Ask the regular film aficionado about the worst decade of Hindi cinema and the answer will be: The 1980s. The common perception of the decade is that of the Jeetendra-Sridevi-Jaya Prada outings from the south and Bappi Lahiri’s cacophony that went for music. So convinced are people about the dubious nature of Hindi cinema of the era that you could scarcely bring about a different opinion without having social media trolling you.
However, as with all things cultural, the general perception of the cinema of the decade is simplistic. And Avijit Ghosh’s terrific study, When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala (published by Speaking Tiger), sets the record straight. The book’s title itself is symptomatic of the schizophrenic nature of the films of the era. For every Himmatwala there was an Ardh Satya. For every Hukumat with its soul-crunching music there was a Saath Saath or Arth. For every assault on the senses that an Insaniyat Ke Dushman entailed, there was a Chashme Buddoor to soothe frayed nerves. This was a unique decade that had four generations of filmmakers making films: Raj Kapoor, Kamal Amrohi, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Rahul Rawail, Shekhar Kapur, Mansoor Khan were all active over the decade.
Avijit Ghosh’s work is a remarkable achievement on a decade of cinema that has been dissed and dismissed from all discussions. He brings his great ability to research and analyse trends to create what is arguably one of the finest books on Hindi cinema ever written. This is not just a compendium of the stars and the films of the decade but an invigorating account of the ecosystem of cinema as it was impacted by the turbulence of the world unfolding around us. As also the cinema that went before it and the cinema that came after. As the author says, the ’80s were a hyphen between two distinct eras of filmmaking.
The author of When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala spoke to us about the decade that fused the sheer poetry of Ijaazat with the dark madness of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the jaw-dropping inanity of Mawaali with the stark brilliance of Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, the ear-splitting cacophony of the music of almost all Dharmendra-starrers of the decade with the dulcet strains of Ek Duje Ke Liye and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, even as it ushered the sound of disco in Hindi films.
What was it about 1980s Hindi cinema that prompted you towards a book?
Avijit Ghosh: The advent of the VCR and the consequent spread in film and music piracy changed the film business forever. The expansion of television and the growth of ODI cricket also had a major impact on the business. The middle class deserting theatres forced a further change in the script. This was also the time when due to the Assam student movement and the rise of militancy in Punjab, the market was shrivelling. During this period, large-scale southern capital was invested in Hindi films. Yet Hindi cinema in the 1980s was both underwritten and under-explained. I felt a book could help put the period in perspective.
The ’80s are seen as the worst decade of Hindi cinema. Would you agree or do you think that’s a simplistic take?
Avijit Ghosh: In popular imagination, the ’80s are a black mark, typified by mindless movies and perishable music. But perhaps Charles Dickens’s first line from A Tale of Two Cities — ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’— describes the period more aptly. Most of us remember the decade by films such as Himmatwala and Mawaali. We forget that this was also the period of Aakrosh, Chakra, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Damul, Khandhar, Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro, Salaam Bombay, Katha, Chashme Buddoor, Namkeen, Ijaazat, Masoom, Sparsh, Arth, Saaransh, Shakti, Mr India, Judaai and Satte Pe Satta, to name a few.
What set the ’80s apart from the decades preceding it and the ones that followed? What is likely its greatest legacy?
Avijit Ghosh: The ’70s was the last decade when cinema was the unchallenged king of outdoor entertainment. But as I said, TV, video and ODI cricket combined to create a difficult pitch for filmmakers. It marked the beginning of individualisation of entertainment. The 1990s would see another challenge in the form of satellite television. But cinema slowly but surely came up with a counter: the multiplex gradually lured the cash-rich middle-class back in the theatre. In time, the simultaneous release of hundreds of prints across the country also reduced the impact of piracy. The ’80s are a hyphen of sorts, between the past and the future. It both tastes and foresees the future.
What was the kind of research that the book entailed? Was information on it easy to get?
