadly, they pick the wrong time, the wrong place: Naaz’s father, Nawab Bakar Ali Khan, happens to come by just then (what rotten luck!) and sees the duo and hears their duet. He is furious, and drags Naaz home, berating her for having blackened the family’s honour.
And, to drive home the message to the hapless Ejaz too, Nawab Sahib decides to shoot the young man. He grabs two rifles, loads them, and drives off in his car towards Ejaz’s home, yelling curses all the way.
Naaz, seeing her father in such a rage (and with guns, too, baying for her beloved’s blood) races after her father as he’s leaving. She tries frantically to scream, to beg her father to stop—and can’t. Because Naaz has suddenly been, quite literally, struck dumb. She’s gone mute.
And that is actually the most interesting thing that ever happens in this pretty boring film. Naaz, after all, knows that Ejaz was first attracted to her because of her voice—he keeps telling her what a lovely voice she has. Now, with that voice gone, perhaps never to return, can she expect Ejaz to still love her? Or will she be a burden on him? (If you’ve seen sufficient Hindi films of this type—where one of a couple is stricken by an affliction—you can probably guess at what follows).
What I liked about this film:
The general prettiness. Meena Kumari, though not at her best (which, in my opinion, was in the 50s), is still beautiful, and Sunil Dutt is handsome as ever.
And, to complement the visual beauty of this pair, there’s the music. Not, perhaps, Madan Mohan’s best score (ironic, considering this was a film that seemed right up his alley: a film riddled with ghazals), but still. Rang aur noor ki baaraat kise pesh karoon is perhaps the best-known of the songs from this film, but its sister song, Naghma-o-sher ki saugaat kise pesh karoon is lovely, too.
While Sahir Ludhianvi is the lyricist, the story is such that it restricts him to romantic verse, little of it as memorable as some of Sahir’s more revolutionary poetry (thought: Considering Ejaz was supposed to have been a revolutionary poet, this could have been a good opportunity to have him spout some truly hard-hitting poetry, à la Vijay in Pyaasa. An opportunity, sadly, that’s passed up). There is one song, however, that is derived from one of Sahir’s best-known poems: Taj tere liye ek mazhar-e-ulfat… includes sections from Sahir’s famous poem, Taj Mahal.
What I didn’t like:
The sheer not-anything-much-happeningness of it all. I can claim, with all due modesty, to be extremely patient when it comes to watching films (I never fast-forward, for one), and while I may grit my teeth and curse under my breath when there’s too much self-sacrifice or idiocy or slapstick or any of the other things that annoy me, I generally find myself at least entertained.
Not with Ghazal, unfortunately. The dialogues, while all beautifully mellifluous Urdu, are—at least when it comes to Ejaz’s and Naaz’s romance—are all fluff, little substance. The romance, and the progression towards their meeting, is rather pointless and dull, and—as I mentioned earlier—the highlight of the film is when Naaz is struck dumb.
You have been warned.
Thanks a whole lot for the magical music of a bygone era! I loved it!!
Thank you for commenting! (And I’m sorry your comments didn’t appear earlier; WordPress had classified them as spam, and I had to manually retrieve them before I could approve them).
Thank you so much for the beautiful songs!
That’s about the only thing good about this movie. ;-)
That was pretty much it. Dull dull dull despite prettiness all around.
I did kind of like Rehman in this role, he was, as you say, part comic, part villainous, which was different for him.
The whole premise, about Meena losing her voice was simply too silly. The movie needed better writing. The actors do their best, but the story does not help them.
Madan Mohan just comes up with a few good songs, not consistently good as he was usually, Not like Jahanara where one song wins over another, till you are rendered cross eyed trying to pick a favorite.
All that drama about ‘pesh karoon’ really got my goat. Not a movie I could re-watch. Though, like you, I ADORE Muslim socials.
How about doing a post on 10 best Muslim Socials?
A lot of stuff about Ghazal baffled me. For instance, why the entire rigmarole about Ejaz being an inquilaabi poet, when nothing actually came of it (other than his ending up resigning because he fell in love with a woman who sang ghazals – and that’s really flimsy). Plus, Meena Kumari’s losing her voice was – as you say – just plain silly.
I agree wholeheartedly about Jahanara. Each song is so absolutely lovely! Or, still talking of Madan Mohan, though not a Muslim social – Woh Kaun Thi?, which remains a guilty pleasure of mine. I love that movie, warts and all.
How about doing a post on 10 best Muslim Socials?
Ah, Ava. :-) That is a good idea. Will do!
Maybe creative people work best when obstacles are put in their ? “No, no ghazals, no, no, no, ok maybe half a ghazal-like song…”
And Sahir/Madan Mohan come up with these incredible lyrics and music (in the case of MM the last-minute on ghazal in Hanste Zakham.
As you say, this should have been glorious music & in the its just bland & “meh”for me, by the standards of the day, obviously.
“As you say, this should have been glorious music & in the its just bland & “meh”for me, by the standards of the day, obviously.”
Exactly. I was talking to my father about this yesterday, and he said: “It depended a lot on the directors of the films. If a director took a keen interest in the songs, he could encourage the music directors and lyricists to give their best. That’s why the films of directors like Vijay Anand, Bima Roy, Raj Khosla, etc invariably had such good music – because the director refused to accept anything less.” That might have been the case here; the directors of Ghazal were Madan and Ved (I will admit I have no idea who these were), but they may not have been terribly clued into music… perhaps.
Thanks for the warning, though Ghazal never held much of an appeal for me ever. I remember watching the two famous songs of the movie on Ghazal and feeling pretty unmoved by it.
Problem, problem. What do I do? or rather what do I write? You see I have a tough time understanding Urdu and Muslim socials obviously are in that language. It was tough for me to sit through two of my father’s Muslim socials ‘Benazir’ and ‘Shama’, I really wished he was around to explain the meaning of the dialogues. The only Muslim social that I really liked was ‘Bazaar’ with some superb acting by Smita Patil, Suprya Pathak, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh and the songs were wonderful although I admit I do not understand the meaning of the lyrics I still enjoy them.
Back to Ghazal, I saw it long, long ago thanks to Doordarshan and no I did not enjoy it, yes but I am a Madan Mohan fan so of course I did enjoy the songs.
Surprised to see that my comment has appeared as a reply to Harvey’s comment, no I wasn’t replying to his comment, I was commenting on your post.
WordPress and its ways! God knows how that happened.
Oh, how did I miss this comment of yours, Shilpi?! Anyway, as they say: Der aaye, durusth aaye. At least I have seen it, even if late.
You make a good point about the language being a problem. I think it depends to a great extent on the type of Urdu used. Some Muslim socials – for instance, Mere Mehboob or Pakeezah – seem to me to use less Persianised Urdu (in comparison to films like Mughal-e-Azam), so are possibly easier to understand for people who aren’t very conversant with Urdu. But then I’m speaking from the point of view of someone who does understand a fair bit of Urdu, so perhaps I’m not being able to see exactly how difficult it can be…
I haven’t seen Bazaar yet. :-( It was released when I was a child, so my parents didn’t allow me to see it even when it was shown on Doordarshan, and somehow I’ve never got around to it, even though I’ve heard nothing but praise for that film.
You must see it, it is a superb film, it is on You Tube and the songs, well you will enjoy them even more than me because you understand the language. By the way can you tell me what is the meaning of the Urdu word ibrat? You see I have this favourite scene in Mujhe Jeene Do where my father tells Sunil Dutt, tumhe ibrat haasil ho I felt this question is relevant now because your post is about Sunil Dutt and besides you understand Urdu. I have been eager to know the meaning for a long time.
I must admit I didn’t know the meaning of ibrat, either. Had to go and look it up. Apparently, it means a ‘lesson learned as a result of some incident’. That seems to fit the dialogue, but does it fit the situation?
Yes I too guessed given the context it had to mean that but I just wanted to know the exact meaning. Usually the word used under such circumstances is sabak. Of course there is also the fact that in Urdu we have words both from Persian and Arabic, as for instance (if I am not making a mistake) khushamadeed and istaqbaal mean ‘Welcome’ while the former is Persian the latter is Arabic. Gosh there I go again, I love discussing languages. I better stop now, thanks all the same.
Heh! I can understand the love for languages – I love discussing language too, and marvelling over how two languages seemingly worlds apart can actually be very similar. Some years ago in Pondicherry I met a couple who were from Eastern Europe – Slovenia, if I remember correctly. They mentioned that their language is believed to be derived from Sanskrit. Just to test out that theory, my friends and I asked them to say the numbers from 1 to 10 – and the similarity to their Sanskrit equivalents was so uncanny, it convinced us!
Yes I know, our German teacher once said one to ten in Polish just to point out the similarity between Sanskrit and Polish and we were amazed. Like I said better stop now otherwise I will go on listing out words from various languages, ha! ha!
I wish I hadn’t watched it, Harvey! Very avoidable. :-(
Seems to be a wasted opportunity. Not seen this movie but better to watch the songs and be happy..
Absolutely. Actually, don’t even bother watching all the songs…
Watched it for the sake of two M”s (MadanMohan and Meena Kumari) and Rehman too! The song “. Rang aur noor ki baraat kise pesh karoon ” is excellently rendered by Rafi and is the USP of the movie.Just for the sake of melodrama,I wish there was Manoj Kumar/Rajendra Kumar in the lead role,it would made the movie more enjoyable. Rajendra Kumar’s movies suffered from the trope where one of a couple is stricken by an affliction (à la Geet, Arzoo,Saathi and many more like them) and he was quite comfortable in playing roles in Muslim socials……………
“Rajendra Kumar’s movies suffered from the trope where one of a couple is stricken by an affliction”
That’s an interesting observation! Yes, indeed. I hadn’t thought of that. :-) Rajendra Kumar was also certainly very comfortable acting in Muslim socials – I tend to think of Mere Mehboob as his best film; I really like that one.
Saw it some years ago. I remember not disliking it. But it seems it was forgettable. I had to laugh at the highlight of the film being when Meena Kumari was struck dumb :-D
Actually when I saw it I was quite impressed with this angle :-/
A childhood trauma of Meena Kumari. Fear of a dominating loud father in a patriarchal household. I thought there was some moral being brought to light there. At least that’s what I think now. But it may not have been so, my memory of this film is so vague.
What I do remember quite well is Rehman, looking so handsome and being comical too. :-)
“I thought there was some moral being brought to light there.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way, possibly because it’s not really dwelt upon. That incident from her childhood is mentioned as a reason for why this happens to her when she’s traumatised, but then nobody goes into the details of it – nothing of how recovery happened, whether Prithviraj Kapoor’s character realised why and how it had happened in the first place, etc.
But, yes. I agree about Rehman. He was handsome, and I did like that comic turn to his character. A refreshing change from the usual Rehman. :-)
*grin* Like pacifist, I’ve seen the film, and don’t remember disliking it. But obviously, it wasn’t terribly interesting anyway. I know that today, I wouldn’t have the patience (or the time) to sit through what seems to be a completely ‘blah’ film. (That shows you how much I remember it!) But I must confess to liking both Rang aur noor ki baraat and Naghma aur sher ki saugat very, very much.
I know I would definitely not have the patience to sit through the film again. I’d constantly be thinking “There are many other far more entertaining films waiting to be seen! Why waste my time with this?!”
But then, considering I almost never stop a film midway, I just might have ended up watching it anyway…
P.S. Have you seen Noor Mahal? I was tempted to watch it because a friend and I were praising Mere mehboob na jaa the other day. I found the film on Youtube, but someone mentioned in the comments that the only thing good about the movie was that one song. :-(
Thanks a lot for the beautiful review. I have not watched this movie.
Songs are very fine . I wonder always why Rehman fails to make to the top despite the fact that he is one of the most handsome actors of his time.
“I wonder always why Rehman fails to make to the top despite the fact that he is one of the most handsome actors of his time.”
Very true! I always find Rehman not just handsome (even swoonworthy in films like Maghroor and Chhalia!) but also so dignified, and such a good actor. I’ll happily watch a film for Rehman alone.
As I read along your excellent review I marked the movie for watching until I came to your strong warning at the end. I may not watch the movie now, but some aspects strike me very interesting.
Ejaz (Sunil Dutt) showing his rebellious streak by irreverence towards roza – all hell would break loose today. I believe even in those days it would have been considered blasphemous. I am curious to know if it went completely unnoticed.
I had a somewhat wild thought – if we have a genre called ‘Muslim socials’, can we call the rest of the movies ‘Hindu socials’ – with their mandir, bhajan, karva chauth, ladki dekhanaa, kundali matching etc.?
