Sunday, 5 July 2009

Analysing 90s Cinema

I grew up in the 1990s. I never realised it then, but it was a period of unprecedented change. Apartheid ended and the Soviet Union collapsed within the short space of a few months. Around the same time, the then Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, announced a New Economic Policy which would usher in a silent and gradual revolution. Babri Masjid fell in 1992, ushering in a period of communal tension that affects India to this day. Meanwhile the new economic policies were beginning to change the lives of urban Indians. Suddenly telephone connection were taking weeks and not years to arrive, there were multiple television channels, the computer ceased to remain some exotic machine none of us had ever seen and Pepsi was no longer a roadside drink that used the names of a famous brand that didn't exist in India.

As a school/ college student growing up in those years, I never realised the nature and the sheer scale of the changes that were happening then and just how far reaching those changes would be. Still less did I realise how closely Bollywood movies actually reflected the changing times and the society struggling to come to grips with those changes. Having studied history, I know that all art is a stark reflection of the society that produces it and cinema- more than any other art form- is a mirror to the times.

One of the most striking features of Hindi movies from the 90s is that protagonists were always larger than life, heroic figures. In fact most of what was shown in movies never happened in real life. Ridiculous as most Hindi movies still are, present day movies are a lot more realistic than their counterparts from the 90s. Clearly, cinema was a form of escapism from life and so everything in it had to be a break from reality.

Good and evil were well defined and complete seperated. The characters were either idealistic or diabolical, vicious and villanous figures who had no scruples and not the least shade of decency. Seldom did one see a character with grey shades. Interestingly, the hero was usually a poor/middle class man and the villain frequently a devious businessman or a corrupt and/or power hungry politician. The two lived in completely different worlds, until circumstances sent their paths crossing. Typically the hero, initially a hapless, helpless man ends up fighting the unjust system and the villain's diabolical machinations to eventually emerge triumphant.

Thus in Krantiveer (1994), the hero Pratap (Nana Patekar) is the resident of a chawl, whose interests conflict with those of of Yograj (Tinu Anand), an influential builder who will stick at nothing to grab the land in which Pratap's colony stands, so that he can build a huge complex there- displacing thousands of poor people in the process- and make his millions. In terms of the themes explored, Krantiveer was the typical 90s movie. Witness how the leading politicians in the state are in cahoots with Yograj and at the same time, hand-in-glove with the dreaded underworld gangster Chatur Singh (Danny Denzongpa). Also witness the corruption of the policemen and how the lazy, indifferent Pratap suddenly realises that he needs to fight injustice when his mentor Laxmidas is murdered on the instructions of Yograj.

A variation on this theme was the hero being an honest policeman who falls victim to the corrupt system, becomes disillusioned, and eventually ends up fighting the very system which he was a part of. Akshay Kumar, the very embodiment of this category, played an honest policeman turned rebel in 3 movies released in the same year! Daava, Insaaf and Tarazu, all 1997 releases, featured the young Akshay Kumar as a frustrated young policeman and the villain in two out of the three was a politician. Another Akshay Kumar movie, Elaan (1994) saw him play son to an honest cop persecuted by the system for daring to act against an influential figure.

This theme was present even in romantic movies or family dramas. Typically the poor/ middle class boy would fall in love with a rich girl (or vice versa). The two would marry against the wishes of the family on the richer side, which would proceed to use every conceivable trick in the book to scuttle the marriage- frequently with the help of corrupt cops. Inder Kumar's Raja (1995) was the epitome of movies in this genre, with the poor Raja (Sanjay Kapoor) and Madhu (Madhuri Dixit) falling in love, with Madhu's brothers pretending to have accepted the relationship but in reality plotting to break their relationship.

The same theme took a slightly different variation in Raja Hindustani (1996), where it is the heroine's step mother who plots to scupper the marriage between the eponymous protagonist (Aamir Khan) and heroine (Karishma Kapoor) in order to secure the inheritance of the rich father's massive property. Notice how the protagonist, predictably a poor man, falls victim to the diabolical scheming of his wealthy in laws. Raj Kumar Santoshi's Damini (1993) saw a gender reversal, with the poor heroine (Meenakshi Sheshadri) being persecuted by her rich in laws with the connivance of a vicious lawyer and a corrupt policeman thrown into the fray.

Time and again, one feature that sticks out is an anti-establishment tone and a general feeling of disillusionment with the entire system- political, administrative and judicial. Its always the rich and powerful who embody evil and the poor/ middle class hero who embodies virtue. Perhaps it was a time when the common man had lost all faith in the government and all figures of authority. After all, the government functioned in an extremely non-transparent manner in those pre-RTI days. As an average Indian, you knew that you were caught up with a rotten system that impeded all progress and as a common man, there was nothing you could do about it. So all pervading was the corruption then, that it permeated pretty much every aspect of public life. The general feeling of powerlessness is all pervading in 90s cinema, neatly reflecting the prevailing mood in society at the time. Is it a coincidence that the rebellious, anti-establishment hero is usually shown mercilessly bashing the villain- invariably an influential and powerful figure?

It is also interesting to note that our 90s heroes are family men, committed to the larger interest of the family. Witness how Rishi Kapoor's Shekhar willingly sacrifices his love in the larger interests of his family in Damini (1993) or Akshay Kumar's Karan Joglekar seeks revenge and redemption for his brother who has been murdered and charged with corruption in Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994). In the blockbuster movie Baazigar (1994), Ajay Sharma (Shah Rukh Khan) sets out to avenge the ruining of his family by Madan Chopra (Dilip Tahil). Another Shah Rukh Khan superhit, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) shows the protagonist Raj unwilling to take the heroine away without the consent of her parents. Family once again occupies the centerpiece in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994)-one of the highest grossing films of the decade- a romantic family drama which is a celebration of the institution of the family.

It is remarkable that even the villain Jaichand (Raj Babbar) in Gambler (1997) has a near irrational attachment to his mentally retarded younger brother. Danny Denzongpa's Katya is heartbroken when he learns about the death of a younger brother in Ghatak (1997). The diabolical villain Chaudhary Charan Nath's sons show a reverential respect and attachment for their father in Sher-e-Hindustan (1998)- one of the countless unintentionally hilarious movies from the 90s.

I daresay the socio-economic changes happening in India at the time- with families increasingly fragmenting into nuclear families- severely threatened the old order. The recurring emphasis on traditional values- respect for elders, attachment to siblings, emphasising family over self- appealed to the sensibilities of a society increasingly struggling to come to terms with a new world. Few movies celebrated old Indian values as Subhash Ghai's Pardes (1997)- a blockbuster movie which in terms of its celebration of the old India and its denouncement of the 'decadent' west was every bit the self-congratulatory and jingoistic 'patriotic' movie from those times.

Which brings us to another theme: an underlying feeling of backwardness that we hated to admit. Jingoism was of course, the easiest way to deny it. Nevertheless, the feeling of backwardness keeps peeping out every now and then. Remember how the drunken man (Neeraj Vohra) claims to be a regular visitor to America in Rangeela (1995). It also turns up in the movie Betaabi (1997), when the heroine's father (Shakti Kapoor), surprised at the young visitor- fresh from the USA- proposing to his daughter at the very first meeting, comments that its that speed which makes Americans the world leaders.

Watch by contrast, how the protagonist Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan) in Swadesh (2004) gets disgusted by the jingoistic talk of the village elders and points out the shortcomings in Indian society, stating that every culture has its own strengths and shortcomings. Clearly, between Pardes (which literally means abroad) and its successor a generation later, Swades (literally: one's own country) Indian society became more comfortable with itself- a contrast heightened by the fact that the protagonist in both movies was played by the same actor. Whereas Pardes was a celebration of the old, rapidly vanishing India, featuring a protagonist who remained undilutedly Indian despite growing up in the USA (i.e. insulated from the corrupting influences of western society), Swades speaks on behalf of a more confident, more self-conscious country where there is nothing morally wrong in a young man desiring to settle and make his career in the (no longer decadent) west.

One last theme worth exploring is the powerlessness that's so all-pervading in 90s cinema. The protagonist invariably has to defy a figure of authority, usually the system but also at time the authority of elders, who embody the values of another age. Zoom a generation ahead and you find characters who believe in self-empowerment. Whereas Ajay Chauhan (Ajay Devgan) has to fight the system and a villain who is...you guessed it right, a corrupt politician in Gundaraj (1995), Michael Mukherjee (played by the same actor) is a young man who seeks to enter politics to improve things from inside in Yuva (2004). Note how the same actor, who is fighting the system a generation earlier is now looking to change that very system from the inside by becoming part of it.

The same message is conveyed by the protagonists in Rang de Basanti (2006), where Karan Singhania (Siddharth) in his radio address urges young men to join politics, the police, the administration and take over power bases to bring about a change. By now the hated 'other'- the politician- has become a product of the same society to which we belong and, by co-extension, one among us. With the educated middle class rapidly swelling in numbers, we see echoes of a society that increasingly believes in the future and believes in the power to change things for the better.

Doubtless, scholars may discern many more undertones in the future. I am no scholar, nor have I undertaken any research in writing this article. As a person who grew up in the 90s and knew what it was to live through that period, these are my readings from cinema of that period. As I see it, inequality, powerlessness and socio-economic change- the three currents that affected social life in the 90s were reflected in the cinema of the time.