By Nasir Ali Hussain
“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Rudyard Kipling.
Without myths we are nothing. I find myself thinking about the past a lot nowadays. It’s not all nostalgia either. Nor are my increased reveries of the past some catharsis or mental self -defense response against difficult times where I find myself alternately feeling sad, angry, proud, broken, devastated and strong.
I often wonder whether the difficulties of recent times are a central reason behind my recent memory trawling.
I find memories of people and events bobbing up in my mind like so much discarded flotsam coming ashore following years under water. I find myself thinking about people and events that I haven’t thought about in years. At the same time I find myself forgetting names, faces and events that played important parts in my life far more recently than these resurfaced memories. I guess this is partly a by-product of getting to that age in life- somewhere between forty and fifty- where we start to seriously assess who and what we are and what we would like to be, see and do with the time we have left, now that we no longer believe that we are going to live forever. And, I also believe that via writing I can reach back in the past and examine and re-evaluate people and events to get a better understanding of not only myself, and the cast of my life, but of life itself. To that end I want to mentally time travel, so to speak, to inculcate the authentic tastes, smells, sights and feelings associated with the time, places and events I wish to reinhabit. YouTube is a great help.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself coming to the conclusion that human beings define themselves, and life itself, in terms of story. The world is held together by great global myths. When the myth or story collapses, so do we. Hence, the need for religion and other types of, at least partly, unsubstantiated belief systems. The myths contained within them visa-vis their stories, rules, order and personalities help us. They serve, more than anything else, to provide us with the definitions we need to navigate ourselves in the world. I think people have an inner need to see their lives as stories within an overarching story that includes all of us. And we want our individual stories to not only be in harmony with that wider narrative, but to be of some significance, a significance that is felt and acknowledged by other people. The more people, the better.
In an earlier piece that I wrote on this blog titled ‘Why I Write’ I explored the possible reasons and motivations that, despite laziness and bouts of ebbing self confidence, compel me to write stories and observational pieces. I wrote about the influence of the books, films and television that drew me to the love of story and imagination and how I in many ways saw my life in literary terms. However, one influence I completely forgot to mention was that of my absorption of Indian cinema, (or Bollywood as it is more popularly known now) when I was a child. I don’t know how I neglected to express the impact those films had on me not just as simple escapism, but also as a primary influence on my psyche and the way in which I viewed the world – as much as any book, film, or television program I have consumed in the English language- is a mystery to me.
I remember going to the Liberty Cinema in the late seventies and being bored and restless because nothing added up to coherence to my young child’s mind. The typical Indian or Pakistani film was almost three hours long. This was way too much for a restless little kid without the requisite language skills to understand what was being said. It was all too vague and the scenes did not seem to connect with each other. The Liberty Cinema opened in Southall, West London in 1970. Such places were havens for Indians and Pakistanis suffering from cultural homesickness. The 1972 Indian Blockbuster ‘Pakeezah’ (the pure one) featuring Meena Kumari- who played a tragic character that was not a long way off from the role she was playing in her own life- played a large part in helping make the cinema an economic success. Queues were large and afterwards people would get a slap up karahi meal from one of the restaurants nearby or get a kebab or mutton tikka in pitta from the iconic Shahi Nan Kebab that opened up on the bridge right opposite Southall Station in 1969. The tiny shack, precariously stood atop the bridge on South Road, was quite a cultural landmark until it was demolished in 2017 due to road work on the bridge.
Meena Kumari, real name Mahjabeen Bano also had a side career as an urdu poet. The Urdu language is a hybrid of Farsi, Hindi and Arabic and for centuries was the factotum language of India. It was the language of learning, the courts and poets in the Indian subcontinent, whether they were Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs. It held the same place as Latin once did in Europe. This abruptly changed with the British Raj and western learning and the English common law system. However, Urdu to a great extent, remains the language of the Indo- Pak intellectual aristocrat. It is still revered as the expressive language of the mind, the mystical and the abstract. For some reason there was a tradition among Muslim poets from the Indian subcontinent to either become heavy drinkers or lovers of opiates. There are three other factors among the poets and writers of the subcontinent that I believe led to these undulgences in drink and drugs among the ‘artistic’ classes.
1. A cultural tendency for excessive self-praise and overblown personal platitudes among the literati.
2 The theatrical self-romaticising tradition of behaving like a lost mystic soul who is adrift in the world and merely an onlooker.
3. The habit of boasting about oneself. A habit that among the artists (and the wealthy) is so normalised that it comes across more as a virtue than an unseemly vice. My belief is that this stems from the habit of mistaking arrogance and ostentation as outward expressions of power, confidence and ‘sophistication’. I see it in the diaspora here in Britain, so deeply are these habits entrenched in the innate psyche.
Another famous twentieth century example of this was the playright and novelist Saadat Hasan Manto. Like many writers and artists of his generation he never emotionally recovered from the partition of India and wrote several short stories about the repercussions of the separation. One of the best of which is Toba Tek Singh; a darkly farcical tale about the division of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim inmates of a Mental Asylum in Lahore into the newly created states of Pakistan and India. It has been twice made into a short film and is available to read online along with Tamasha, a short story based on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre a/k/a Amritsar Massacre which took place on 13th April 1919. Saadat Hasan Manto died aged 42 from cirrhosis of the liver in January 1955.
On his tomb stone he had it written on his self penned epitaph that he took the secret to the mastery of writing the short story with him to his grave. Mahajabeen Bano, a respected poet herself, was unfortunately to prove no exception to this tradition of an esteemed member of the Indian Muslim literati disapearing into a bottle. She was hospitalized and died less than a month after the release of Pakeezah, also from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. She was only 38.
