William Goldman noted that romantic comedies and dramas are all about obstacles. We know the couple will get together in the end – the fun lies in preventing them for as long as possible.
In the Western world, there are fewer and fewer barriers of class, wealth, religion and race, leading to ever-more desperate devices to stop couples just shagging on their first date: he’s in a coma (While You Were Sleeping); she’s lost her memory (50 First Dates); he’s mildly nuts (Silver Linings Playbook). But in India, many of the old barriers still apply. It’s one reason why Shakespeare works so well transposed to an Indian setting. And one reason why Bollywood movies can pack such a powerful emotional punch.
Though Bollywood is the world’s second biggest movie producer, until a few years ago I’d hardly seen any Indian films, bar the odd Satyajit Ray (hardly typical!). Now I love them. The drama is bigger, colours are brighter, wounds cut deeper. So I leaped at the chance to get a whistlestop tour of Indian cinema from Bollywood expert Ashanti Omkar.
The occasion was an exhibition of rare posters at the Westbury Gallery in the Westbury Hotel, prior to an auction on Nov 29 by Conferro Auctions. These were some of the highlights:
Mother India (1957)
The plot is about the difficulties of a single mother that symbolise India’s post-Independence struggles. Equally notable is the fact that Nargis, the famous actress playing the mother, fell in love with the man playing her son (!), and they married soon after. It’s like when I saw Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in 1995, alongside Francesca Annis as his mother – I had never seen such an Oedipal production, the heat between them in the ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ scene was blistering. They too became an item, despite the 19-year age gap. With Mother India, Nargis was actually only 26 at the time, though playing much older: she fell in love with Sunil Dutt after he risked his life to save her from a fire on set. Awww.
Dara Singh (1960s)
Dara Singh was India’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: a 6’2” wrestler who got into film in 1952, and was especially loved for his roles as Hanuman, the super-strong Monkey God. He later turned successfully to producing, writing and directing, became the head of a studio, and even the first sportsman nominated to the Upper House of the Indian parliament. He died just last year.
According to Ashanti, this poster was exceptionally racy for its day. Why? Because the sari has – gasp! – slipped off Nutan’s (not even bare) shoulder. It is one of the brilliant things about Indian film that the consummation of romance is taboo – until relatively recently, even kisses were pretty much unknown. It gives a yearning and an erotic tension to so many Bollywood movies that Hollywood sex scenes can never match.
Bobby (1973 — see top of blog)
This was, says Ashanti, the movie every young person wanted to see in 1973. Partly because of the racy poster of Dimple Kapadia (Bobby) in a red bikini (see top of blog), and partly because it introduced to Bollywood the genre of star-cross’d teenage lovers from opposite sides of the class/wealth divide. It also introduced director Raj Kapoor’s son in the male lead role: Bollywood is very much a family business.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)
This translates as The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, which sounds like the airline edit of a Spaghetti Western classic. As well as possibly the raciest mainstream Indian film poster EVER (more so than the film, needless to say), the film, again directed by Raj Kapoor, has a terrific plot. A virtuous young woman with a burned face marries a handsome young engineer. Somehow he fails to notice the imperfection beforehand; when he does, he spurns her. She then comes to him in the night; they make love, he not realising it is his wife. When his wife falls pregnant (with his child), he assumes she has been unfaithful… As Ashanti puts, it’s a classic love triangle – with only two people.
Shree 420 (1955)
Bollywood was HUGE in the Soviet Union, thanks to Raj Kapoor and his Charlie Chaplin-esque character in 1951’s Awaara and in Shree 420. A piece of trivia for Gravity fans: the song the Indian astronaut sings a snatch of is Mera Joota hai Japani (“My shoes are Japanese”) – the big hit from the film.
Of all the posters at the exhibition, this was the one most photographed. In 2002 a BFI poll ranked it the best Indian film of all time; it’s also, adjusted for inflation, the biggest-grossing. The first Indian movie to be released in 70mm wide-screen format and stereophonic sound, it’s a “Curry Western” that draws heavily from Western tropes even though it’s a cop movie (and musical; and romance; and…). You’ll note from the poster that the producers didn’t sell it short. It is, apparently, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.