9 November 2010

Bringing Back the Funk

Are our films fixated on the 70s? Or just on that decade's cinematic style? And why the 70s anyway?

This year’s big-ticket Diwali release, Action Replayy, starring Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai, is billed as a “science fiction romantic comedy”. But judging by the posters, on which both stars cavort on a scooter or an ambassador (ooh, retro!), with an abundance of flowers (on vehicle, behind hero’s and heroine’s ears) and a greater abundance of polka dots (on shirts, skirts and background) further signifying the retro-ness of a particular decade, it seems that the filmmakers expect commercial success to ride less on the “science fiction” or the “romantic comedy” part than on the thing at the forefront of their marketing: Bollywood’s ’70s fascination.

The Hindi film industry’s announcement of this love affair with the ’70s goes back to another Diwali release, exactly three years ago: Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), casting Shah Rukh Khan as a junior film artiste in the 1970s. Some might argue that it goes back yet another Diwali, to Farhan Akhtar’s remake of the Bachchan thriller drama Don (2006) — or to Sriram Raghavan’s deliciously ramped-up noir, Johnny Gaddar (2007). Whichever one favours as its starting point, it seems pretty clear that we’re currently in the middle of a full-fledged romance — this year’s love offerings so far have been Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, and — very differently — Abhinav Kashyap’s Dabangg. But more on those later.

First, the obvious question: why the ’70s? Why are the ’70s the decade of choice, the decade that the Hindi film industry in the 2000s seems keenest to recreate? One answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Hindi cinema isn’t the slightest bit interested in conjuring up what the 1970s — in India or elsewhere — were really like. What it is interested in, though, is as flamboyant a recreation as possible of what it retrospectively identifies as the cinematic style of that decade — especially the fashion and the music.

The Hindi cinema of the 1970s provides, for some reason, the cinematic ancestry that today’s directors wish to claim as their own. A reason often provided in interviews is that these were the films that today’s directors grew up on — so that even an otherwise English-speaking, deeply PLU Farhan Akhtar (who once said in an interview that he didn’t know what “chamkeele” meant until his father Javed put it in the lyrics of Dil Chahta Hai) reminisces about watching the super-cheesy Don over and over as a child. But there is more to it, I think, than a simple generational coincidence.

The ’50s and early ’60s are at too great a distance, the ’80s and much of the ’90s have been dismissed as distasteful and violent by today’s more urbane and sanitised standards. The 1970s, then, remain as the awkward but endearing dehati caterpillar past, which the slick, globalised, glittering creature that’s 2010 Bollywood is able to look back on fondly.

Within that broad spectrum, different films seek to do very different things. Farhan Akhtar may remake Don, but he is far from recreating cheesiness. If anything, Akhtar’s revamping is self-conscious, stylish and contemporary. In an odd way, Akhtar’s Don fits better within the larger circuit of Bollywood nostalgia — the drawing room-ification of once rambunctious film poster art, the creation of a “golden age” of “classics” by popular histories, exhibitions and programming ranging from Videocon Flashback to Lata Mangeshkar’s Shraddhanjali recordings, and the opulent, colour-drenched remaking of minimalist B&W “classics” from Devdas and Parineeta to Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam — than does something like Om Shanti Om.

A gloriously over-the-top tribute to every Hindi film cliché there ever was, OSO also put Shah Rukh Khan (in double role!) at the centre of a take on of Subhash Ghai’s 1980 reincarnation drama, Karz. Here, the desire to laugh at ourselves — or rather, at our tradition of romantic melodramas, goes hand in hand with a we-can’t-help-ourselves love of the genre. The same goes for Johnny Gaddar — except with reference to the Vijay Anand crime capers of the ’70s. And Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, while ostensibly telling the tale of real-life Mumbai gangster Haji Mastan, actually reprises a million cinematic retellings of that tale, starting of course with Deewar (1970). Ajay Devgn’s Robin Hoodish gangster, his stylish white shirts, the deliberately overblown dialogue — all of these are intended more to echo the Bachchan films of the ’70s than the ’70s themselves.

The most interesting ’70s tribute, though, is Dabangg, which brings back the hero’s traumatic childhood as explanation for his future cinematic journey — a la Amitabh — and places parental relationships at its core. It also contains a moustachioed hero and a heroine who actually fills out her ghagra-choli. Like the heroes and heroines of the ‘70s, who may have worn outrageous clothes, but who still seemed a little more like us. Perhaps the key to more substantive cinematic nostalgia is to go a little deeper than the surface. As a British Asian album called Bollywood Funk announced as its project back in 2000 — “We have to take it back... to the days before bad lipstick and airbrushing gripped the world of Bollywood and there was another force. The force was funk... Bollywood Funk.”

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist.

Op-ed piece published in the Indian Express, November 5, 2010.

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