Both the cinema and the small shack, precariously perched on the bridge opposite Southall Station called Shahi Nan kebab, became institutions in the nascent, yet fast growing South East Asian community in West London. Shahi Nan Kebab is still around in 2022, though they have changed location due to building legislation. I highly recommend any carnivore or kebab lover to pay them a visit if they ever happen to be in Southall. The Liberty Cinema however went down for the count in 1980. The advent of home video started a new economy, and places like the Liberty cinema took a tumble and largely became extinct.
And this is where my story comes in. My dad bought our first VCR in 1980. I remember my dad taking it to a relatives house after closing his Royal Sweets shop after 11 o’clock at night and it took ages for him and uncle Bukhari to work out where all the wires went and how to get it to perform. We called every brown skinned person older than us uncle back then, but Bukhari was actually my maternal grandfather’s first cousin. The Akai was a powerful beast. It was a heavy machine with thick, finger-like buttons that pushed the tape with an aggressive spring when you pressed the eject button. My brothers and I used to call it a ‘piano video’. We did not learn how to get it to record stuff off the TV till around 1984. The machine stayed in use long past the lifespan its makers intended for it. It was finally replaced in 1991 by a lighter and more up to date JVC player. By the end of the Akai VHS player’s life every scene looked like it was conducted in a blizzard, where people had premature white hair and even the women had father Christmas beards. I think the machine is somewhere in the attic now.
My dad would often take the video, and us, to Bukhari’s on Friday or Saturday night and we would roll out the blankets on the floor and watch one or two films until around 3 or 4 in the morning. Watching these films, listening to their soundtracks on pre-recorded tapes was a way of fighting homesickness for that first and second wave of immigrants before the community was able to establish real roots and a parallel Indo-Pak British culture emerged, in much the same way as one had emerged with Italian Americans by the end of the first halfof the twentieth century.
It was Bukhari’s two sons, who were four and five years older than me, who really got me into films when they introduced me and my other brothers to the action films of Amitabh Bachchan and his co-stars like Vinod Khanna and Shashi Kapoor. I was as instantly hooked as someone with an addictive personality would be to Marijuana. My favorite films were the all action blockbusters. Here are the names of a few Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) Suhaag (1979) Naseeb (1981) Shaan (1981) which was a James Bond type styled pastiche and Do Aur Do Paanch (1981). The granddaddy of them all was the curry western ‘Sholay.’ (1974). Both Sholay and Shaan films were made by G.P Sippy and both pastiches were hugely successful.
But I was also mesmerized by tearjerkers like Anand (1970) which was about a man who had a lust for life and was able to touch the lives of everybody he met- though nobody except his doctor knows that he is in the last stages of terminal cancer. I remember my mum renting it out from the Indian jeweler in South Harrow market who did a roaring sideline in the cottage industry of bootleg Indian rentals like so many. I was so excited to watch it that night again and then on the way we passed by the house of my mum’s Indian friend Mrs Sharma. She insisted we come in for a quick cup of tea. Once inside she discovered we had rented some films and after a brief negotiation my mum lent her Anand. I was so crushed that I just sat there and within minutes tears had filled up my eyes. I was unable to say anything. I was so embarrassed, but I was also devastated at the thought that such an arbitrary exchange meant that I would not be watching Anand that evening. And I had my heart set on doing just that.…. But Mrs Sharma was a good sort. Before we had left had insisted that we take the tape back. I did not speak a word from the minutes before my tears had started till the time we got back home. The incident was not mentioned then or after.
I became addicted to Indian films. I was soon to discover that I was not the only one. Other first generation kids like me bonded over these films. The common awareness of them became a kind of linguistic short hand with people who had grown up watching them. You knew where you related to each other and what common experiences you most likely had. Along with the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams they helped shore up our ever flagging cultural and racial self esteem in the way they depicted characters and stories that we admired and wanted to identify with. The fight sequences in particular meant a lot to us and we would often want to know how many fights a particular film contained before we urged our parents to rent them out. I remember the film Qurbani from 1980 having the most fights in it- maybe too much. The film was a smash hit on account of it’s disco inspired songs sung by Nazia Hassan. Me and my school chums Anand Mehta and Minesh Patel would act out ‘film fights’ in the park. Our choreographed play fights would have us making the same ‘dishum’ ‘dishum’ sound effects to each punch and kick landed as they played out in our favorite films, albeit without the dizzying action music. Amar Akbar Anthony, Shaan, Don and Naseeb were among our favorites. The best action films of our hero Amitabh Bachchan were all made between 1977 and 1981. Two of the most iconic of which were Zanjeer (1973) and Deewar (1977) because both films cemented his reputation as the semi-tragic anti-hero or ‘angry young man’ of 1970’s Indian cinema.
The bad guys were really despicable and they knew it. There was no cause for them to defend or be corrupted by as you may expect from a villain in a western or James Bond movie. The villains who stood out were played by Prem Chopra, Jeevan and of course Amjad Khan as Gabbar Singh in the ‘curry western’ Sholay which borrowed heavily from Once Upon a Time in The West and The Magnificent Seven. I still have the soundtrack, composed by R.D Burman on vinyl. The opening theme is reminiscent somewhat of Morricone. Whilst the truly good were innocent and decent in a gooey halo around the head way.
I even enjoyed the songs and would record them as they played on cassettes. These movies seemed to have everything a kid wanted from a movie. There was action, catchy songs, a simple, pacy plot that was easy to understand and really beautiful leading ladies. I became keenly aware of female beauty as a result of those leading ladies by the time I had reached the age of ten. Actresses like Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Dimple Kapadia, Poonam Dhillon, Ranjeeta Kaur and so many others were the most beautiful women I had ever seen. They became the template for my idea of female beauty. Blondes and pale skinned women never managed to scale high on my list of aesthetic appreciation thanks to those Bollywood leading ladies.