“Even if it has a fairly regressive theme” – this would seem to suggest Muslim socials were more prone to regressive theme. Don’t you think our movies were in general fairly regressive across the board when it came to women? in one of the most sophisticated movies, Andaaz (1949), I recoiled at the message in the end the leftist director sought to convey regarding friendship between genders.
AK, thanks for commenting. And thanks for those interesting little points of discussion you raise!
“I am curious to know if it went completely unnoticed.”
Apparently. Only his sister is shown to be actually seeing him eating. But I’m sure at least Ejaz’s mother must have realised that there was food missing from the kitchen… it would certainly be pretty blasphemous, I suppose. What I don’t really understand here is the need to have that; it serves no purpose, especially as Ejaz’s ‘revolutionism’ doesn’t progress beyond this rather petty form of rebellion.
Hindu socials? Hmm. I suppose. But it’s possibly a question of minority and majority? Since the majority of Hindi films did (and still do) focus on Hindu families, perhaps there’s no real need to classify them separately. Interestingly, Meghnad Desai’s book on Pakeezah has a section on the ‘unreal Lucknow’ which exists in the film – and which, even by the time Pakeezah was made, was gone. In that way, I think the overly ‘Islamicised’ settings of most Muslim socials were probably more fantasy than real… more on that in another post, sometime later!
“this would seem to suggest Muslim socials were more prone to regressive theme.”
No, no. That was not what I meant (I was thinking specifically of Chaudhvin ka Chaand when I wrote that sentence, by the way). I agree that regressiveness was – still is, to a large extent – more the rule than the exception in Hindi cinema, Muslim social or not. Look at Mr & Mrs 55, Suhaagan, Chhoti si Mulaaqat, and so many other films.
“Completely unnoticed” I meant not the characters in the movie, but public at large, the clerics, guardians of morality etc.
Oh, I see. I wonder, too. I guess if one was (is?) wily enough, one might be able to manage. Indians, after all, are so good at jugaad.
I have not seen the film…..but I simply adore Rang aur noor ki baraat and Naghma aur sher ki saugat. In my mind, these are two of Madan Mohan’s best compositions.I listed both of them in my post among top 25 Madan Mohan songs that I like. In my view, both the songs have a particularly endearing quality and stir the soul, especially Rang aur noor ki baraat.
I guess Naghma aur sher fits the bill for a proper ghazal, but Rang aur noor ki baraat is more of a geet than a ghazal. Anyone who can throw more light about this?
Looking at the lyrics of Naghma-o-sher ki saugaat, they certainly seem to fit the rhyme sequence required of a ghazal. I’m not sure what a geet is, technically, though…
I think Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt did very few movies together. So impressed was Meena with Sunil Dutt, the pucca gentleman, that she jokingly told Nargis that she felt like stealing her husband away from her. In Bollywood, actors like Sunil Dutt and Anil Kapoor and Jeetendra are gentlemen actors who did not fall prey to extra marital affairs and stayed committed to their families and careers.This movie, sadly was the beginning of Meena Kumari’s downfall, before she died leaving us with memorable movies like Dushman and Pakeezah and Mere Apne. Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha were lucky that they got a rare opportunity to act with this great actress. It was Gulzar who roped her in to do this movie and this movie, for the Sippys, became a goldmine.
They (Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt) did act in another movie together, which even got Meena Kumari a nomination for the Filmfare Best Actress Award – Main Chup Rahoongi. Not a film I like very much (too melodramatic), but it had some very good songs.
I came looking for this after reading ताज तेरे लिए in Raza Mir’s “Taste of Words”. Your review of the film was MUCH easier to find here than the song was on Youtube – “Rafi”, “ghazal” “Taj mahal” NOT exactly low frequency strings!
I wanted to see if the film was worth watching (seems not), but also to comment on how much this resonated with me:
“ये चमन-ज़ार ये जमुना का किनारा ये महल
ये मुनक़्क़श दर ओ दीवार ये मेहराब ये ताक़
इक शहंशाह ने दौलत का सहारा ले कर
हम ग़रीबों की मोहब्बत का उड़ाया है मज़ाक़ ”
It seems the older I get, the closer I get to Sahir’s view of ये महलों, ये तख़्तों, ये ताजों की दुनिया – so much so that I was disappointed the film’s version was so abridged, omitting some of the more biting sections. My reaction to reading the poem was to reflect on how it matched my own reaction to Versailles, and to learning that the Peacock Throne cost more than the Taj. Thank you for reviewing the film and sparing me the time needed to watch it, I think I’ll cheer myself up by listening to some more cheery Sahir – जिन्हें नाज़ है should do nicely. :)
Sahir’s original version of Taj Mahal is brilliant, isn’t it? He’s so bitingly no-holds-barred. I remember, when Akshay Manwani’s book on Sahir was launched in Delhi, an old gentleman in the audience (if I remember correctly; it might have been someone on the dais) recited pretty much all of it, and I was blown away by the fury and sarcasm in it. That was the first time I encountered the more acerbic parts of the poem – the non-filmi parts – and it renewed (not that that was ever really needed) my admiration for Sahir.
So many great artists, so many mediocre films…
Your keenly perceptive review has captured the true problem of those times, and set me off on this present, extended line of thought (which I thank you in advance for reading through to its finish): how could so many brilliant performers have combined to produce so many mediocre films?
The acting was always outstanding and the music was uniformly amazing, but what about the movies themselves? Hundreds of unremarkable or downright weak productions by your own reckoning, as seen in many of these reviews; and a few that went halfway to greatness, but got stuck in the social rut, let down by either lack of vision or by various forms of indecision, thereby descending into mediocrity.
It deeply interests me as a sociologist to understand the reasons behind why (considering the extraordinary wealth of talent we had at our disposal) we didn’t manage to make many, many more cinematic gems like Do Bigha Zameen, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Mother India, fit to stand with the finest films of the world — because it seems a great opportunity missed, which shall never come again.
Since Bollywood has always had a massive, devoted nation-wide audience and it doesn’t take too much money or technical sophistication to make excellent, meaningful films anyway (as proved by the Bengali auteurs operating in the same period) the responsibility for any systemic mediocrity should logically rest with Hindi cinema’s themes, scripts and direction, methinks.
Bollywood, which had already been active for over 30 years by 1950, seems to have avoided risk in the 50s and 60s and stuck to its own peculiarly filmy tropes while shying away from depicting the nuanced, complex reality of Indian society, history and life “as it is”. In fact many of their themes and messages, with particular reference to the portrayal of women, appear oddly conflicting and regressive even as India was on a uniquely progressive wave after independence. Most of those ventures were actually successful at the box office, which proves that the Bolly formulae worked; but what of their lasting cinematic value?!
Some socially responsible films and even artistic masterpieces did get made in the Golden Age, but “commercial” cinema was the norm — to make the same formulaic fare with minor variations time and time again, day in and day out for close to 30 years, despite having writers and directors of such ability, and actors and actresses of the highest calibre, capable of doing justice to the most demanding roles: was it due to a fear of failure at the box office or rejection by the audience; did the censor board or the government discourage treatments and themes that delved too deep into uncomfortable regions of the national psyche; and did our Indian people really hate reality and innovation in the movies quite so much?
These are not rhetorical but actual questions; please do enlighten me @Dustedoff!
May I clarify that this is not a criticism of Golden Age Bollywood filmmakers (since they did their best and later decades have been much worse) but just an expression of my frustration that they remained so bound by convention and cliché to the very end, when I was naive enough to expect extraordinarily advanced films on a regular basis. That ultimately happened only when the Hindi art film movement got established: parallel cinema. But the golden age actors and actresses could have excelled at anything, and usually got only formula roles. That’s like saying our best batsman made “only 100” runs when we expected 200, because he is so good!
I have really no answer to your questions, because these are questions that baffle me as well. As you rightly point out, it’s not as if talent was missing, or that we didn’t have the resources – in fact, I can think of some very good films that have been made on a shoestring budget – but still the majority of the films we churned out have been pretty bad. My personal opinion tends to be that there were a lot of people out there with money to spend but no good idea of what good cinema should be (and when I talk of ‘good cinema’, I don’t necessarily mean realistic, non-escapist cinema, or parallel cinema or anything of the sort. I mean even well-made entertainers, with good stories and good acting).
Looking at a film like – say – Noormahal – I can’t help but think that it was made by someone who had too much money and just used this film-making venture as a means to use up that money. There was no skill there, no discerning eye, no real love for film-making, just what is called shauq poora karna. I think when there’s no talent and no passion for an art (and this stands true for other arts as well, including writing), it shows in the final product.
