Why I love the comforts of old Hindi cinema

There’s this delightful, irreverent new literary journal called AntiSerious. Which, as its name suggests, is all about not being serious. Not being serious about politics, society and its morals, the economy, literature, or whatever. When AntiSerious were starting up, they asked me if I’d like to contribute an article. They left the choice of subject matter to me, and I (gleefully, with a whoop of joy you could’ve heard in Chinchpokli) picked old Hindi cinema. (Yes, well. What did you expect?)

What emerged was this, a brief (really, compared to the usual length of my posts) essay on what it is I like about old Hindi cinema. What makes the 50s and 60s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food for me.

Click here to read on:

http://www.antiserious.com/2015/01/20/love-comforts-old-hindi-cinema/

… or, because AntiSerious has shown a tendency to inexplicably vanish, here is the entire article:

Jaan-pehchaan ho, Jeena aasaan ho

Some years back, a smart, snazzy music-and-DVD store opened in a mall I used to frequent. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go check out the DVDs on display.

I’m quietly flipping through the titles when a bright-eyed and earnest staffer appears.

‘Can I help you, ma’am?’

Quick smile. ‘Uh, no, thanks. Just looking—’

‘Which movie, ma’am?’

I heave a sigh. And here I was hoping I’d be left alone in what I know will be almost certain disappointment. But perhaps not? This is a big store. There are lots of DVDs. Hope springs eternal. ‘Prem Patra?’ I venture. ‘1962. Or Boyfriend? 1961, Shammi Kapoor.’

There’s a moment of bewilderment, of deer in the headlights, of what the eff did you just say. The smile comes back on in a jiffy, but it’s wavering at the edges now. ‘I’ll look, ma’am.’ Then, just as he’s turning to go, ‘Anything else, ma’am?’

I could say Mother India or Guide, which they’ll probably have, but I’ve seen both, and like neither. ‘Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai,’ I say.

He comes back five minutes later, just as I’ve come to the conclusion that he cannot have found any of the films I wanted. But—hallelujah!—he actually does have one DVD in his hand. Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai, sure enough. Not the 1961 Dev Anand-Asha Parekh film I’d wanted, but some frightful Salman Khan one from the 1990s. I shudder and run away.

Yup. I’m that eccentric who doesn’t think the 1980s are ‘classic’ (they couldn’t be, even a century from now). I’m the one who dwells in the past, who’s totally fascinated by old cinema. And when I say ‘old’, I mean anything that ends at about 1970. ‘Why this fascination with that period?’ ask friends.

Till now, my usual response has been to rave about the music, to wax eloquent about the subtlety and sensitivity of Bimal Roy films; about Madhubala’s gorgeousness and Shammi Kapoor’s handsomeness. I shut up when people get that glazed look over the eyes.

Time to come up with a more comprehensive answer. Why, after all, this fascination?

The conclusion: several factors. There is the eye candy. The fabulous music. Lots of brilliantly scripted films, from crime thrillers like Teesri Manzil and CID to dramas like Pyaasa and Parakh.

But what really makes the films of the 50s and 60s so very endearing to me, is that they’re the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. They give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, and invariably leave me thinking – even if it’s a film I’m watching for the first time – that this is an old friend, familiar and likeable and with no nasty surprises lying in wait.

Perhaps I should illustrate that with some examples.

Let’s say you’re watching an old Hindi film. Chances are you’ll sooner or later come across a baby (usually the heir to a throne, a zamindari or at least an eye-poppingly immense fortune). If someone, within the first half-hour of the film, gives the child a tattoo, has him/her photographed, teaches him/her a unique song, or gives him/her a distinctive piece of jewellery (a taaveez, preferably), you can bet the child will be lost, to be brought up by passing strangers who disappear with the kid for the next 15 or 20 years (never 14, never 19: always a round figure).

You also can assume that the child:

(a) will grow up unaware of his or her heritage;
(b) in the course of his/her perambulations through life, will meet, again and again, people who (unknown to this person or them) are actually a long-lost parent or sibling or (if the child, before being lost, was old enough to have a childhood sweetheart) said sweetheart.
(c) will have instant chemistry with the people in question; and the chemistry will be appropriate to the actual relationship. A long-lost brother and sister, meeting each other as strangers will feel only fraternal, not romantic. If, on the other hand, they’re unrelated and were once childhood sweethearts (or promised to each other by interfering parents), then the chemistry will be romantic.