Avijit Ghosh: For me, research is both challenging and fascinating. For the book, I spoke with a wide range of directors, producers, writers, actors, songwriters and distributors to get a better understanding of the subject. Many interviews were conducted on phone, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Along with English newspapers, magazines and Parliament replies, I have also referred to Hindi magazines such as Madhuri, Dharmyug and Sarika. I also visited the Pune-based National Film Archive of India. The book took longer to finish than I expected: five years. But I enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
The process of writing a book often results in unforeseen serendipity. What were some of the remarkable discoveries you made that you were not expecting?
Avijit Ghosh: During the research I came to know about the great film strike of 1986, which remains one of a kind for its extended duration and its method of struggle. The lockdown lasted a staggering 31 days. Many major stars hit the streets then, unlike most of our X warriors of today. The strike was in protest against raised taxes and levies. The strike was a marginal success. I have devoted an entire chapter to the strike. For me, its discovery was pure serendipity.
Interestingly, the decade began with quintessential love stories — Ek Duje Ke Liye, Love Story, Betaab. It also ended with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya. What lay in between was an era of action and mayhem. Why did love stories, a perennial favourite in Hindi cinema, lose out in between?
Avijit Ghosh: Commercial cinema is always made for its core audience. As the ’80s progressed, the middle class abandoned the theatres in favour of watching VCR comfortably at home. This caused a change in content. Exceptions aside, the stories and the storytelling moved towards pleasing the non-gentry audience. This also created the rise of the non-gentry hero, notably Mithun whose career zoomed upwards. Govinda too joined the party. With its freshness of storytelling, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak sailed against the wind. Maine Pyar Kiya spent lakhs on creating high-quality stereophonic music. They were gambles that worked.
The New Wave, which came to be in the mid-’70s with Ankur, had its high noon in the ’80s with films like Akrosh and Ardh Satya. But the decade also sounded the death knell for it…
Avijit Ghosh: The ’80s saw New Wave 2.0. It was angrier and more urgent. In the first half of the ’80s, films like Ardh Satya were major box-office winners. Even Chakra and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai fared well. But the genteel middle-class abandoned the theatres as the decade progressed. Offbeat cinema needed a larger ecosystem to thrive. It needed the infrastructure of small theatres in a city’s cultural hub where it could be easily accessed by the serious cinema crowd. They also needed a parallel distribution network.
Neither of the two things happened. But the dying of New Wave 2.0 was a process, not an event. Even in the 1990s, meaningful cinema continued to survive, if not thrive: Sai Paranjpye’s Disha (1990), Amol Palekar’s Thoda Sa Roomani Ho Jayen (1990), Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990) and Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991), Shyam Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (1992) and Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1992). But overall, offbeat cinema fell off the mindmap of the audience.
It is the music of the era that has copped the maximum negativity. Is that justified? Or do you think that Bappi Lahiri, Karz and Qurbani brought in a new sound and then composers gave what the public wanted? There was of course the death of great lyricists who were instrumental in the making of the classics of the ’50s and ’60s.
Avijit Ghosh: Public memory of popular music in the 1980s is largely made up of the style of music and celluloid dancing that Himmatwala spurred. But I think the decade offered a staggering variety of fascinating music that we have forgotten over the years. This was the disco age and we have some pretty groovy stuff in that genre, beginning with composer Biddu’s Aap Jaisa Koi in Qurbani. Of course, some of the stuff was inspired by foreign tunes.
Karz’s Om Shanti Om (which was a rip-off from Lord Shorty’s work) and Disco Dancer’s Jimmy Jimmy can be traced back to ‘T’es OK, T’es Bath’ (1980) of French pop duo Ottawan. But remember this is also the period of mainstream musical hits such as Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Maine Pyar Kiya, Ram Teri Ganga Maili. We had middle-of-the-road films with great poetry and melody: Umrao Jaan, Thodi Si Bewafai, Bazaar, Saath Saath, Arth, Ijaazat, Grihapravesh, Chashme Buddoor, Ek Baar Phir, Saaransh, Hip Hip Hurray. Even Shyam Bengal films such as Mandi had memorable numbers.
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer)