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Back with a bang

It seems like you are in a time warp. All around you, the images are as current as the day’s newspaper. The sleek black Honda City that’s come to a halt at the Shah Industrial Estate in Mumbai’s Andheri (West) suburb is a new model. The tall man in grey track pants and a blue T-shirt who enters his make-up room is as fresh as the day. But when he emerges a short while later, his hair is puffed, his orange shirt has drooping collars and his pants are flared. And, oh yes, there’s a gold chain round his neck too. Actor Akshay Kumar looks like he has just stepped out of your father’s old album.

He’s not the only one. Mumbai’s Hindi film industry has gone retro with a vengeance. Actors and actresses are sporting psychedelic prints and wearing hairdos that remind you of beehives. Old Hindi songs are being resurrected. And a range of new Hindi films is serenading the old.

Producer-director Sameer Karnik is recreating the magic of the Seventies with Yamla Pagla Deewana (YPD) — a film that stars yesteryear hero Dharmendra, and pays tribute to him and a song he made popular in the 1975 film Pratigya. Karan Johar is remaking Agneepath, a 1990 film starring Amitabh Bachchan. Sajid Nadiawala is remixing the 1982 song I am a disco dancer in Anjaana Anjaani and Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh — the hit pair of many Seventies films — have made a comeback with Do Dooni Chaar.

So what’s up? “It’s a cycle,” says veteran scriptwriter Salim Khan, one half of the hit pair Salim-Javed. “Retro is adding new colour to films, to make them different from the run of the mill, as filmmakers come up with cinema that is experimental or custom made for multiplex viewers.”

Indeed, retro likes to make a periodic comeback to Bollywood. Devdas has been remade in recent times, as have Don and Parineeta. But today’s tribute to old films, industry insiders hold, is the culmination of many factors. One of these is that many of today’s directors grew up watching the films of the Seventies, and now seek to pay homage to the times.

“I have always been fascinated by the films of the Sixties and Seventies and when I got the chance to direct Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai (Ouatim), I jumped at it,” says Milan Luthria, about his July 2010 underworld film with the tagline “Mumbai goes rewind”.

And, clearly, the audience is lapping it all up. Ouatim was a hit, as was Om Shanti Om (OSO), a 2007 film which dealt with reincarnation, and had the past running along with contemporary times. Dabangg, a Salman Khan-starrer released in September, has been a super-duper hit. The film had a Seventies plot — revolving around two brothers, a stepfather, a loving mother and a big, bad villain.

Some point out that the retro films are just another part of the Bollywood stable, which has been expanding in recent years with the rise in the number of mutliplexes and directors. Retro is an addition to a repertoire that includes dark reality films, light-hearted comedies, satires, tragedies and so on.

It works because for old viewers there is a nostalgic connect, and for the young audience, it’s novel. Akshay Kumar points out that the films of the period had “a unique combination” of innocence and romance — something that contemporary films lack.

“The Seventies were the best period of the Hindi film industry. Films then had the right music, cast and story,” says Kumar, who stars in Action Replayy, in which a young man tries to revive his parents’ marriage by travelling back in time. “To me the Seventies were the most fashionable period of the Hindi film industry. And as fashion is cyclic, we will keep going back to this period,” says Kumar, who was shooting for a musical TV show promoting Action Replayy, set to release in November, when The Telegraph caught up with him.

Films then focused on emotion — mothers were routinely thrown out of their houses, fathers lost their eyesight, and lovers misunderstood each other. “Emotion is a huge hit with the Indian audience,” says Nitin Desai, the production designer of Ouatim and Action Replayy.

Everything was in your face — including the look. “It is exciting to create a look of the past,” says designer Neeta Lulla. “Retro is fashionable because it made a bold statement in the Seventies. Polka dots and ‘flower power’ have their own identities.”

To that, new filmmakers have added a zing — often merging the past with the present. “Retro films give directors a chance to combine the old and the new in a unique way to project a sense of nostalgia. OSO is a good example of how smartly the filmmaker created a new kind of film by punching the past and present innovatively,” explains Mumbai-based film historian Ashok Rane.

“It’s the writer’s challenge to add something unique to a script,” stresses scriptwriter Khan, pointing out that while he had taken inspiration from the 1967 film Ram aur Shyam — with a plot that revolved around twins — for Seeta aur Geeta (1972), he added new elements to the script. “The script is the soul of a film,” he says.

Director Vipul Shah believes another factor that works is the element of surprise. “Retro appeals to the youth as it has a sense of newness. The idea of seeing contemporary stars in a different look or vice versa makes a person curious enough to buy a ticket,” he says.

It’s this curiosity that Dharmendra is expected to evoke in YPD. “It was fun recreating the past. It made me nostalgic. I think today we are borrowing ideas from the past, because they had a strong human connect, something that movies of today lack,” says the actor, who plays a conman in YPD.

Not everybody believes that going back into the past is a creative expression. Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, in fact, sees it as lack of creativity. “Bollywood is at its best when imitating. A small tweak here and a small change there make the old plots innovative enough to become a blockbuster. Retro tweaked with contemporary is clicking as most Indians don’t have a sense of future. It’s always the past that keeps on playing in the mind and hence retro is selling,” he says.

But the industrywallahs stress that making a retro film is not child’s play. For one, as Desai points out, many in the audience have lived through those days. “Recreating an era that one has witnessed is not easy,” he says. Jasvinder Singh Bath, scriptwriter of YPD, adds that giving a contemporary twist to nostalgia is a difficult task. “But it is fun penning scripts like those of Manmohan Desai and Nasir Hussain’s films. Such scripts appeal to all — irrespective of the audience location. The whole idea today is about reaching a larger cross-section of society, just like the filmmakers of the Seventies did.”

Desai stresses that the challenge lies in recreating the past in a convincing way. “But with an audience eager to look into the past, retro becomes a win-win situation for any filmmaker,” he says.

And that indeed is the ticket.

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