Similarly, a long-lost parent will evoke deep affection and respect, and make the long-lost offspring imagine that Ma or Pitaji would have been just like this. Ditto for the old lady or gentleman (who will be white-haired and doddering, even when probably not more than 50): they will always feel a maternal or paternal fondness for the young stranger.

Talking about long-lost mothers, you can be sure that if Nirupa Roy plays a filmi mum, she’ll misplace a child sometime, somehow. In the odd film here or there, she might deliberately do a switcheroo with her baby – but for its welfare. More usual, though, a storm, train wreck, fair (not necessarily the Kumbh; even a busy village fair will suffice) or black-hearted goons will be responsible. Many years later, she – now keeping body and soul together by stitching clothes – will be reunited with her offspring. (Note: if Leela Chitnis plays mum, she’ll have also contracted some fell disease in the meantime).

Lost-and-found isn’t essential for some smart predictions to be possible, though. For instance, if someone close to the hero or heroine – sibling, best friend, romantic interest, or the protagonist himself/herself – is an upholder of the law (preferably a lawyer, but a cop will do), you know what’s coming: murder, with the hero or heroine being accused.

It’s the same with medicine. If an important character is a doctor, you can be pretty sure someone is going to get mighty sick. Always, also, the disease they’ll contract – or the accidental injury they’ll receive – will be in keeping with the doc’s specialisation. An ophthalmologist will have someone dear go blind, rather than suffer a stroke or have a heart attack.

Then there’s the delicious comfort of film romance. Barring the one-off film where an unmarried heroine gets pregnant (and – a minor digression – invariably after just one spell of indiscretion, on a rainy night) – you can be sure everything will be very chaste. These are films you could take your kiddies to watch without wondering if there’ll be embarrassing snogging. There’s nothing remotely embarrassing (though possibly misleading, for the young) about two dahlias bobbing together.

And, if you want to perpetuate the illusion that romantic love’s for keeps, Hindi cinema manages brilliantly. If two people fall in love, that love weathers all storms: villains (both the Pran/Prem Chopra type, and the disapproving patriarch); accidents; war; misunderstandings; forced marriages to other people – but the lovers will come together eventually. If the odds are stacked too high against them in this life, they’ll be united in the next, with pastel-tinted mist swirling about as they float dreamily off, singing their song in echoing voices.

Not that every film has all of this. There are aberrations, films without piano songs at parties. Or films like the songless Kanoon or Ittefaq. Or Dhool ka Phool, in which two lovers are audacious enough to fall in love with other people after having a child out of wedlock. Or Haqeeqat, where just about everybody dies (it is a war film, but when has that ever stopped Hindi cinema?). Or – no, wait. I’ve run out of examples.

I admit it: I like things to follow set patterns. I like to be able to guess what’s going to happen, and am very smug about being proved right. I love the comfort of stories playing out the way they should in a perfect, innocent, sweet world where right always triumphs, no matter in how implausible or improbable a way.

In other words, I love the world of old Hindi cinema.

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32 thoughts on “Why I love the comforts of old Hindi cinema

    • Thank you, Karthik! Glad you liked the article. :-) and, oh, how could I have forgotten Ramu Kaka and Janaki Kaki?! Anyway, food for thought – for another article? On standard characters? The vamp who must die protecting the hero. The heroine’s best friend who must fall for the hero’s sidekick. And more…

        • Oh, yes. How could I have forgotten? Of course I remember that post now. Well, here’s an idea for another one: dialogues Hindi cinema couldn’t have done without. “Hey parvardigaar, tune mujhe yeh din dikhaane se pehle utha kyon nahin liya?” and “Main tumhaare bachche ki maa banne waali hoon and stuff like that.

  1. :) Great read, Madhu. Needless to say, I agree with you (you knew that already!) – especially about old HIndi cinema being comfort food. And a resounding ‘YES’ to the films of the 80s being classics (not!).

    I’d that experience once with a friend, who’s only a couple of years younger than me – we were discussing songs and I mentioned how I loved ‘old Hindi songs’ and he nodded his head sagely and agreed how they were ‘so much better’ than the present days’. Then he put on a song from Jaanbaaz to illustrate his example. I could only look at him goggle-eyed. He thought Jab jab teri soorat dekhoon qualified as an ‘old’ Hindi song! *head-meet-desk*

    • LOL! That is horrible, Anu. I can just imagine – how did you keep calm? I don’t think I could have managed it. I would either have gone into a decline or said something cutting.

      • I was his guest in his home at the time. And his wife is a good friend of mine. Or I might just have strangled him. :) I did manage to splutter that when I said ‘old’ Hindi songs, I meant really, really old – as in 50s and 60s. To which both he and his wife replied that they didn’t really care about ‘black &white songs’ which were ‘boring’.

        Now I know not to speak of Hindi songs to them. :)

        • Whew. But I’m curious: are these people about the same age group as us? Because most people our age, if they like Hindi film music, tend to not think of ‘black and white songs’ as boring. I remember, when I was in school, nearly all my friends were mad about old songs. For us, the 50s and 60s ruled, even though our teen years were in the 80s. (Well, it would’ve been impossible to like much of the music of the 80s, but still…)

          • The chap is a couple of years younger than me; I’m assuming his wife is about 4-5 years or so younger. Same generation though, aren’t they? Just that their idea of old music begins with RD, I think. :)

              • oh, i am a teen and still love old songs & movies though my friends are in a ‘mood off’ situation when I start singing or telling them some trivia or a movie story. I am a great fan of Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand. I have induced my interest in 2 of my friends and we enjoy singing a few songs before the teachers enter class and after they leave. A guy also likes to sing old songs just like us but he has a bad luck as we are shy girls. But still we 4(includes the guy) in recess sometimes(read:rarely) gather and have some singing and trivia talks while eating. Old songs and discussions on them can make me less shy. And we 3 gals have great time at school singing all day(when teacher isn’t there).

  2. :-) Fantastic piece, Madhu. Enjoyed reading it.

    ” I like things to follow set patterns….. I love the comfort of stories playing out the way they should in a perfect, innocent, sweet world where right always triumphs, no matter in how implausible or improbable a way.”
    — Needless to say, completely agree with you on this. This is what makes old hindi movies comfort food.

    • Thank you, Harini! But you know – and I know you know – all said and done, even if I poke fun at these standard and sometimes nutty old tropes of old Hindi cinema, the point is I love them. There’s something really so deliciously familiar and comforting about them.

  3. I am all smiles. :) marvelous read indeed! Loved reading those special oh-so-dramatic pieces!

    “Talking about long-lost mothers, you can be sure that if Nirupa Roy plays a filmi mum, she’ll misplace a child sometime, somehow. In the odd film here or there, she might deliberately do a switcheroo with her baby – but for its welfare.”

    Loved the words to describer her. Growing up, I always called Nirupa “Roye” for the obvious reasons. A pillar and Nirpua in the same frame meant she has to cry at any moment. She was the most careless mother who lived up to her reputation in every movie! Similarly, Nasir Hussain was known to have heart attacks depending on which half of the movie he showed up.

    It is indeed comforting to be right most of the times with hindi movies, where you are able to predict things with no chance of failing. Great feeling!

    Wonderful work Madhu. Keep it up!

    • Nirupa Roye! Hehe. That is brilliant – and so appropriate! Thank you for sharing that, Ashish. :-) And yes, Nasir Hussain tugging at his chest and falling backwards with his eyes rolling up in his head is also another of those quintessential must-have-in-a-film scenarios.

      Thank you for the appreciation. I’m glad you liked the post!

      • Loved the comfort food analogy!

        Another observation – what’s up with the fascination with “Bees Saal” in Hindi movies? It’s never 19 or 21 years. Beta Aaj se “Bees Saal” pehle tere pitaji ne aek karz liya tha jise woh aaj tak chuka nahi paaye.. “Bees Saal” pehle kuch gundo ne humara sab sukh chain loot liya tha.. As if no other number carry as much weight? :)

        Also, how a small mustache can make hero (or heroine for that matter) disguise so well that they can fool any smart villain. An absolute classic Hindi movie special!

  4. Agree with almost everything you say. Only the title could be changed to indian Cinema!
    Which takes me to some decades back.cut to the tortoise mosquito coil on screen and the film gets a sepia tinge. beginning of flashback.
    In our hostel days we used to go in hordes to the night show and sometimes just for the heck of it we would chose real horrible films so that there would be less crowd and nobody would be offended by our loud comments …( people who turn up for the night show for such movies would anyhow need to get their heads examined)
    Then the games would begin
    1. If a character was dying whether his/her head would fall to the left or right ( of the screen to avoid any confusion)
    2. If there was a globe in a Police station how many seconds before the Inspector/ DSP/IG twirls it.
    3 How the dream duet would finish.. with flowers coming together or the camera zooming out and up and taking a parabola to the right or the left.
    4. If they show a framed picture of the married couple on the wall duration before the picture gets broken -symbolically or literally.
    5. In the Police sequence above chances of the constable being called 409, 301 or 507. In olden days the Inspector always referred to them as nos.Don’t know why?
    6 Whether Pran would jump off a cliff, shoot himself, slit his throat, or will he let himself taken away by the police silently (last one led to a couple of you cheated moments as we accused the winner of having seen the movie previously)

