May 3, 2013 is the date that has been generally agreed upon as the centennial of Indian cinema. It marks the 100th anniversary of the release of Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra, arguably the first Indian-made feature film.
Movie magazines are celebrating the centennial, as are critics and commentators all over the Internet. And now Filmi Geek is, too. I have not yet seen Raja Harishchandra. Indeed, I have not yet seen any movie older than Kismet, now 70. And my own adventures with Indian movies began only eight years ago. There are dozens upon dozens of cherished, wonderful Hindi movies I have yet to see, and I can't even be said to scratch the surface of Indian films in other languages - I can count on one hand the number of movies I've seen in Bengali or Tamil or Telugu.
But that won't stop me from marking this centennial. And so, here is a quick rundown of a few of the movies that I think are the best and most defining of each decade I've sampled. I've only seen a few hundred Indian movies altogether, so there are many gaps in my knowledge. And of course I don't have the space to highlight every significant film here or every film I have enjoyed (that is what the rest of this blog is for). I hope you will use the comments to share your opinions and help me learn.
I haven't yet seen very many movies of the 1940s, but of the few I have seen, one stands out for its subversive themes and its influence on Hindi movies for decades to come: Kismet. There are more 1940s movies I want to see, like Anmol ghadi and others. But I feel certain that if you have never seen a pre-Partition Indian movie, this is a great place to start. Ashok Kumar at his dashing, understated best as a rogue with a heart of gold; a long-lost son reuinited with his family; a woman who gets pregnant before marriage and has a happy ending anyway; a patriotic song that thumbs its nose at the Raj - what more can you ask from a movie?
The yin and yang of this decade might be the pensive, brooding artistry of Guru Dutt and the broad showmanship of Raj Kapoor. For me, as much as I admire Pyaasa and the ethereal grace of Waheeda Rehman, Shree 420 is one of my favorite Hindi movies of all time, with its flawless mixture of substance, sentiment, and pure delight.
But even more than that, the fresh beauty of Madhubala embodies the 1950s. When Madhubala smiles, her warmth reaches out of the screen and wraps around you comforting as a hug. My favorite Madhubala movie - indeed, my favorite Hindi movie - is Chalti ka naam gaadi. This morning, I happened to hear "Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si" while I was driving to work, and just thinking about the delicious romance between Kishore and Madhubala, the way his antics soften her indignation and draw out her sleepy smile, was enough to melt the tension of a hard week.
Elsewhere in India, the 1950s belong to Satyajit Ray, the decade in which he established himself as one of the world's most sensitive and profound filmmakers with the Apu Trilogy. I am sorry to say that to date I have only seen the third of these, Apur sansar - but that will change, soon.
Oh, how I love the 1960s. Hindi films made the most of the bold styles of this decade. From Sharmila Tagore's bouffant to a dashing young Shashi Kapoor in stovepipe pants to Shammi's shimmy to the emergence of R.D. Burman's inimitable sound, the go-go era was made for Bollywood. To me, the movies that epitomize this style the most are Jewel Thief, Teesri manzil, and Waqt.
There is another strain in the 1960s, though. While films like Jewel Thief glorify and even fetishize the influences of the West, films like Jab jab phool khile challenge and question them. These tensions between East and West, between tradition and modernity, the friction of one against the other and the young republic's uniquely Indian blending and reconciliation of them - these are the themes reflected so richly in the movies of the 1960s, and why it is my favorite decade of Hindi films.
This decade can almost be summed up in two words: Amitabh Bachchan. This is the decade of the Angry Young Man, and the towering Amitabh Bachchan at the center of it all. Established in Deewaar, brought to brooding perfection in Sholay, this character captured the angst of India wracked by political turmoil. For me as an outsider, watching these supremely entertaining and amazingly rich movies has been a terrific way to imbibe a cultural history of modern India.
The 70s is also the decade of masala at its zenith, and Amitabh Bachchan is right there in the middle of that too, teaming up with Manmohan Desai for incomparable movies like Amar Akbar Anthony. Such movies are for me an initiation of sorts; it took me a few tries to surrender to the aesthetic, but once I did, I never looked back. There is nothing more satisfying than a masala smorgasbord.
The 1970s is a decade owned by Salim-Javed, those masters of entertainment that perfectly blends the populist and profound. This is something Hindi movies do uniquely well - a significant reason why they have grabbed and held my attention. It is a decade dominated by the groovy soundtracks of R.D. Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal - the first filmi music I ever heard, music that was a revelation to me and drew me ever deeper into its world. Really, what's not to love?