The only English and American films I really liked to watch at the time, apart from movies for kids, were horrors. In the Autumn of 1981 BBC2 started a horror double bill on Friday nights. They would first show an old black and white classic and then a more recent color movie from the late 60’s and early 70’s. The films were usually Hammer and Amicus productions, but I also remember watching The Ghoul (1975) which though produced by hammer stalwart Freddie Francies and starring Peter Cushing, was a Tyburn production. I have an older brother by seven years and there were also Uncle Bukhari’s two sons ever present. They were older than me by four and five years and at the time I thought they were the coolest dudes on the planet. Their interests, as if by osmosis, automatically became my interests. If they liked Two Tone and Electro music, Star Wars, Grease and bollywood films and classic horror- then so would I. At that age, those peers who are older than you have such an immense influence on you if they allow you to enter their circle that you almost fanatically devote yourself to the things that they like and endorse. Old horror films acquired a legendary status in my mind. I eagerly waited all through Friday to watch them on the black and white TV upstairs in my older brother’s room in which the three of us brothers slept. Though I believe the first horror film I ever saw was Dracula A.D 1972 at Uncle Bukhari’s house with my brothers and his two sons. It was on LWT (London Weekend television).
I discovered Indian horror films around the same time. The first Indian horror film I ever saw was the creepy vampire flick ‘Bhayanak’ (Terrifying) (1979) the next was Phir Wohi Raat (Again That Night) Jaani Dushman (Mortal Enemy) and an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde called Chehre pe Chehra (A Face Over a Face). Others followed. This would all have been between 1981 and 1984. The best by far was Purana Mandhir (The Old Temple) directed by the Indian Horror auteurs The Ramsay Brothers in 1984. Indian horror films at the time tended to have poor effects, but this was offset by incredible atmosphere and visual strength. The actors never hammed up their performances and the directors never stooped to campishness.
I saw Phir Wohi Raat in 1981. My dad’s friend Uncle Parwez lent it to us along with a few other VHS tapes of Indian films. The visuals and creepy set pieces scared the daylights out of me. Phir Wohi Raat was for a time the scariest film I had ever seen; until it was eclipsed by The Amityville Horror, partly thanks to its eerie opening theme by Lalo Schiffren. The psychotic mad aunt (played with relish by Shashi Kala) who lived in the attic of a remote mansion came into my mind whenever I had to use the bathroom at night as our bathroom door had a window above it just like the room where the ‘pagal aunty’ or Mad Aunt was kept . The film featured Indian cinemas’ first ‘superstar’ Rajesh Khanna in the lead role. Kim was the leading lady, and love interest, whilst the director Danny Denzonpa (who was also her real life boyfriend at the tine) featured in an anchoring role. It was a kind of thriller, whodunnit mixed in with some horror tropes. Indian films always got the atmospherics right. They still do. Kim in the tradition of most Indian actresses was a real looker. She only appeared two films as far as I am aware. The other being Naseeb (Destiny) and then kind of became the lady who vanished, a bit like Fenella Fielding. My lust for great storytelling, or to be more accurate, storytelling that had me spellbound, alongside my fixation on films that made me scared to sit alone in an empty room when it was dark were wonderfully syncretised via this wonderful medium of Indian films. The term Bollywood didn’t exist then.
There were also some films that I enjoyed that were pure drama with no action in them at all. The arthouse films of Satyajit Ray were for the most part way too mature for me at the time and designed for more sophisticated audiences. I highly recommend his historical drama Satranj Ke Kheladi (The Chess Players) 1977 and Junoon (Passion) also 1977. It was adapted from the short story ‘A flight of Pigeons’ by Ruskin Bond and directed by Shyam Benegal, another arthouse director. It was partly financed by Shashi Kapoor, who also starred in it along with his wife Jennifer Kendal- the sister of Suzy Kendal from the Goodlife, Nafisa Ali, Naseerudin Shah and Tom Alter. The subject of both films dealt with the British Raj. The first with the British takeover of Oudh and the second concerned The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. I saw both these films when I was around fifteen; and therefore more able to better understand and appreciate them.
One film which stuck out, even when I was a child of 11 was Sadma (Trauma) from 1983. It was a Hindi remake of a Tamil film and blew me away when I saw it in 1983. It is an arty, diligently made film. Sadma features the South Indian Tamil actors Kamal Hasan and Sridevi as the male and female leads. They are both regarded as two of the premier actors of Indian cinema. The plot concerned a young woman who after having been in a car accident suffers from amnesia and regresses back to the age of a child. Kamal Hasan plays the kindly school teacher who takes her in. The climatic scene where she has recovered and regained her identity and as a result fails to recognise him as he pleads with her to recognise him as she is sat on the train that will take her away from his life forever is heartbreaking and a true highlight of Indian cinema. Viewing it again recently in preparation for this piece has not changed my opinion of it in the way that I have changed my opinions on most of the action films I have described. Phir Wohi Raat in particular I now find as something that could only appeal to the unsophisticated mind of someone of the age I was at the time I saw it. Sridevi died in 2018 from accidental drowning.