    Sometimes if our imagination became very fertile we would also bet on the time taken by the heroine who has been kidnapped , gagged , bound and thrown into a cell which would make Cellular Jail in the times of British a picinic place to have a sexy rain drenched duet with the hero. ( This is more true for telugu and tamil films I suppose)

    And all the mandatory dialogues would be hugely cheered
    1. main tere bacche ke…
    2. the equivalents of Khute tera khoon pee jaaoonga
    3. any mention of IPC 302 or when the judge utters tamaam saboot …….. rakte hue… is adaalat… hero ko .. baa izzat riha

    See I am ranting on & on but funny thing was what little crowd was there used to sportively cheer us on. It did help that Professional college students were abit more indulged by society those days especially in a district headquarters town.

    • Oh, and that bit about the framed picture of the couple reminded me… if there was just one person whose framed picture was up on the wall – and if they happened to be elderly – the falling of the picture and the breaking of the glass meant they’d died.

      So much was conveyed through pictures on walls, no. Also baby photo calendars – meant to show someone (the heroine, invariably) was pregnant. :-)

  5. This sure is fun read. Very nicely expressed Madhu. Enjoying the comments too. I was laughing at kayyessee’s comments above. In spite of all the loopholes in the hindi movies, we still watch them, isn’t it. I was watching a song yesterday ” Palkon ke peeche se kya tumne keh daala” and I noticed that these beautifully dressed “village girls” complete with complicated hairdoes of 60s never had any footwear ! The beauty paroles may have shifted to villages, but shoe companies never caught up. They are always running around barefoot. Now why they could not afford chappals/ shoes beats me. Ms. Tagore in this song iis running around in SNOW barefoot !

    BTW, I have to see some movies where Nirupa Roy keeps misplacing her kids. I see this comment, but if don’t recall such a film. I have not watched much 80s or 90s stuff. She was quite a pretty actress and had quite a few khuddar roles in the 50s.

    Growing up, our parents were so strict that you could not be out late in the evening, never mind going out with boys, even talking to boys other than your family was a big no no, yet in the same era movies, the women are having kids out of wedlock all the time. If the person responsible was from out of town, then we were sure that he wasn’t coming back because A. He married some rich girl after returning home ( Dad’s choice ), B. Met with an accident and either died promptly or had amnesia or C. Landed up in jail for a crime he did not commit. He would be let out of course “bees saal baad”.
    And we still keep watching them and having fun with the stories.
    BTW, not recognizing a person just by adding a mooch or a Daari or glasses isn’t in just hindi movies, take our Superman for example, he just needs to wear glasses and nobody knows who he is.

    • Hehe. That’s a good collection of other tropes, Neeru. And I agree with all of them! (Interestingly enough, one of the first stories I wrote as an adult – I never submitted it anywhere, because I realised even then that it was no good) included a Hindi film actress acting as a gaonwaali, and looking so out of place barefoot but otherwise dressed to the nines that she was immediately recognised as not being a local villager. ;-)

      As for Nirupa Roy misplacing children, there’s Chhaya and Aaya Saawan Jhoomke. In Munimji, she switches her son for a rich man’s child, so that her son can grow up wealthy. And the maa of all Nirupa Roy-loses-her-kids stories, Amar Akbar Anthony, where she loses three sons.

      • Thanks for the movie names, I have seen Amar Akbar Anthony but it was such a long time ago, I have forgotten the details. Will catch up on these misplaced kids. Sounds like good entertainment. You should submit your story, you never know. Stephen King threw his script of Carrie in trash only to be saved by his wife ! And turn it into best seller.

        • Wow, I hadn’t known Stephen King had thrown Carrie into the trashcan. That was quite a save, by his wife. In my case, though, I do know that the story was pretty bad. I’ve written enough since then to be able to recognise it as bad. ;-)

  6. I enjoyed your article in the Antiserious…But one thing is that Antiserious is really publishing quality works there . All the best to the hard working people there .

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed my article. And yes, I do like that Antiserious publish quality stuff – yet do not equate ‘quality’ with being ‘literary’, if you know what I mean. They have the sense to realise and appreciate the fact that it can take a lot of talent to write something well in – say – a humorous way.

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