Still I can't discuss the 1970s without a mention of "parallel cinema," its contribution to my trajectory into Hindi films, launched by Shabana Azmi and the films of Shyam Benegal. Few directors can map enormous social problems onto close studies of a few lives, the way Benegal can, in movies like Ankur.
This decade and the next are where my experience of Hindi films is weakest. I think of them as dire times, characterized by aging heroes, rapey and regressive storylines, and styling that burns the modern retina. Movies I have seen from this era, even sentimental favorites, seem often to separate desi from firang - they are the movies that are hardest to get, as an outsider, without the benefit of nostalgia.
That said, the 1980s also saw a wonderful strain of delicate, thoughtful filmmaking, like the works wrought from the mind of Sai Paranjpe. It is hard to believe that the same couple of years saw the unutterably dire Himmatwala and the masterfully tender Chashme Buddoor, but there it is. For every Tezaab, there is a Masoom or an Arth, movies that tell mature stories from a woman's perspective. And so, while the dreadful movies they were wasted in may dull the bloom of my love for the likes of Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, at least the 1980s offer much to appeal to my sensitivity and intellect. It's not all rape and bad hair.
Numeric decades are arbitrary, of course; real social and cultural change happens on its own time, without consideration for nicely rounding our calendars. And so, as far as Hindi films go, you might argue that the 1990s arguably began in 1988, with Qayamat se qayamat tak. When I think of the kind of hero and the kind of masala romance that characterizes the 90s, I can see QSQT as the dawn of that era.
The 90s to me are another decade I just don't know much about, though desis my age or slightly younger remember it with that tenacious nostalgic love that attaches to what was in the air at the time you came of age. And so when I mention a movie like Hum aapke hain kaun (one of the first mainstream Hindi movies I ever saw, one that I love despite being utterly baffled the first time through), the reactions are mixed - either unselfconscious adoration, or grudging admission that "I saw it 14 times in the theater as a teenager but now I can't stand it."
Same for the era-defining and starmaking Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge - my review, written years ago, went easier on this movie than I would go today, as I find it regressive and its hero unutterably obnoxious. Like it or not, though, I can see how this movie epitomizes the 1990s.
Modern Hindi films have a different set of sensibilities, unfolding as the nation and the many cultures it contains evolve and change. The 2000s saw the beginning of the multiplex era, a new diversification of themes and tones and styles in movies that no longer tried to be all things to all audiences. And yet the 2000s is also the era of the massive blockbuster; each year seems to bring a new record-breakingly popular movie.
The 2000s is, of course, the decade in which Hindi films found me, and so I associate many of its movies with my earliest forays into their world. Rang de basanti was the first Hindi movie I ever saw in a theater. But the defining movie of the 2000s, to me, has to be Lagaan. I love nearly everything about this movie, and I love the way it raised the bar for production quality in Hindi movies. Hindi movies have so much to offer, so much richness, that they do themselves a disservice when they fail to give full attention to craft and technique. Lagaan was not the first movie to do this, but it did serve as a reminder to the industry that such care can elevate a good movie into an unforgettable one.
This decade has only just begun, and I might even say it's a new Golden Era of Hindi movies. The rich diversity of the multiplex era is in full swing and I really believe there is no limit to what Hindi movies can do. The freedom to tell a wider range of stories, and to reach audiences that are hungry to hear these stories told - makes the future of Hindi movies as bright as any era in the past.
It's an amusing exercise to think about what movies of this decade might be remembered and cherished 30 or 50 years hence. When I first saw Band baaja baaraat, in its thrall, I made some bold and probably rather silly predictions about its place in history - though I still love the movie madly. Delhi Belly represents a shift in focus, from idealized archetypal heroes to an urban ennui that must be terrifically relatable to the growing throngs of educated urban youth. Perhaps English Vinglish heralds a channel for stories about mature women - as a woman myself on the threshold of middle age, I can hope so. Kahaani represents a growing strain that does for Hindi movies what R.D. Burman did for filmi music - borrows storytelling modes from the west and absorbs them, integrates them, into stories that are still thoroughly Indian in their telling.
100 years of Indian cinema, such a magnificent gift to the world. Thank you, and here's to 100 more.