Pakistani cinema of the same time period of the 1970’s and 1980’s was incredibly poor in comparison. Most of the productions coming out of Pakistan at the time were pitiful affairs. So bad in fact, that they were ‘good’, if you know what I mean. You got to witness close to two and a half hours of over the top melodrama that was anything but mellow. There was always an inordinate amount of shouting and posturing by big bellied men in curly wigs that often concealed bald domes being lionised by women with too much make-up on. The men always seemed cool at the affection offered, which was a far cry from how such things played out in real life out in Pakistan. There was funny organ music scoring the ‘tense’ moments with sudden stabs of Hammond organ worthy of Jon Lord and Vincent Crane. All the while the actors did their level best to keep their onscreen emotions whacked up to 11, pushing plots that were implausible, even to the tender mind of a ten year old. Yep, they were comedy gold for reasons totally unintended by the entire cast and crew. I would enjoy them. I would also marvel and wonder, even as a child, at the IQ levels of the intended audience. Saying that there were, however, some exceptions. The comedies often featured some moments of brilliance- brilliance that was often improvised on the spot. And Pakistani cinema, in the 1960’s through to the mid 1970’s, did produce one comedy genius in the shape of Munawar Zareef. He was an incredible comedy actor who just seemed to be one of those people with ‘funny bones’. He was that rare thing in cinema, certainly South East Asian cinema. The comedian who also moonlighted as the leading man. Much of his best moments were clearly ad-libbed. His only problem was that classic problem of the Indian artist- the whisky bottle. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in Lahore in 1976 at the age of 36. For the most part Pakistani cinema at the time was a complete escapist fantasy featuring excruciatingly serious heavy-set men wearing wigs and mustaches; who tended to shout rather than speak their lines. Though Muhammad Ali was said to have been a fan of the films of the Pakistani action hero Sultan Rahi, whose arch nemesis was almost always the super vilanous Mustafa Qureshi.
Films, like novels, can never escape the time and cultural milieu they come out of. They always tell us something about the culture and collective psyche from whichever country and culture it arises from. Even the really far fetched stuff tells us something about the people that they are produced and packaged for. All Indian films until the last ten years or so had a sense of ‘exaggeration’. This was in everything, whether it be character, mood, tune, physical appearance and of course heightened states of emotion. Where one can argue, with some weight of reason, that where French cinema most excels is in the psychology of the characters, British cinema in its handling of suspense and American cinema in action, the heartbeat of cinema from the Indian subcontinent is melodrama or heightened emotion. In other words- pure escapism. Indian cinema has never been a mirror of society.
Historically speaking the uses and purposes of film and media have been manifold. Some may say that in the Western world, one of the functions of cinema has been to spread contagion and not just to inspire and entertain. For illustrative examples, think of the continuum of cowboys and Indian movies churned out by Hollywood during the John Wayne era, or the war films made by Ealing studios in the 1940s and 50s. Or Gabriel Over the White House (1933) with Walter Huston. Think of the curtailment and mandates over film in countries with totalitarian regimes. The same cannot be said of the role of film in other parts of the world. Knowing and understanding the history, cultural climate and emotional and intellectual temperature of any given environment is important to understanding what kind of films would be popular there. In other words, ‘what atmosphere are we dealing with? What is the value system?’
On the Indian subcontinent popular media has functioned in a very different way. This in my opinion is owing to the fact that the films there were being produced for a very different kind of society than that in which a film like Citizen Kane would have been released. The Indian subcontinent was and is a place with very different cultural norms, values and dos and don’ts to the western world. One main difference is the idea of how democracy functions. Not only in the political sense, but also in the personal freedoms and social democratisation of one’s social life. Something, that in the social sense at least, we take for granted in the Western world. The relative power and liberty of the individual over the making of many of the key personal decisions of his or her life. Now, where it could be argued that where The West is ruled, if only in theory alone, by politics- the East on the other hand has always been ruled by ‘power’. This is both in the political and social sense. In The West young people meet, go out, fall in love and decide to be together by a process that precludes the assistance, and in some cases approval, of family and third parties. In the Middle East and South-East Asia such things are for most people still totally unthinkable. There is no such a thing as a girl saying to her parents ‘that is my boyfriend’ or a boy saying ‘I’m moving in with so and so into a new flat.’ You would be lucky to even see a married couple walking through the street hand in hand. In the East individual identity has almost always been subsumed within the collective of the wider identities of the family, caste, clan and tribal units. These are all delineations in which the concept of ‘honor’ has always been the fulcrum on which the various spokes of the cultures in question have operated. The ‘honor’ code is based on two things. Firstly, the control the family has on it’s womenfolk and secondly your standing in the community based on the aforementioned principle. Marriages are arranged and you marry the person selected for you if you don’t want to stir up any trouble and risk getting ostracized- or the target of an honor killing. Social freedoms on the Indian subcontinent are nothing like we know them to be in the Western World. There is no romance before marriage and you often can end up marrying a near stranger. In fact, marriages where the couple has in some way managed to decide entirely for themselves are actually known as ‘love marriages.’
As such, the very human desire to feel and indulge in romantic love has almost always been entirely forbidden. The nuclear family and social democracy whereby you can go out and find romantic love on your own without serious repercussions and ramifications is not traditionally a part of the fabric of that culture. The mental fabric is cut very differently on the Subcontinent and as such the media was from the offing designed to cater to a very different cultural mindset to what we know in The West. Romantic poetry concerning the idea of the beloved in the east was almost always of the unrequited kind or about a platonic friendship with a best friend or about God.
Therefore, whether by chance or design, Indian cinema from it’s very beginning, became a crucial way in which to manage, placate and perhaps even sedate the masses. Most, if not all of whom are fated to live in a social environment where you simply are not in a position to make the choices that most of us we take for granted. Things like free mixing between genders and freedom of choice over whom you can marry are and have always been curtailed to the pointof near non existence. And with it go a lot of other personal freedoms such as freedom of movement, as you go about your way in an environment where someone else is always making the key decisions over the life of another. The film industry therefore inadvertently became a convenient modus in which to let people live out the wildly romantic love they yearned for- albeit vicariously- in an exciting dreamlike state where the realities and responsibilities of such relationships were unfelt and no one got hurt. Nobody’s honour got tarnished. I always found it interesting that Indian and Pakistani films featured romantic plots that the general public loved to see on the big screen or on the video tapes playing on their TV’s; and yet had the same kind of situation played out in real life blood would almost definitely been spilled to save the ‘honor and good name of the family’. Therefore Bollywood became a miracle worker serving up vicarious life experiences to order. Images, stories and song, so fantastical and yet so needed and appreciated due to the heavy social repression intrinsic to the culture. The films gave a synthetic taste to those never destined to escape the custom of arranged marriages. A custom which to our western sensibilities would be unthinkable. A practice that could only be seen as a cruel tyranny based on an irrational honor culture based solely on the control over the lives of the females in the family. Understanding these dynamics helps us see how the theater became the ‘theater of the mind’ in a very different way to what we know of in The Western World. It is my belief that cinema can and does mean, at least to some extent, different things to different people depending on cultural milieu and what we may term ‘circumstances of life.’ Cultural context is important here, because it is the framework, far greater than any creed or belief by which we codify and frame our understanding of what we believe is the right and wrong, proper and improper ways in which to live in the world. And it’s not just those who want to know what it feels like to meet a stranger, fall wildly in love and lose your head that Bollywood output is aimed at.
In a world where there is a huge disparity in wealth and education; and where a significant number of people eke out their lives on the poverty line with little time for escape and recreation Bollywood has served as a wonderful escape. An escape into a magical vista where anyone, rich or poor can be a Prince or Princess- for a while. A world where people break out into song and dance every half an hour in picturesque places. Losing yourself in these films for 3 hours for the coolie, rickshaw driver and humble labourer would be like Lucy and Edmund going through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Also, due to the need to appease and entertain a large viewership that consists of many poorly educated people Bollywood has never really been able to raise the bar intellectually for fear that the subject matter would simply go over the heads of too many people. The more people you have to cater to, the less clever or specialised the writers and directors can afford to be. There is a tradition of arthouse and realism in Indian cinema as seen in the films of Ismail Merchant and Satyajit Ray, but it is a tradition that has always catered to a minority.
With all the above in mind it’s understandable why Bollywood outputs have always been so wildly romantic. The word culturally most commonly associated with romantic love in Urdu and arguably Hindi also, is the Arabic word ‘Ishq’ which means love or passion. Gender roles and expectancies on the subcontinent have always been very different. Where and when you do see semblances of western attitudes towards gender and what a woman can and can’t do is in the educated and better off economically classes. But by and large men and women, boys and girls are not expected to fall in love and or marry of their own accord and sail happily away. Marriages are still between families, not individuals. Therefore when ‘Ishq’ presents itself it does so as a catch all all encompassing thing. You get to see unreasonable unbridled passion that is often based on one party knowing little about the other other than how they look. It doesn’t matter if the suitor is behaving in a way that we could consider creepy or stalkerish. Or whether the obsession is of the most selfish kind, indulging in a personal fixation where one party is effectively loving themselves through the vehicle of transference or projection. It all gets filed under Ishq. But what can you expect when you are dealing with an environment where you do not have the liberty or the luxury to truly get to know the other gender well enough to not surrender yourself over to the passionate fantasy that has taken root in your head.
The right outcomes always managed to happen at the end of Indian movies. Even if the end was overwrought and tragic like Devdas from 1955 featuring Dilip Kumar, known as ‘the king of tragedy.’ My dad was always in tears at the end of that film despite having seen it many, many times. The story encapsules the uncompromising rigidness of ‘arranged marriages’ and the broken lives they can potentially leave behind. The lead character is the son of wealthy parents slowly drinking himself to death in protest at not being guven permission to marry Paro. The woman he has loved since they were children together. Dilip Kumar gives a performance for the ages and the end scene hits hard. I believe it is one of the most memorable climaxes in Indian cinema. The film was based on the short novel by Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadyay.
But despite the mass of melodramas and tear jerkers it is fair to say that more often than not at the end the good guys always won and got the girl and the happy ending. There was something for everyone in these films. That’s why Bollywood became so popular in places like Africa and communist Russia. It gave viewers a little bit of everything, were family friendly and helped people to escape dreary and unpleasant circumstances for a few hours.
Also, in addition to the occasional malapropisms, there was often a strange incongruity present in Bollywood. One think that stood out for me was that there was often an undertow of something jaundiced, if not hostile, towards The West threading through much of Bollywood like little tributaries. This was often demonstrated via unkind and unrealistic depictions of ‘The West’. I suspect this to be a symptom of cultural envy and/or cultural insecurity. Indian culture in all facets is always depicted as morally superior. White men are often depicted as fools, oppressors and buffoons and the women as ditzy bimbos who are chasing in vain after our brown skinned hero. There is an odd dissonance at work here. On the one hand Bollywood has always mimicked what it perceived as Western modernity, style and attitudes and on the other hand they give them as historical backdrop as cruel oppressors or as a terrible modern cultural force that would divest the youth of their morals and culture. See Dulhaniya Dilwalia Dil Le Jayenge’ for a good example of this. Other examples I can give off the top of my head can be found in the depiction of an Indian as a wannabee English London city gentleman type in Naseeb (1981). The entire storylines of Purab Aur Panchim, featuring Manoj Kumar, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) Namastey London (2007) and Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) seem to play out like morality plays contrasting The West, which is characterised as cold, spiritually defunct, greedy, materialistic and immoral against India which is warm, spiritual, loving and honourable. Purab Aur Panchim was an especially indicting critique on the corrupting influence of western culture. Hare Rama Hare Krishna was a kind of commentary on the ills of hippy culture. Around this time a lot of hippies had been decamping to Goa to get stoned on the beaches there. The film features Dev Anand ( a kind of Indian Spencer Tracy) and the lovely Zeenat Aman in her debut role. In both films the wayward ‘westernised’ offspring of despairing Indian parents eventually see the error of their ways and revert back to being good Indians. Dilwaley Dulhaniya Dil Le Jayenge and Namastey London are more of the same. But the irony is that all the actors involved have made every effort to take on the westernised in real life that they are decrying on film. Maybe the parodying messages are designed to placate natives not to be jealous of their cousins in the diaspora and to make people like me to think twice about my cultural allegiances? If so, what does such commentary and parody say of those who came over to the UK and the US when it suggests that they are only where they are for economic reasons and have as much of an emotional relationship with their adopted countries as one would with a hole in the wall cash machine?
I find these types of depictions smacking of a certain level of cognitive dissonance in the collective Indian mind. I have always observed a certain inferiority complex from the average person from the subcontinent- this includes those born and raised here- when comparing themselves to the white European. There has always been, despite contrary posturing, a sort of pedestalization of Europeans by Asians. I wonder whether this is a legacy of colonialism or the privilege attached to white skin colour that is so prevalent on the Subcontinent. One of the demonstrable differences between the Hindu and Sikh diaspora compared with the Muslim diaspora, is that many Hindus and Sikhs, certainly so among the more affluent classes, have on the whole been happy to anglicise and shape shift where needed to fit into western society. Whereas many Muslims have not been as willing because to truly ‘fit in’ would mean having to compromise their identity. In my experience Hindus and Sikhs have had more of an issue with someone marrying ‘below’ or out of their caste with a fellow Indian than they would have with someone marrying a white person. In fact, quite the reverse would usually be true, and such unions will usually be things to be quietly proud about. I knew one young Englishman who married a high Hindu caste Brahmin. He told me that they simply had a ceremony in Mumbai and made him a Brahmin. Such a thing would be impossible to do for an Indian of non Brahmin status. Such is the power of fair hair and fair skin in South East Asia. This willingness to integrate on the one side and not rock the boat as immigrants on one side and an unwillingness to do so from the other is one of the key differences that drove the Hindus and Muslims apart after a generational presence in Britain. The non-muslims were keen to adapt and adopt. Whereas many Muslims from the subcontinent found themslves moving into a kind of ‘hyper Muslim’ identity that drew away from Britishness. This happened just at that moment when you expected the second and third generation to melt into the quilt of British society. A person named Davender was happy to be known as ‘Dave’ but Muhammad almost never became ‘Mo’. I think a subtle part of why this happened was that many British Muslims whose parents came over from Pakistan or India had a problem with the way they saw Pakistani Muslims depicted on film and TV in the 1980’s and 90’s. On the TV you had Mr Kareem in EastEnders, a Pakistani shopkeeper with a hateable face who was an awful tyrant to his family. Mr Kareem was also conducting a secret affair with a white girlfriend over which he had no guilt about. And, in film you had Art Malik playing roles that none of us could take as a role model. Then there were My Son the Fanatic (1997) Brothers in Trouble (1995) and East is East (1999). I always felt that these depictions were inauthentic and were simply there to depict dysfunction. That they were meant, in some sly way, to goad my generation into divesting ourselves of our cultural baggage, or ‘pakistaniness’ out of the shame that was bound to ensue. It was Carry on Up The Khyber all over again. However, if that was indeed the ploy, it didn’t work. In most cases it backfired. Something of the opposite happened instead. Many British Pakistanis of my generation and younger, after some internal process of cultural comparison, ended up growing beards, praying five times a day and promoting the idea of a state run on Sharia law. They took a swerve and went to behaving more like first generation immigrants than people who considered English as their first language. They became born again die hard Muslims more concerned with the Muslim Ummah and international Muslim geopolitics than national politics. The Israel-Palestine conflict perenially serving as the egg binding the cake of this hyper-identity together. I even know one British Pakistani like me- he is a well paid professional now- who went from looking and acting like a teen male model, think Steve Guttenberg at his peak, to looking like a cuddly imam. He even speaks with a slight Pakistani accent now! Indians in comparison- by this I mean Hindus and Sikhs- have generally been depicted in a far warmer and sentimental manner. You had much lauded fare like Bend It Like Beckham, The Mistress of Spices, Bhaji On The Beach, Bride and Prejudice, and so on. All these films were made in good spirit and celebrated being an Indian. These films had no discernable ill-will in them if you were an Indian, a/k/a a Hindu or Sikh in late 20th century Britain. Media depictions of British Pakistanis by comparison seemed to be orchestrated in a malign spirit with a mandate that seemingly said ‘your culture is a joke- so integrate sharpish!’ We also felt that the Pakistani cricket team were unfairly maligned whenever they came to play in England. They got called ‘Paki Cheats’ and were forever on the receiving end of poor umpiring decisions- by David Constant in particular. As Muslims many of us- your author included- felt this was further proof of the global conspiracy against Islam.We all failed the Tebbit test without a care in the world.
By 1986 I had, without realizing it, almost entirely stopped watching Indian films. I only happened to catch them as I sat eating dinner while they played on the other side of the through-lounge. I would scoff and chuckle at the brazen unreality of what I saw. Bollywood had been completely replaced by Hollywood. The only thing I still admired about them was the beauty of the leading ladies. Then the 1980’s slipped by and the 1990’s came. I only watched Bollywood from my peripheral vision now. I was surprised that people of my age and many younger than me were so taken with Bollywood. Whereas for me, where once these films bolstered my cultural self esteem, now they were simply a cultural embarrassment. I denied any knowledge of them to my white friends. Whilst I was at university most of the British Asian students I met were avid viewers of Indian cinema. A few though went in the exact opposite direction, acting like they weren’t the offspring of immigrants. Some went out of their way in pretending that they could not speak nor understand any of the languages from the subcontinent. They culturally contorted and method acted as ‘English’ with a dedication I could only marvel at once my contempt had subsided. But they were a minority and almost always those who came from rural, peasant backgrounds back in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. One friend of mine, who is now a millionaire who deals in property, watched no other form of cinema.
“I don’t watch English films,” he said to me in a way that was both matter of fact and touched with pride. I recall how smug and superior I felt when I compared our cultural consumption. Here was someone who had never read a book, except textbooks when he had to and only managed to obtain his degree by locking himself away and learning by rote. But still he had the last laugh. He went on to make loads of money and accrue assets whilst I went on the dole. Maybe having a willful lack of abstract and imaginative concerns IS the way to go if you want to make it? But, going back to Bollywood, as I say I was not interested. The stories all seemed to be more identical than ever. And though the 90’s came and went the actors all seemed to be in a mid 1980’s stylistic timewarp. Red shirts, orange pants, mullets and bad dance routines were all the rage. I found Bollywood films irritating to be honest, and to be even more frank I found them to be fodder that could only be consumed by kids or simple minded adults. Those who were able to suspend reality where others could not. The horror seemed to have all dried up and the comedy was unfunny. I totally forgot about Bollywood by the time the 2000’s rolled around. Nobody rented films anymore and soon there were no places to rent from anymore anyway….
However, my interest in Indian media has recently tip- toed back into my life. This was firstly because my wife, whose first languages are Urdu and Punjabi, is a fan of Bollywood and at first I was made to sit through some films against my will.
I found myself impressed. Though the tried and tested formula of making a movie that clocked in close to three hours still stood. The formula had become that much more finely tuned. An excellent example of this is the film 3 Idiots (2009). It’s not easy to make a film inching towards 3 hours running time and have to satisfy an incongruously wide range of emotions such as love, rage, humor, sentiment, song and dance routines and whatever else.
I also discovered that there had always been two, very different, strains of Indian cinema. First you had the common Bollywood type, known as Masala Cinema. Films that I had watched in the 70’s and early 80’s were of this type. They grew more popular and numerous in the 1990’s typified by films like Ram Lakhan and heralding new Bollywood ‘superstars’ like Shahrukh Khan who embodied everything I found ridiculous, overreached and unwatchable about Indian films and reminded me of why I largely saw them as fodder for the naive and unenlightened. Then there was Parallel Cinema. This was cinema that had been around since the 1920’s. Parallel Cinema was inspired by Italian Neorealism. Its output having a lesser audience, was far less prolific. These films dealt with serious subjects. They featured realism and naturalism and had socio-political topics of the day threading through them. Key directors were Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Rotik Gupta. The movement originated in West Bengal. This part of the subcontinent- mainly Calcutta, has always been the heart of Indian intellectualism and higher thought forms. The writer Rabrindranath Tagore and the polymath Nirad Chaudery both hailed from Calcutta. Maybe it’s something in the water? Kamal Hasan was a key actor of Parallel Cinema and some mainstream actors, like Dimple Kapadia, crossed over from time to time in a bid to improve their acting chops. The Cinema declined in the 1990’s due to less funding, less commercial returns and the growth of standard Masala films that typically had multi genre plits overlaying a charmingly desperate ‘love story.’ However, in recent years there has been somewhat of a resurgence. Some of the techniques have begun to surface in standard Indian cinema, lifting the quality of many recent productions over the last ten years or so.
The best of Bollywood, such as 3 Idiots featuring Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, does all the aforementioned with a genius of subtlety that makes the difficult to deliver look like a piece of cake for all the personnel involved. And there are other films made over the last ten years or so that have also gained my attention and appreciation.
Here is a brief list of films I would recommend- PK (2014) also starring Aamir Khan is a science fiction comedy about an alien stranded in India trying to make sense of humanity. Dear Zindagi 2016 (Dear Life) is a coming of age drama featuring Aalia Bhatt as a young woman seeking psychological counseling. Taare Zameen Par 2007 (Like Stars on Earth) is a moving drama, also starring Aamir Khan about a teacher trying to help a neglected eight year old boy with severe dyslexia. And 2009’s Kurbaan (Sacrifice) with Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kapoor and Om Puri and directed by Rensil D’Silva and produced by Karan Johar is also well worth a look. The plot suddenly segues at a point and you realise that you weren’t watching the standard run of the mill romance, but a film exploring the motivations that lead one to commit acts of terrorism. Despite the obligatory songs and romance Kurbaan displays a striking understanding of the complexity of the subject matter depicted. With a budget of 6.6 million US dollars it was shot principally in Philadelphia and comes across as a joint Indo/US production.
Then there are the horror films. In recent years Bollywood horror films have become my favorite films of the horror genre to watch. Many of them feature the actress Bipasha Basu who has come to be known as ‘the scream queen of India.’
The films have everything that I look for in a horror film and do not tend to disappoint me in the way that American, British and Japanese films of the genre have done; please refer to my earlier article entitled The Shiny Green Lustre of Folk Horror for my thoughts of the Horror genre. The films never get campy or take short cuts, nor do they lack gravitas of that gray area where evil, lore and the supernatural converge. In essence everyone involved in the filmmaking process seems to ‘believe’ in the veracity of the subject matter involved. There is an understated brilliance in a lot these films.