This, of course, is a topic that one could debate until the cows go home.
Many thanks for the insights @Dustedoff. I know I can’t expect a cinema to be ahead of its time, but it’s peculiar to begin with. I also found women characters to be extraordinarily passive in many of these films, and even the heroine would lack agency.
That’s disturbing because more modern women characters (even 1970s, I should think) tend to stand up for their rights, even if it’s futile to do so. Men from these movies tend to be passive too, and also gets “given up” by the heroine!
Many central female characters of 50s and 60s abandoned their love over-willingly “for his greater good” which is annoying, since the man is disposed of without his consent, and I found these women emotionally unstable, lacking in self-esteem and ready to flee at the drop of a word so that finding the hidden heroine became the final quest of many a film.
This is related to the legend of Sita. Sacrifice of love becomes a virtue. What would those excellent actresses have been thinking while playing such roles… I suspect that the average real Indian woman of the golden age was much stronger and resilient than these screen heroines, and a lot more sensible. Of course men wrote these scripts so what can you expect!
I was also surprised at all the coincidences that popped up with no attempt to resolve them… Killing off a lover resolves a triangle. A hurried approach to filmmaking is sometimes evident here. Only a few very good films of the era can transcend such limitations through pure force of emotion, and one of those films was Pakeezah.
Besides the fact that men wrote the scripts (though occasionally there were men who wrote delightfully feisty and strong-willed women, too… very rare men), there’s also the fact that the female stars were, for all their success and fame, often too repressed and too deeply victims of patriarchy. A lot of them, including leading stars, had their careers and personal lives largely controlled by parents, husbands, and lovers. For many of those ‘controllers’ the basic premise for taking on a film may have been profit – the monetary angle of things, not how good (or not) the film in question might be.
The hurried approach to film-making… oh, yes. Very true of Hindi cinema in a lot of ways.
You nailed it… Repressed is the key word here. Patriarchal societies have used relentless “morality programming” to brainwash so many women (but also men and marginalised social groups) into being unprotesting or even willing participants in their own victimhood, which was so often distorted in the public (un)consciousness and twisted to look like martyrhood.
Power dynamics is my main interest within sociology. Now I understand that the actresses of yesteryear were only ‘acting out’ their own powerless lives through their passive on-screen characters, which lends poignancy to otherwise ambiguous films like Bhabhi, Benazir and Ghazal:
“the female stars were, for all their success and fame, often too repressed and too deeply victims of patriarchy (…) careers and personal lives largely controlled by parents, husbands, and lovers (…) profit – the monetary angle of things.” So true and makes such sense now, thanks @Dustedoff!
“Power dynamics is my main interest within sociology.”
Very interesting! I always find it so fascinating to see how power politics plays out pretty much everywhere. Humans are really not too different from animals when it comes to exercising power (or submitting to it), but perhaps some animals are more evolved than us when it comes to deciding things with minimal violence.
Exactly what I keep saying @Dustedoff — human beings are biologically animals (although the most intellectually and ethically evolved species, to the best of our knowledge) and it’s just natural that our most basic territorial, competitive or reproductive impulses as a species will come out, especially under stress: ignoring that fact leads to false discourses about ‘right’ behavior, spirituality and humanity where humans are unreasonably elevated above other animals and all transgressions of society’s moral codes get excessively condemned as ‘evil’.
Indian epics give us many good examples of man’s base impulses and beastly actions but Bollywood, especially in the golden age, has tended to be highly moralistic, showing mainly our “higher” selves, the evolved human, though films of later decades finally brought out the beast within.
“Perhaps some animals are more evolved than us when it comes to deciding things with minimal violence” — yes indeed, and that’s the difference between the externally similar “twin” primates the chimpanzee and the bonobo which used to be one species; but after being separated by the Congo river the bonobo evolved into a mostly non – violent matriarchy settling disputes through “love” while chimpanzees remain one of the most violent species in the world, though both share over 98% of their DNA with us humans.
We can be like the bonobo when we want to be but primally and especially when stressed we are like chimpanzee only…
“We can be like the bonobo when we want to be but primally and especially when stressed we are like chimpanzee only…”