Here is a brief list of Bollywood horror films you should watch.
Mahal (mansion) 1949- the very first Indian horror film.
Purana Mandhir (The Old Temple) 1984 is probably the best film made by Indian horror auteurs the Ramsay Brothers. They stopped making films for the big screen in the early 1990’s and opted to focus on TV productions instead.
Raat (Night) 1992.
1920 (2008) is a cross between Haunted and The Exorcist.
Raaz (Secret) 2002, Bipasha Basu’s first foray into the horror genre.
Darna Mana Hai ( Fear is Forbidden) 2003, is a portmanteau film as good as anything that Amicus Productions ever put out.
Ghost Story from 2020 is another portmanteau currently available to watch on Netflix.
Darr Sabko Lagta Hai (Everybody gets scared) from 2015 onwards is a horror fiction series starring Bipasha Basu as a horror writer who encourages people to visit and tell her of their very real supernatural experiences. This is also available on Netflix.
Pakistani cinema has also experienced something of a resurgence and renaissance in recent years. The popular variety of films are superior to those that I saw in the 70’s and 80’s, by quantum leaps and bounds. The Pakistani film industry is known as ‘Lollywood’. The ‘Lolly’ referring to the city of Lahore as the word ‘Bollywood’ refers to what was once Bombay and is now Mumbai. However, the non mainstream offerings of Pakistan cinema are surprisingly good and as far away from the almost surreal craziness of Pakistani cinema of the 1970’s, whose films were so bad that they were brilliant- if you know what I mean. I would even say that the best of the current movies from Pakistan are far superior to what is being churned out from India as they are less populist and exhibit more arthouse integrity. There is excellent social commentary in the following films. Saawan (the name of the fifth month in the Hindu calendar) directed by Farhad Alam and produced and written by Mashood Qadri in 2017. Saawan deals with the plight of an abandoned disabled child. Also, Pinky Memsaab (Lady Pinky) from 2018 and the comedy drama Cake also from 2018 which was nominated for best foreign language film at the 91st Academy Awards. All the above mentioned have note perfect acting and masterful direction. There has also been an impressive and belated entry into the horror genre with the excellent Pari (fairy) again from 2018 directed by Syed Atif Ali and set in the picturesque isolation of Islamabad.
The acting and directing in all these Indian and Pakistani films is first rate. I have not felt short changed even by a penny by these films. For me it is like the cinema from the subcontinent has come of age and by this I mean is something that can stand toe-to-toe with the best cinema from around the globe. Nearly all the most recent films I have name checked are available on Netflix, a few on YouTube. Bollywood seems more globally popular than ever. A few Indian actors have even cropped up in Hollywood; Anupham Kher in Silver Linings Playbook and Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby to name two
Now, going back to my own relationship with cinema from the Indian Subcontinent. Even though by the mid to late 1980’s my film interest had totally shifted from Bollywood to Hollywood I still retained a certain affection for these good natured films that I had grown up on, remaining transfixed until my cultural consumption abruptly shifted. This was partly because I came to see them as a kind of glue that kept the various communal communities from the Indian Subcontinent diaspora bound together into one single community. Indian cinema, along with the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams, helped foster and irrigate cultural esteem and identity issues for people like me who were either born in Britain or came here at a very young age and therefore had all our formative experiences here. Indian cinema brough all immigrants together. I remember how my mum would call her Indian Gujarati friend Jyoti, who lived in the next street at 3 a.m on Sunday morning asking if she wanted to trade her Indian film rental for ours. She agreed. Everybody borrowed tapes from each other and the little cottage industries not only flourished but were little hubs and nexuses in which to meet old friends and make new ones. Films were an event that brought us all together.
By the tail end of the 1980’s this cohesiveness had begun a process of disintegration. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Bengalis now live in very separate communities with separate British Pakistani and British Indian identities. It is almost like a mirroring of the events following the partition of 1947, albeit without the sectarian violence.
I remember talking to a British Pakistani friend of mine who was quietly talking about how so many things in his life had not worked out as he had expected them to.
“I expected everything would work out like they do in an Indian film.” He said.
“So did I,” I said.
“They didn’t.” He declared with sad wistfulness.
“No, they haven’t.” I said. “But the story isn’t over yet, and like any good Indian film things get really bad, before they get better again, almost as if by themselves.”
He smiled at that and said nothing.
I too took it for granted that everything was going to work out for me like they did in these films… I now think that above the fantasy and escapism, the blind belief in a perfect future awaiting, was the greatest take-away I and many others took from Bollywood. That is the ultimate legacy of those films from those churned out by Raj Kapoor’s RK Studios through the 50’s to the 70’s; and all those other films I saw up till the mid 80’s. The blind, naive, yet honourable assertion that life was just like a Bollywood movie. That everything would work out the way I desired it to simply because that’s how things were supposed to work out. The good guys would get what they deserved and motorbike off into the sunset with the wind in their hair and the stunning girl sat behind them. While the bad guys got their deserved comeuppance. That blind notion that when all was said and done everything was going to turn out right in the end. That love was better than wealth, and that one should not think it a bad thing to dream. The more reckless and foolhardy the dream, all the more better…And therein lies the greatest acquittal for those films of the past that I grew up up. Because maybe, when all is said and done, perhaps I still do see life that way. Maybe life itself is but a script penned by the greatest script writer of all? And if that truly be so, then let he who tells the best story win.
Note: This is a companion piece to my previous piece on Folk Horror. https://spiralstaircase.blog/2021/08/16/1033/
Copyright By Nasir Ali Hussain
31st January 2022